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Uttar Pradesh

Danish Husain Badayuni and Group

The quest to keep the religious spirit alive in Qawwali

Coming from the historic town of Budaun in Uttar Pradesh, Danish Husain Badayuni is striving to preserve Qawwali in its original devotional form.

Located in the heart of the Rohailkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, Budaun is a significant historic town that has contributed significantly to the arts, religion and culture of Northern India. The town once served as the capital of Iltutmish, where his daughter Razia Sultana was born, the first female monarch of the Delhi Sultanate. Famous Bollywood lyricist Shakeel Badayuni is from there, as is the Marxist writer Ismat Chugtai. Joining this list of talented, notable people from Budaun is the Qawwali artist Danish Husain Badayuni, who also comes from a family of well-known classical musicians.

Danish Husain was touted to be a Classical singer in his childhood, much like his grandfather Ustad Nissar Husain Khan of the Rampur-Sahswan gharana, who was conferred with the Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 1971. His cousin, Ustad Rashid Khan, is also a Classical singer of the same gharana and was a disciple of his grandfather. Still, Danish Husain realised early on that Qawwali was what he was more interested in. His elder brother, who is now deceased, was also a Qawwali artist, and Danish Husain would accompany him in his performances. He credits his brother with having taught him the art of Qawwali.

Qawwali is a Sufi-devotional singing which originated in the Indian subcontinent, owing to the country’s unique cultural and religious milieu in the medieval period during the Islamic conquests. The Islamic rulers who settled in the country following the conquests in the 12th and 13th also brought the new religion of Islam along with them. This attracted several prominent Sufi saints from the heart of the Islamic world in Iraq and Persia towards India, where they sought to teach and propagate the religion. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is perhaps the most well-known among these Sufi saints, whose grave in Ajmer is a famous pilgrimage site among people of all religions. He belonged to Herat in present-day Afghanistan and established the Chishtiyya order of Sufism in India, the largest and most well-known Sufi order in the subcontinent.

The Chishtiyya Sufi order had prominent disciples through the centuries, including Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya whose grave lies in Delhi. He was born in Budaun as well and he was the teacher of Amir Khusrow, an important name in Hindustani Classical music. Amir Khusrow is traditionally credited with synthesising Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Indian traditions to give birth to Qawwali. Qawwali derives its name from the word Qawl, an Arabic word which means the utterance of the Prophet. Qawwaali means repetitions of Qawl. The genre originated to convey the Islamic teachings and the Prophet’s message to the indigenous people of the subcontinent. It was deemed a more suitable way to achieve that given the country’s diverse and already rich religious and cultural landscape.

Although initially, Qawwali only involved singing, musical instruments were incorporated later. Harmonium, Dholak and Tabla are the most common instruments used to perform Qawwali today. The songs are also unique for their rhythmic clapping by the chorus artists who keep the tempo of the songs going. The clapping and repetition of the lines are thought to guide the listeners to a trance-like meditative state and help them feel the nature of God and Reality.

There is much debate within Islam about the permissibility of music and musical instruments for religious purposes, but Qawwali continues to thrive in India, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The songs are usually based on verses composed by Sufi saints and are sung in Sufi shrines, known as dargahs, and Sufi places of worship, known as khanqahs. In the mid-20th century, Qawwali emerged out of this religious sphere and entered mainstream music thanks to the work of Pakistani Qawwali artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian and Sabri brothers. They helped popularise Qawwali beyond the Muslim community and gave it a more secular, popular flavour, making it a staple in Bollywood film music.

Danish Husain has earned a lot of fame and reputation, singing the more popular Qawwali. Still, he considers this kind of Qawwali inferior to the religious type. He believes this latter kind is a form of worship and a way to reach and experience the love of God. He prefers to sing the Qawwali in its original form and often performs at the many dargahs in his native town of Budaun. He has even performed in many places across India and abroad for the Indian diaspora in Europe and the Middle East. He laments that younger generations are now less interested in the devotional Qawwali, and everyone is more inclined towards fusion and pop Qawwali.

He is very religious and deeply attached to Budaun, where he lives with his family and manages his group. He credits all his success to the blessings of Nizamuddin Auliya, the well-known Sufi saint born in Budaun. The rest of his group also come from families who have traditionally performed Qawwali for generations. For instance, the Tabla player, Tarik Husain, is the disciple of Gulam Sutan Niyaz Khan, a well-known Tabla player of the Rampur-Sahswan gharana. Many of Danish Husain’s brothers, cousins and nephews also perform in the group, like Aman Husain, who joins as a chorus singer and Afrin Ali, who plays the Dholak.

Qawwali, on the whole, remains a very popular genre that finds its appeal beyond the Muslim community in India. It is performed at the weddings and family events of other North Indian communities, like the Sikhs. Though Nusrat Fateh’s Qawwali is the better-known style of Qawwali and the kind that is often requested in events, Danish Hussain strives to preserve the traditional, devotional Qawwali. He loves to sing in dargahs and khanqahs and, on religious occasions, associated with the Sufi saints.

Iliyas Khan and Group

The beautiful blend of Urdu poetry and Hindustani music

Ghazal is a semi-classical genre well-known for its highbrow, sophisticated poetry and melodious tunes.

