Veteran vocalist Chander Singh Rahi has a valuable treasure of folk music of Uttarakhand that deserves to be archived, writes Anjana Rajan

Although Uttarakhand came into being as a separate Indian state, carved out of Uttar Pradesh, in 2000, the culture of this Central Himalayan region and the affinity felt by its people, whom economic necessity has taken across the country and the world, have been recognised distinctly for much longer. For these people, Chander Singh Rahi, folk singer and researcher, is hardly less than a hero. With his repertoire of thousands of folk songs covering musical forms from Garhwal and Kumaon, the two divisions of the state, and his vast knowledge of folklore and mythology, besides the unique instruments and rhythms of the hill culture, he has been performing for half a century. Over All India Radio and select channels of Doordarshan, as well as through performances and lecture demonstrations, his music has struck a chord of pride in a community otherwise known for migration due to poverty, environmental degradation, and general economic backwardness. However, most among even these proud folks remain unaware of the richness of the cultural traditions Rahi has researched and today represents holistically, as one who can sing, play numerous rare instruments and explain the significance of each as well.

The melodious voice that brings an ache to the heart is only slightly less robust now that Rahi is 72-years-old. Recently he was felicitated at an event in New Delhi for having completed 50 years in his field.

Folk music is certainly the collective voice of a people, evolved over time like the course of the rivers and the changing topography. Uttarakhand’s folk music would surely fit into this definition. Aside from the ritual and religious forms, there are narrative ballads that relate historical events, besides songs that narrate the woes of separated lovers — the men earning a living in the unfriendly city while their womenfolk toil in the terraced fields. This description though, is only a tiny part of the material collected by the veteran vocalist over the years.

Speaking of the musical culture of Uttarakhand, he starts with sanskar geet. These songs mark the different stages of a person’s life. “Today people know only of the songs related to the vivah sanskar (marriage). But there are songs sung at the birth of a child, then at the choodakarm sanskar (when the child’s hair is first tonsured).” Among the songs sung during the wedding rituals, today’s urban Uttarakhandis would consider themselves highly cultured if they managed to sing a snatch or two during the ceremony when the bride or groom is given a ritual bath with turmeric and sandal paste. There are, though, some 12 or 13 types of songs sung at different points in the preparations for the marriage, says Rahi. For example, the yagna songs; those sung during the preparation of the vedi or wedding mandap; and songs about the couple.

Then there is Jaagar, which comes from the word jaagran and means ‘jaagrit karna’ or awakening. These songs invoke deities, he says. The list goes on. Pandavani, which relates to the Mahabharata epic, and ‘Khuder geet’ or songs of longing, exemplify two ends of a spectrum of human experience covered by the music of this region. There are also mela songs (associated with fairs) and those that accompany dances of the region, such as Thadiya, Chounfla and Jhaura, besides purely instrumental dance music that has no lyrics, he elaborates.

The tradition has been an oral one, he points out. “The people of the older generations were illiterate but they had so much literature stored in their memories.” Since later generations stopped taking interest in these arts, they began disappearing along with the practitioners. Today there are numerous tala patterns that hardly anyone knows how to play, and the instruments are going out of use. “You will reach the end of your life but you can’t know all these things.”

He is categorical in dismissing modern-day researchers in the field. “It is dishonesty to call yourself a researcher when you don’t know the music. How will you know the profundity (garima) of the geet unless you know its tune?”

Another reason to propagate these folk forms is to help preserve languages. “So many languages are dying through lack of use. I proposed to the Bhasha Sansthan in Dehradun to conduct a lecture demonstration, but they didn’t see my point. They said this is the job of the music department.” With the genuine literature going out of vogue, modern songs with “utpataang (ridiculous)” lyrics like “Babli tero mobile, wah bhai teri ismile” gain currency, he says ruefully.

Rahi, fondly described as the “Bhishma Pitamah of Uttarakhand folk music,” yet struggles to get an organisation to sponsor a lecture demonstration on a large scale in the Capital. He is also keen to have his collection recorded for posterity. Though broadcasting on AIR since 1963, he feels India’s national radio and television could create a proper archive.

“I have also written to the Sangeet Natak Akademi (regarding making archival recordings) that I have been doing this work for the last 50 years. The (former) Minister for Culture Selja Kumari also spoke to me about archiving. She said otherwise it will all die with me.”

This happened some four or five years ago, he says shaking his head. “I don’t know how these government agencies work.”

Spreading the good word

Chander Singh Rahi was initially trained in music by his father Dilbar Singh Negi. He then developed a passion for the folk music of his region and travelled to villages throughout Uttarakhand learning from traditional practitioners. He was closely associated with Comrade Kamla Ram Nautiyal, with whom he travelled “with a harmonium round the neck”, creating inspirational songs for the workers. His knowledge of classical music was honed by Keshav Anuragi and Acharya Bachan Singh. This training helped him correlate the ragas and talas as well as the unique musical features of the forms he was singing. Rahi has written monographs and composed music for ballets.