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Uttar Pradesh

Shrikrishna and Group

The twelve colours of the twelve months of the year – Barah Maasi

The scenic backdrop of the Gangetic plain and the colourful lives of the people there are at the centre of this unique folk form of Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh is located on the very fertile Gangetic plain, and the scenery is filled with lush farmlands, streams and rivers, and the region experiences hot summers and cold, foggy winters. This beautiful scenery forms the backdrop for a folk genre called Barahmasi. Barahmasi literally translates to “twelve months”, and the songs describe the happenings in each month of the year. At the centre of this song is a woman who is longing for her lover’s return. As she describes the events of each month, she yearns to share them with her lover but is sad that the lover is not present with her.

Barahmasi is native to the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh, where Awadhi is spoken as the native language. Although mutually intelligible with Hindi, the Awadhi language has a rich literary history, dating back to Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. The Barahmasi songs are written in Awadhi, or Awadhi-influenced dialect of Hindi, which adds to the charm of these songs.

Barahmasi is also notable for its use of Huduk and Chikara, two folk instruments that are native to North India. Huduk is a small two-headed drum that is used to produce sounds of varying pitch and creates a very catchy, energetic rhythm. On the other hand, Chikara is a bowed instrument similar to Sarangi. It usually has only one string and is held upside down like a cello. Due to its energetic rhythm and music, Barahmasi is performed in nautanki style, with chorus singers also dancing to the song.

Rural Uttar Pradesh is still a conservative society; there, the women rarely dance in public. The female parts in such nautanki-style dances are played by men dressed as women. These men are known as Lavanda, and their dance is very popular and well-liked by the villagers. Barahmasi is also similarly performed by these Lavanda dancers, who sing in chorus and dance to the songs.

Based in Katgara, a village in the Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh, 55-year-old Shrikrishna is a veteran singer of Barahmasi, who has been singing it for over 38 years. He learnt to play the Chikara from his teacher, Laltu, for many years. The instrument is rare and now not used a lot because it is so difficult to learn and master. Shrikrishna said that his district, Hardoi, and the neighbouring Sitapur district, are the last pockets remaining where Barahmasi is still performed with Chikara, for otherwise, everybody has shifted to modern instruments like piano and banjo.

Bade dil ke kathor, bade mann ke kathor, ab tak shyaam na aaye. This Barahmasi song explores Radha’s state of mind when her lover, Krishna, goes to his uncle’s house in Kubri and hasn’t returned even after many months. For each month, Radha sings, remembering Krishna and describing the happenings in Gokul in Krishna’s absence. For instance, speaking of the month of Diwali, she sings, Karthik maas ka mahina re, chali Ganga nahayi, humre shyaam ghar na aai. Kahin pherat jaaun, humre kanhiayya na aayi. This kind of Barahmasi is based on the story of the Puranas and other mythological epics.

The second kind of Barahmasi that Shrikrishna sings is based on a village woman’s loneliness and longing for her lover when he’s away at work. The picture of the lonely, longing woman is pertinent across many folk forms in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, as the region has always witnessed large-scale migration to cities. As the men were away in cities, women had to be in charge of the households and farms, and they developed these songs as a means to cope with the new responsibilities they had to take up. Aur piya binauthi, birha ki peer, taras me rahyu na. Even in this kind of song, the woman sings in each month of the year, remembering her husband and her growing loneliness. Ashad lage saawan, lage piya pardesi, ya man khafa kya bhawan, chale gaye chhod ke daman. Toh daman si lagi kaaman, kare solah sringaar, sab sakhi mil jhoolwai kare teej tyohaar.

Other than the dancers, Shrikrishan’s group also includes a joker who entertains the audience with his antics. Shrikrishna explains that just plain singing and dancing often get boring. As they often have to entertain audiences all night at weddings and other events, the joker helps in keeping the audience engaged with jokes and funny anecdotes delivered in the local dialect. During the song, the joker and the other dancers also perform slapstick moves to amuse the audience and lighten the heavy, grieving mood of the song.

Shrikrishna reflects that the life of a folk musician is very difficult. The performances are very physically straining because they have to perform mostly all night at events and gatherings, and they have to maintain the energy and keep the audience engaged. Even learning instruments such as the chikara is so tough. The only thing that has kept him going all these years is his passion and yearning to sing. Otherwise, he doesn’t earn a lot from it. He has even, sadly, discouraged his children from learning music and refused to teach them. He doesn’t want them to suffer as he did. He is also a farmer, and his children assist him in farming and also work as labourers.

The dancers seem to fare better, though, because they claim to be dancing only for the money. As the Lavanda dance is so popular in this region, the dancers receive a good amount for performing in the form of tips. They are all running their households from their income as dancers.

Barahmasi is a colourful and lively folk song that continues to be popular because of its simple and catchy beats, and it so easily adapts to many different situations. The primary aim is to celebrate joy and happiness and celebrate the experience of witnessing the many happenings of the year – from different seasons to the many festivals and celebrations. 

Mansharam and Group

The singer and his dancing muse

Mansharam and Sikandar form an amusing singer-dancer pair in the Raula and Bilwari folk songs.

Tucked away about 20 km from Jhansi, the Barua Sagar Fort lies in a picturesque location on the banks of the massive Barua Sagar Lake. Although it is a fort of historical importance, tourists mainly ignore it. In the evening, in the sunset hours, the fort was all the more beautiful and formed a perfect scenic backdrop for the energetic and playful performance by Mansharam. He performed some unique Bundeli folk genres – Raula, Ledh and Bilwari.

