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How marginalised communities gave folk expression to 'lost' inheritance in eastern UP

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

Fourteen years ago, when noted Hindi author and historian Subhash Chandra Kushwaha took the initiative to create a space for folk artistes against the culture of indecency and vulgarity in the name of folk culture, particularly in the Bhojpuri heartland, nobody ever assumed that the event would become hugely popular with the masses and ultimately gain international repute, perhaps the most sought after in this rural hinterland in Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
A nondescript village Jogiya, about five kilometres from Fazil Nagar town, is a place where lovers of folk art, music and dance wait to visit every year during the Lok Rang festivities. Over the years, Bhojpuri expatriates, particularly those who belong to the families of indentured labour or what used to be called ‘Girmitiyas’, have found this event extremely important to perform, which gives them a feeling of ‘speaking to the people of their motherland’.
Covid restrictions could not allow the Lok Rang event in 2020, and this year too with the second wave of the Covid it became difficult for many people to visit the place. In 2019, there were huge contingents of Bhojpuri diaspora artistes who came from Surinam, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and other countries. This year, Kem Chan Lall came from Durban, South Africa. His great grandparents had migrated to South Africa in 1861 as indentured labourers to work in the big agricultural farms of the white colonisers.
Kem Chan Lall is a Bhojpuri singer and is extremely proud of it, though he cannot read or write either in Bhojpuri or Hindi. The person who promoted Lok Rang among the Bhojpuri diaspora is Raj Mohan, whose parents were taken as indentured labourers to Suriname, but this year due to Covid restrictions he could not participate.
Raj Mohan’s ‘Dui Mutti Anaj’ reflects the pain and anguish of the ‘Girmitya’ mazdoors – something that remains missing from the writings of most of the historians who have written in favour of or against the colonisation process. His presence was missed heavily this year, as people loved his music and performances.
Indeed, this year’s Lok Rang was organised under unprecedented circumstances on April 10 and 11 at village Jogiya. The father of Subhash Chandra Kushwaha was in a critical condition and was admitted in hospital in Gorakhpur, but he remained committed to organising the event, keeping the pain and anguish in his heart.
It was difficult as many of the guests could not make it due to restrictions. Many authors and writers were supposed to visit but they had to cancel their trip at the 11th hour. The atmosphere was such that there was a strong view that people might not join due to the fear of Covid. Each one of the organisers who had worked hard tremendously felt so.
It is difficult to organise an event of this kind in a village where no infrastructure is available, and for every small thing you have to depend on people from either Gorakhpur or Lucknow, which are quite far. The Lok Rang team involved local people to do everything to make the event successful.
Every year, the artistes of Sambhavana Kala Manch, led by Dr Raj Kumar Singh from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, reach village Jogiya, a few days earlier, and paint the entire village with their beautiful creations. It is the Sambhavna Team that paints the walls of the ground where Lok Rang is organised, they design the stage and display their wonderful sense of people’s paintings.
Lok Rang is nothing without the presence of Prof Dinesh Kushwaha, Head of the Department, Hindi literature, at Reeva University. He has been anchoring the show since the beginning and keeps people enthralled with his humorous comments and ‘ser-o-shayari’ and ‘poetry’. He too suffered from Coronavirus last year and won the battle against it. Despite all the restrictions, he made it to Jogiya, travelling by car from Reeva, about 12-14 hours drive.
One of the highlights of this year’s Lok Rang events was the gathering of authors, activists, artistes, social workers on the second day during the day time to discuss the ‘Crisis of Folk and Folk Literature’. Majority view was that Lok Sahitya or folk literature and folk culture must be ‘Bahujanised’.
It is ironic that while folk art represents the voice of the working masses of India denied dignity by the varna system, yet, today, it is the Brahmanical elite which has very cleverly defining what is ‘folk’. So in the name of ‘Lok’ we have ‘Parlok’ and the glorification of mysticism and rituals injected by the Brahmanical class. Hence it is essential for those dedicated to folk culture and literature that they look at the monumental work of Jyotiba Phule, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and EVR Periyar.
Perhaps, a beginning can be made by dramatizing ‘Gulamgiri’ and ‘Kisan ka Koda’ written by Jyotiba Phule in different local dialects and staged in front of the people to enlighten the communities and make think about the issues that they face and have been victimised in the name of culture.
Live performances from artistes from Rajasthan are a big hit at the Lok Rang events. The Ustad Arba Music and Dance Group led by Imamuddin Saheb this year gave superb performances. Most of the artistes, including dancers, perform live in India as well as abroad, but in their own admission live performance at a rural crowd dedicated to folk art and culture has been their ‘best’ moment.
The Rai dance performance from Bundelkhand was ‘entertaining’. Frankly speaking, it is important to trace these kinds of art forms, mostly performed by the Bahujan communities in India. Rai is the lifeline of the Bediya community in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The Bediya community has been looked down upon and thoroughly marginalised. Old feudal values of Bundelkhand still continue. Women there are still in their veils here.
