Voices of the people

A range of folk arts presented across Delhi this week brought to mind the place of these traditions in raising awareness.

Published - February 11, 2016 09:32 pm IST

'Seraikella Chhau'.

'Seraikella Chhau'.

In February, Delhi begins to reveal its most benign face. Flowers bloom, the breeze is neither too cold nor too hot, the sun is pleasant and the city resounds with music and dance. With the National School of Drama’s 21-day Bharat Rang Mahotsav (Bharangam) blazing through Mandi House, and performances taking place at other venues, one has had the occasion to compare and contrast a few of them, albeit at a personalised, individual level, without the advantage of the macro view of the researcher.

Shows of folk forms have been drawing enthusiastic crowds. Bharangam’s folk performance section offers the chance to see some regional theatre genres that don’t often take the Delhi stage. This week there was Uttar Pradesh’s Nautanki by the Braj Tarang group from Mathura, led by Chhajjan Singh. There was Katha Sankirtan by Maithili Lok Rang, led by Chandranath Choudhury from Madhubani in Bihar. Among others, there was also a Seraikella Chhau group from Guru Kedar Memorial Art Centre, Jharkhand.

Meanwhile, included in the Kathakar International Storytellers Festival — organised by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Nivesh — were Swaang of Western Uttar Pradesh and a puppet show by Puran Bhat and group, originally from Rajasthan.

And then, on a Sunday afternoon at the Press Club of India, at an event whose mood was very different but where the performance displayed all the verve and earthiness of folk traditions, Sheetal Sathe of Kabir Kala Manch performed folk songs in Marathi and Hindi to an enraptured crowd.

One could look at these performances, so distinct from each other in texture, appearance and skills employed, as just that: separate entities in the vast ocean of Indian performing arts. But we live in a networked world, and the arts are also part of a collective voice. Juxtaposing the performances against the backdrop of a society troubled and riven brings to mind the inherent nature of art as a mirror.

To say that folk arts can be used in a contemporary manner, expressing the prevailing views of the people, sometimes in opposition to the ruling classes, would be stating the obvious. Accepted as part of the great desi tradition of India’s region-specific arts as mentioned in the Natya Shastra and other treatises, these are arts of the people, with their roots in the topography, the climate and the day-to-day life of various regions. Therefore in their organic evolution we can trace historical events and social and cultural progression.

Yet in the themes chosen for presentation by most of these performers one found a common thread of mythology or legend rather than a reference to contemporary society, other than some light-hearted interactions with the audience.

While the Nautanki group performed “Amar Singh Rathore”, the Katha Sankirtan performers presented the wedding of Ram and Sita in “Janaki Parinay”. Interestingly, Puran Bhat and fellow puppeteers also presented their version of “Amar Singh Rathore”.

There can be no objection to repeating themes that have gained popularity, and artists are free to choose what they want to perform. However, one felt that two Government-funded institutions giving a platform to the story of Amar Singh Rathore, in which the vitriolic rant of Amar Singh’s enemy in court is peppered with objectionable phrases against a community before he is struck down by the valiant hero to save the honour of his fellow Rajputs, seemed not very appropriate in today’s communalised times.

Meanwhile, there was a markedly devotional approach in “Janaki Parinay”, even though the wedding was made interesting by being treated just like a ceremony at the home of a regular bride, where her family subject the groom and his family to all manner of practical jokes. After the curtain call, director Chandranath Choudhury distributed kheel (dried rice flakes), which are used in North Indian weddings, symbolising the bride’s severance from her old home and departure for the new one. He told the audience that this prasad, if consumed with faith, could cure one of epilepsy (mirgi). As the Vyas directing the proceedings, he had also spoken about the importance of kanyadaan in a wedding. Flowers were also distributed to the audience to shower the stage at appropriate junctures.

The sakhis, all played by male artists, had a rollicking good time making fun of the baraatis, while the bride kept her face down throughout, and the queen mother wept inconsolably during the kanyadaan. The one line spoken by her to her husband King Janak was once again revelatory of the conventionally accepted mindset. When no one is able to lift the great bow set for the contest at Sita’s swayamvara, the queen wonders worriedly if their darling daughter would have to remain a ‘kunwari’. It brought to mind that though liberties are gaily taken with Ram and Lakshman, the female characters are notably conformist.

The Seraikella Chhau performers too stuck to the conventional path. While dances like Mayur, Radha-Krishna and Har-Parbati are commonly seen, they also presented “Butterfly”. This is a composition designed in the 19th Century for a young prince who loved to dance. It is in this context that one wonders why innovations today are seen as departures from a tradition, when a creative tradition itself implies constant innovation.

In striking contrast was Sheetal Sathe’s performance. Among those who took the stage this week, Sheetal exemplified the approach of using the folk idiom to make a statement and inspire change in society. Sheetal is a folk singer who began singing while in school. Today known as an activist for the rights of the underprivileged, she reportedly became a performing artist for the best possible reason: because she loves singing. It was when she joined the Kabir Kala Manch, which began as an organisation working for communal amity in the aftermath of the Gujarat pogrom, that she gradually became aware of the possibility of using her art to raise awareness. Today she is a beacon for the Dalit community and all those who support the struggle against caste-based and class-based oppression. However, the artist in her is strong when she stresses that she sings for humanity rather than on behalf of any group.

Sheetal harks back to the sant tradition of Maharashtra, with its belief in equality. But at her recent performance, she sang a number of new works, including those written by poet Sachin Mali, her husband. Sheetal and the Kabir Kala Manch sing across Maharashtra and have only recently begun travelling outside their state. Sheetal’s songs inspire her listeners to break free from the shackles of unjust traditions and shake off the blanket of apathy that envelops the privileged classes. But it is not just the lyrics. Most of her songs were in Marathi, which a large part of the audience in the packed courtyard of the Press Club could not follow. It is their tunefulness, the fluty quality of her voice, the rousing rhythms of the percussions, the practised support from her chorus which come together to make artistic sense of the message her brief translations provide.

She sang, among other topics, of the pain of a mother whose son has been in jail for nearly three years, for reasons she is ignorant of. (Sheetal’s husband, Sachin Mali and other Kabir Kala Manch members, including Sheetal, were arrested on charges of alleged Maoist links, which they deny. Sheetal was let out on bail as she was about to give birth to her child, though others including Mali remain behind bars.)

Though the performance was billed as an introduction to the talent of these artists, and not a political event, Sheetal did mention that the reason they were arrested was unclear to say the least. How could those who sing for human rights be considered enemies of the state, she asked.

Her repertoire includes songs on Bhagat Singh and the slain rationalists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. Anand Patwardhan whose film “Jai Bhim Comrade” features Sheetal, introduced the artists. That film, made in 2011, won a National Award.

Would we call that irony? Or is it that one man’s art is another man’s anathema?

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