Mansharam started in the theatre and performed as an actor and a stooge for many years before transitioning to music. This is evident in his performance, which involves many theatrical gestures, exaggerated mannerisms, and rapidly fluctuating intonation in his singing. Alongside him was Sikandar, a transgender woman who wore ghungroo and danced joyfully to his tunes. Their first song was Raula, a traditional song sung by the local fishermen community, Dheemar, when they go fishing in far-off waters. The song describes the joy of fishing, exploring the waters, throwing the net and the daily experiences of the fishermen. “Kajarwa tene mhaare bidesi jawan.”

The influence of Hindustani Classical music is evident in the repeated singing of the lines in slightly different variations. Mansharam is ably assisted by his instrumentalists – dholak, harmonium, jhika and manjeera. He was also supposed to be joined by another performer, who would play the stooge (joker) opposite Sikandar’s dancer, but due to some last-minute change of plans, he couldn’t join them. Though this performer’s absence didn’t deter them at all, it was hardly evident in the performance that the staging was incomplete. Renowned for his improvisation, Mansharam joined the act, giving the required cues to Sikandar, effectively doubling as a singer and dancer. This resulted in a very amusing performance that exhibited the versatility of Mansharam.

“Ae rango daar gaye haaye, laala chunariya tere,” thus began the Bilwari song which is a Holi song sung and danced to in the festival of Holi. Holi is a festival of colours, celebrated by smearing each other with gulaal, a coloured powder, and participants dance merrily. Each region of the Indian subcontinent has its own collection of Holi songs, and Bilwari is the Bundelkhand variant of this subgenre.

“Bhari pichkari mere ghunghatiya pe maari, akhiyan bheeg gayi re kajrari, baaton par gayi kaad najariya tere.” The lines describe the experience of a woman who lets herself free in the festivities, and Sikandar beautifully embodies the experience of euphoria and the delight of playing Holi. She has been dancing in the group for about two years now, and she also dances at other events like weddings and housewarmings, where the presence of transgenders like her is considered auspicious.

Mansharam next sang a Ledh Geet, a classical song composed in the Raag Bilwari. The song describes the enchanting eyes and gaze of an attractive woman and how it can even deceive the Gods and lead the best of the yogis and sadhus astray. “Naina baari najariyan ghuma gayi re.” Sikandar uses her expressive eyes to convey the enchanting but dangerous gaze the song describes and tries to warn us of. “Arey jogin ko maari gayi, yajnin ko maari gayi, dhyaani ko dhyaan ja chhudwa gayi, naina baari re.” The temptations never spared the yogi or the priest; they led the focused and pious man astray.

Women were often depicted as enchantresses and seductresses in the Puranas, and trained courtesans like the apsaras were even used by the Devas (Gods) to stop others from gaining more powers than them. The song derives inspiration from such depictions of women and serves as a reminder that blind indulgence in carnal pleasures is a sure-shot way to downfall.

The final song is another classical-based song called Chetavani, which describes the longing of a forlorn lover. “Pardesi piya bin doobe na jaaiyo, aaj humare ghar aaye kounayya.” Mansharam later explained that the song is metaphorical in nature, and actually talks about the various kaayas of the body, as presented in Indian philosophy. In addition to singing traditional folk songs, Mansharam and his group also specialise in singing songs dedicated to Babasaheb Ambedkar. They sing on various occasions related to his life and the Dalit community – like on Ambedkar Jayanti. Mansharam confides that when he set out to become a singer, he never aspired to be the best but instead always aimed to be versatile. He wanted to be able to sing everything from folk to filmi to devotional to situational songs, and today, his performances range across all these forms. He also writes his own songs, improvises on the spot at events, and charms the audience with his wit and spontaneity.

A humble man of many talents, Mansharam, along with his group, performs folk songs that talk about the daily lives of the Bundeli people and are written in the region’s dialect. They are set to melodious tunes inspired by classical music, and Sikandar’s energetic dance and the rhythmic sound of the ghungroo accompanying them only adds to their intrigue. 

Radha Prajapati Antarrashtriya Bundeli Dal

The overlong, swirling Ghagras of Rai 

Radha, a young dancer from Jhansi, is paving the way for preserving a declining dance in its true, traditional form.

Radha Prajapati, a 28-year-old dancer from Jhansi, believes that the traditional art forms of her region, Bundelkhand, should be held in high esteem in the minds of the public at large. She contrasts this with the status of the art forms from Punjab and Haryana, which are better known and enjoy visibility in mainstream art, which they have also influenced. This was not always the case and has only happened because of the artists who have asserted the rich history and artistic appeal of their art forms through campaigning and pushing them beyond the boundaries of their native regions. Radha takes inspiration from this and wants to achieve the same for Bundeli art forms.

Her group performs Rai, a traditional Bundeli dance that involves energetic and playful dancing to entertain the audience in festivities and other celebrations. Over the years, though, the dance has come to be commonly associated with the Bedia tribe and is infamous for its sensational lyrics, suggestive dance and revealing clothing. Radha explains that this increased its popular appeal, and the tribal people wanted to improve their income. She caustically points out that although vulgarity sells, much deeper harm is done in the process, as it diminishes respect for the traditional arts in the people’s perception and alienates them from their own culture. Intending to revive the art form in its original glory and care, she has started her dance group and has been staging performances for about three years now.

Women wear long ghagras, skirts with colourful patterns, and many fringes that measure 10 to 12m long, and they are the most recognisable feature of the dance. When the dancers twist and twirl to the music, the ghagras create a beautiful pattern resembling milk churning. Rai derives its name from that, as the churn is called Rai in the Bundeli language. Rai also has an alternative etymology, as explained by Brahmadeen, the senior-most member of the group. Rai could also refer to sarson, mustard seeds, and the dancers’ energetic jumping and swinging resemble mustard seeds spluttering in hot oil. Both meanings perfectly capture the spirit of the performance, which centres around being merry and celebrating life. Historically, the dance was performed during the harvest season. Women would dress in ornate clothes, sing about the rains and harvest, and praise Lord Ram and Goddess Sita. The dance also involves playful banter with the men and the women and themes from the story of Lord Krishna and gopikas.

