A growing body of folk music archives is foregrounding the voices of marginalised groups, from migrant workers and women labourers to homemakers and elephant-tamers

It’s the depth of winter and the river has receded. Buffalo herds walk the sandy shoals, their bells tinkling in time with their restlessness as they look for water. They have walked for miles: their fatigue shows in the way they stumble about on the desolate land.

This slow, two-minute shot takes us into In Search of Bidesia, a documentary about Mumbai-based director Simit Bhagat’s solo bike journey into parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in 2017 to record the tradition of Bhojpuri folk music centred on migration called bidesia that still thrives in these areas. The movie won the Best Ethnomusicology Award at the Royal Anthropological Film Festival held in Bristol, U.K., in April this year. Bidesia was praised as “the most outstanding film about music/ sound in the world”.

Watching the film, you realise it’s not an exaggeration. Bhagat focuses on five musicians, letting them sing, talk to the camera at their own pace, uninterrupted by rude cuts. The music they make seems to emerge from the unhurried earth, as much a part of it as the drone of bees or the chirp of crickets with which Bhagat fills up the silences between the human voices. The simple lyrics are all the more charming because we tend to associate Bhojpuri music with the raucous, risqué songs belted out by its film industry. The bidesia songs are about the everyday lives of people, the pains and sorrows of women left behind by their male partners, who have migrated to distant lands in search of work.

Hectic migration

As the seasons turn and he still doesn’t return, the ache intensifies: “Life sparks from a fire within/ My tears have set my eyes ablaze/ Meeting my lover is a distant dream/ My bones will rot before I see him again” (poetic translation by Avanti Basargekar, on The Bidesia Project website). The emotions are ancient — going back to love, Radha’s yearning for Krishna, or the soul’s craving for union with the supreme — as well as modern, given that we live in a world of hectic migration. As two of the poorest States, U.P. and Bihar have always been full of goings — to other districts within the same States, to other States, to the faraway pardes of the Caribbeans, whose sugar plantations were largely run on Indian labour in British times.

Bhojpuri singer Gopal Maurya (centre) and his group in a still from In Search of Bidesia

The British have left the colonies but the migration continues, with the displaced still walking the earth restlessly for an elusive assurance. Our big cities are built on the invisible labour of migrant workers: we notice them only when parochial groups demand to drive them out of their new homes. All this makes bidesia a living tradition — songs are added even today, with modifications to the central tropes. For instance, if the wife once wrote sorrowful letters to her husband in Trinidad, she now grows anxious over a missed call to Mumbai. However, with the original songs mostly handed down orally from generation to generation, and sung only by a handful of musicians these days, bidesia is fading, along with its Bhojpuri language.

Dying tradition

This is why documentaries like Bidesia are important: Bhagat says he set out all the way from Mumbai to record the dying tradition. The 92-year-old Saraswati Devi, whose ancient song sung by women grinding grain, is recorded in the film, is bedridden and can’t sing any more. Bhagat says, “The film is only a small part of a huge project of documenting the tradition.” His Mumbai-based organisation, The Bidesia Project, continues the effort, recording new songs, translating them, putting them in the public domain. What is recorded along with the songs is a way of life consisting of poetry responding to changing seasons, celebrations such as Holi or Ram Navami (for which there are sub-genres called Phagua geet and Chaiti), musical instruments such as the kartaal, jhal, manjira, dholak, which are slowly losing relevance.

Derrida wrote in Archive Fever (1995), “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratisation can always be measured by… access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation”. Which indicates why archives are essential: its importance to present-day India, where the long walk of the migrants last year was later sought to be erased by being denied, or the fear of losses when the National Archives in Delhi is uprooted, cannot be over-emphasised. Archives contain people’s history, giving us access to how ordinary folks lived, thought and felt. Without them we would have records only of kings and victors, who control dominant narratives. Archives connect a people to their past, mooring them to their stories and lands.

