Surrounded by Japanese royalty and cultural glitterati, Teejan Bai cut a dashing figure. Her tattooed arms were stacked with sparkling glass bangles almost to the elbows. A gash of sindoor in the parting of her plaited hair, long gold jhumkas and a blood red bindi completed her ensemble.
When she spoke, it was in a hoarse whisper, but the excitement made her sound surprisingly girlish. “Ever since I found out about this award, I’ve been so happy, I haven’t been able to sleep at night,” she said, to appreciative laugher from an audience unused to such guileless enthusiasm.
The 61-year-old folk artist from Chhattisgarh was in Japan to receive one of the country’s greatest honours, the Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize. It was the first time she had been formally recognised abroad and she was flabbergasted that anyone in Japan had heard of her or her art: Pandavani. A sung, partly improvised, narration of stories from the Mahabharata , Pandavani is rustic entertainment, popular in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh and neighbouring States.
And there is perhaps no greater exponent of it than Teejan, who was awarded a Padma Bhushan for her art in 2003. But the Fukuoka Prize is her first international recognition, and for the moment at least, she thinks it has trumped every other award that she has received in her long and storied career.
Japan is known as a country of esoteric passions, and Teejan’s three days of lectures and performances in the city of Fukuoka included introductions by, and discussions with, an array of academics and experts. At a civic forum at the Fukuoka Science Museum auditorium, one Japanese professor explained the geography and history of the Pardhi nomadic tribal group, to which Teejan belongs. Another delved into the intricacies of the Mahabharata , detailing her thesis on polyandry and Draupadi. It was a packed and attentive audience. Many took notes. Reservations for the event were fully booked almost a month ahead.
The story of Teejan’s personal journey is almost as compelling as her artistry. Born into an impoverished family that lived in a remote village, some 15 kilometres from the city of Bhilai, Teejan was the oldest of five children. As a girl, she was expected to stay at home and look after her siblings, but instead she wanted to sing. She described her frame of mind at the time as “ pagalpana ,” madness.
When Teejan’s mother caught her singing she would be beaten. “I was locked up and not given any food. Sometimes she (mother) would put her hands around my throat to try and choke the music out of it. But I didn’t stop.” The corners of Teejan’s kohl-rimmed eyes crinkled in pathos-tinged amusement. “What to do? I was meant to sing. I had no choice.”
Teejan learnt the art of Pandavani from her maternal grandfather, who also got many a tongue lashing for encouraging her. “My mother would say to him: ‘Can’t you find some other girl to teach?’” A girl performing on stage was the object of ridicule and abuse back then. “I’ve faced enough of both for many lifetimes,” the singer said, but her face was animated, as it always is when telling a good story.
Teejan was frail. Off stage, she had to use a wheelchair. But once a microphone was placed in front of her, she was transformed, effortlessly channelling the myriad characters of the Mahabharata . Her favourite, she said, was Bhima, for “his strength and his anger”. Performing the scene where Bhima kills the Kaurava prince Dushasana, she prowled across the stage; her language earthy and lyrical, her face agile.
The sole prop was a red tambura which in her hands became a character in its own right, morphing from Bhima’s mace to Krishna’s flute to an elephant’s trunk. Performance after performance, Teejan owned the room. But almost the moment she finished, she would collapse back into a chair, out of breath and suddenly brittle. “I’m old,” she gasped.
Copy my name
In her public appearances in Japan, Teejan was always introduced with the title ‘Doctor’. The singer has received honorary doctorates from a number of universities in India, including Raipur and Jabalpur. But she remains unlettered. The only thing she has ever written is her name, which she signed to received payments from the Bhilai Steel Plant, where she held a sinecure for three decades.
She showed off her arm. Amongst the traditional godna tattoos that are customary for women from her tribe, the name Teejan, in Devanagari, was also inscribed on her skin. “I used this tattoo to copy my name on to the payment receipts every month,” she explained.
The formal awards ceremony was witnessed by Japanese Prince, Akishino (the younger son of Emperor Hirohito), and his wife. Other scheduled appearances that Teejan made included visits to local schools.
Two years ago, the Fukuoka Art Prize had been awarded to another Indian musician, A.R. Rahman, who had rocked the city with renditions of his hit songs. After watching Teejan on stage at a school event one evening, a local government official leant over and whispered to me: “At first, I was disappointed that no one very famous was performing this year. But this was even better than ‘Jai Ho!’”
The writer is a globetrotter currently parked in Japan.