Radha started training in dance at a young age, partly out of her interest but also to support her mother financially after her father’s death. Her mother worked as a cook to help the children, but since Radha started performing, she claims to have never had any financial difficulties. She believes that the richness of traditional art forms keeps them going even in the face of popular art threatening to extinguish them. While she is a woman of many talents, having modelled and acted in a few regional films and even sung a few songs, she considers her work as a Rai performer and the achievements of her group as most fulfilling artistically.

Although the troupe is only three years old, they are already immensely popular, having performed at Namaste Trump! and Dubai Expo. They were the only Bundeli performers at both events. Radha believes it is her group’s commitment to authenticity and attention to detail – be it in the costumes, the dance or the choice of lyrics for their songs – that sets them apart. They remain committed to presenting respectable, family-friendly performances that celebrate Bundeli culture. Brahmadeen Bandhu, the senior member of the group and serves as a mentor figure to the group, comes with about 40 years of experience performing Rai. He performs as the stooge (joker) in the performances, whose exaggerated expressions are very amusing. He retired from the Indian Railways and used to manage the cultural department, where he performed Rai and other traditional art forms.

Ankur Jain is the other male dancer who also serves as its manager. He comes from a business family but took a special interest in Rai upon seeing a performance at an event a few years ago. For the first time in his life, he saw an authentic, traditional Rai performance, which was eye-opening. He was inspired by Radha’s vision to change the perception of Rai in people’s minds and improve its stature as a respectable art form. With no background in dance and performing, he started as a complete novice with the group. Although he primarily earns his living as a property broker and a construction worker, he is equally invested in performing and promoting Rai. He even teaches the art form in schools and colleges to encourage children to discover their cultural heritage.

Accompanying them is a singer, and musicians, of whom the trumpeters also double as dancers. The dance involves many different formations where the dancers swing their ghagras to create visual patterns. Radha also stresses the importance of ghoonghat in the performance, which is an essential symbol of modesty of the dancers and is also aesthetically appealing to the Bundeli people. The dance, which has long been ignored as a lesser art form of the sleazy entertainers, is now slowly regaining prestige and respect through the work of people like Radha Prajapati. This year, a Rai performer from Madhya Pradesh, Ram Sahay Panday, also received the Padma Shri for his contribution to the arts. Radha holds this as an inspiration to continue promoting the art form. She believes that good, authentic works ultimately reap the rewards in the long run, and she aims to continue her tradition in the coming years.

Sattidin Kushwaha Samrat Mandal Muskara

Pandemic and Current Affairs Inspire Folk Musicians

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a turning point in recent times, and it has already found mention in the folk music of our country too. 

Bundelkhand region is well-known for its vibrant folk music scene, forming an integral aspect of the culture and celebrations there. The region is splattered with villages where, on festivals and other occasions, musicians gather and perform their compositions and even compete with each other. One such well-known music competition is the Kachiayi sawal­-jawab which involves two rival groups who perform songs in the Kachiayi raag. The songs are usually composed on the spot. So, the participants should be good singers and be able to write songs impromptu on various topics ranging from everyday life experiences to social issues to politics. Sattidin and his group are a popular Kachiayi folk group renowned for having won many sawal-jawab competitions and are known as the frontrunners in this genre.

Kachiayi is a classical Hindustani-based tune typically performed using Khanjri, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine native to India, and a single-string bow instrument called Sarangi, which is similar to other bow instruments like the violin. The two instruments, along with their recognisable tune, are the defining characteristics of Kachiayi. Usually, the singer plays the sarangi as well, and two or more Khanjris are used. The performance begins with a moderately paced tempo and rhythm, known as madhyalay, and it slowly escalates into a faster, upbeat temp, known as drutlay, which gives it a nice, groovy feel to the music. It is a very catchy and versatile tune, as Sattidin explained, and almost any other Bundeli folk song, like Gari, Khyal, Lamtera and others, can be performed in this tune.

Sattidin belongs to a family that has been performing Kachiayi for generations now. He and his extended family are all involved in this. All the group members come from Muskera, a village in the Hamirpur district of Uttar Pradesh, and are related to each other, as everyone is somebody’s cousin, nephew or uncle. They all learnt it from their elders and are preserving this tradition for the coming generations.

As this genre requires wit and a way with language so the performers can improvise their lines on the spot during the competitions, Sattidin also spent time learning to write poems and lyrics for a while. Aside from his singing and music, which he learnt from his uncle mainly, he learned to write from his guru, Thakurdas Rajput. Other group members include Parmeshwari Dayal, who also learnt Kachiayi from his grandfather, Puran Babaji, a well-known genre singer in the region. Dayal also additionally sings Kabir, Rai and Devi Geet. Sattidin’s cousin Laldivan also performs alongside him. Both of them learnt music from Laldivan’s father, who is well-known in Kachiayi and for performing Kabir Panthi, a popular bhajan genre in Uttar Pradesh.

The other four members come from the Kushwaha family in the same village and have been performing Kachiayi for generations. Being from the same village, the members share a very close rapport and usually perform together everywhere, which they’re known for. They’ve performed all around Bundelkhand, even in Chattarpur and Chitrakoot, which house famous and big Kachiayi competitions.

Sattidin writes his songs and improvises them based on his observations. One of the songs he sang talked about the coronavirus pandemic. When asked what inspired him to write a song on the topic, he said that we have all suffered so universally during the pandemic that he thought it should be part of our folk culture and music. We must not forget the pandemic because a large part of our difficulties and suffering during the pandemic were self-inflicted. He believes we could have handled the pandemic better, with not just more effective governance but also with more individual responsibility and understanding of the need of the hour. This is where folk music becomes useful, as it helps us remember our experiences and allow us to reflect upon them.

