Distinctive, high-pitched singing of Chhaprahiya
With roots in Chhapra, Bihar, Chhaprahiya is a popular folk form in Eastern UP.
Chhapra is a town located in Bihar, near the border with Uttar Pradesh and is the heart of the Bhojpuri-speaking region of North India. Chhaprahiya is a folk form that derives its name from this town and is a very popular and well-liked genre in Eastern UP and Bihar, which is easily recognised by its distinctive high-pitched singing. Traditionally, the songs are sung by dancers who would also dance by swinging their hips, and this kind of performance soon became well-known across the Bhojpuri-speaking world. It is one of the many folk forms classified as ‘Purbi’, a loose classification of a variety of folk forms that are native to Eastern UP and are mainly in Bhojpuri.
The style of singing and dancing in Chhaprahiya is called mahini in Bihar, that is, singing in a very high pitch. This is usually performed to entertain the audience in weddings and other occasions and does not have any religious significance. Like many folk forms of the Hindi belt, the Chhaprahiya’s songs also base themselves on the stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Puranas. These stories are well-known and often narrated within families and serve as an effortless inspiration for the folk songs here.
Jittu Yadav hails from Deogaon in the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh and identifies primarily as a Birha Lokgeet singer. He belongs to the Yadav caste, and his ancestors sang Birha, Kajri, Chaiti, Chanaini, Chhaprahiya and many other folk forms of the Purvanchal region. Birha is a ballad that tells the story of heroic Yadavs, warriors or other noble people. He took inspiration from other musicians in his village as a child and started to learn to sing by himself. He fondly remembers his childhood when the dance groups from Darbhanga, Bihar, would come to his village and stay there for months. During that time, he would mostly be with those artists, and he learnt by closely observing them and interacting with them afterwards.
He started his music group in 1980 and has over thirty years of experience as a singer. He predominantly sings in his mother tongue, Bhojpuri, and his cultural background overlaps with that of Bihar. He performs at weddings and other gatherings in his district. Additionally, he has also travelled around the country to Mumbai, Kolkata and other cities to sing the folk songs of Purvanchal. He and his group have also performed in Kumbh Melas in various places. He proudly claims to have not missed a single Kumbh Mela in all these years.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit him hard, and he finds it difficult now to find shows and performances. He is also a farmer and teaches music to a few students in his village. He was also part of a project for the government, where he taught Chautaal to children in a school in Kanjhit village in Azamgarh in 2020. Despite his success in music, he hasn’t encouraged his children to take up music because it is a challenging career and requires a lot of practice and patience. His children instead work in the service sector in the city.
Surendra, another group member, agrees that it is difficult in Azamgarh to survive exclusively as a folk artist. Although he has been interested in music all his life and starting in his childhood, he never became a full-time artist and only pursued it as a hobby. His uncle was a Harmonium player, and he learnt music from him. Today, he is primarily a farmer, but he performs alongside Jittu Yadav in all his shows. He explains that although it is difficult to earn enough to sustain their families, it is not like folk artists are not in demand or are out of fashion. Folk artists are still integral in weddings, political rallies and other gatherings. Folk artists are commonly employed to catch the public’s attention and keep the show running until the actual event commences. He believes the problem is mainly that folk artists aren’t paid enough for their work. Also, finding work largely relies on your contacts and how well you are known, resulting in uncertainty regarding consistent employment.
Aside from Chhaprahiya and Birha, Jittu Yadav also sings many folk songs of his region which do not fit into any genre and are just known as Purbi folk songs. These songs are based on popular folk stories about the origin of the Yamuna River. Chhaprahiya also belongs to Purbi and is also known as Purbi Chhaprahiya. In weddings, it is performed as a jugalbandi between the bride’s family and the groom’s family, and it is typically performed all night to engage and entertain the guests.
Jittu Yadav is passionate about keeping the tradition of his community and his people alive but is also conflicted about letting his children follow in his footsteps. This is more or less a commonplace among many artists of the region as the economic prospects of being a folk artist are now fast dwindling. It is saddening to see them forced to take this step, and it is a matter of utmost concern that needs to be addressed so the folk traditions stay and the coming generations can also learn them.