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.