Sattidin himself was stuck in Delhi with his daughter during the pandemic. With a sudden lockdown, he couldn’t return to his village and was disturbed by the harsh lockdown he witnessed in the city. Not only was he not used to living in the cities, but the lockdown doubled his woes and misery. He said it was a great time to reflect on the state of humanity and our fragile existence, which inspired his song. Kachaiyi naturally became the chosen tune for his song.

Although all the group members have been associated with music their entire lives and find it to be the most fulfilling aspect, they have other vocations too. Sattidin is a mason and earns primarily by working on construction sites. Laldivan is a labourer, while Ram Kishor and Shivkumar sell vegetables for a living. Dayaram is a farmer. Kachiayi is more a means to keep their family tradition going rather than something they necessarily see as a means to earn a living. Sattidin’s sons never learnt music, and he has no reason to force it upon them. He encourages his children to find their calling. He instead teaches his nephews.

The group has been performing Kachiayi within Bundelkhand and is renowned for it, but they dream of taking it beyond the borders of their region. They find inspiration in Hari Shankar Acharya, who is also from the same village and has taken Bundeli songs beyond the region, having written songs for government campaigns. Sattidin and his group also want to perform all across UP and North India and introduce the rich and versatile tradition of Kachiayi to other places and even start competitions there. 


Hari Shankar Acharya and Group

The voice of deliberation and refinement in folk music

Folk music meets social messaging in this small town in Bundelkhand through the songs of a former school teacher turned musician.

Muskara is a small village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district along the newly inaugurated Bundelkhand expressway. On the face of it, the town seems fairly conservative, where the women quickly cover themselves with their veils when strangers pass by. In the centre of the village lies a temple dedicated to Shiva, which also serves as a community gathering space. Here, Hari Shankar performs his folk songs to an audience that comprises exclusively of men. The villagers evidently have great respect for Hari Shankar, whom they address as ‘Acharya ji’ and listen attentively as he starts introducing the songs he will perform.

Hari Shankar is a former school teacher who started singing and playing the harmonium very young. He is a self-taught musician, mainly learning bits and pieces by observing and interacting with the musicians at events and gatherings as a child. He later taught music at a school for about ten years until 1995, when he quit his job to become a full-time musician. He still distinctly remembers the day he attended a meeting with government officials where many musicians were summoned to compose songs for the newly launched Sujal Yojana. When asked about the scheme, only a few musicians could answer it, but since Hari Shankar worked at a school, he had some idea about it. It was about sanitation, toilets and hygiene. This was when he realised that folk musicians in his region have been performing songs that are out of touch with the society we live in, and they aren’t connecting with the masses as they should.

Hari Shankar has made his name in Bundelkhand for improvising and innovating existing folk songs to impart social messages and raise awareness about government schemes and critical issues regarding the environment, well-being and education. He proceeds to present his first song, which is composed in the tune of the Lamtera folk genre. Lamtera is traditionally sung on the day of Makar Sankranti when the people would wake up early in the morning to bathe in the river – budki, as it is called natively. The songs describe the beautiful sunrise and the joy of bathing outdoors in the river on an auspicious day and use strong visual descriptions of the ritual.

He has rewritten the song to instead talk about the dying rivers. He introduces his song by lamenting about rivers and lakes, which are either drying up or being polluted with human and industrial waste. He also talks of how our ancestors had the foresight to dig up wells and lakes to collect and conserve water, but now, we are drying them up and eager to occupy those lands for buildings and expand our towns. “Jeevan bin paani ke nahin re, paani bin nahin re kar lo, kar lo kachhuto vo paaiydho.” In his silky, nasal voice, he reminds us of our primal need for clean water and that we must act to save the lakes and rivers that provide it. He also warns of our misdeeds as we reverse all our ancestors’ progress in preserving nature. “Ped sab katwa daiye hain, purkhan ne lagaye haathe baagh ho. Sab toh kabja laiye hain, purkhan ne khudaaya talab ho.”

Accompanying him is his team of instrumentalists from around the villages nearby who play Jhinka, Manjhira, Dholak and Nagadiya. Heera Lal is the eldest of them all, who, at the age of 78, plays the Nagadiya. The group ably supports Hari Shankar’s singing with energetic and rhythmic melody.

Hari Shankar loves to observe the society around him and researches deeply on topics ranging from politics to health to public welfare schemes to education. Each of these finds is mentioned in his next song, which belongs to the Khayal genre. He sets a severe tone of the introduction, saying that he wishes to discuss ‘important issues’ of public interest. Though, the song quickly reveals to be faster in rhythm and has a very playful energy. “Swacch paryaavaran lage hain sabka pyaaron”, begins with an ode to nature and then goes on to remember the ordeal of the villagers during the Covid-19 pandemic. He encourages people to get the third booster dose – “booster bhi lagwa laiye, rakhiyo apna dhyaan.” In the third stanza, he talks about education and curses those parents who do not educate their children. “Dushman maa, baap jinhone na baal padhayi,” and he encourages us not just to educate our children but help educate other children as well, for other children are also an influence on our own. His songs are filled with philosophical ideas that encourage us to reflect on society and live up to our individual responsibilities.  

His third and fourth songs are self-composed folk songs. “Daal roti khaao, prabhu ke gun gaao, he kahaawat nahin haqeeqat hai, iski aaj zaroorat hai.” He talks of the importance of eating healthy, home-cooked food to remain healthy and have good immunity, especially in the times of covid. He also touches upon the farming of pigeon peas (arhar ki dal) in Bundelkhand, which used to be a major crop, but now farmers have gradually stopped producing it as it takes over a year to harvest it. “Dal katora chhetra jo apno, ab toh kewal reh gayo sapno, khaali rahe katora na apno, bharwe iski aaj zaroorat hai.”

