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Jittu Yadav and Group

Distinctive, high-pitched singing of Chhaprahiya

With roots in Chhapra, Bihar, Chhaprahiya is a popular folk form in Eastern UP.

Chhapra is a town located in Bihar, near the border with Uttar Pradesh and is the heart of the Bhojpuri-speaking region of North India. Chhaprahiya is a folk form that derives its name from this town and is a very popular and well-liked genre in Eastern UP and Bihar, which is easily recognised by its distinctive high-pitched singing. Traditionally, the songs are sung by dancers who would also dance by swinging their hips, and this kind of performance soon became well-known across the Bhojpuri-speaking world. It is one of the many folk forms classified as ‘Purbi’, a loose classification of a variety of folk forms that are native to Eastern UP and are mainly in Bhojpuri.

The style of singing and dancing in Chhaprahiya is called mahini in Bihar, that is, singing in a very high pitch. This is usually performed to entertain the audience in weddings and other occasions and does not have any religious significance. Like many folk forms of the Hindi belt, the Chhaprahiya’s songs also base themselves on the stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Puranas. These stories are well-known and often narrated within families and serve as an effortless inspiration for the folk songs here.

Jittu Yadav hails from Deogaon in the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh and identifies primarily as a Birha Lokgeet singer. He belongs to the Yadav caste, and his ancestors sang Birha, Kajri, Chaiti, Chanaini, Chhaprahiya and many other folk forms of the Purvanchal region. Birha is a ballad that tells the story of heroic Yadavs, warriors or other noble people. He took inspiration from other musicians in his village as a child and started to learn to sing by himself. He fondly remembers his childhood when the dance groups from Darbhanga, Bihar, would come to his village and stay there for months. During that time, he would mostly be with those artists, and he learnt by closely observing them and interacting with them afterwards.

He started his music group in 1980 and has over thirty years of experience as a singer. He predominantly sings in his mother tongue, Bhojpuri, and his cultural background overlaps with that of Bihar. He performs at weddings and other gatherings in his district. Additionally, he has also travelled around the country to Mumbai, Kolkata and other cities to sing the folk songs of Purvanchal. He and his group have also performed in Kumbh Melas in various places. He proudly claims to have not missed a single Kumbh Mela in all these years.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit him hard, and he finds it difficult now to find shows and performances. He is also a farmer and teaches music to a few students in his village. He was also part of a project for the government, where he taught Chautaal to children in a school in Kanjhit village in Azamgarh in 2020. Despite his success in music, he hasn’t encouraged his children to take up music because it is a challenging career and requires a lot of practice and patience. His children instead work in the service sector in the city.

Surendra, another group member, agrees that it is difficult in Azamgarh to survive exclusively as a folk artist. Although he has been interested in music all his life and starting in his childhood, he never became a full-time artist and only pursued it as a hobby. His uncle was a Harmonium player, and he learnt music from him. Today, he is primarily a farmer, but he performs alongside Jittu Yadav in all his shows. He explains that although it is difficult to earn enough to sustain their families, it is not like folk artists are not in demand or are out of fashion. Folk artists are still integral in weddings, political rallies and other gatherings. Folk artists are commonly employed to catch the public’s attention and keep the show running until the actual event commences. He believes the problem is mainly that folk artists aren’t paid enough for their work. Also, finding work largely relies on your contacts and how well you are known, resulting in uncertainty regarding consistent employment.

Aside from Chhaprahiya and Birha, Jittu Yadav also sings many folk songs of his region which do not fit into any genre and are just known as Purbi folk songs. These songs are based on popular folk stories about the origin of the Yamuna River. Chhaprahiya also belongs to Purbi and is also known as Purbi Chhaprahiya. In weddings, it is performed as a jugalbandi between the bride’s family and the groom’s family, and it is typically performed all night to engage and entertain the guests.

Jittu Yadav is passionate about keeping the tradition of his community and his people alive but is also conflicted about letting his children follow in his footsteps. This is more or less a commonplace among many artists of the region as the economic prospects of being a folk artist are now fast dwindling. It is saddening to see them forced to take this step, and it is a matter of utmost concern that needs to be addressed so the folk traditions stay and the coming generations can also learn them.

Veer Bajrang Dal

An ode to the rich cultural heritage of Bundelkhand

The glory and magnificence of Bundelkhand’s rich cultural heritage come to life in the voice of Uma Shankar.

Located in the heart of the Bundelkhand region in southern UP, close to its border with MP, Mahoba is an important historical site that was once the capital of the Chandeli kings in the medieval period. The town is splattered with temples and lakes that date back to that period, including the 9th-century Sun Temple located on the outskirts. Within the town, an annual fair takes place on the banks of an artificial lake, Keerat Sagar, that is held in memory of the battle between the Chandeli king Paramardideva (locally known as Parmal) and Prithviraj Chauhan of Ajmer in 1182 CE. Upon this battle, Bundelkhand fell to the hands of foreign rulers, eventually assimilating into the Delhi Sultanate.