The Travelling Archive (TTA) was co-created by Bengali singer-writer Moushumi Bhowmik and sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar in 2011, based on their field recordings of songs and sounds of Bengal. Bengal, as imagined in TTA, is both a physical location and a space of the mind, geographically covering Bangladesh, West Bengal and adjoining areas of Assam as well as the Bengali diaspora in India and abroad. Bhowmik says, “The Travelling Archive is an ongoing project, because it is less a project and more a life lived. You will see uploads and updates on the website; we are working on it even as I speak. But the website does not reflect everything we do since it’s only possible to upload that much.” As with all such projects, funding is a persistent problem: while Bhagat’s Bidesia Project is funded entirely by him, the TTA depends on support from institutions and public donations. Bhowmik says, “The waters are rough and the boat is not always steady. But, most important, there is trust and care, which is quite beautiful.”

A singer herself, Bhowmik often sings of bichchhed — separation — and that is a dominant strain in the TTA songs, which talk of separation from home, longing for it, all the while examining the existential question — what is home. There are songs of buffalo-herders, elephant-tamers, tea-garden workers, songs of public festivals, domestic rituals, Sufi songs sung at majhars. Bhowmik says, “These songs are a record of the migration of labour, of the compulsions under which people have had to leave behind their homes, language and people, and travel to unknown places, perhaps never to return and never to belong.” The bichchhed stems not just from work-related migration but also from tumultuous political events like Partition.

The Travelling Archive recording the immersion songs of goddess Manasa during the festival of Manasa Puja in Sunamganj, Bangladesh.

The Travelling Archive recording the immersion songs of goddess Manasa during the festival of Manasa Puja in Sunamganj, Bangladesh.

In a recent programme for Bangladesh’s Baba Betar, an art radio project that also acts as a contemporary sound archive, Bhowmik talks of her experience of recording songs by musicians Sultana and Jadab Sarkar in Cachar, Assam, in August 2005. On a very rainy day, they sing a few maljoragaan, which traditionally consists of sessions running for hours. She says, “There are probably detention camps now in the places where we went. From 2005 to 2021, so much has changed — such fragile lives, such dangerous times…”

‘Savage tongue’

The tea-garden workers of Rajghat tea estate in Srimangal, in Bangladesh’s Sylhet, sing of a journey they made long ago. Bhowmik writes in the paper titled ‘Moving with the Song: Loss and Longing in the Migrations of Bengal’, included in TTA website: “…the singers, Ranjit and Tamseng, were not even sure where their original home was. Local people call them Uriya, perhaps their forefathers had come as indentured labour from somewhere in Orissa in the middle to late 20th century. Ironically, while these labourers have lost the name of their original homeland, their music has survived in the land of exile as a link to the past. They call their language jongli bhasha or savage tongue — a strange name by which to call one’s mother tongue.”

Bhowmik writes that some people who heard the music later recognised it as Nagpuri, from the Chhotonagpur belt. Is it a lost sibling of Bhojpuri? Interestingly, many of the separation songs are sung by men, but about women’s lives. Ranjit and Tamseng sing about a girl’s journey from her natal home to her husband’s house.

The Grindmill Songs Project (GSP), run by People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), is a collection of over 100,000 folk songs composed and sung solely by Maharashtrian women as they work the jate or stone grindmill. To offset the drudgery, they would sing and the songs became safe spaces where the women expressed themselves freely. With the coming of mechanised mills, grindstones are fading out of existence along with the songs they inspired. The GSP captures the songs before they die out.

Saving oral histories

Namita Waikar, Managing Editor, PARI, who heads the GSP, says, “These songs are part of an oral history that is being preserved. The women tell us about the relationships within a family, the interactions within the village community, the social identity of women, the politics of caste and gender in our patriarchal society, the teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar, about festivals and pilgrimages, about farming and so much more. We need to preserve this for our own understanding and for the generations after us to understand, learn, research and add their own stories.”