His final song was the most amusing, discussing the women’s safety helpline. He proclaims 1098, the women’s helpline number, as the equivalent of Maa Durga’s weapon in modern times. “Hey shakti swaroopa, dariyo na, dariyo na,” so he encourages the women to call the helpline numbers without hesitation. He also pleads us not to misuse these numbers, “jhoothi moothi sikaayat in numberon me kariyo na.” It was a little peculiar though that not a single woman was in attendance among the audience.

Hari Shankar believes folk music is more effective in reaching the masses than mainstream music because the villagers have grown up listening to these tunes. The music holds a special place in their hearts and has an emotional appeal that is useful in grabbing and sustaining their attention. Also, in his experience, singing the familiar tunes makes the lyrics seem less alien, and the villagers are more receptive to the message he wants to convey. In a calm, soft-spoken tone, he laments that other folk musicians are turning to suggestive and sensational lyrics to increase their appeal and earn money. He hopes they follow his example of enriching people’s lives with informative and educational music. 

Dadulal Kolhai Group

The Bhajans and Dance of the Kol Adivasis

Kol Adivasis are mentioned in the Ramayana, and their bhajans and other folk songs are closely related to the life of Lord Ram.

Away from the hustle-bustle of Markundi, a small town in the Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, located right next to a small stream lies the Markandey Ashram, a hermitage dedicated to the sage Markandey. Bhargava Markandey is an important sage in Hindu traditions and is mentioned frequently in both the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata. He is believed to be an ardent devotee of Shiva; hence, an ancient Shiva temple exists within the premises. The ashram is also considered one of the places Lord Ram visits during the vanavaasa, his banishment into the forest. It is here that Dadulal and his group performed folk songs about the Kol Adivasi tribe.

The Kol Adivasis are a tribal population who live in this region and share a very special connection to the Ramayana. They are held to be one of the oldest inhabitants of the subcontinent. They are also very significant in the religion of North India because of their mention in the Ramayana. Their folk songs also reflect this aspect, as they frequently mention Ram, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman and draw upon the stories from the epic. Being a tribal population, the community doesn’t have a long historical account, but their history mainly survives in oral traditions such as folk music. For this reason, their folk songs are an important, intangible cultural asset of our country that preserves the lesser-known history and lives of this tribe.

Dadulal is 72 years old but has the spirit and enthusiasm of a little child. Right from 12, he instinctively knew that he had to learn singing and music. He fondly remembers his childhood in his village, where he was inspired by the Phagwa, Dewari, Rai and Balma performances and learnt to sing and play the instruments by himself. He charmingly remembers how he would imitate Dholak players in his childhood by patting his hands on his stomach and learnt the rhythms that way. In addition to Dholak, he also learnt to play the Nagada and can somewhat play the Harmonium, but singing along with playing the Dholak is what he enjoys the most right now.

The group performs songs that are unique to the Kol people. Kolhai is a folk song that is performed all night during weddings to celebrate the coming of the groom. The song also has another important aspect of their history. Historically, the Kol people lived in poverty for much of their existence, away from society in the forests. They didn’t even have clothes to wear, and when it got very cold in the winter, they lit up bonfires and sang songs all night to distract themselves.

The group also performs Rai in the Chattarpuri variant, whose language differs slightly from the better-known Bundeli variant. When asked to explain this further, Dadulal starts singing – “Are phir se miliyo aar, aayi na maza pehla pehel mein, phir se miliyo aar” – this is Bundeli Rai. Chattarpuri Rai, which is unique to Chitrakoot region, goes like this – “Mori gaghariya ka thanda paani, are dheere se boro adaayo na, paani bina tarsayo na”. It’s a playful genre to celebrate happiness. A master of improvisation, Daadulal often mixes different genres to broaden the appeal of his songs. Like, he has further sung the Rai song by mixing it with Banra, another Bundeli folk genre – “Shivo shankar maharaj-i aaj dulha bane aayi re, more shiv shankar maharaj-i aaj dulha bane aayi re, mori gaghariya ka thanda paani, are dheere se boro adaayo na, paani bina tarsayo na.” This had his whole group laughing in amusement. He compares composing music to cooking. Just like serving food with chutney and other side dishes makes it more delicious, music must also be performed with many flavours.

Having been a musician all his life, he is well-versed in the folk genres and has the creative energy of a child when it comes to intermixing them. He also knows a lot of poems and verses, which he spontaneously sings in his songs to add to their flavour.

Also in the group is Dadulal’s son, Ram Bahori, who sings and plays the Manjhira alongside his father. He also serves as the group’s manager and finds shows and performances. Shivam is only 20 years old and is the youngest in the group. Having been inspired by music since childhood, he now wants to learn music from Dadulal. Bela and Sukaliya are both elderly women in their late 50s who dance and also join as chorus singers. The group is particularly active in singing Ram-Sita bhajans at temple festivals and celebrations. The Kol tribe enjoys a special connection with the life of Lord Rama, and hence they specialise in singing songs dedicated to him.

Members of the group, including Ram Bahori, are also active in social and political campaigning for the Kol Adivasis. They explained that their tribe is considered a Scheduled Tribe in Madhya Pradesh but not in Uttar Pradesh. They have been campaigning to include the Kol people also in the list of Scheduled Tribes so they get the rights to the forest. They have also performed in government cultural programs.

Dadulal believes music is his people’s most important form of expression, and it must be kept alive. The tribe’s long history and traditions are preserved in their folk music which is an integral part of their identity.  