On the banks of the same Keerat Sagar Lake, Uma Shankar Sen performed Aalha, a folk genre native to the Bundelkhand region. He enthusiastically shares the genre’s history and why Keerat Sagar holds such special significance for an Aalha performance. Aalha and Udhal were two legendary warriors who fought on behalf of Parmal against Prithviraj’s armies, and their strength and valour astonished the enemies. Though the king eventually lost his territory, Aalha and Udhal’s bravery persisted in public memory. It later concretised into a folklore that pays homage to the courage and pride of the Bundeli people. The Indian subcontinent has gone to be ruled by many foreigners and invaders throughout history. Every time, Bundelkhand has contributed to some of the most well-known warriors and brave people who resisted the occupation. This tradition is a direct consequence of Aalha and Udhal, according to Uma Shankar, who believes these two warriors forever bless Bundlekhand.

With a sword in his hand and its sheath in the other, he thunders in a gusty voice – “Bindhyanchal ghaati bhaaro, Betwan dhaasan bhaaro, Chambal youn Ken bhaaro, Naam hai Bundelkhand.” A fitting praise to Bundelkhand’s strategic location in Northern India, surrounded by mountains and rivers, blessed with fertile land and innumerable forts that defend the territory. He praises the various places that add to its glory – Kalinjar, Chitrakoot and Khajuraho. It’s a devbhoom and durgbhoom – one that the Gods bless and forever invincible – and the place that has given birth to many brave people (veer-veerangana).

Aalha is a blend of theatre performance and singing. It is traditionally sung by a single lead singer, with other instrumentalists joining in the chorus now and then, mostly in wah-wah and aha, to keep the tempo going. The orchestration is also relatively minimal – a Dholak, a Jhinka and two Manjhiras – all percussion instruments with no melodic instruments. Naturally, the obligation to draw and engage the audience falls entirely on the singer and the lines he sings, and Uma Shankar more than lives up to that. He uses exaggerated body language and mannerisms to convey the song’s emotions, which are so unmistakably vivid that even someone unfamiliar with the language can comprehend them. Pride, valour, magnificence, and an unending sense of awe and allure for Bundelkhand are what the performance primarily intends to convey.

Uma Shankar is a veteran singer in this genre, having over 25 years of experience. He fondly remembers his childhood in Kamal Khera, a village in the same district, where his father would often invite folk performers to their village and organise performances. This instilled in Uma Shankar a lot of interest in Alha from a very young age. His father would often explain that Aalha inspires raashtrabhaav (pride for the nation) in the hearts of the youth, and hence it is a tradition that must be continued without fail.  He learnt from various teachers over the years. Chedalal Yadav, who plays the Jhinka alongside, is older than him, and Uma Shankar considers him an inspiration too.

Word spread quickly, and a group of the audience gathered around to hear Uma Shankar’s performance, and he thrived in the attention he got. Aalha is sung for hours at a stretch. Uma Shankar points out that despite its length, the audience is never tired as the story is filled with endless fantastical and mythical elements that glorify the history and the people of Bundelkhand. In his second song, he talks about how the land is blessed by the birth of so many great people. It features prominently in both the national epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – and is also where Tulsidas, the great poet who wrote the Ramayana in the language of the commoners, was born.

Lakshmibai, popularly known as Jhansi ki Rani, also finds mention – “khood padi jwala mein, nahi nikari mooh se aah! Marte marte bata gayi wo des prem ki paawan raag.” Praise to Bundelkhand also means praise to the Indian nation –

“Saare sansaar beech bhaarat ek anokha desh, yahan ki prashansa karat German Japan hai.

Dyer ko fire se maara Veer Udham Singh, veeron ki khaan, ye humara Hindustan hai.”

He even praises the sword he is holding and bows to it, signifying that the sword is not a means for violence but rather an instrument of defence that has aided us in preserving our rich culture and knowledge over the years.

Although a farmer by profession, Uma Shankar considers performing Aalha his most satisfying vocation, which has gotten him a great name and fame across the country. He has even performed in Doordarshan and Akashvani, is associated with four music organisations and has trained about 35 students in the folk form. Two of his students are his sons, both of whom were present during his performance. One assisted his father in between the performances, while the other played the Manjhira. They both said that they are inspired by the respect their father has earned being a folk musician, and they want to take the tradition ahead. The other Manjhira player in the group was Yashwant Singh, the grandson of Baccha Singh, a renowned singer of Aalha, known as the Aalha Samrat of Mahoba. Everybody in the group is passionate about taking this tradition forward to innovate it, broaden its appeal beyond Bundelkhand, and see it grow as a folk genre that defines the nation’s spirit. 

Vijay Kumar Anjaan and Group

The ballad that inspired an epic Sufi love story

Chanaini is one of the oldest surviving folk ballads in India that is not only performed in Uttar Pradesh but also in Bihar and Bengal.

