Music was central to Gandhi’s philosophy. In 2017, to commemorate 100 years of the Champaran Satyagraha (1917), Chandan Tiwari, an independent folk artist from Bihar, collated Gandhi Geet from the folk songs of her State. Former journalist and scholar Nirala Bidesia, who worked with Chandan to source and document these songs, recalls, “They aroused emotions even 100 years later. Many others came up with songs, which had been lost and forgotten, and we added them too.”
Chandan, composer and singer, calls her repertoire, ‘Purbiyataan’, or folk songs of the East. Born in Bihar’s Badaka village, she says, “We realised that Gandhi had left a deep impact on the culture of Bihar and it is reflected in the songs.” Chandan and Nirala have sourced folk songs that belong to the category of ‘desh geet’ for Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav on August 15. “From 1857 to 1947, folk songs took on the colour of resistance to colonial rule. Shaadi ke geet (wedding songs); sohar (sung when a child is born); chaiti, kajri, hori (songs of the season); ropni (performed during sowing paddy); katni geet (performed during the harvesting season)... all began to reflect the freedom struggle,” says Nirala.
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In one song, Gandhi is portrayed as both groom and brother-in-law, who will bring swaraj as the bride price: Gandhi baba banle dhulhawa, dulhin bani sarkar... /Haithin vilayati, binthi kare saab, jija gaone mei debo swaraj, charka chaalu rahe. ( Gandhi is the bridegroom, the ruler is the bride. The officer says he will give freedom with the farewell of the bride, keep spinning the charkha.)
It is well known that when Gandhiji arrived in Benaras, he met the most famous courtesan of the city, Vidyadhari Bai, and requested her to organise funds for the freedom movement through her art, music and dance. Thus was founded the Akhil Bharatiya Tawaif Sangh in 1920. Similarly in Kolkata, Gandhi met the well-known courtesan Gauhar Jaan and asked her to raise money for the freedom struggle.
“Gandhiji gave a clarion call to the women of Bihar to join the freedom struggle. There are many songs related to this,” says Nirala, citing a song in Bajjika, a dialect spoken in Eastern Bihar and Nepal. Saiya bulki debai, nathiya debai, haar debai naa; aapne desh ke sankat ke ubaar debai na. (Beloved, I will give my nosepin and necklace/I will give everything to draw my country out of crisis)
Songs for sepoys
A composition by Rasool Mian (1872-1952), a follower of Gandhi and the father of Bhojpuri folk, roused the sepoys in the British army to quit their jobs and join the Independence movement, for which he was arrested. The song was: Kaab le gorki ke karab ghulami balma/ Chhod de ekar tu dihal salami balma. (Till when will you serve a foreign queen, beloved? Quit and stop saluting her, beloved.)
Rasool Mian also composed a song on the assassination of Gandhi: Ke hamra Gandhi kei goli maral ho, dhamadhum teen go/ Gandhi baba jaat rahal Birla Bhavan mei/ Dushman khad rahe paap lei kei mun mei. (Who shot my Gandhi with three bullets? He was on his way to Birla Bhavan where the enemy stood with a heart filled with sin.)
Nirala and Tiwari also ferreted out old and forgotten songs from the works of legendary Bhojpuri writers such as Mahendra Misr and Master Aziz. Nirala, who explains the context and meaning of the songs at Chandan’s concerts, says the collection has grown because of the response from people everywhere.
“This project is a way of telling the story of our freedom struggle through Bihari folk music,” says Chandan. Choosing folk music was a significant decision for her, as she wanted her music to resonate with the sentiments of the people of the land. Chandan, who began her career singing on TV shows, has won many awards, including Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. She can sing in several Bihari dialects, including Bhojpuri, Maithili, Maghi, Awadhi, Nagpuri, Angika and Bajjika, as well as in Hindi and Hindvi.
For her current project, she has collected more than 35 songs and sought the blessings of three Gandhians from Bihar — Sachidanand Singh in Muzaffarpur, Ghanshyam Shukla in Siwan, and Krishna Bihari Mishra, who now lives in Kolkata. She is also exploring the possibility of taking these songs to schools and colleges, either physically or through digital renditions that she is happy to share with anyone interested.