A musical documentation of Bhikari Thakur, the Bhojpuri icon, brings him to the international platform

A Bhojpuri music album for Rs.195. Quite unusual, most would say, but singer Kalpana Patowary has clinched that deal with EMI/Virgin Records. The subject of her musical exploration — Bhikari Thakur — is unusual too, where not many have ventured. “My aim is to reach the classes, introduce Bhikari Thakur's work and legacy on an international platform, so it needed that kind of pricing. Bhojpuri music isn't just about double-meaning songs — even I have sung so many — and that's what I want to highlight through this work,” explains the artiste, who has also sung and produced the album.

Titled The Legacy of Bhikari Thakur, the album comprising nine tracks is out and has been launched in France and Mauritius and will be launched in London as well, according to the singer.

So, who was Bhikari Thakur and how did an Assamese artiste who has been singing Bhojpuri songs for over nine years come to a point where she could no longer ignore his work?

“For an average person of Bihar, Bhikari Thakur is the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri literature, who was born in 1887 in a village called Kutubpur responsible for creating a theatre form called Bidesia. Here and there a few of his songs have been used, but I would say people are still largely ignorant about his work. He had with his music and writing dared to talk about such issues, that too at that time. For instance, he has written about a woman in a village whose husband leaves the village to work in a but she still has physical desires, so she gets involved with another man and has a child. He was raising the issues of unemployment and migration at that time. I felt there was a need to raise awareness regarding his work.”

All the tracks on the album were written by Bhikari Thakur, and Kalpana, using minimal acoustics, tries to retain the original flavour. The album starts from ‘Bhikari parichay', an auto-biographical narrative rendered by Kalpana.

In one of the tracks, ‘Kalyug prem', Bhikari Thakur talks about the anguish of women whose husbands have taken to drinking. “Born into a family of barbers, he, like so many fellow natives, moved to Calcutta for work. There when he saw the difference between the social conditions of his village and Calcutta and came to learn of Raja Ram Mohan Roy's work in that direction, he was deeply affected.”

Surprisingly, the man who went on to pen songs questioning the redundant ways and customs of the society of those times was an unlettered man initially. “It was a baniya in Calcutta who taught him to read and write,” she adds.

He came back to his village a changed man and formed Bhikari Thakur Natak Mandali. He went around performing his plays with a view to raise awareness.

Kalpana was lucky to find a dancer from that troupe in his village. “Now 98, he helped me a lot. I documented him and then tried to authenticate and check the pronunciations and spellings in the book Bhikari Thakur Ratnavali by Rashtra Bhasha Parishad. There was hardly any material available on him in the market.”