Urdu is a language native to the Indian subcontinent, which took birth in medieval times under the patronage of Islamic rulers. Persian was the preferred language of the courts, and the ordinary people spoke various Sanskrit-derived languages, which still survive. With time, as the ruling class got to interact more with the ordinary people, and the commoners also started learning Persian to improve their social status and economic opportunities, it led to a unique blend of Persian and Indian languages, what we know by the name Urdu today. Although the base phonology and grammar of the language are derived from Sanskrit, much of its vocabulary shows a generous influence of Persian and Arabic, which contributes to its beauty and elegance.

Poetry in Urdu also has a long history, which became popular during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule. Poetry competitions, known as mushairas, were commonly held where poets would recite shers, and couplets which were witty and philosophical. These couplets also attracted musicians, who composed tunes derived from Classical Hindustani music and gave birth to a genre called Ghazal, which continues to be famous to this day.

Ghazal, though, is not a purely Indian invention. It traces its origin to the early Islamic Caliphates of Arabia. Ghazals were initially strongly associated with Sufi mystics who wrote metaphorical poetry about the Divine love and mercy of God. Still, it was presented in the vocabulary commonly associated with lovers and hedonistic lifestyles, such as the consumption of wine. It soon spread to Persia, where it modified and assimilated influences from other Persian poetry, and eventually travelled to the Indian Subcontinent with the rise of the early Islamic Sultanates. Ghazals were initially performed as part of Qawwalis, but later they took a more secular appearance and established themselves as an independent musical genre.

Ghazal is a poetic expression of love, pain, suffering, and the beauty of separation and suffering. It is written in a fixed meter and uses highly literary Urdu and Hindi, requiring proficient command over the languages to understand. Despite their highbrow nature, Ghazals remain immensely popular for their themes of unrequited love and the beauty of longing. They are also prominently featured in Bollywood films, usually denoting the characters’ and stories’ refinement and elegance. The tunes are based on Hindustani Raagas and involve Tabla, Harmonium and bow instruments like fiddle or Sarangi.

Iliyas Khan is a well-known Ghazal artist from Lucknow who has also sung for films. Not only does he sing them, but he also composes his tunes for existing poems. For instance, he has composed the song Khud ko itna bhi mat bachaya kar, baarishein hoti hai toh bheeg jaaya kar, a Ghazal, which was written by the famous poet Dr Bashir Badr. The song talks about keeping optimism and being open to the many possibilities of life, to be open to love and friendship despite the difficulties and disappointments it brings. Iliyas Khan took inspiration from Raag Durga, a Hindustani Classical melody, to compose the song.

His fellow musicians are also well-versed in Classical music. The Tabla player is also called Iliyas Khan and belongs to the 9th generation of musicians in the Lucknow gharana. He learnt from his elder brother Ilmas Khan and has performed internationally on various stages. He has taught Tabla for three years in Mexico and is a veteran performer. Zeeshan plays the Sarangi and belongs to the 17th generation of Sonipat-Panipat gharana. He is the grandson of the famous Sarangi player, Ustad Vazir Husain Khan, from whom he also learnt before also learning from Ustad Roshan Ali Khan in Kolkata. Iliyas Khan’s student Jafar Ansari plays the guitar. He is also a singer and has completed his master’s degree in Hindustani music.

Iliyas Khan has a taste for poetry and carefully chooses the songs he sings. Kubaku fail gayi baat shanasaayi ki is a Ghazal written by Parveen Shakhir, a Pakistani poet who is one of the few female Ghazal poets. She is credited with bringing a uniquely female perspective and voice to an otherwise male-dominated genre, and she popularised the feminine gender word for “lover”. Iliyas also sang another Ghazal whose music he composed himself – Hum apni ashiqui ka wo zamana kaise bhool paayenge, written by Syyed Altaf Ali Altaf.

Lastly, Dil Lakhnavi is a famous poet from Lucknow who has also written songs for Bollywood films. His Ghazal, Ghata udhi udhi, ye Mausam suhana was also sung by Iliyas Khan. Ghazals remain popular among the younger generation because of their lovelorn themes of longing and separation. They express unrequited love and praise it highly. Ghazals are also the most popular representation of the Urdu language in India. Lucknow has always been a major centre for music and literature, particularly Urdu literature, and Iliyas Khan is one of the distinguished artists from the city who continue to keep the tradition and culture of the city alive in all its glory. 

Raj Deewana and Group

Women’s everyday experiences in Awadhi Folk songs

Uttar Pradesh has a long tradition of folk songs about women’s lives, which are now on the verge of extinction due to changing social circumstances.

Jantsar is a melodious folk song in Awadhi that derives its name from the word jaant, a traditional grinder used to grind wheat into flour. In the olden days, women would wake up early in the morning and grind flour for the day as they had to prepare food before other family members left for work. This work was rather strenuous, and to keep their spirits high and encourage each other, the women would sing songs that eventually came to be known as Jantsar. Of course, today, one is unlikely to hear Jantsar songs being sung even in the remotest villages as electric mills have become so popular everywhere.

Jantsar remains an important cultural heritage for the Awadh region as the songs were about women’s everyday lives and their social problems. The songs talked about the relationships with their husbands, mothers-in-law and other family members and about their love for their work as a homemaker. These songs aren’t that widely known, and few singers sing them now. Rajendra Pandey is a self-taught musician with a keen interest in folk music who has learnt these songs and is working to preserve them.