Buti Bai and Group

The Wedding Songs of the Kol Adivasis

The Kol Adivasis are one of the oldest tribal communities in India, and their folk songs are an important part of the cultural heritage of Uttar Pradesh.

Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh is home to the Kol Adivasi tribe, one of the oldest and most well-known tribal communities in India. The Kol Adivasis are mentioned in the Ramayana and hence hold special significance in the religious milieu of North India. They also call themselves Chitrakoot vaasis, the inhabitants of Chitrakoot, and are deeply devoted to Lord Ram and Goddess Sita. Buti Bai and her group are Kol Advisasis and come from around Sarhat, a remote, backward village in the district. They perform the traditional folk songs of their tribe, which are an important intangible cultural asset of our country that preserves the lesser-known history and lives of this tribe.

Members of the group overcame many difficulties to perform at Markandey Ashram, an ancient, historical hermitage in Markundi town, that day. Difficulties are rather commonplace in the interior forest areas of the district, but nevertheless, a fascinating look into the lives of the people there. Buti Bai had to walk around 10 km to reach a bus stand to take the bus. Shyama Bai had a sick child to tend to at home, and the previous night was quite taxing on her as she struggled to find a doctor to get him treated. The poor network made it difficult for other members to coordinate the time and venue with each other. Nevertheless, they put up an energetic performance that afternoon, much to the delight of other devotees, who were taken by surprise with it.

The songs were composed in rustic, uneven tunes and accompanied by harmonium, dholak and jhika while Shyama Bai danced to them and showed us a glimpse of their traditional celebrations. The songs are sung at their weddings and other celebratory occasions and written in the dialect of the language they speak. Balma is a playful banter song between the husband and wife. The wife remarks about her life in her new household to her husband. The song, which is sung on the wedding night, celebrates the bride’s and groom’s excitement and nervousness as they enter the new phase of their lives and all the drama it comes with. Buti Bai sang this song alongside Sukhram, who also played the harmonium. Sukhram’s coarse, baritone voice added to the song’s appeal. Shyama Bai twirled to the song vigorously in rapture and joy, which was quite a sight to behold.

Kolhai and Sajnai are songs sung in Kol weddings as well, but on the night when the groom’s baraat is going to arrive. Both the songs are slower in temp than Balma, and the dancing is also slower paced. Buti Bai explained that the songs are usually sung all night, and everybody dances to them. Her ancestors sang these songs to brave the winters and survive the cold. The Kol people historically lived in acute poverty and didn’t own clothes to wear. As Buti Bai noted, the situation has changed a lot now, as the Kol people have homes and work on farms for their livelihood. In continuing the tradition of singing these songs, Buti believes they are keeping the history of their tribe alive and are teaching the coming generations about the difficulties that their ancestors have overcome.

Buti Bai is also a teacher and an activist, as well as a singer. She teaches Math and language at a primary school in her village. she is involved in an association that works towards the upliftment of Kol women. She solves cases related to domestic abuse, poverty and women deserted by their families. She is a single woman who lost her husband a few years back to an unknown illness and took a keen interest in the issues of her tribe and the women. She was also a member of the Zilla Gram Panchayat and has spent years fighting for the rights and justice of the tribe. She has even travelled abroad to raise awareness about her community’s issues. Alongside music, she is a playwright and writes on topics like domestic abuse and poverty in her region. She has staged Nukkad performances of her plays.

Other group members are also making a name for themselves and taking the Kol community to new heights. Shyama Devi is a member of the Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan, where she trained in different folk songs. She is also a teacher in the same organisation today, teaching about 36 students and taking the tradition forward. Kaushal Kishor is a graduate student from Allahabad who, at the young age of 22, already has 13 years of experience as a singer. He started learning from his father, Ram Kishor, a group member. Although he excels academically, he confidently expresses his ambition to be a singer and write his songs someday. Indeed, a bright future awaits him. Ram Kishor’s nephew, Sukhram, is also a group member. He plays the harmonium and is a singer too. His favourite genre is singing kirtans and bhajans dedicated to Ram-Sita. He is also a theatre artist, and he’d play the role of Vishwamitra in Ram-Leela nautankies.

Buti Bai was in a hurry after the performance, for she had to catch a train back home. In her brief time, she gave a glimpse of her life back home. Being a single woman who is also an activist, she has seen a lot of hardships in her life. Music is what keeps her going. Despite all the difficulties, it is important to appreciate the simple things in life, and music helps her do that. To be happy, no matter the circumstances, is the most important thing in life, according to her. Music enriches that happiness within us, and traditional folk songs are the best example of that. 

Babu Kushwaha Bundeli Diwari Loknritya Group

An Energetic Display of Martial Arts

Dewari Pai Danda is a martial-arts-based dance form from Bundelkhand.

For the 47-year-old resident of Banda, Uttar Pradesh, Babu Kushwaha, Diwari Pai Danda is his passion and what gives him a purpose in life. He is a hard-working man who works 12-hour shifts at a local rice mill, but he still takes time to practice the art daily. His group of performers has performed in many places, including Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and even in the North-East of Guwahati. Diwari Pai Danda has brought him name and fame, a fact that he profoundly cherishes and feels proud of continuing the culture and traditions he grew up in.

He comes from a family of performers of the art. His father, uncles and grandfather all practised and performed it for years. Babu also started learning it at a very young age. He was only 12 when he was already performing it alongside his father. Diwari Pai Danda is a traditional martial arts-based folk dance native to the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. Danda refers to club sticks that serve as the ‘weapon’ for the martial arts practice the dance centres around. Performers indulge in stick-fighting, rhythmic dancing and gymnastics; all choreographed to percussion music produced by Dhol and Nagada. It could be considered a more aggressive variant of the more popular Dandia dance.

