A festival against indecency and vulgarity in folk art and music

Lok Rang has created an alternative space for Folk artists against indecency and vulgarity

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

(Samaj Weekly)- Fourteen years ago, when noted author and historian in the world of Hindi language Mr Subhash Chandra Kushwaha took an initiative to create an space for folk artists against the culture of indecency and vulgarity in the name of folk culture particularly in the Bhojpuri heartland, nobody ever assumed that the event would become hugely popular with the masses and ultimately turned into an International one, perhaps the most sought after in this rural hinterland in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. A nondescript village Jogiya, about five kilometres from Fazil Nagar town is now a place where lovers of folk art, music and dance wait to visit every year during the Lok Rang festivities. Over the years, Bhojpuri expatriates particularly those who belong to the families of indentured labour or what used to be called ‘Girmitiyas’, have found this event extremely important to perform which gives them a feeling of ‘speaking to the people of their motherland’.

Covid restrictions actually could not allow the Lok Rang event in 2020 and this year too with the second wave of the Covid it became difficult for many people to visit. In 2019, there were huge contingents of Bhojpuri diaspora artists who came from Surinam, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and other countries. This year, Kem Chan Lall came from Durban, South Africa whose great grandparents had migrated to South Africa in 1861 as indentured labourers to work in the big agricultural farms of the white colonisers. Kem Chan Lall is a Bhojpuri singer and extremely proud of it though he cannot read or write either Bhojpuri or Hindi language. The person who promoted Lok Rang among the Bhojpuri diaspora is Mr Raj Mohan whose parents were taken as indentured labourers to Suriname but this year due to restrictions he could not participate. Raj Mohan’s ‘Dui Mutti Anaz’ reflected the pain and anguish of the ‘girmitya’ majdoors which remained missing from the writings of most of the historians who were writing in favour of or against the colonisation process. Raj Mohan’s presence was missed heavily as people loved his music and performances.

This year’s Lok Rang was therefore organised under unprecedented circumstances on April 10th and 11th at village Jogia. Father of Shri Subhash Chandra Kushwaha is in a critical condition and is admitted in hospital in Gorakhpur but he remained committed to organising the event, keeping the pain and anguish in his heart. It was difficult as many of the guests could not make it due to restrictions. Many authors and writers were supposed to visit but they had to cancel their trip at the eleventh hour. The atmosphere as such that we all felt that the people might not join due to fear of Covid. Each one of the organisers who had worked hard tremendously felt so.

It is difficult to organise an event of this kind in a village where no infrastructure is available and for every small thing you have to depend on people from either Gorakhpur or Lucknow which are quite far. The Lok Rang team involving local people do everything to make the event successful. Every year, the artists of Sambhavana Kala Manch, led by Dr Raj Kumar Singh from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh reach village Jogiya, a few days ago, in advance and paint the entire village with their beautiful creations. It is the Sambhavna Team that paints the walls of the ground where Lok Rang is organised, they design the stage and display their wonderful sense of people’s paintings.

Lok Rang is nothing without the presence of Prof Dinesh Kushwaha, Head of the Department, Hindi Literature at Reeva University. He has been anchoring the show since the beginning and keeps people enthralled with his humorous comments and ‘ser-o-shayari’ and ‘poetry’. He too suffered from CoronaVirus last year and won the battle against it. Despite all the issues of restrictions, he made it to Jogiya, travelling by Car from Reeva, about 12-14 hours from here.

One of the highlights of Lok Rang’s events is the gathering of authors, activists, artists, social workers on the second day during the day time to discuss the ‘Crisis of ‘folk’ and folk literature’. Majority views emerged that Lok Sahitya or Folk Literature and Folk Culture must be ‘Bahujanised’. It is ironic that while folk represent the voices of the working masses of India denied dignity by the Varna system, today, it is the Brahmanical elite very cleverly defining what is ‘folk’. So in the name of ‘Lok’ we have ‘parlok’ and the glorification of mysticism and rituals injected by the Brahmanical class. Hence it is essential for those dedicated to folk culture and literature that they look at the monumental work of Jyotiba Phule, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and EVR Periyar. Perhaps, a beginning can be made by dramatizing ‘Gulamgiri’ and ‘Kisan ka Koda’ written by Jyoti Ba Phule in different local dialects and staged in front of the people to enlighten the communities and make think about the issues that they face and have been victimised in the name of culture.

Live performances from artists from Rajasthan are a big hit at the Lok Rang events. Ustad Arba Music and Dance Group led by Imamuddin Saheb gave superb performances. Most of the artists including dancers had performed live in India as well as abroad but in their own admission live performance at a rural crowd dedicated to folk art and culture has been their ‘best’ moment.