Ballads are a staple in folk music. They are long, elaborate stories about larger-than-life characters’ fascinating lives and misadventures. These stories are also often grandiose and talk about the themes of fate and destiny in our lives and how our primal emotions like passion, greed and jealousy drive most of our actions. Chanaini is one such ballad in the Awadhi language, which is still performed in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh.

Awadhi is a rich language that bears similarities to Hindi and its dialects, but it is a language in its own right. The language has borrowed extensively from both Sanskrit and Persian and Arabic. Its literary heritage is a testament to the unique history of the Awadh region and its Ganga-Jamuni culture, defined by a synthesis of Hinduism and Islam. One of the earliest works of literature written in this language is Chandayan, an epic poem composed by the Sufi saint Mulla Da’ud. The Chanaini songs are believed to be the source of inspiration behind this poem.

Chandayan tells the story of the lovers, Lorik and Chanda, who elope against all odds and find a home for themselves by the end. The story is long and features a lot of metaphors, and like most Sufi works, the story on the whole serves as an allegory for religious teachings. Chanda is forced to marry an older man against her wishes, but she escapes back to her parent’s house, and there she is hidden away to avoid social stigma. The news of her return, though, soon spreads and grabs the attention of Lorik, a handsome young man who is already married. He leaves his wife to be with Chanda, which creates much tension in the lives of everyone involved. The story meanders through many years, describing in detail the characters’ emotional states and how luck and fate play an important part in how they ultimately end up.

Chanaini refers to the tune in which these ballads are performed, and Chandayan has historically been the most popular ballad that was performed in this tune. It is not only performed in Uttar Pradesh, but it is also performed in Bihar in Bhojpuri. It is known by the name Chanda there. It is performed in Bengal and Bengali and is known as Chandravali. Like most other folk forms of Uttar Pradesh, Chanaini has also been modified with time, and today singers not only sing traditional ballads in this tune but have also composed their songs and poems. Vijay Kumar ‘Anjaan’ is one such poet and singer from Ramnagar in the Jaunpur district who writes songs and poems and sings them to the tune of Chanaini.

Vijay Kumar does not come from a family of musicians, though his mother and father were both very fond of singing and had melodious voices. He believes his talent to be God-gifted and his parents encouraged him to take up music and performing arts at a very young age. In addition to singing, he can play Dholak, Harmonium, Tabla, and Flute and is even trained in Kathak. He learnt each of those instruments from different teachers, and despite so many years of learning, he feels unfulfilled and hopes to learn more instruments and new music forms. He says that music is a vast, infinite ocean and the deeper one dives into it, the more there is left to learn. The one quality which has helped him master so many arts is restlessness, which he calls fakiri – not to settle and not feel content or satisfied.

He attended and learned for a while Prayag Sangeet Samiti and received a certificate from Rashtriya Kathak Sansthan in Lucknow. Aside from music and performing, he also writes poems and songs under the pen name “Anjaan”. He writes in his native language of Awadhi and Hindi, Urdu and Bhojpuri. He uses many Farsi and Arabic vocabulary in his writings, taking inspiration from famous literary figures like Prem Chand, who wrote about the common folk but used a highly literary language to narrate their stories. He writes on religious and social issues. The song he has composed in Chanaini is also about migrants from the state who move to the cities and other states in search of employment but end up coming back disillusioned with life and not having made many financial gains. He draws attention to the fact that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have the highest rates of emigration amongst all the states of India, which has created a lot of distress for the people.

Other group members also come from around Jaunpur. One of them is Pradeep Vishwakarma, a student of Vijay Kumar and an aspiring singer. Kamlesh Kumar was a former employee at the shipyard in Mumbai but is now retired and performs alongside Vijay Kumar as a hobby and for personal satisfaction. Harischandra is also a student of Vijay Kumar and has performed with him for about 15 years. Vijay Kumar and his group are committed to preserving the Awadhi folk songs, culture and language and have performed in many places over the years, including on TV and radio.

They also perform other folk forms of Uttar Pradesh, like Kahruwa, the Awadhi variant of Kaharwa. Kaharwa is a genre native to the Kahaar people, who historically served as palanquin bearers to the maharajas and other lords. Kahruwa in particular was performed by the Gond people, as the Kahaar people are known in the region, at occasions and events of the Prajapatis, the landlords. These songs describe the experiences of a pair of lovers and feature elaborate descriptions of beauty. Of the nine classical rasas, sringaar rasa is most prominent in Kahruwa songs.

Chhotelal Pal Aalha Dal

The fascinating tale of the mythical warrior Aalha

Delivered in khari boli of rural Bundelkhad, Aalha is a beloved ballad performed for hours at a stretch.