He belongs to a village named Khanpur Pilai in Sultanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. He works in the Indian Airforce and has a Masters’s degree in political science. Despite an established career in his field, he identifies as a musician and is very passionate about researching dying folk songs of his native Awadh region. He is very attached to his village and home and loves speaking in Awadhi at home and wherever possible. He also sings many other genres like Jantsar in Awadhi.

Traditional history narrates that Jantsar was first composed by Kabir. Kabir was a mystic philosopher and poet from Uttar Pradesh who advocated for the oneness of all humanity and life of bhakti towards the formless, nameless God. As singing bhajans and expressing devotion every day was held so important by Kabir, many women found it difficult to make time from their busy schedules and familial duties to pray every day. Kabir solved this problem by composing Jantsar, which women could sing even when working. Rajendra Pandey clarified that this story is apocryphal, and it is difficult to ascertain the origin of these songs. He has likewise researched several other folk songs extensively and is knowledgeable in this field.

His fellow musicians are also talented and very learned. Dholak player Vijay Kumar can also play the Tabla, Harmonium, Banjo and Sarangi. He is also a well-known singer in his own right and is also a Kathak dancer. 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.

Vijay Kumar started learning music and dancing at a very young age and was encouraged by his parents to pursue his interests. 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 “Anjaana”. 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 religion and society. He also performs many other folk forms like Chanaini and Kaharwa and teaches music to a few students.  Mohammad Islam plays the harmonium alongside Rajendra Pandey. He belongs to Bhawanipur village in the Jaunpur district and comes from a family of musicians. His father was a Sarangi player, and his elder brother was a folk singer.

Rajendra Pandey opines these folk songs and folk music are declining due to technological advancements. The younger generation finds it difficult and pointless to master traditional instruments and instead prefers computer-generated music and instrument simulations. In the past, one generation would teach the next, and so on, and musicians came from families and communities that had practised the art for many generations. Migration to cities in search of better economic opportunities has also contributed to a decline in this tradition. As families break apart and the younger generation moves to the towns and cities, there are fewer people left back in the villages to learn from the elders and preserve the art form.

Despite this, Rajendra Pandey believes that preserving folk music for the coming generation is very important. He calls folk music the ‘aatma’, the soul of a civilisation. The music preserves their history and way of life and gives them a sense of belonging. In the absence of folk music, he fears that the younger generation will feel alienated and there will be a growing cultural gap between the ages, which is detrimental to keeping a community together. Also, along with the folk culture, the indigenous die out, and the literature and history are also forever lost. He believes that this is of grave concern and an essential socio-cultural problem that needs to be brought to large-scale public attention and addressed before it is too late. 

Ramprit Yadav and Group

The desolate cries of the women in villages

Bidesia originates from the works of Bhikhari Thakur, an important playwright of Bhojpuri.

Bidesia is the definitive folk form of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It originates from the works of Bikhari Thakur, a playwright and poet who is known as the Shakespeare of the Bhojpuri language. When the British East India Company set up its colony in Calcutta, and as the demand for workers grew, people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar went to Calcutta to work and earn money for their families back home. Calcutta was considered a foreign land in those days, and bidesia is a Bhojpuri word for ‘videshi’, a foreigner in the Hindustani language. The content of these songs is about the women who pine for their husbands who have left for Calcutta and how they remember them in their daily lives and on special occasions like festivals. Over time, the songs began to be performed with elaborate theatrical staging and dancers enacting the songs. The songs took a political tint and commented on the violence against Shudras, Dalits and women and became a symbol for the fraternity of these groups.

Today, Bidesia survives in the region as a well-known tune for its versatility and emotional appeal among the Bhojpuri-speaking people. The tune is so popular that it is sung in the Awadhi-speaking regions in Awadhi, a genre known as Awadhi Bidesia. Ramprit Yadav sings both versions of Bidesia and writes his songs to fit the tune. The songs he writes are mostly on philosophical and religious issues, about the impermanence of life and the importance of leading a moral life. He draws from his devotion to Kabir, popularly known as Satguru among the locals and his observations of the society around him. Kabir’s Nirgun bhakti school of philosophy also features in his songs.

He belongs to Mulhar village in the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. His father was a singer who sang Dhobhiya songs. His brother, who is now deceased, was also a musician who played the Dholak. He grew up in an atmosphere of music and learnt a variety of genres by himself, including Birha, Awadhi bhajans and Bidesia. He is also fond of writing his own songs to existing folk tunes to give them a fresh twist. He is devoted to Satguru Kabir and writes Nirgun bhajan mostly. Nirgun bhajans talk of an omnipotent, transcendental, formless God that pervades all Reality and that we must be constantly devoted to that God. It talks of the impermanence of life and worldly matters and that a moral life is the only way forward to unite with God. He also writes songs about society and how to improve ourselves.

Alongside these genres, he also sings Sorathi, a ballad native to Purvanchal. Sorathi tells the story of Vijay Bhar, a Nayak (chieftain) who searches for his lover Sorathi and his adventures along the way. Although Ramprit has only studied till 6th class, he is fluent in both Bhojpuri and Awadhi and is very passionate about writing and singing his songs. Aside from music, he is also a farmer and is also involved in the business of polishing marbles. He and his group perform at weddings and other gatherings like political rallies and family functions. 