Diwari refers to the one-minute introduction sung at the beginning of the performance, after which Pai Danda, a dance involving club sticks and fighting, is performed. Pai Danda is considered a form of Yoga, where sadhana (practice) and correct form is highly important. Practising Pai Danda is believed to give the same benefits as Yoga, such as improved immunity and fitness. The principles of Yoga – both the physical asanas and the spiritual aspect of self-perfection ­­­– are found in practice. Babu triumphantly claims that nobody in his group has ever fallen sick in all these years, and even during the pandemic, they all survived it pretty healthily. He believes this is due to the healthy and energetic lifestyle Diwari Pai Danda fosters.

Traditional accounts narrate that the art form originates in the times of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Diwali is celebrated to observe the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. Hence, the introductory verses to the dance, known as Diwari, usually involve the recitation of couplets (dohas) pertaining to the Ramayana. Pai Danda, which refers to the dance that follows, originates from the story of Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain to protect the villagers from the fury of Lord Indra. The villagers performed Pai Danda to entertain themselves and celebrate the victory of their Lord. The dance also fostered equality and brotherhood among the villagers, who had to share the small space under the mountain for many days.

Babu is also a former wrestler and has won many cups in matches and tournaments in his state. Likewise, he encourages other members of his group to take up athletics and gymnastics and excel in them. Although many have won in competitions, he thinks there’s a glass ceiling to their success in sports and athletics because of the village’s lack of infrastructure and opportunities. Even for Pai Danda, the group practice in the akhada, a traditional ground for practising rural martial arts, without proper safety and protection. He also points out the risks involved in performing this dance. It involves risky movements and formations, and the artists are always at risk of injury. He appeals that the government must devise a solution to ensure safety and insurance against mishaps while performing.

The akhada is located on the outskirts of Banda, inside a Hanuman Temple on a lake’s banks. The group practices there every morning, every day of the year. It begins at 5 in the morning for about two hours, and they practice without any exceptions except for the death of a villager, in which case mourning is organised instead. Members of his group come from all walks of life, with children as young as 6 to men in their middle age, like Babu himself. The performers not only aim to keep themselves physically fit and practice their form to rigorous perfection, but they also practice discipline in their everyday lives. They are learning to treat each other as brothers and become ideal members of society.

Babu considers his group to be like family, and he has supported many unemployed, dejected young boys by getting them on board. He explains that they have improved their lives because of the emotional support and a sense of direction that art form provides. Also, because the art form is being promoted by the government now, there are many performances in the year, and every member in the group manages to earn a few thousand rupees every month in them. Despite this, long-term financial prospects of performing the art still need to be improved and are hence a little discouraging for the performers.

Diwari Pai Danda is an energetic display of gymnastics and martial arts, which leaves the spectators in awe with expertly choreographed movements that are complex and in perfect coordination. The first thoughts that come to our minds upon witnessing a performance are the dedication, consistent practice and discipline required to pull it off. The dance serves as a reminder about the importance of these qualities not just in art but in all walks of life, as the key to perfection is not in-born talent but a relentless determination to achieve it no matter what it takes.


Ramesh Prasad Pal Bundeli Diwari Loknritya Group

Club Sticks and Acrobatics in Folk Dance of Bundelkhand

Dewari Pai Danda is an age-old traditional folk dance of Bundelkhand that traces its origin, traditionally, to the times of Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

On the outskirts of Banda, there’s a Hanuman Temple on a lake’s banks. The temple also houses a ground known as akhada, for practising and performing Diwari Pai Danda, a traditional martial arts-based folk dance native to the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. Danda refers to club sticks that serve as the ‘weapon’ for the martial arts practice the dance centres around. Performers indulge in stick-fighting, rhythmic dancing and gymnastics; all choreographed to percussion music produced by Dhol and Nagada. It could be considered a more aggressive variant of the more popular Dandia dance. 

Leading the group of performers is a jovial, loquacious leader, addressed by the other members as guruji, Ramesh Pal. Belonging to the Pal Gadariya community, he is from a family that has practised and performed Diwari Pai Danda for 4-5 generations. He is well-versed in the history of the art and readily shares the story with willing listeners. Diwari is a diminutive of Diwali, the festival with which the dance is traditionally associated. On the second day following Diwali, people would decorate and worship cows. They’d spend the entire day in silence and fasting and honouring cows. On this day, Diwari Pai Danda’s performances would begin, and they continued till Makar Sankranti in January of the following year. Ramesh Pal was involved in these celebrations from a young age and took a keen interest in Pai Danda. Elders in his family would all practice the art and have taken the tradition forward for many generations.

Ramesh began learning from his father but later trained in gymnastics from his guru, Hari Pal. He explains that consistent training and practice are essential to mastering the art. Performers train in strength training as well. Practice begins at 5 in the morning every day of the year, without any exceptions except for the death of a villager, in which case mourning is organised instead. Members of his group come from all walks of life, with children as young as 6 to men in their middle age. Ramesh started training at about seven and is now a full-time performer and instructor of Pai Danda.

Also present was Prof. Tripathi, who researched this art form and even published a book on it. He explained that traditional accounts narrate that the art form originates in the times of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Diwali is celebrated to observe the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. Hence, the introductory verses to the dance, known as Diwari, usually involve the recitation of couplets (dohas) about the Ramayana. Pai Danda, which refers to the dance that follows, originates from the story of Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain to protect the villagers from the fury of Lord Indra. The villagers performed Pai Danda to entertain themselves and celebrate the victory of their Lord. The dance also fostered equality and brotherhood among the villagers, who had to share the small space under the mountain for many days.