Traditionally, Rai performers are still meant to entertain former princes and feudal lords. They are ‘adivasis’ or ‘Dalits’ and socially degraded -- a supreme irony, where the elite want to dance over these performances, yet look down upon the communities which perform. There was a time when many in the Bediya community was forced into prostitution and continuously faced discrimination not merely from the administration but also from society.
The reality with ‘Bahurupiyas’ – who hail from Rajasthan and try to make us laugh by mocking at themselves or picking up some dialogue of a historical film or character – has not been very different. They were popular at the Lok Rang meet, when they roamed around the village during the day doing live performances of specific characters, one was reminded of their ‘beautiful’ traditions.
They belong to the Dalit community, but they don’t get a certificate of being Scheduled Caste because they follow Islam. The condition of the families belonging to the Bahurupiya community is dismal and needs special attention. How can art flourish if the communities who carried it forward remain isolated, untouchables and vulnerable?
Most of the folk art is preserved and inherited by the Bahujan communities. The ‘Farwahi’ dance performance under the guidance of Ram Vriksha Kushwaha of Kushinagar was simply superb. The ‘Biraha’ song performance by Mangal Yadav and his team was brilliant. The performance of Bihu dance by Assam’s Natrang Cultural Association gave us a glimpse of nature’s relationship with the Assamese people.
Folks art cannot and should not be glorification and celebration of the past as this has been used by the parochial right-wing forces. It needs reorientation and retracing of history from Bahujan perspective so that the mischief produced in the name of folk to enslave us mentally can be exposed.
Bihar’s ‘Jan-Geet Parivartan Rang Mandali’ from Jeeradei, the birth place of India’s first president, Babu Rajendra Prasad, really won the heart of all. They sang not only Kabir and Amir Khusrau but also portrayed the power of the farmers and their movement. Folk art cannot be just mysticism but it has to be the representative voices of India’s Bahujan masses.
Many friends questions as why the families of those belonging to India’s indentured labourers are deeply drenched into patriarchy and godliness. I have heard ‘revolutionary’ writers and speakers feeling uncomfortable when listening to the Bhajans or celebrations of the culture by the Girmitiya communities.
We never understood their pain and agony. Those who felt British and other colonisers were their best friend because they were enemy’s enemy, should understand the history of indentured labourers which was no better than slavery, even when the latter was abolished by the Western power.
The Girmitiya community had a sense of ‘loss of inheritance’ and that is why they kept their culture and history alive in the form of folk songs. We can't mock them because they sing Bhajans but it is important that any community will fight back to preserve its culture even in the hardest form of adverse circumstances.
Kemchan Lal, who belongs to the Chamar community, told me that Bhojpuri is looked down upon by the Indian diaspora in South Africa. His parents memorised “Ramcharit Manas” but told him that they were not allowed to do so, as they were from a ‘lower’ caste. Strange, a man growing in a country where people were fighting against apartheid could feel differentiated there. Of course, for him British were better than the current rulers who discriminate and don’t provide any opportunity.
The massive crowds that thronged the ground where Lok Rang was being organised showed that people will always appreciate those initiatives that reflect their feelings and where a person is seen as working for them and not lecturing them. Lok Rang gave voice to hundreds of cultural organisations who come here and display their art.
It is not merely song and dance but also theatre that is a part of Lok Rang. Live performances by the theatre artistes were hailed by the people. This year Azamgarh’s Sutradhar performed “Boodhi Kaki”, a drama based on Munshi Premchand’s writing. Last year one saw the performance on "Bade Bhai Saheb" by Premchand.
Lok Rang’s team and its main founder Subhash Chandra Kushwaha need to be complimented for the extraordinary efforts that he has been making to preserve the folk art and culture as well as provide an alternative culture to those which are converting the folk dance and music into cheap and vulgar events. It is time our artistes and cultural activists join hands to protect folk culture from indecent forces who just choose the medium to capture the vast folk market.
It is time to speak up and challenge the narratives being clandestinely placed by the hierarchical forces to strengthen their divisive casteist agenda. Folk art has the power to demolish all the forces of parochialism and Brahmanical elitism, but for that our artistes, literary and cultural activists need to understand the work of Jyotiba Phule, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Periyar, Bhagat Singh, Rahul Sankrityayan and other revolutionaries such as Kabir, Nanak, Raidas, Tukaram and many others like them.
One hopes that as Lok Rang grows, people will understand the importance of challenging the parochial narratives which celebrate humiliation of the Bahujan masses. It is time to question these narratives and provide revolutionary cultural alternatives.
---
*Human rights defender

Comments

bernard kohn said…
a marvellous article !!!!!!!, actually applicable worldwide..
like
the people of canada who have been there 15000 years, those of australia etc..
even in countries like France where regional languages still are looked down upon..
more power to you for this valuable initiative.
bernardkohn

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