Asothar Fort is a lesser-known, dilapidated fort complex about 20km from Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh. It is pretty challenging to navigate to it, even using Google Maps. The fort and its surrounding village lie in a very fertile region of the Gangetic plain, sandwiched between the Yamuna and the Ganges rivers, not significantly from Prayagraj, where the two rivers confluence. Fatehpur is named after Babu Fateh Chandra, a warrior who fought the British troops alongside Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. The great poet and Gandhian freedom fighter, Sohan Lal Dwivedi, was also from Fatehpur, and hence, the town is significant in the making of the modern nation of India.

At Asothar Fort, Chhotelal Pal and his group perform Aalha, a traditional ballad native to Bundelkhand, which celebrates the heroism of the legendary medieval warriors Aalha and Udhal. It is befitting they chose this location for their performance, for in glorifying the warriors and their bravery, the Aalha songs not only pay tribute to the two warriors but to the spirit of the nation to defend herself and assert her own identity.

Aalha and Udhal were two legendary warriors who fought on behalf of Parmal against Prithviraj’s armies, and their strength and valour astonished the enemies. Though the king eventually lost his territory, Aalha and Udhal’s bravery persisted in public memory. It later concretised into a folklore that pays homage to the bravery and pride of the Bundeli people. The tales are filled with mythologised anecdotes to pay tribute to the bravery and courage displayed by the warriors and an ode to all the other warriors who lived and fought for Bundelkhand. The songs celebrate the martyrs’ sacrifice for the nation’s building. The genre is also an ode to Bundelkhand, praising its many places of historical importance – from Jhansi to Chitrakoot to Fatehpur – and the important people who lived there. Written in the chaste Bundeli language, Alha is the traditional folk music of the region.

Chhotelal Pal belongs to the Pal Gadariya community, a traditional sheepherding caste of the Bundelkhand region. He comes from a very poor family of landless labourers who work as farmers and labourers outside of sheepherding to sustain themselves. Unlike most folk musicians in rural India, his was not a family of musicians. Instead, he chose to explore his inspiration by himself, watching Aalha’s performances in his village as a child and then reading books about them. He memorised the entire ballad and was especially fond of attending performances by Lalu Bajpai, a renowned Aalha artist.

For many years, he did not have a fixed group of his own and toured around with different people performing all around the region. He slowly established his team of musicians who have been performing together for about 15 years. Ramsharan is the oldest and has played alongside Chhotelal for about 35 years. They both started together. Ramsharan’s grandson, Abhishek, also learns to play the Dholak from his grandfather and accompanies him as part of the group. Deepchandra is a young musician currently pursuing a diploma in music from Prayagraj Sangeet Samiti and wants to be a good musician. For now, the group doesn’t earn much money through their performances and instead relies on other work to support themselves.

Aalha typically involves only one singer, who narrates the ballad and builds a rhythmic tempo slowly to sustain the narration. Dholak, Jhika and Manjhira, all traditional percussion instruments, accompany the singing. A little unique to Chhotelal’s group is that they even use melodic instruments in their orchestration – the organ and the clarinet. The clarinet is a European wind instrument popular in jazz and military bands. It is rare to see it used in an Indian folk form.  Indian folk music usually employs flute or a been for melodic wind instruments, but the clarinet is an off-beat-inspired choice. Mahaveer has played the Clarinet for over 20 years and can also play other wind instruments.

The group has even recorded with local labels like Kanhaiya Cassette in Jhansi and Anjali studio in Fatehpur. They have even performed in Mahoba, Maihar and Chitrakoot. Still, due to their remote location and rural upbringing, they need help to network with artists and event planners outside their region, resulting in their being restricted to Bundelkhand. Maihar is their favourite place to perform. They were at Maihar just the day before they presented in Asothar. There is a famous temple in Maihar dedicated to Sharda Devi, to whom Aalha and Udhal were deeply devoted. Hence, Maihar’s Aalha performances are very renowned.

Chhotelal believes that the folk form’s popularity has been waning in recent years, threatened by pop and contemporary music composed in urban India. His children are not quite interested in learning the folk form and instead choose to work as labourers and workers at construction sites. Chhotelal teaches two students in Fatehpur, but he laments that not many are as interested in Alha because of dwindling financial prospects. Outside of music as well, finding work has been difficult for Chhotelal. Outside of the harvest season, when work is plenty, he mostly just manages to meet his needs in most months. He hopes the government will come up with a solution to support the singers, especially the ones like him who come from a very poor background and rely on other work to support themselves.

Despite its declining popularity, Aalha captures the spirit of Bundelkhand. Chhotelal uses exaggerated body language and mannerisms to convey the emotions of the ballad, which are so unmistakably vivid that even someone unfamiliar with the language can comprehend them. Pride, valour, magnificence, and an unending sense of awe and allure for Bundelkhand are what the performance primarily intends to convey. It is a folk form that instils pride and duty towards the nation. Hence, Chhotelal wants to keep this tradition alive for the coming generations despite his difficulties at present. 

Mannal Lal and Group

“Songs of love and separation by the Ganges.”