The rest of his group also includes musicians involved in other occupations to sustain themselves. Padarath comes from a family of musicians, and his grandfather used to play a rare wind instrument called Singhni. He learnt music formally in his later years and joined as a chorus singer in Ramprit’s group. Ram Dular is also a farmer and pursues music as a hobby. He is self-taught and learns by observing harmonium players at local shows. Sachin Arya is the group’s youngest member and is only 17 years old. He first started learning Tabla from his grandfather and is currently learning it from his guru, Javed Kushwaha. He wants to earn a master’s degree in Tabla in the future and become an established musician in the future.

Like many folk musicians, the covid-19 pandemic has hit them hard, and they find it challenging to earn a steady income by performing music now. As government sponsored performances are also few now, they mostly rely on private shows and events to earn money, which doesn’t give them sufficient income. Though Bidesia as a folk form continues to be popular, the tunes are commonly featured in Bhojpuri movies and are a hit among the people. Despite this popularity, artists like Ramprit struggle to be successful. He believes folk musicians and live performances are slowly going out of fashion and people prefer online recordings and film music. 

Abhiraj and Group

The joker who sings and dances to Huduk

The Huduk is a unique percussion instrument whose energetic beats form the base of Godau dance.

Several folk forms are specific to a particular tribe or jati, a community that has traditionally performed it, and they claim it as their cultural heritage. Most commonly, these folk forms also tend to be associated with the occupation of the jati and serve as a peek into their way of life and their customs and beliefs. Uttar Pradesh has many such jatis, each of which has its unique folk form and is performed in the dialect of Hindi spoken in that region. One such folk form is Godau Naach, the traditional folk form of the Goud people, a community of people that participated in the trade of grains.

Godau dance is similar to a few other jati-specific folk forms like Dheemariya, Ahiriya and Kaharwa, all of which employ the percussion instrument called Huduk and involve rhythmic dance to the beats. These dances, though, differ in the costumes and dance steps. For instance, Dheemariya is notable for using ghungroos tied on the waists. Godau dance is performed by a dancer who sings while performing and wears outlandish costumes to catch the audience’s attention.

Abhiraj belongs to the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh and is from the Goud community. His father was also a Godau singer and dancer. His father started the dance group and managed it all his life. Upon the demise of his father, the group was on the verge of closing down because nobody was willing to work it. Abhiraj stepped in not only to continue the group in his father’s memory but also to continue the tradition of his community. Today, his group is the only Godau dancing party in his district.

The Goud people historically performed Godau dance on occasion and at gatherings of the Prajapatis, the landlord jati. The dance served as entertainment for the guests and was performed all night. The songs can be about anything, so long as they are performed to a specific tune. It is an energetic tune where each stanza ends with the Hudka beats to which they dance.  Abhiraj’s dance group typically performs the songs in the rural dialect of Hindi, called khari boli, or in Purbi, a dialect of Hindi that borrows heavily from Awadhi. The songs are based on mythology and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Abhiraj doesn’t encourage his group to perform film songs or other mass entertainment songs and instead sticks to their traditional folk-art forms.

Kaharwa is a dance form that is also closely related to Godau and is the traditional dance of the Kahar community, who were the palanquin bearers in the olden days. Kaharwa has become fashionable and is in great demand at weddings and other events. Owing to this demand, Abhiraj has incorporated Kaharwa dance also into the group’s performances, and the group is now called “Godau-Kaharwa Dance Party.” They have performed in many places across Uttar Pradesh, including Allahabad and Varanasi and have even completed once in Delhi. Abhiraj claims they are the only Godau dance group in the Azamgarh district, yet they have struggled to gain attention and recognition beyond their home state.

His group includes a singer who dresses up as a Joker and entertains the audience with dancing. Today, this kind of entertainment is popular among most folk groups in Uttar Pradesh, where a stooge or a comedian also performs antics and engages the audience in between the song and dance. The joker serves as a spectacle and flashy entertainment. Faujdar Prajapati plays the joker and has been into performing for over 30 years now. He was deeply interested in singing and dancing from the age of ten and learnt mainly by observing other folk artists and musicians. He is well-known for singing while dancing, and especially since the group doesn’t have a prominent chorus, he is the only major singing voice.

Abhiraj identified Faujdar’s talents and invited him to join the group a few years ago. Likewise, he has scouted many more talented artists and has expanded his group to include new members after taking over from his father. The oldest member of the group, though, is Lalsa Rajbhar, who is now 67 years old. He has been with this group since Abhiraj’s father was the leader, and he was the one who encouraged Abhiraj to take after his father and lead the group.

Abhiraj claims that it has become tough now to survive as a full-time musician, especially after the pandemic. Although he and Faujdar are exclusively artists, other group members are involved in different activities to supplement their income. He says that it’s only to preserve his father’s legacy that he is running the group; otherwise, he hasn’t been earning a lot from it and is now struggling to make a steady income just from the performances. He says that visibility and reaching a bigger audience is their primary challenge. He believes that once more people get to know the group, they will earn better and find more opportunities to perform. They feel restricted to their district and have only been acting locally. 

