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.