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Sunday, 8 November 2015

An equal music

  • music

It’s a story that regulars at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), the annual music festival held at the picturesque Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, love to narrate. It’s the story, going back some years, of a woman dressed in traditional Rajputi poshak — skirt and blouse, long scarf draped around the body and head — on the Zenana Courtyard stage. She had her veil pulled low down over her face and that’s where it remained throughout her performance, microphome drawn inside the veil. But any expectation the audience may have had of the performance reflecting her demure on-stage demeanour was completely belied when she began singing — such was the raw, stirring power of her voice.

Today, Bhanwari Devi is a star, her powerhouse vocals, so wonderfully evident in the song Kattey that Bollywood and indie music director Ram Sampath had her sing in Coke Studio some years ago, feted by one and all. She’s travelled the country and world, most notably to the Edinburgh International Festival where she was invited to sing. Even the face, so completely covered earlier, is more visible, the veil raised to the forehead instead of being pulled down to the chest!
Bhanwari Devi’s story, the name she’s made for herself is testimony to the talent of Rajasthani folk musicians, to how (thanks in large part to RIFF) their music has found wide appeal around the globe, transcending geography, language and taste. Her journey is akin to that of many other Rajasthani folk musicians who’ve played at festivals all over the world and collaborated with highly regarded musicians from diverse folk and mainstream traditions. Many of them are globetrotters with fat passports running into several books!
But Bhanwari Devi is also an exception — she’s the only one among them who’s a woman. In a conservative society like Rajasthan, especially among these poor, rural and marginalised musical communities, where child marriage remains common, where girls’ education is given low priority and they have little say in their life decisions, women performers are rare. Bhanwari Devi too was married in her early teens and has nine children — she’s accompanied in all her performances by her elder son, who also interacts mostly with the media on her behalf.
But then Bhanwari Devi is a Bhopi, from the Bhopa-Bhopi community, the only one of the state’s many musician communities where women perform in public. Unlike the better-known Manganiyars or Langas who sing in praise of a jajman or patron — traditionally, a member of royalty or a rich land-owner — the music of the Bhopa-Bhopis has a ritual, liturgical function. The Bhopa-Bhopi repertoire, called Pabuji ka Phad, is an oral epic, sung in front of a phad or painted scroll that celebrates the exploits of Pabuji, a folk deity/war hero, and is narrated to ward off evils or illness, and bring good fortune. It’s a “performance” by a male-female — husband and wife — pair, where the male Bhopa provides the melodic accompaniment on the ravanhatta and cavorts rhythmically in ghungroos, while the veiled Bhopi stands rigidly next to him, singing. To look at a Pabuji ka Phad performance, it seems the Bhopa is in the lead, initiating the performance and pointing with a stick to the “phad”. But, as scholars and folklorists, who’ve studied the Pabuji tradition, have noted, it’s the Bhopi who dominates — she sings the bulk of the epic, and even “designs and moulds the narrative through her vocal power and emotional force”, to quote Elizabeth Wickett’s monograph published by Cambridge University’s World Oral Literature Project.
Contrast this with the Langas and Manganiyars, where the womenfolk are not allowed to perform in public, or before a male audience. It’s not that they don’t or can’t sing — the Langa-Manganiyar’s traditional performative practices had an important role for the women who would sing indoors, for the women of the jajman’s family, while the men held forth outdoors. What the proscription on public singing has done is to effectively exclude women from the tourist, or festival-concert circuit, where the males are increasingly finding an audience and a livelihood, given the decline in their traditional modes of patronage. Ironically, many of the male musicians acknowledge that it is from their mothers that they first heard and learnt the traditional songs that form their hereditary repertoire, that it is they who trained their ears in sur-taal.

But the wings of change are blowing. And the woman credited with setting them off was a polio-afflicted, physically challenged singer called Rukma Bai Manganiyar who died some years ago, from lack of access to health care, according to her sister Akla who used to accompany her and has now begun performing with a few other Manganiyar women. Rukma, says Akla, was a fighter. Faced with stiff opposition from her family, in-laws and the community, and abandoned because of her affliction, she began singing devotional songs in temples, which brought her to the attention of outsiders, and set her off on the path to fame and acclaim. This is a story that’s near identical to what every one of the handful of women performers who sing regularly today at concerts in RIFF and elsewhere will tell you — Dariya Manganiyar, for instance, who’s now a widow with grown sons and has battled a lifetime of opposition, or Sumitra Devi, a jaagran singer, one of the few who was supported by the men of her immediate family, her father and now her husband, though the “samaaj” all but ostracised her.
But the demands of the professional concert stage are very different from those of the folk musicians’ traditional patrons. It requires a degree of preparedness — of training and practice, even among a community that claims an inborn heritage and spontaneous talent — that passes the test of microphones and expensive acoustic systems that pick up and amplify even the smallest of off-notes. Akla, Dariya and the other female Manganiyar singers who now are making it to concerts and claiming their share of the acclaim that’s been hogged thus far by their menfolk have a long way to go here, to smoothen out the rough edges of their talent. But will their society allow them the space and time for it ?
The author is features editor at DNA 

Source : DNA , 6th Nov 2015

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