Continuing the same tradition today, the dancers consider their group an extended family. Ramesh Pal explains that Pai Danda is a form of yoga. The principles of Yoga – both the physical asanas and the spiritual aspect of self-perfection ­­­– are found in practice. The performers not only aim to keep themselves physically fit and practice their form to rigorous perfection, but they also practice discipline in their everyday lives. They also learn to treat each other as brothers and strive to become ideal members of society. Ramesh recounts how he worked to eradicate untouchability from his village by educating everyone about the common underlying essence of all human beings. The dance also celebrates the same essence; hence, he was keen on involving the outcasts and the untouchables in his group. He also adds that through discipline and leading a highly moral life, the boys have bettered their own lives and that of their families. Through the group, Ramesh has been able to touch and impact the lives of all the villagers on the whole.

Ramesh Pal is one of the few people from his village who graduated from college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from Kanpur University. He realises and stresses the importance of studying, encouraging all the performers to study and educate themselves, as he believes that the only way culture survives is through education. Only educated individuals can understand the essence and goals of long-surviving traditions and represent their art well on the national and global stage. He credits his success with other artists and influential people like politicians to his education. It has helped him communicate and increase the visibility of this art form while also aiming big for his group. The group has performed in 28 states around India, and each member earns about 10-15 thousand a month by this. Ramesh recounted his most memorable experience in Gujarat when they performed in the presence of Narendra Modi, the state’s chief minister.

Diwari Pai Danda is an energetic display of gymnastics and martial arts, which leaves the spectators in awe with expertly choreographed movements that are complex and in perfect coordination. The first thoughts that come to our minds upon witnessing a performance are the dedication, consistent practice and discipline that is required to pull it off. The dance serves as a reminder about the importance of these qualities not just in art, but in all walks of life, as the key to perfection is not in-born talent but a relentless determination to achieve it no matter what it takes. 

Laxmi Prasad and Group

Social Issues, Traditions and Customs in Bundeli Folk Songs

19-year-old Rajni is taking the singing legacy of her 74-year-old father forward.

On Karthik Puranmashi, the full moon night following Diwali, there is a huge fair on the outskirts of Mahoba, near an ancient Sun temple that dates back to the 9th century. The temple, which predates the more famous Konark Sun temple by a couple of centuries, doesn’t receive many tourists. Still, naturally, it was very crowded that day because of the fair and the festivities. Amidst all that chaos and commotion, 74-year-old Laxmi Prasad and his daughter Rajni and the rest of his group performed folk songs of varying genres like Sanskaar Geet and Gari.

The first song, Bacchi ka Geet, talks about the importance of having a girl child and that those parents are truly blessed with a girl child and can raise her and marry her into a good family. Kanyadaan is a wedding ritual in which the bride’s father hands over his daughter’s hand to the bride, transferring the girl’s responsibility over to her husband. It is a common and popular wedding ritual across India, and even performing the ritual for orphan girls is considered a very auspicious and meritorious deed. The song is presented as a prayer to God to bless all parents with the girl child and allow them to have the good fortune of performing Kanyadaan“Karbe kanyadaan ka kanya, bitiya de daiyyo bhagwan.”

The song is written in the dialect of Hindi spoken in the region, and the tune is composed by Laxmi Prasad himself. Singing alongside him was his 19-year-old daughter, the last of his four daughters. In between the performance, much to everybody’s amusement, she teased him about why he was praying for a girl child when he already had four. Laxmi Prasad jokingly replied that he’d like to have one more, to which Rajni laughed sarcastically. This playful banter between the father and the daughter continued through the evening, adding to their charm and humour. Despite her very young age, Rajni confidently held her own opposite her father, a veteran singer. Laxmi Prasad later told us that Rajni is very popular across Mahoba, especially in the Bhajan and Keertan events, where they perform all night in temples, entertaining the audience and aiding their prayers.

“Bitiya bina hai angna soono, ye toh keh gaye ved puraan. Unke bade bhaagya hai kallu, jin ghar bitiya de dei bhagwan.” Rajni jokingly comments that her father is certainly the most blessed of us all because he has so many daughters. Laxmi Prasad is very fond of his daughters and has raised them all to be singers and musicians. Although he wanted Rajni to learn computers and work in an office, she has taken to singing full-time and is continuing her father’s legacy.

In contrast with the young Rajni is Bihari Lal, who, at the age of 81, is one of the oldest musicians in the region. A man of many talents, he can sing and play the harmonium, dholak, and manjeera, but in that performance, he played the Jhika. He is a retired peon in a college and has learnt music from his father. For him, music has been a form of prayer, and he treats it as his divine duty to continue performing.

The group then performed two Gari songs. Gari is a type of folk song that is sung at weddings. The songs talk about different things, including the blossoming love between the groom and the bride, the divine nature of the union, and even issues about morality and life. Weddings are considered a ceremony with which the couple formally enters the life of householders. Hence, it is seen as a fitting occasion to introduce them to the ways of the world and folk philosophy through these songs. The first song warns us that we are all living our karma, a cycle we cannot escape. Our fortunes and miseries are a product of our karma, which is why we shouldn’t be proud of them or resent them. It elaborates on the harmful ways attachment and worldliness manifest and that they are antithetical to love and moral life.

The second Gari song is centred around a story in which the wife tries to stop the husband from poisoning his brother due to petty enmity. The wife emotionally appeals to reconsider his obligations and blood ties, and that family is ultimately the only ones who do not abandon us in misery. The song perfectly fits into the mood of the wedding, which is about the unison of not just the bride and the groom but their respective families, and reinforces the need to hold relationships and blood ties as pristine.

The final song is an ode to Mahoba – its history right from the time of Chandelis to the present – and its many historical places, educational institutions and beauty. It was dark by the time the performances started, and lights had beautifully lit the Sun temple. The full moon night and the massive Sun temple lit by artificial lights formed a perfect backdrop to their performance, which was all about society, our worldview and the moral choices we are meant to make.