The Rai dance performance from Bundelkhand was ‘entertaining’. Frankly speaking, it is important to trace these kinds of art forms mostly performed by the Bahujan communities in India. Rai is the lifeline of Bediya community in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The Bediya community was looked down upon and was thoroughly marginalised because of this. The old feudal values of Bundelkhand where women are still in veils, Rai performers were meant to entertain the old monarchs and feudal lords because they were ‘adivasis’ or ‘Dalits’ and socially degraded. This is the supreme irony where people want to dance over these performances yet look down upon the communities who perform this. Bedia community was forced into prostitution and continuously faced discrimination not merely from the administration but also from society.

There is a similar reality to ‘Bahurupiyas’ who hail from Rajasthan and try to make us laugh by mocking at themselves or picking up some dialogue of a historical film or character. They are popular here at Lok Rang when they roam around the village during the day doing live performances of specific characters reminding us of their ‘beautiful’ traditions. They belong to Dalit community because they don’t get a certificate of being Scheduled Caste because they follow Islam. The conditions of the families belonging to Bahurupiya community is absolutely dismal and need special attention. How can the art flourish if the communities who carried it forward remain isolated, untouchables and vulnerable.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrADBRPC_wo)

Most of the folk art is preserved and inherited by the Bahujan communities. The ’Farwahi’ dance performance under the guidance of Shri Ram Vriksha Kushwaha of Kushinagar was simply superb. The ‘Biraha’ song performance by Shri Mangal Yadav and his team was brilliant. The performance of Bihu dance by Assam’s Natrang Cultural Association gave us a glimpse of nature’s relationship with the Assamese people.

Folks cannot and should not be merely glorification and celebration of the past as this has been used by the parochial right-wing forces. It needs reorientation and retracing of the history from Bahujan perspective so that the mischief produced in the name of folk to enslave us mentally can be exposed. Bihar’s ‘ Jan-Geet Parivartan Rang Mandali’ from Jeeradei, the birth place of India’s first president Babu Rajendra Prasad, really won the heart of all. They sang not only Kabir and Amir Khusrau but also portrayed the power of farmers and their movement. Folk cannot be just mysticism but it has to be the representative voices of India’s Bahujan masses.

Many friends’ questions as why the families of those belonging to India’s indentured labourers are deeply drenched into patriarchy and godliness. I have heard ‘revolutionary’ writers and speakers feeling uncomfortable when listening to the Bhajans or celebrations of the culture by the Girmitiya communities. We never understood their pain and agony. Those who felt British and other colonisers were their best friend because they were enemy’s enemy, should understand the history of indentured labourers which was not better than slavery even when the latter was abolished by the Western power. The Girmitiya community had a sense of ‘loss of inheritance’ and that is why they kept their culture and history alive in the form of folk songs. We can’t mock them because they sing bhajans but it is important that any community will fight back to preserve its culture even in the hardest form of adverse circumstances.

Kemchan Lal belonged to the Chamar community and he said this to me that Bhojpuri is looked down upon by the Indian diaspora in South Africa. His parents memorised Ramcharit Manas but told him that they were not allowed to do so and that they were ‘lower’ caste. Strange, a man growing in a country where people were fighting against apartheid could feel differentiated there. Of course, for him British were better than the current rulers who discriminate and don’t provide any opportunity.

The massive crowds that thronged the ground where Lok Rang was being organised showed that people will always appreciate those initiatives that reflect their feelings and where a person is seen as working for them and not lecturing them. Lok Rang gave voice to hundreds of cultural organisations who come here and display their art.

It is not merely song and dance but theatre is also a part of Lok Rang. Live performances by the theatre artists are hailed by the people. This year Azamgarh’s Sutradhar performed Boodhi kaki, the drama based on Munshi Premchand’s writing. We have seen the performances last year on ‘ Bade Bhaai Saheb’ by Prem Chand.

Lok Rang’s team and its main founder Shri Subhash Chandra Kushwaha need to be complimented for the extraordinary efforts that he has been making to preserve the folk art and culture as well as provide an alternative culture to those which are converting the folk dance and music into cheap and vulgar events. It is time our artists and cultural activists should join hands to protect the folk culture from these indecent forces who just chose the medium to capture the vast folk market. It is time to speak up and challenge those narratives being clandestinely placed by the hierarchical forces to strengthen their divisive casteist agenda. Folk has the power to demolish all the forces of parochialism and Brahmanical elitism but for that our artists, literary and cultural activists need to understand the work of Jyoti Ba Phule, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Periyar, Bhagat Singh, Rahul Sankrityayan and other revolutionaries such as Kabir, Nanak, Raidas, Tukaram and many others like them. One hopes that as Lok Rang grows, people will understand the importance of challenging those parochial narratives which celebrate the humiliation of the Bahujan masses. It is time to question these narratives and provide revolutionary cultural alternatives. Kudos to Lok Rang and its team for this wonderful initiative in hope that it will inspire the younger generation to look at the things from the Bahujan perspective so that folk really represent the socio-political as well as cultural concerns of the Bahujan masses which have been denied to them by India’s dishonest ‘intellectual’ class serving and protecting the interests of their own ‘jaatis’ and ‘class’