Bundelkhand folk artists find new hope in Lok Laya festivals

Ramjivan's parents worked as bonded labourers in Bharkhari village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district. When he was in class four, he was forced by his parents' employers to take their cattle for grazing. As he grew up, he spent his nights learning nautanki songs and Raawla dance, part of the folk tradition there. In a few years by sheer dedication and hard work he emerged as one of the most accomplished artists of the area famous for his tamboora singing and kabiri. Yet he continued to grapple with poverty and survival.

Naurangilal, born in a family of scavengers, experienced extreme forms of untouchability and other humiliation from early childhood in Bakurkhurd village of the same district. His father's traditional profession was to play various instruments at weddings. Naurangilal too soon became an accomplished player of the dafla.

What is common to both these folk artists is that they received an enthusiastic response at festivals of Bundelkhand folk art. Called Lok Laya (which literally means People and Rhythm), these are organised by the Samaj Seva Sansthan Trust (SSST) in collaboration with other organisations.

Gopalji, a social activist of the area, played a pioneering role in the celebration of folk arts and artists of the region. He established contact with unknown folk artists, collected books and documents on folk art and interacted with scholars working on this issue.

Gopalji found in the course of his efforts that accomplished folk artists were living in great economic difficulty. Families of several of them could not get two square meals a day and they had to toil as migrant workers to survive. In such a situation there was little incentive to hand over their skills to the next generation.

On the other hand, Gopalji came across cases of resilience and strength of folk arts and artists to survive heavy odds, thanks mainly to their integration with the social fabric of the villages. This effort was also being supported by people like Dr. Ram Bhajan in Hamirpur district who left his job to help the folk artists of Vinvaar and neighbouring villages in the revival of folk arts, Krishna Mohan Saxena and Vijay Srivastava who helped Nautanki artists in and around Banda district, scholars like Dr. Veena Srivastava, Dr. Madhu Shukla and Ayodhya Kumud who were helping to research and document important aspects of Bundelkhand's folk arts.

All these efforts helped to organise a series of Lok Laya festivals during 2006 and 2012 in Chitrakut and were well received. They helped generate a region-wide interest in the protection and strengthening of folk arts.

The latest Lok Laya organised last month had representations by occupational and caste-groups such as dhobis (washerfolk), kahars (water-providers), kumhars (potters) and kachis (vegetable growers) which were widely appreciated. Equally lively were the presentations of 'Rai' and 'Kolhai' folk arts by Kol tribal artists. A new generation of kol women have left behind the cruel legacy of bonded labour to emerge as panchayat leaders and in addition are very good folk artists.

The Lok Laya honoured Dr. Prabhakar Lakshman Gohadkar, musician of the Gwalior gharana. He explained how the protection of folk arts is of greatest importance as folk music is truly the source of classical music. Protection of folk art is also integral to the protection of social fabric of villages.