The city of Banaras is one of the most ancient, cultural and spiritual hubs of India. Previously known as Kashi and home to various temples, Mosques, and Monasteries, this place is where a huge part of the Indian population comes in search of the achievement of Nirvana. This city is not just popular among Indians, but also internationally renowned as a place to visit for a spiralling and satisfying spiritual journey.

The place, therefore, has attracted many cultural art forms and musical aficionados to live within the city’s hustle and bustle to learn and grow as artists. The streets of Banaras themselves never go silent. It is said that life in Banaras never dies, and rightly so, being home to such talented artistic folk musicians, this place is one of the loudest places in the country. As you move into the streets, you can hear the bells ringing in old temples built in every nook and corner. The Ghats have a different vibe altogether, as they lie peacefully on the bank of river Ganga and yet attract a great crowd due to their picturesque beauty.

Beside the Assi Ghat and all of the ghats of Banaras, is the riverbank that looks like a beach filled with patches of grass due to its fertile nature. One such area on the river banks is called the ‘Gadwa Ghat’ and this is where we met the much-coveted folk music group of Banaras lead by Manna Lal Yadav. Along with his brother, Jawaharlal Yadav, he performs and sings around the whole country, representing the Bhojpuri folk art forms such as Sohar, Biraha, and Kajri.

Both of them have their beliefs aligned towards preserving and promoting these art forms through their musical performances with the potential to inspire the youth towards following a similar path forward. They have been singing and performing in various events for many decades now and began learning music at a very young age of 8 years. Getting inspired by their Guru Munshi Ram Yadav, they have made a mark in the field of music through their live broadcast at Akashwani since 1976.

Along with an ensemble of five incredibly talented musicians, they came towards the site of recording, walking along the riverbank in their colourful traditional dress. Manna Lal and Jawahar Lal, despite being brothers, had a very contrasting demeanour and signified the Yin and Yang of their group. Manna Lal, being the patient and humble artist that he is, and Jawahar Lal being an individual with a highly energetic as well as communicative personality when it came to handling interactions.

Their group had percussionists, who were highly experienced and could support the vocalists with a Chorus. Raju, who would play the Khartaal, Paras Nath, who would play Jhaal, and the highly respected elder among them, Telho Ji, who would play the Manjira. Supporting these highly trained artists was Lal Ji, with his ability to help and excellence in music on the Harmonium. Ravi Prakash Yadav, son of Manna Lal Ji, was the one to take up the responsibility of handling all their interaction while being a part of the chorus group himself. When he guided them towards the set that we had created to record them right next to the river, we could see how cheerful they were in anticipation of presenting us with their music.

As they began performing, we could see the look of passion on Manna Lal’s face as he gave his best as he would in every song. Their Kajri was followed by a long and yet tantalizing display of Biraha that lasted over eight minutes. The vocals of both the brothers came in complete harmony with the Harmonium and the percussions as they recited stories of various gods and goddesses in uplifting voices by the river, on the banks of Ganga, it was a moment to remember and they began with the song, which goes like – 

“Gaave ganga ke kinare jogi sanyasi,

(Saints and hermits sings at the banks of Ganges)

Bhole baba ke nagariya dhanya baye kashi,

(Lord Shiva’s city, Kashi is blessed)

Kashi me ganga ki mahima badi nyari”

(Ganges is highly praised in Kashi)

Urmila Srivastava and Group

“Weaving of Mirzapuri Kajri.”

One of the best-known singers of the region, Urmila ji, is known especially for her Kajris (a form of singing popular in the monsoon season), though her repertoire is very vast. She has released her own cassettes and is also invited widely to sing at formal and informal gatherings – mostly in urban settings. She has a very gentle & subtle style of singing with minimal body movements but a lot of expressions.

One of the most popular and well-known forms of folk music – Kajris, is often sung by classical and semi-classical musicians. The word Kajri is possibly a derivative of Kajal – meaning Kohl or Black. In a country of sizzling hot summers – the black monsoon clouds bring with them relief and great joy – with a need to sing out loud. This is the moment for the Kajri to be sung.

Even though Kajri is sung in a large region – Mirzapur is considered the real home of the Kajri. According to a folk tale of Mirzapur – there was a woman called Kajli whose husband was in a distant land. Monsoon arrived, and the separation became unbearable; she started crying at the feet of the Kajmal Goddess. These cries took the form of popular Kajri songs. There are two forms of Kajri singing in Uttar  Pradesh – one within which it is sung on a performance platform and the other when it is sung by women on monsoon evenings while dancing in a semi-circle- this is known as the ‘Dhunmuniya Kajri’. 

Urmila’s life has been quite a struggle. At the age of fifteen, her parents’ shadow disappeared from her head. Her father was a minor employee in the bank. After her parents, the responsibility of raising three younger brothers suddenly came to her head. Then as an elder sister, she started to work in fields and started writing a new chapter.  She suffered injuries while ploughing the field with oxen. She educated her three brothers and got their weddings done on their own. In 1972, she got an opportunity to teach at Arya Kanya Inter College, which helped her gain a lot of confidence in her life. During this time, she learnt folk music by heart and ran the family from the grain produced in the fields. 

