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Ballads of Bhojpur

They are everywhere -- driving you around and even protecting you but when it comes to the question of bhaiyas, they are lost to the shadows. Raking in the debate, Surabhi Sharma recently screened Bidesia in Bambai investigating the Bhojpuri music industry and its tryst with Mumbai.


Kalpana Patowary, a well-known Bhojpuri singer 

“The word Bidesia comes from Bhikhari Thakur’s play -- who was regarded as the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri; it was a famous play in the 1940s about a figure who migrates from a village to the city,” informs Sharma. She further reflects, “I was working on a film in 2008 in Jamaica and Trinidad with an academic. My film contained a song; after the screening, I heard an old woman in the audience humming different lyrics to it.” Interjecting the anecdote, she informs, “Trinidad’s population is 40% Bhojpuri immigrants, also referred to as girmitiyas or slaves who were sent to countries like Mauritius.”

Kalpana Patowary, the 38-year-old Assamese singer who is at the helm of the Bhojpuri music industry, admits, “I have been inspired by Bhupen Hazarika and his Marxist beliefs. He could pinpoint the disparity between rich and poor by looking at the space in between.” Patowary was drawn towards Bhikhari Thakur, whom she found as an equivalent to Bhupen Hazarika. Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur is a project that was released by Mauritius’ Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam and its Art and Culture Minister Mukteshwar Chunni, himself a fourth-generation girmitiya.

Patowary recounts, “Bhojpuri music has songs for every occasion.” Echoing her words, Sharma adds, “Bhojpuri music is seeped with stories of migration and has an entire spectrum ranging from lyrical to raunchy to Folk and Pop that can’t be categorised. As Patowary mentions that Bhikhari Thakur was a barber, Sharma journeys to the current times where the majority of security personnel in the city are Bhojpuri and double up as music directors and producers. “According to BMC records, one in four workers is a Bhojpuri.”


Movie still from Bidesia in Bambai

Patowary divulges that there have been people who have perceived the industry as down-market. As a rebuttal, she recounts Mandakini’s scene from Ram Teri Ganga Maili where the scene of a woman bathing under a waterfall is rendered real when shot by Raj Kapoor but can be considered vulgar when produced on a low budget.

Rounding up on the infamous image the songs seemed to have earned due to their ‘lewdness’, Sharma opines, “A lot of Bhojpuri Folk has a sexual edge such as the Holi songs. For instance, Krishna–Rukmani’s romance is laced with sexual innuendos that are reworked from Folk to mainstream. Be it mobile phones, Fevicol and Zandu Balm allusions — talk about the sexual has always existed. Bhojpuri music is much more than that. It was from Bhojpuri that Thumri percolated elsewhere. The tradition of nirguna bhakti songs talk about longing for a person after his death.”

Patowary asserts, “Twelve years ago, there were illicit woman such as Bijli Rani singing sexual numbers or homely women crooning devotional songs but now with an in-between space, girls from good families can aspire to become singers, making me feel that I have achieved something.”

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