In an online talk in May, titled ‘The Travelling Lives of Songs,’ organised by Museum of Art and Photography in collaboration with Bengaluru’s Indian Music Experience Museum, Waikar spoke of how the GSP gives the women singers, who are often farmers, farm labourers or homemakers, visibility. Interestingly, the women sing of much more than separation, though that is also one of the themes. Gangubai Ambore, 56, of Tadkalas village, sings: “In the forest, in the woods, who is weeping? Listen! Bori-babhali [jujube and acacia trees] are the ‘women’ who listen to and console Sita” (from the GSP website). Gangubai is singing of the support lent by female friendship. Dispossessed of her property and forced to live in a temple, Gangubai is Sita too.

A folk musician in Rajasthan playing the ravanahatha, an ancient bowed, string instrument

A folk musician in Rajasthan playing the ravanahatha, an ancient bowed, string instrument
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

In happier songs, the women sing of another ‘friend’, Ambedkar. He is spoken of affectionately, as kin, a living god, a beacon who promised emancipation through education. There are over 2,400 songs on Ambedkar involving 51 performers in 31 villages across Maharashtra. Shahubai Kamble, now dead, who performed about 400 songs for the GSP team, was a midwife from Nandgaon village in Pune district. A Dalit Buddhist and a follower of Ambedkar, she sang: “Bhim arrived in a car that has a grill on the front bonnet/ A wonder that this diamond is born to his parents// Here comes Bhimrao, with tassels on his umbrella/ For ninety million people, he is standing at the frontier” (from the GSP website).

These songs of subaltern assertion live on, with the archive granting them new life. In ‘The Travelling Lives of Songs,’ Waikar speaks of how grandchildren have sometimes discovered their grandmothers’ talents after hearing the GSP songs. The tradition can live on if rural youth can be involved in recording these songs, meeting the singers, and writing new songs, says Waikar.

Priceless recordings

While it is true that we as a nation are notoriously forgetful of our past, archivists and field recordists have made remarkable progress in the last few decades. There are archives of folk and classical music all over the country, with institutions such as TAG Music Academy archives in Chennai, Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Academy, the Saptak Archives in Ahmedabad, Archive of North Indian Classical Music in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, Archive of Indian Music in Bengaluru, and, more recently, Google Arts & Culture, which have accumulated priceless recordings. The IME museum in Bengaluru, India’s first interactive music museum, has a huge collection of music and instruments. Its ‘Songs of the People’ gallery has folk music categorised thematically under various stages of the life cycle, from birth to death, including songs of work, celebration, heroes, and gods.

In Search of Bidesia is dedicated to singer-writer Mahendra Mishra (1886-1946), a doyen of Bhojpuri music, who was also a wrestler, scholar of Sanskrit, and freedom fighter. From Bihar’s Chhapra, he is known for his purbis, traditional tunes set to his own compositions, which are said to have seen sung by legendary vocalists like Kesarbai Kerkar, Vidyadhari Bai of Benaras, Dhela Bai of Gaya. The girmitiyas (indentured labourers) carried Mishra’s songs with them wherever they went — to faraway Fiji, Mauritius, Suriname, the Netherlands, Trinidad and British Guiana. Revolutionary plans were hatched in the musical soirées at his house, where Mishra and his brothers would print fake currency notes to weaken the British Indian economy.

His grandson, Ajay Mishra, 44, features in Bidesia. He has kept the musical tradition of his family alive and hopes to pass it on at least to the next generation. He and his uncles narrate Mahendra’s story with pride, describing how the krantikaris (revolutionaries) would visit the house with their faces hidden and go back with the fake notes under the cover of night. In what might be an apocryphal story, when Mahendra was arrested by the British in 1924, the tawaif singers of Calcutta and Benaras, who considered him their guru, are said to have sold their jewellery to secure his bail.

History records the lives of emperors, but subaltern heroes, the kings of the heart, such as Mahendra Mishra, are long forgotten. With his name, his story and song now preserved in Bidesia, there is reason to hope.