At All India Bhojpuri Sammelan in 1992, she received hundreds of honour letters, including ‘Kajri Sammani’ in Delhi, Bhikhari Thakur Samman in World Bhojpuri Sammelan in Mumbai, Bhojpuri Council Kolkata in West Bengal, ‘Kokil’ and Mahendra Mishra Puradiya Samman in 2009 on Mauritius soil. Urmila Srivastava, who has earned a reputation as a Kajri singer, specialises in singing Devi songs, Dadra, Kaharwa, Purvi, Chaiti, Holi, Jhumar, Khemta, Banni-Banna, Sohar, Lachari and Videsiya. 

With her strength and motivation to prevent the folk songs genre from fading away, she has enthralled the audience in Dubai, Bhutan, Mauritius and Singapore, captivating the audience with the magic of their songs in various provinces of the country. Apna Utsav (Mumbai), Bhojpuri Sammelan Kolkata, Teej Festival Chandigarh, North Indian Lokotsav (Mumbai), Haryana 25th Birth Anniversary, Kumbh Mela (Haridwar), Gwalior Fair, Ramayana Fair, Lokranjan Fair (Jodhpur), Alap Festival Hyderabad, Bhopal Utsav Mela are the few arenas where she got success in winning the hearts of people with her singing.

For over three decades, Urmila Srivastava has been a high performer of All India Radio and Doordarshan. There are dozens of her audio cassettes in the Indian Shopping Festival Dubai, which feature programs at 16 venues in the Dubai market.

Her whole group possesses amazing talent and experience in Indian classical as well as folk music forms. These artists have a tremendous ability to capture and galvanise their audiences. Their songs smoothly pick up with the harmony along with the Shehnai as the beats of the Dholak joined into the right amount of punch to each song. Urmila’s vocals would fit the combination so well that each and everyone present over there would lose themselves to the music. Despite all her struggles, she, along with her group, strives to keep developing their craft and dream of writing more books to educate future generations about folk and classical music in the future to see themselves succeed through the art that they love so much.

Bablu Yadav and Group

“Decoding the unorthodox with exuberance.”

Folk music has been the traditional way of expressing various emotions that one feels during occasions of each kind; love, wedding, anniversaries, celebrating childbirth, or even mourning the death of a loved one. The melodies that are sung by the common folk have been passed on to each generation since humans began to form communities.

Similar ways of communication have been observed in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is seen as the cultural capital of the country due to the rich history that it has seen over the centuries passed by. As previously ruled by the Hindus and eventually getting accommodate into the Mughal dynasty when they ruled over the Indian lands, the culture here has been a mixture of various flavours and this can be observed in multiple forms of folk music that has developed during these historical developments. Within the borders of this state lies the city of Kashi, or as it is commonly known nowadays, Banaras. This city is a mesmerizing overlap of many cultures and various art forms that represent these cultures and it is bound to create artists that are talented and masterful in their display of these art forms. One such artist is Bablu Bawra from Mirzapur, who is one of the most versatile artists and cheerful human beings that one can have the opportunity to meet during the exploration of talents within Uttar Pradesh.

Bablu Bawra, along with his group of various talented instrumentalists, agreed to meet us at the Gurudham Temple, which is an amazingly designed structure built in 1814 by Maharaja Jay Narayan Ghoshal, who used to rule the Bengali Empire during the early 19th century. This intelligently designed temple has eight courtyards that surround the temple from all directions and has eight different entrances. This made it incredibly easy for us to find picturesque locations within the confines of the temple to record the musical performance of his group.

Bablu Bawra is a highly open-minded and creative artist who does not shy away from portraying unorthodox characters that have the potential to blow your mind and make yourself move along with the beats of his music and his awe-inspiring vocal ability. His ability to capture the attention of his audiences through his expressive ‘ada’ or style during his performances is something that helps him deliver in an outstanding manner. We were moved by his unbelievably encapsulating display of transgender dancers that visit one’s place after a child is born in order to celebrate the birth.

“Mukh dekh khush Jaso maiyya,

(Mother Yashoda’s filled with joy the moment she caught a glimpse of Kanha)

Te janme Kanhaiya”

(Kanha has taken birth)

Under his leadership came six brilliant and highly experienced instrumentalists who displayed unwavering finesse with their respective traditional instruments. These multitalented artists possess great vocal and musical abilities, especially the Dholak artist, Subhash Ji, who is also a farmer. Despite having to handle a farm of wheat and different kinds of vegetables, he has never let himself get distracted from practising music. This kind of commitment can be seen in other percussionists such as Daroga Ram, Lavkush Prasad, Ashok Kumar, and Santosh Kumar, all of whom can play each and every percussion instrument required to play their songs. These instruments include simple-looking yet quite technical instruments like Khartaal, Manjira, and Jhaanjh. 

