The fascinating tale of the mythical warrior Aalha
Delivered in khari boli of rural Bundelkhad, Aalha is a beloved ballad performed for hours at a stretch.
Asothar Fort is a lesser-known, dilapidated fort complex about 20km from Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh. It is pretty challenging to navigate to it, even using Google Maps. The fort and its surrounding village lie in a very fertile region of the Gangetic plain, sandwiched between the Yamuna and the Ganges rivers, not significantly from Prayagraj, where the two rivers confluence. Fatehpur is named after Babu Fateh Chandra, a warrior who fought the British troops alongside Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. The great poet and Gandhian freedom fighter, Sohan Lal Dwivedi, was also from Fatehpur, and hence, the town is significant in the making of the modern nation of India.
At Asothar Fort, Chhotelal Pal and his group perform Aalha, a traditional ballad native to Bundelkhand, which celebrates the heroism of the legendary medieval warriors Aalha and Udhal. It is befitting they chose this location for their performance, for in glorifying the warriors and their bravery, the Aalha songs not only pay tribute to the two warriors but to the spirit of the nation to defend herself and assert her own identity.
Aalha and Udhal were two legendary warriors who fought on behalf of Parmal against Prithviraj’s armies, and their strength and valour astonished the enemies. Though the king eventually lost his territory, Aalha and Udhal’s bravery persisted in public memory. It later concretised into a folklore that pays homage to the bravery and pride of the Bundeli people. The tales are filled with mythologised anecdotes to pay tribute to the bravery and courage displayed by the warriors and an ode to all the other warriors who lived and fought for Bundelkhand. The songs celebrate the martyrs’ sacrifice for the nation’s building. The genre is also an ode to Bundelkhand, praising its many places of historical importance – from Jhansi to Chitrakoot to Fatehpur – and the important people who lived there. Written in the chaste Bundeli language, Alha is the traditional folk music of the region.
Chhotelal Pal belongs to the Pal Gadariya community, a traditional sheepherding caste of the Bundelkhand region. He comes from a very poor family of landless labourers who work as farmers and labourers outside of sheepherding to sustain themselves. Unlike most folk musicians in rural India, his was not a family of musicians. Instead, he chose to explore his inspiration by himself, watching Aalha’s performances in his village as a child and then reading books about them. He memorised the entire ballad and was especially fond of attending performances by Lalu Bajpai, a renowned Aalha artist.
For many years, he did not have a fixed group of his own and toured around with different people performing all around the region. He slowly established his team of musicians who have been performing together for about 15 years. Ramsharan is the oldest and has played alongside Chhotelal for about 35 years. They both started together. Ramsharan’s grandson, Abhishek, also learns to play the Dholak from his grandfather and accompanies him as part of the group. Deepchandra is a young musician currently pursuing a diploma in music from Prayagraj Sangeet Samiti and wants to be a good musician. For now, the group doesn’t earn much money through their performances and instead relies on other work to support themselves.
Aalha typically involves only one singer, who narrates the ballad and builds a rhythmic tempo slowly to sustain the narration. Dholak, Jhika and Manjhira, all traditional percussion instruments, accompany the singing. A little unique to Chhotelal’s group is that they even use melodic instruments in their orchestration – the organ and the clarinet. The clarinet is a European wind instrument popular in jazz and military bands. It is rare to see it used in an Indian folk form. Indian folk music usually employs flute or a been for melodic wind instruments, but the clarinet is an off-beat-inspired choice. Mahaveer has played the Clarinet for over 20 years and can also play other wind instruments.
The group has even recorded with local labels like Kanhaiya Cassette in Jhansi and Anjali studio in Fatehpur. They have even performed in Mahoba, Maihar and Chitrakoot. Still, due to their remote location and rural upbringing, they need help to network with artists and event planners outside their region, resulting in their being restricted to Bundelkhand. Maihar is their favourite place to perform. They were at Maihar just the day before they presented in Asothar. There is a famous temple in Maihar dedicated to Sharda Devi, to whom Aalha and Udhal were deeply devoted. Hence, Maihar’s Aalha performances are very renowned.
Chhotelal believes that the folk form’s popularity has been waning in recent years, threatened by pop and contemporary music composed in urban India. His children are not quite interested in learning the folk form and instead choose to work as labourers and workers at construction sites. Chhotelal teaches two students in Fatehpur, but he laments that not many are as interested in Alha because of dwindling financial prospects. Outside of music as well, finding work has been difficult for Chhotelal. Outside of the harvest season, when work is plenty, he mostly just manages to meet his needs in most months. He hopes the government will come up with a solution to support the singers, especially the ones like him who come from a very poor background and rely on other work to support themselves.
Despite its declining popularity, Aalha captures the spirit of Bundelkhand. Chhotelal uses exaggerated body language and mannerisms to convey the emotions of the ballad, which are so unmistakably vivid that even someone unfamiliar with the language can comprehend them. Pride, valour, magnificence, and an unending sense of awe and allure for Bundelkhand are what the performance primarily intends to convey. It is a folk form that instils pride and duty towards the nation. Hence, Chhotelal wants to keep this tradition alive for the coming generations despite his difficulties at present.