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Travel Experiences of "Beat of India"
This article has been published by "Songlines"


Songlines Winter 2001
The humid heat of an Indian July is often worse than the dry peaking temperatures of May and June. It was in this terrible, sultry weather that we set out from the holy city of Varanasi towards a small village called Mardah. We were looking for an old man called Babunandan 'Dhobi'. Babunandan is his name and 'Dhobi', meaning washer-man, his caste, but rather than adopting the profession of his community, Babunandan has spent his life practising music.

After much asking for directions and going round in circles, we finally found our way on a mud road to a field. There were a couple of cows indolently chewing the cud, and Babunandan inside a little hut, fast asleep. Waking him took several attempts because he was very hard of hearing and when he finally woke up he was as shocked as if aliens had invaded his hut. The more we tried to explain to him who we were and what we wanted, the more bewildered he got, because in more than fifty years of his life as an artiste, this was the first time somebody from a city had come looking for him.

As a sign of respect, he insisted on covering his Khaat  (small bamboo bed) with a blanket for us to sit on and it took great effort to convince him that though we appreciated his gesture - five people inside the tiny hut with a warm blanket below would be like sitting in a furnace.Finally he agreed to let us sit outside, minus the blanket, and began to sing for us the real dhobiya (washerman’s) songs that had been sung by his community for generations.

For a seventy six year old man, Babunandan was filled with boundless energy. His songs were simple, like one describing the love between a husband and wife, but he enacted their settings, laughed, cried and enthralled us. He showed us how the washer-men's songs get their rhythm from the cloth hitting the stone and the splash of water.

Lyrics of Babunandan's song

I beg of you dear husband
let me go for four days to my mother's home...

But dear wife, the rivers and streams are all in flood
how will you go now

I will make a boat of mango branches
and row it across the river

But dear wife, if you go
How will I live without you?

We had found Babunandan, and in him one small part of the folk music treasure that is scattered across the landscape of rural India.

At the beginning of our search for folk music and musicians, I had often asked myself "What is folk music?" I was now finding some answers. It is the music that is inseparable from people's daily lives, which they sing to ease the burden of work, to share their joy and sorrow, or even to mourn death. And though language and dialect may vary from region to region - the essence of the songs is the same and relevant to all human beings from any corner of this earth.

Our search for folk music was part of an idea conceived by four of us, friends, to create a movement popularising the folk music of India. We decided to start with recording music from rural areas and then make it available to people across the world - thus the search for Babunandan and others like him.

The first hurdle was the sheer lack of information. Even Government bodies whose brief included the 'preservation of traditional arts' were not helpful. They either did not have information or were too disorganised to access it. But we discovered that the regional stations of All India Radio, the national network, had done extensive work over the years in not just the popular film music field but also folk music. Some of their officers, who had interacted with artistes over the years, were the best databases one could find. They knew each artiste and what he or she had to offer, but finding them was a challenge. What we would get for an address was just the name of a village. There are many villages with similar names and people helpfully giving us directions would often send us one hundred and eighty degrees off the mark. Within the village too, it was very difficult to find someone with just a name, but surprisingly, it was possible.

We travelled hundreds of kilometres on roads which seemed to exist only on maps and we invoked the wrath of taxi drivers, sometimes because of the bad roads and other times because it led to a village of the ‘lowest caste', and just entering it might destroy his 'higher caste' status for ever.

Despite all this we found a lot of artistes and were welcomed with open arms. The warmth was largely because hospitality is at the core of Indian culture but also because the artistes were flattered by the fact that somebody had come looking. The one case out of ten where we were looked at with suspicion was usually because the artiste had been exploited by a cassette company, who had recorded with the promise of a fat royalty but hadn't delivered.

Two of the most difficult musicians to find were Anandi Devi and Santram, a middle-aged couple.
Although they had been recognised by All India Radio in yesteryears, they now live a hand to mouth existence in a dark and dingy room approximately ten feet by ten in a Dhoulchina village, tucked away in the hills of Uttar Pradesh. Santram is blind in both eyes, Anandi in one, and they survive on the alms collected by singing at a bus stop. Language was a big barrier and when our local colleague translated what we wanted, they were overjoyed. Santram took out his most valuable possession - his hudka, a little hourglass drum, and sang for us. The next morning when we set up our mikes and started recording, they stopped after every song to make sure that this was what we wanted. It certainly was... they sang together, with just the hudka for accompaniment and their voices had the kind of sweetness and expertise one doesn't find even in trained classical musicians.

Once the performance was over, we wanted to pay them what we had set aside in our budget, but they refused. After much coaxing they took it, and when Anandi counted it and told her husband, we could see that they were moved, even though it was not a large amount.

The story was not the same with all the artistes though; there were also those who negotiated hard with us before agreeing to sing. This, to my mind, was not so much a reflection of the 'commercial sense' of the artiste, as a fear of exploitation at the hands of  'city' people.

We travelled up to the border of Nepal to find eighty six year old Jhusia Damai. The man can rightfully be called a legend, though not many know him outside his village apart from a couple of academics. In a booming voice, he sings and dances history and his two wives and son accompany him. His songs are tales of the kings and warriors of the region, and this oral history tradition might well end with him because nobody has learnt it. His son may not carry it on after Jhusia's death; his reasons are valid - today, there is simply not enough money to be made from this as a profession.

Armed with a large number of incredible and fascinating recordings, we embarked on the next step, making this music available to a larger set of people and finding some way to sustain it before it disappears with this generation of artistes who are mostly in their seventies.

The World Wide Web seemed a good place to start, because it is the easiest way to provide global access, and listening to music on the web is getting more and more popular. So began the website, Beat of India.com, on which we put up all the music and video clips along with lots of other information.

To our pleasant surprise, we’ve discovered that even in this age of global pop music there is a wide variety of interested people - non resident Indians who want to keep in touch with their roots, foreigners, looking for a deeper understanding of Indian culture and of course Indians, whose lives this music is, or at least was, a part of.

There are takers, but for a popularisation or a revival in the true sense of the term, the movement has to grow from the bottom. Artistes must find a space to perform in their own spheres and the base of listeners must grow exponentially. The government, which used to play a role in this, stopped many years ago for reasons of its own and if the music is to survive, it will have to find its own feet again. There are no clear-cut routes to that, but the search is on, and I am happy to be a part of it.

I would like to see the dream of one of the artistes we met fulfilled. He said to me, "Sister, I will sing for you when and where you want. I only want my name to be counted in the world of 'voices'!"

Who can go with you O parrot
Who can go with you...

The day you come to this world 
Is a day of celebration
And the day you go
Is a day of mourning
Your friends and family cry
But who can go with you O parrot
Who can go with you...

Your mother beats her chest and cries
Your brothers hold you 
Your wife, she breaks her bangles
And loses her mind with sorrow
But who can go with you...

n.b.- Parrot is often used as a metaphor for the soul in Indian poetry.




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