All of them come from humble backgrounds and earn very little through their performances even though they are recognized by most of the organizations that conduct folk music festivals. Bablu Bawra himself is one of the most humble artists within the region and shows incredible promise while portraying different characters in his performances, engaging the audience in the most vivid fashion. Such remarkable abilities of this group caught our eye once and forever and we couldn’t fathom what we were experiencing without moving with the music ourselves. One of the most awe-inspiring displays of unorthodox characters being acted out during a musical performance was observed and being the forte of this group, they truly have a long way forward within the folk music spectrum.

Saroj Verma and Group

“A galvanizing accord of melodies.”

Uttar Pradesh has various parts, each with its speciality in culture, food, and people. These parts have different colours, architecture, and other things for which they are recognized nationwide. The one thing common among these is their rich history, which shows in most of their cultural art forms of music and dance.

The region known as Purvanchal is no different, especially the ‘cultural capital’ known as Kashi, or more commonly, Banaras. It has been a hub of all languages and religions like Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhism that were the most noticeable ones. These have persisted in their presence in the region during different periods in history. At present, people of all religions stay in the city in harmony and participate in many kinds of music and dance forms that originated here.

Primarily, in the city of temples, one such temple was built by Maharaja Jay Narayan Ghoshal, who was the ruler of the empire of Bengal in 1814. This temple is mesmerizing in its architecture and art, showcased in the form of beautifully designed sculptures.

This location makes it one of the best and most serene places in the middle of the city to record folk musicians perform art forms such as Thumri, Sohar, and Chaiti. While making our journey through the city, we were fortunate enough to come across an artist, Saroj Verma, who is highly experienced and possesses an excellent vocal ability. She has been performing these art forms for a long time and has the experience of collaborating with many different instrumentalists.

As we spoke to her about these art forms, we learned new things and understood the musical culture of the place much more closely.  She entered the premises along with Bijay Sharma on the Harmonium, another coveted musician from Banaras, and holds decades of experience. Accompanying them for the Shehnai was Ustaad Fateh Ali Khan, an artist who believes that the talent for playing Shehnai is vanishing and needs to be saved, along with one of the most knowledgeable artists and Dholak player from the region, Pt. Subhash Kanaujiya. The songs that groups encompass the traditional Purvanchal folk songs, out of the 2 tracks the one which we enjoyed the most was ‘ Teen Vachan’, that goes like – 

“Teen vachan mora maana,

(I want you to grant me these three promises)

Tab tose raaji balamwa,

(Then alone, I will agree to spend my life with you)

Jauva ki rotiya rahari ke daliya,

(Chapati made of Millet flour, and curry made with the pulse of Toor)

Tani yeke saan ke khiyayi da,

(I want our meals to have them both)

Tab tose raaji balamwa”

(Then alone, I will agree to spend my life with you)

The whole group possesses skilful talent and experience in Indian classical and folk music forms. It was quite evident as they slid into their practice right before beginning their performance. These are a bunch of artists who have tremendous ability to capture and galvanize their audiences. Their songs smoothly picked up with harmony along with Shehnai, as the beats of Dholak joined, giving every song the right amount of punch. Saroj Verma’s vocals would fit the combination so well, that everyone present would lose themselves to the music. It was an unforgettable experience.

Jeewan Ram and Group

“Emanating a vibrant and vivid performance.”

Purvanchal is one of the most cultural regions of India in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. It is the home to the cultural capital of the country, Banaras, and has seen many cultures come and go over the centuries that have passed. This place has become the hub for a mixed bag of every culture that stems from different parts of the country and is one of the most accepting places in the world.

Only about eighty kilometres from Banaras is a city known as Ghazipur. This city is famous because of its high-quality production of opium poppy, among other things. Ghazipur was once a very important riverport for the British empire and its alluvial soil traversed from the Ganges makes this place all the more valuable in terms of crop production, but between all that lies the cultural part of this place that consists of various folk art forms. One such art form found here on our journey through the region is known as the Dhobiya dance.

This dance has its music played by talented artists from multiple villages within the district. Meeting one of the leading groups was an honour as we got in touch with Jeewan Ram, who was born and brought up in a village and began his journey as a cultural artist at a very young age.

As we drove through the highway that leads to his village, we could see large fields of various crops grown on a single piece of land, which showed us how efficient the village people are with using the fertile soil to its best. On narrow roads, we drove, and there was always a thin line between driving and off-roading. Finding Jeewan Ram, dressed in his traditional attire, riding through the villages on his bike was quite relieving as well.

He guided us through the beautiful fields, enriched with green crops that were getting ready for harvest within a few weeks. It was a magnificent sight to watch. We eventually stopped at a small temple on the edge of the village, next to a large groundwater pool, filled with kids taking turns to dive. They were so excited to see a car drive in their village for recording that they began tailing us until we stopped. Once we opened our cameras to capture their expression, they would smile and slowly start to flee the frame.