Mahendra Yadav and Group

Finding God in the worldly life

Shivnarayani Bhajan, named after the saint who composed them, is one of the many bhajans that remain commonplace in the folk music of Uttar Pradesh.

Bhajan is a devotional song that is sung in remembrance of God. It is a popular form of prayer that originated in medieval India during the bhakti movement, a period when several saints opposed ritualism and instead taught that the proper condition of worship is in remembrance of God at all times. Bhakti and bhajan continue to be the dominant form of worship in Hinduism to this day. The bhajans depict a story from the epics and religious texts, or they express the love of a devotee towards God, or in some cases, they convey teachings to guide the devotees.

Paramahamsa Shivnarayani was one such saint who composed a unique set of bhajans that are now known as Shivnarayani bhajans. He belonged to Chandravar village in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh and lived in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. He was the son of Babu Baghray, and his guru was Dukh Haran. He is the founder of Shivnarayani Panth, a cult following of his devotees. He wrote about 13 texts on sainthood, saintly life and the philosophy behind such a life. His bhajans and songs emphasise the possibility of living in dispassion and in a saintly manner while being a householder without having taken the saintly vows. The songs also talk of eradicating untouchability, the upward mobility of the depressed classes and societal development.

Mahendra Yadav belongs to Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and he has been singing these bhajans for a few years now. He belongs to the Yadav community, and he belongs to a family of musicians. Hence, he took a keen interest in singing and performing since his childhood. Taking after his grandfather and his father, he is the third generation of singers in his family. His father and grandfather were both proficient singers of Birha. Birha is the traditional folk form of the Yadava people, and Mahendra sings that too. But he also sings other genres, Nirgun bhajan, Qawwali and even Ghazals. Birha remains a favourite among the people of Azamgarh as it is a ballad filled with adventurous stories and heroic characters. He can perform Birha in eight different rasas.

Mahendra Yadav’s journey in music began in 2001 when he was in 5th class. His teacher Jagdish Yadav identified his talent and encouraged him to sing a folk song in memory of the martyrs of the Kargil war. He wrote the song himself and sang it at the Independence Day celebration in his school that year. His performance became immensely popular across the tehsil, and he was encouraged to start his formal training in singing. Later in his 9th class, Uma Kant Yadav, a renowned singer from Azamgarh taught Birha, and he started performing around the district. He later mastered many different art forms, including Nirgun bhajan, Ghazals and Qawwali.

Shivnarayani Bhajan is performed at weddings, jagarans and other religious occasions in Eastern UP. They are mostly in Bhojpuri and are unique for having been composed in Santau Kaharwa Taal, a distinct musical rhythm which also originated during the bhakti period. Songs composed in this rhythm deliberately go on and off the tempo during the song, and for this reason, these songs are considered a little difficult to perform. The theme of these songs is usually about finding God and realizing the Divine without having to renounce the worldly life and becoming an ascetic. Before the bhakti period, it was commonly assumed that religious life is exclusive to the saints and ascetics who are able to devote all of their time to worship and contemplate and that the householders cannot ever achieve that. This distinction gave way to ritualism and social hierarchy, where the lay people engaged in religious activities only with the help of a priest. The bhakti movement sought to challenge this notion and open the doors to liberation for everyone, no matter what family they were born into or what their occupation was.

One such bhajan that Mahendra Yadav performs is about Mirabai, a well-known devotee of Lord Krishna who lived in the 16th century in Rajasthan. Mirabai belonged to a royal Rajput family and was an ardent devotee of Krishna and she treated him as her husband, a form of devotion in Hinduism where the devotee treats God as their lover. In her time, though, this was considered rather radical and she was persecuted for her beliefs and devotion by her in-laws. The song depicts the conflict of ideas between Mirabai and her father-in-law Rana Sangha. Rana Sangha tries to tempt Mirabai with the charms of wealth and luxurious life in the palace, which Mirabai staunchly resists and instead chooses to live in the temple dedicated to Krishna. She is also tried to be poisoned, but she miraculously survives that and is protected by her Lord.

Worshipping God in Nirgun and Sagun forms also has a long history in Uttar Pradesh. During the bhakti period, there were prominent saints who taught that God has many attributes and can be worshipped in his human form. This is called Sagun bhakti and the saint Tulsidas is a famous example of this school. At the same time, other saints like Kabir taught that God has no attributes and is formless and nameless. Ravidas is also an important saint from this period who first believed in Sagun but later abandoned it and taught the Nirgun way of worship instead. This change in his thinking is also mentioned in Shivnarayani Bhajan, where a fictionalised meeting between Kabir and Ravidas is imagined, and how Kabir first rejects Ravidas’ teachings but later accepts the Nirgun bhakti path. 

Shivnarayani bhajans are one of the many bhajans that form a significant corpus of folk literature of Uttar Pradesh. Bhajans continue to be popular because music appeals to the devotees and is an easy way through which everyone can listen and understand religious teachings and express their devotion and offer their prayers. 

Amarjit and Group

The absorbing tales of the Nayak

Nayakva, a ballad that tells an unlikely hero’s adventures and fascinating life, is a treasure of Bhojpuri literature and music.

