Teejan Bai retraces her steps from a nondescript village and hostile surroundings to almost becoming a brand ambassador for her state

Teejan Bai. The name conjures up deprivation, struggle, folk traditions and achievement. And the rustic voice evokes the sights and smell of the rural and the real India. For the initiated, Teejan is an artist extraordinaire, a crusader of women's rights, and a resilient soul. In her own words, The the woman, who ended the male monopoly over the ancient folk tradition of Pandvani, however, says she is just a “kalakaar”. “Now, I am in the officer grade but I don't consider myself any officer. I am an artiste,” says Teejan over phone from Bhilai, where she works with the Bhilai Steel Plant. Having joined the Plant as a Class IV employee, after she got the Padma Shri in 1988, Teejan has gradually risen up the ranks.

Her journey as an artiste has taken her to many milestones — performances, awards, recognitions — but nothing to beat this one, she says. The folk singer, along with other artistes of the state, features in a short film titled “Jan Gan Man” made by the Chhattisgarh Government, which is mandated to play before every movie screening across Chhattisgarh. Flashback to sometime in the late ‘60s when a 12-year-old girl was punished by her own mother. She was dragged out of the house by her hair and left by the roadside, shivering in the cold. The little girl built a hut for herself and received borrowed food from people of other castes since her own Pardhi tribe members had disowned her. Her crime was that she had taken up Pandvani, a folk tradition of narrating stories from the Mahabharata through songs. Cut to 2011, when the little girl has transformed into Dr. Teejan Bai, a singer celebrated as much for her incredible talent and inimitable style as she is for breaking the norms. So, you are a brand ambassador, Teejan ji, you tell her, and she is again a picture of modesty. “Every award and honour on one side and this video on another. It's another feeling to be associated with your national anthem and your State. It can't be explained,” expresses the singer.

Firmly rooted

The days of struggle are clearly etched in her memory as if it were just yesterday. Nor has she forgotten the realities and the roots. “I know I am flying high, but I haven't forgotten the soil from which my flight has taken off. An artiste can't evolve if ‘me' becomes too important. He/she has to garner experiences, learn from it quietly and keep introspecting. I haven't forgotten my ‘jhopri' (hut) and that's why I am able to enjoy everything all the more. Those who criticised me have all gone and now I have only my admirers.”

The stories always fascinated her but the Mahabharata and the stories of the Pandavas, as presented in Pandvani, by the male professionals in her family was sheer magic. Soon armed with her guttural voice and energetic gestures, accompanied by six instrumentalists and holding a three-stringed tambura, she travelled from village to cities and countries performing the stories from the epic in the ‘kapalik shaili', which is steeped in tradition yet bears the distinct imprint of Teejan Bai. “I have never tried to change anything. I still perform it in a very traditional way and that's how I have been able to preserve it. The only thing is that a lot of people play the ektara and my tambura has three strings,” says the artiste, who crafts her own instrument.

Telling tales

The instrument plays an important role in her concerts, almost turning into a character, as she takes giant masculine steps on the stage flitting between various roles. “How the whole world comes into just one tambura is noteworthy. While the strings are the throne of Ma Saraswati, if you add peacock feathers to it, it comes to represent Lord Krishna, and it even assumes the role of Bhim's mace. At times, it becomes a bow and then a sword. It is my complete armour.”

Delving into details, she explains, “The oral tradition of Pandvani comprises everything from Adi Parva to Swargarohan Parva. So exhaustive it is that the 18 parva make up just the war in Kurukshetra. It takes three days to perform only the war and two months to perform it completely.” Of all the roles she plays, Bhima's is a clear favourite with Teejan. “A lot of kids come for my performances and I make it a point to enact the parv which has Bhima in it. I love the vira rasa that he evokes and the kids love him, too. But these days a lot of people ask me to perform the Draupadi cheer haran. Everything comes from our surroundings.”

Nurturing talent

As busy as she is performing in the country and the world, Teejan is also engaged in nurturing talent and producing disciples. But, strangely enough, her own children don't figure in that exhaustive list of 200 disciples. “It needs patience, grit and courage and not everybody has it. And I would want to teach it to those who have support from their families, otherwise it's so tough. I don't want them to go through what I did.”

ANTHEM CALL

1) The Chattisgarh Government has made a short film titled ‘Jan Gan Man' and it comes with the directive of being played before re every movie screening across Chhattisgarh.

2) Besides Teejan Bai, Amul Voice of India participant Zakir Hussain; SaReGaMa finalist Sumedha Karmahe; Padma Shri awardees J.M. Nelson, Alka Chandrakar; Chhattisgarhi film actors - Anuj Sharma, Satish Jain, Yogesh Agarwal and Kavita Vasnik; runners up of Indian Idol Season 1, -Amit Sana; Satyajit Dubey, lead of Shah Rukh Khan's production's “Always Kabhi Kabhi”; Ritu Verma, another renowned Pandvani singer; and Onkar Das Manikpuri, ‘Nattha' of “Peepli Live”.

3) The video has been shot at scenic locales such as Gangrel Dam, Chitrakoot Falls and Sirpur.