Besides all, the smiling kids were the real artists, getting ready to give us their best performance within a small hut next to the temple. The makeup was uncanny as men were dressed as women, and yet it represented the idea of being an equal so well. The whole ensemble was quite diverse in terms of age. From artists in their mid-twenties to Ram Janam Ji, who claims to be ninety-nine years old and says he’s been performing since the late 1960s. As they began their dance, we could see their acrobatic ability taking their performances to a different level. Four dancers danced in the centre, and two wore the suit of a horse and acted as riders. They were surrounded by an 8 piece band of folk musicians playing traditional musical instruments. The song they started with was – Azaadi ke Godanwa, which goes like – 

“Godai sakhiya hum ajadi ke godanwa,

(All the women of the country are getting tattoos)

Godanwa par Gandhi baba, rashtra pita shubh namwa,

(Tattoo of Gandhi’s name- the respected father of the nation)

Lilra pe Lakshmibai, Jin lad gaye british sangwa,

(Tattoo of Lakshmibai’s name on forehead- the one who fearlessly fought the British) 

Dushman bhaagele paranwa godai sakhiya”

(The tattoo about how they claimed their victory)

Watching them perform the Dhobiya dance, and sing traditional songs in their village right by the temple, was simply distinguished. Being in the home of the origin of these art forms made it more complete, and looking at these artists mesmerize everyone in the village, let alone the people recording them was simply an outstanding experience of a lifetime.

Sucharita Gupta and Group

“Healing notes of surrender and emotions.”

In the Southeastern pocket of Uttar Pradesh, also known as Purvanchal, lies the cultural capital of the country, Banaras. Banaras is so rich in its culture that the streets themselves can leave you feeling overwhelmed within a few days. Accommodating various cultures of the country and even the world, Banaras constitutes a population that comes from ethnic groups belonging to every nook and corner of India. The Ghats smell of Ganges and the hustle and bustle within the city sounds like loud music to your ears. Within these sounds lies the music, that has typical Bhojpuri flavour in the truest possible sense.

The artists that reside within this city understand their folk music either through family tradition or tremendous passion for the art. Most of them, highly experienced and accomplished in their field, have had the chance to represent their culture around the globe. One such artist is Sucharita Gupta, a classically trained vocalist and has represented the Bhojpuri culture, specializing in Thumri and Sohar folk forms. Belonging to the Bengali community and coming from the state of Assam, when we spoke to her, she agreed to meet us at the Gurudham Temple, which was constructed in 1814 by the orders of Maharaja Jay Narayan Ghoshal, who was the emperor of Bengal at the time. She came along with one of her students, Saurabh Srivastava, who is learning classical vocals under her supervision. Accompanying them was a brilliant Tabla player, Lalit Kumar, a teacher and a Tabla accompanist at Banaras Hindu University. As someone who believes that music can cure the soul, he displays the purity in his music exceptionally well and believes that music runs in his family. 

Once we got into a conversation with her, we could deeply fathom the identity Sucharita Ji has created of herself as a teacher. Her focus primarily being on empowering every individual through the spiritual journey that music has the power to put them through. She has been working towards achieving her goals, by making it possible for women from various regions, through her online classes and currently teaches over 50 students from all around the globe.  Her presence as a teacher exists in Indian metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and even in the US as she also has students in New York City. Being a guru in classical vocals, she expressed her emotions towards the lack of support women usually get in our world, especially if they want to achieve goals that are considered relatively unorthodox.

As we all made our way through Gurudham temple together, we realized our good fortune in terms of the opportunity to understand the breathtaking structure, primarily due to its intelligently designed architecture. It had eight courtyards with eight entrances, each of which would have light and shade during different times of the day. This made it quite convenient for us to select a good location for them to record their songs without having to sit under the sun. When they started performing, we couldn’t believe our eyes and ears as soon as we heard Sucharita Gupta’s captivating voice in complete harmony waith the beats of the Tabla and the sweet-sounding Harmonium played by Saurabh Sharma.

“Bahut dinan ke baad,

(After so many days)

Shyam sang hori mai khelungi,

(I shall play Holi with my beloved)

Pitambar Nilambar honge”

(Brahma and Shiva will also witness)

Her ‘Holi geet’ was in itself a display of excellent vocal ability, which she believes in teaching and passing on to many of her students with the help of offline as well as online classes. Her belief that anyone can learn music at any point of time in their lives through the help of a good teacher is what makes her harmonious and a skilled music guru that she is. Along with her student, as well as the amazing instrumentalist, Lalit Ji, who shows complete faith in her teachings as well as musical ability, she made a mark on our mission to discover the talent that resides within the region. Experiencing her performance abilities was one of the most memorable moments of lives that is going to be cherished forever.