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. Nayakva is a ballad in the Bhojpuri language that was popular across Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The same genre is also known by the name Banjarva in Varanasi. It is a rare art form that is now on the decline because the younger generation doesn’t find it all that appealing compared to film and other pop music. The stories are typically narrated across hours and tell the story of Nayak, the protagonist who finds himself in odd and adventurous situations. There is no hero nor a villain, with every character having shades of grey. The characters often get into misunderstandings, and their pride and honour are more important to them than anything else.

It is sung with harmonium and other percussion instruments, with the instrumentalists also joining the lead singer in the chorus. The genre is closely related to other ballad and narration-based folk forms like Aalha and Sorathi. The protagonists from these genres also make appearances in Nayakva, adding to its mythical elements and fantasy.

The story is usually about an unlikely protagonist who finds himself entangled in a series of mishaps and misunderstandings. One such story is about a king who lends money to a merchant. The king warns the merchant not to cheat him, but the merchant is encouraged by his wife to test the king’s trust and forge the accounts. This leads to events that challenge the characters’ honour and pride. They challenge each other to duels and hurl accusations at each other. The themes of revenge, protecting one’s honour and loyalty are the most common in these stories.

53-year-old Amarjit is one of the few Nayakva singers remaining in his region. He belongs to Hathni village, in the Mau district of Uttar Pradesh. It is on the Easternmost edge of the state, and the region’s culture is influenced mainly by the Bhojpuri language. His father was also a Nayakva singer, and he learnt to sing and perform from him. Although he only studied till 8th standard, he is well-versed in Bhojpuri and Hindi languages and performs bhajans and other folk songs in both languages. Nayakva holds a special place for him as it is not only a declining folk form currently but also because it is an excellent achievement in Bhojpuri literature and music.

The group has recorded with some local labels in Azamgarh and has performed all around Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They perform on different occasions like birth, weddings and even death and choose the appropriate stories to narrate for these occasions. Amarjit believes that the secret to being a good performer is correctly recognising the audience’s mood and tuning the music to it accordingly.

In his region, much like elsewhere in North India, the death of a family member is also celebrated, and Amarjit finds this custom to be really amusing. He tailors his songs and performances especially to such death-related ceremonies where he reminds the audience of the importance of familial ties and the importance of remembering the deceased and honouring the lives they have left behind. He is also a farmer by profession but manages to earn decently from music also because he has established himself as a renowned singer of Nayakva.

He hasn’t taught his children, though, as he thinks talent is in-born and his children haven’t yet demonstrated sufficient interest in music. He teaches a few other students in his village instead.  Nayakva, much like many other folk forms of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, has few singers left and is on the verge of extinction in the coming years. 

Satrughan Paswan and Group

Transcending gender norms in the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh 

Although shunned and considered taboo, crossdressing and energetic, suggestive dancing remains a thriving aspect of folk culture in Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Dance is an integral part of folk culture and music, and Uttar Pradesh is no exception. The state is known for its energetic and vibrant dance performances at weddings and other events like political rallies. Even the festivals like Holi and Dussehra are celebrated with dance and theatre performances called nautanki. The dance forms broadly fall into two categories – one connected with religion in one way or the other, like Ram Leela, Ras Leela, Yaksha Gaana and so forth, and the other is based on different aspects of life primarily intended for entertainment. Lavanda dance belongs to this second category of dances and is very popular in the rural areas of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The dance is a prominent cultural feature of the Bhojpuri-speaking population.

The dance is notable for its highly energetic music, and the dance is performed by men dressed up as women in sarees. These men are known as Lavandas. This custom has its roots in nautanki and has been around for a few generations. Nautanki originates in Multan, Sindh, in present-day Pakistan, with traditional histories stating that there was a princess named Nautanki after whom the art form is named. Different kinds of stories were conveyed in these nautanki dramas, and they soon spread to Punjab and arrived in the Gangetic plain in Uttar Pradesh. The local customs and societal norms in Uttar Pradesh back then did not allow women to participate in these performances, and hence, men would play the female parts in drag.

Soon dance became an inevitable aspect of nautanki, and it soared in popularity among the masses. Men started dancing to various songs and situations in drag, and this became a pertinent part of celebrations and gatherings and eventually acquired the name Lavanda. Although women would also dance traditionally, the dance forms of women, like mujra, were more geared towards emotions, delicacy and longing. On the other hand, Lavanda dances are more about energy, vibrance and even suggestive vulgarity that appeals more to men. This is why the dance form is still so prevalent in these regions.

The music can be anything as long as it is dance-worthy. Loud percussion instruments like Nagada, Naal, and Dhol are commonly used.  Nowadays, people even use DJs and recorded music on loudspeakers, but traditionally instruments were played live, and the songs were often based on mythology and folklore. The dances would begin with a prayer and had an aspect of bhajan and devotion to it. Other popular topics are weddings, husband-wife relationships and the feelings of blooming love.

Satrughan Paswan is one such Lavanda who started dancing to cope with his family’s poverty. He started around the age of 14, earning about 50 rupees for performing all night at weddings. His uncle was the first to notice his dancing talents and thought that he would do an excellent job as Lavanda. Satrughan got his nose and ears pierced, and his popularity as a dancer proliferated. His earnings slowly increased to 500, then 1000, and now he earns about 2500 rupees for one performance.

