The typical nasal sing song vocal tradition is unique to the hilly regions of Himachal, Garhwal and Kumaon, and is slowly dying out, or getting diluted with the introduction of modern instruments. Basanti Bisht is a rare singer who understands the importance of maintaining the purity and authenticity of the tradition she has slowly nurtured. As she explained, women in her family were not permitted to sing; not even in the all night temple vigils, the “jagaran”.
Winner of the Padma Shri in 2017 for nurturing folk music in Uttarakhand, Basanti cuts a simple matronly figure. In Delhi to sing for IGNCA’s monthly folk music concert, “Sanjari”, Basanti was happy her music was being recorded for the IGNCA archives. Her journey in folk music is truly remarkable. Born in 1953 in a tiny village in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, married at the age of 12 to an artillery soldier, a housewife for the large part her life, this amazing lady started singing only in her thirties, and still later started the arduous task of digging out old folk lyrics and tunes from the older generation. Her journey is really an unbelievable tale.
“My village is at a height of 12000 feet, en route to Nanda Devi, Lavani, Pindar ghati. We had no electricity, the village school was about a mile away. I used to walk barefoot to school. My grandfather insisted that my mother who was married at the age of 9 also study with his sons, so she was partially educated too which was rare amongst women. Perhaps my inquisitive mind comes from her. I remember my parents paid the local teacher ₹1 a month for my education. I studied till the 5th class, then I got a scholarship to study further. But it was too difficult to reach the big school; there was no one to accompany me, so I could not study further.”
Her mother used to hear folk music in the temple at the all night sessions, and come back at night and remember what she heard and Basanti subconsciously it picked up too. “At the nine-day Nanda Devi festival, there used to be music all night. We did not sing openly at home, as it was not allowed so we used to sing outside, in the forest. After my marriage, at the age of 12, I got busy helping running the household, I had two mothers-in-law, a large joint family, several cows to look after.”
Her husband then got posted to Jullandar, and she remembers she heard Gokaran ji from Allahabad do Ram Katha in the temple and she loved it and sang too. “My husband heard me, and encouraged me to sing; and got the lyrics of the Ram bhajan from the temple for me. I was very keen to learn music at the Pracheen Kala Kendra in Jullandar, but I felt shy as I was an adult, and the other students were kids. Finally my daughter’s teacher started teaching me how to play the harmonium, but I still was very shy to sing in the open. Madam finally told me don’t waste time learning, if I cannot sing in public. She said, ‘music is something to share and you have a good voice.’ That gave me the impetus to sing in public. I started learning bhajans, film songs, etc. Everyone advised me to learn music to teach, get a degree. But I knew that was not for me. After my husband retired, we settled in Dehradun, and I joined the All India Radio station in 1996 in Najibabad. I slowly realised that my forte was my folk singing, not regular singing.”
Later she was nominated to be her village’s Pradhan, after her father-in-law who had been Pradhan for 36 years. “It was a huge honour, and it also gave me the opportunity to get re-connected with the village music. I realised this music was real, dealt with issues of life, also, of course, the Gods, and it was something to preserve. My training in music gave me the realisation what elements in our folk music were unique, I had knowledge of “laya”, I understood how the pieces we sang had a “sthayi” and “antara” even though we didn’t know that when we sang.” She travelled all around the region, collecting music from the higher regions, and writing them down to preserve them. “I remember the ‘Narsingh’ jagaran which I now sing, I had prised from an elder who is no longer alive. It deals with ‘Narsingh’ avatar who came to earth and wanted to live in Joshimath.”
Since her village was on the border, she was also exposed to Kumaoni music, and her repertoire is a combination of Kumaoni and Garhwali music. “I do think this a something unique I have done, to collate two folk traditions. Honours came my way, unasked for, God has been kind. Even the Madhya Pradesh government honoured mewith the Ahilya Devi Samman.”
Basanti feels she owe it to her region to present an authentic picture visually as well. “I always dress up in the typical costume of my area with the simple gold and silver jewellery – a big nose ring, necklaces, bangles, earrings. These traditions are dying out everywhere; I try to keep them alive, and insist my supporting singers to dress traditionally. I still recall how, years ago, in the village, my “chachi” (aunt), despite her age, used to always dress impeccably every day with new “weskits” (waistcoats) and full regalia of jewellery, even if she was at home.”
Today she sings an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening for a week before a concert. “Otherwise, I don’t have the breath. I am after all 65 now. My husband retired as a Naik Havaldar, but for me he is no less than a General! My son is a Wing Commander in the Air Force, my son-in-law is a Colonel. We hill folk believe in the sanctity of the Armed Forces. I now wish I had taught my music to my children, but when they were growing up I myself did not know how special it was.”