For many years, he was part of the group headed by Nathuni and they have performed all across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A couple of years back, they even served in the Bhojpuri Cultural Festival in Delhi, where they received a certificate of appreciation. Nathuni has been a dancer all his life, too, but due to his failing health and weak legs, he has now retired and lives in Dubhar, a village in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh. Nathuni has fallen to hard times as his earnings have stopped, and he and his wife have no family to rely on.

Satrughan lives in Bahadurpur, which is close to Dubhar. He is pretty popular in his village for his dance and performing acrobatic moves. He is the primary earning member in his family and has about 25 years of experience as a dancer. He now heads the group formerly headed by Nathuni. Lavanda dancers often face stigma and discrimination in society because they are considered less manly, and the dance is seen as less respectable and indecent. Satrughan and his group members believe that the stigma associated with the art form is unwarranted as they have managed to sustain their families through it and gained fame and respect for their talents. Satrughan and other dancers in the group, like Salgu, all began dancing to earn a few bucks at a very young age, mostly compelled by their families. Still, they are happy doing it today and take pride in their ability to perform as a Lavanda.

Rambhaj Paswan sings along with the Lavanda dancers, and they perform more traditional folk songs instead of film songs. Historically, songs like Ghazals, Dadra, Chaita, Thumri were performed in Lavanda dances, but today filmi music has taken chiefly their place. Few groups remain that still perform these traditional songs today. The dance form also owes its longevity to its adaptability and how it fits into a variety of situations and different styles of music. 

Harisharan Shastri Das and Group

The intersection of folk music and mystic philosophy 

The teachings and sayings of Kabir survive to the present day in the bhajans of the saints composed in beloved folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh.

The 15th-century mystic poet and saint Kabir Das have had such an influential, lasting legacy upon India that he needs no introduction to the average citizen today. Everybody studies and memorises his couplets, called dohe in Hindi, in schools. Their message of fraternity and love is so universal that it has remained just as relevant even six centuries later. Kabir Panthi is a religious movement that arose from his philosophy, with saints leading the way forward in preserving and preaching his thought and adapting it to the present. Disciples come from all religious backgrounds, as Kabir was against all organised religions and criticised religious conversion. Instead, practitioners aim for universal brotherhood and organise society around loving kindness for everyone and helping each other attain salvation.

There are many Kabir Ashrams across Uttar Pradesh where the saints live and preach the teachings of Kabir to willing disciples. These Ashrams are a refuge for people from all backgrounds, with no discrimination based on caste and creed. The saints in these Ashrams live a life of meditation and contemplation and perform bhajans. These bhajans are nothing but Kabir’s couplets set to folk tunes like Nirgun, Bidesia, etc. Bhajans are an easy way to communicate with the common masses, and since they are composed in folk tunes, they are much beloved by the people. 

One such Kabir Ashram is located on the outskirts of Chauri Chaura, in a village named Paharpur, and it is headed by Sant Ramcharan Das. Other saints in this Ashram come from varied backgrounds, some are here all the way from Punjab, and a couple of others were former kushti wrestlers. The one common thing between them all is that they sensed a calling at a young age to give up worldly life, leave their families and become a saint. Harisharan Shastri, the leader of the bhajan group, fondly remembers how his father was sceptical of his resolve to become a saint. He did not relent to the pressure of marriage and instead chose to follow his heart to come live in the Ashram.

Despite leaving their families and giving up worldly life, the saints, nevertheless, do not completely withdraw from the world. Instead, they follow what Kabir taught – work is worship. We must continue to work not for our personal benefit but for the benefit of all humanity. In line with this teaching, the saints practice various arts, including music, painting and so on, and find new ways to engage with the villagers and guide them. Several villagers also visit the Ashram to discuss their lives and problems and receive guidance from the saints.

Harisharan Shastri understood early on that to be a true saint with real influence among the people, and one must continue to educate oneself. Hence, he moved to Varanasi in his youth, a major centre of arts and higher education in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is also the birthplace of Kabir. Harisharan lived there for about fifteen years, first getting his master’s degree and later earning a PhD in Philosophy. He has also published four books on the life and teachings of Kabir.

Music holds a special place in the lives of these saints. On most days, they travel to some gathering or event and give discourses there, followed by bhajan performances. Harisharan believes that Kabir’s sayings are the most effective and convey his message in the best possible way. Merely repeating his sayings in itself is worth hours of discourse. His couplets are terse but convey profound philosophical truths.

Garbhvaas me bhakti kubulala, ihava par bhayila bhor. Kahike batiya chetat nahi, jayiba narakva ki or. Kabir warns us of impending death and the importance of living in bhakti and compassion and living in harmony with others. The couplets are written in a particular meter that makes it fit for composing music. There are about twelve different folk styles in which Kabir bhajans are commonly composed. All these styles have an independent existence and history and have been merely adopted by Kabir Panthi saints to increase the appeal of the verses among the masses.

Tambura and Khartal are the most typical instruments used in Kabir bhajans. Even popular depictions of Kabir in paintings and other art forms portray him with a Tambura and Khartal in his hands. Ramcharan Das explained that the two instruments symbolise vairagya – dispassion for worldly desires, which Kabir stressed in his teachings. Tambura produces wonderful ambient sounds that form the base of all these compositions, while the Khartal is a percussion instrument of an effortless design. It consists of two wooden clappers with metal discs that produce clinking sounds when clapped together.

The saints in the ashram come from different backgrounds. Suryanarayan Das, for instance, is also known as Pehelwan Saheb because he is also a good kushti player. Sanjay Das also, likewise, comes from a family of wrestlers. Rajendra Das is a musician who plays many instruments like Tambura and Khanjri and learnt to play the Harmonium.

Kabir and his teachings have left such a strong, last legacy in Uttar Pradesh, and it has survived to the present through the work of such saints and the ashrams they have set up. Kabir’s teachings remain very relevant in the present, as technological and scientific innovation has also made us feel more alienated from the world, and we witness a growing apathy towards living a moral life. Kabir’s timeless humanist teachings that aim for oneness, kindness, and a universal approach are essential for more holistic progress. 

Deepak Singh and Group

The dying glory of Awadh

Deepak Singh is a young Classical musician from Lucknow striving to preserve lesser-known Awadhi folk songs.

Folk music and literature have always been the backbone of any civilization. Myths and shared histories were transmitted from one generation to the next through them, which created a sense of belonging and brought people together. Society was organised into specific classes, each of which performed a specific function, and this was how harmony was established through structure and belonging. As we have now moved toward an individualistic lifestyle that focuses more on the person than the collective, folk music and folk culture are soon vanishing and are on the verge of being a thing of the past.

One such unique custom and its associated music are that of the Mirasens, a community of women in the Awadh region whose work was to attend manglik events and give their blessings to the recipients. Manglik events are occasions like birth, wedding, mundan, naming ceremony, etc.; events that are related to a person’s life and are common to everyone. Mirasens were a highly respected group of women whose singing was considered very auspicious. They composed these unique songs for each of these occasions, and their singing was very melodious.

Very few Mirasens remain today, and the custom of inviting them has long died out. Their songs remain a rare and insightful glimpse into the history of Awadh and are a good source for understanding the society and the life of the people then. Deepak Singh is one of the few musicians in Uttar Pradesh who can perform these songs.

Deepak Singh was born in Muhammadi Kheri, a village in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh. Though he doesn’t come from a family of musicians, they had a keen interest in music and were good singers. His mother, Shanti Devi, was a huge influence on him as a child, and he learnt to sing many bhajans and kirtans from her. It was from her that he learnt the songs of the Mirasens as well and learnt about their lesser-known history.

He knew early on in his life that he wanted to be a folk musician and continue these dying traditions, but to achieve his goals truly, he realised early on that learning Classical Music and building a strong foundation in it is crucial. Knowledge of Classical Music and the theory of music helps singers improvise and innovate folk music to present it to the current generation. It helps them bridge the gap between modern and folk music. Deepak Singh started learning Classical Music at the age of 12 and has learnt it over the years from many different teachers. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Music and aims to get a PhD in Folk Music in the future.

Deepak Singh and his two group mates are all budding musicians in Lucknow’s thriving Classical Music scene. Despite this promising future, they keep folk music as their primary focus and have performed them on many different platforms, including All India Radio and TV. Deepak Singh has also received appreciation and felicitations at many government-sponsored events. Folk music derives from life experiences, and understanding these experiences and the associated emotions is really important to succeed as a folk musician. For instance, he explains that one cannot sing a bidaai song unless one understands a father’s grief upon his daughter’s wedding. He is grateful to have seen life in the villages first-hand and having grown up in a huge, joint family, for this has helped him understand the underlying emotions of the folk songs.

Deepak Singh’s fellow musicians, Vijay Kumar and Ambuj Gupta, have also studied music formally and teach and perform in Lucknow. Vijay Kumar has also studied political science and psychology and teaches music at schools. Ambuj Gupta has two brothers, and they are all musicians. He learnt Tabla from Arun Bhatt and wants to be a renowned Tabla player. He and his brothers also perform Sufi songs and are quite active on social media, trying to gain popularity as musicians. Deepak Singh has known them for a long time, and the three perform at many events as a side hustle.

The songs of the Mirasens shower praise and blessings upon the people and use characters from religion and mythology to illustrate that. At a wedding, for example, they might sing a song comparing the bride and the groom with Ram and Sita and pray that the couple continues to live according to their ideals. Jab lag bahe Ganga Jamuna dhara, achal rahe siya ahivaat tumhara.

According to Deepak Singh, the most important reason for the decline of such songs and customs is our present obsession with Western culture and hyper-modernization. Although he is not against technological and scientific innovation, as even he aims to use them to enrich and enhance folk music, he believes we have lost our balance and have started to discard our own culture and customs in favour of the Western way of life. From our dressing to our choice of food and the language we speak, we have collectively, as a society, held the Western ways in higher regard and more tremendous respect than the indigenous way. Even in music, he feels that folk and classical musicians are not as beloved and respected as pop musicians who sing Western tunes in anglicised languages.

The way forward is to change our subconscious perspective on our culture and history, understand our journey so far, and integrate lessons from the past into our lives. Although it is unrealistic to expect the custom of the Mirasens to miraculously come alive today, even recounting their lives and their music is a way to pay tribute to our previous generations, their lives and the rich cultural heritage they have left behind for us.