There is a couplet in Aurahi-Hingana village that makes any member of the community chuckle. This village in northeast Bihar is the birth home of the celebrated Hindi author Phanishwarnath Renu. But the couplet is not his. It was composed, I am told, by the late Thithar Das Mandal, a farmer and an expert clown. When I met him in 2005, Thithar was in his 80s. He was one of the only remaining performers of bidapat nach , a Bihari song-and-drama tradition that presents the verses of the 15th century Maithili poet Vidyapati, interweaved with bawdy comedy and social commentary. The tradition has vanished today.
Or perhaps the couplet was composed by Thithar’s predecessor Yatvarin, whose clowning had made him famous in the 1940s. There is no way to know for sure —
Nunnu re babu re lal batuaa,
tor nani chuman kar ham natuaa.
(Little-sweet, bubba-sweet red umbiliclee,
Your granny kiss-kisses but the dancer is me.)
We cannot know who wrote the verse because, like most oral traditions of India, bidapat resists questions of authorship. Scholars, reporters and other outsiders ask about authors anyway. “Who wrote the clown’s part,” asks the hero of Renu’s famous 1956 Hindi novel Maila Anchal , which contains over 100 examples of folk song. The villagers find the question absurd: “He composes them himself while working in the fields!”
The oral-literary divide In an essay on the place of Indian folklore in the 21st century, Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi explored these questions of authorship, as well as the relationship between oral and literary tradition. Dr. Kalburgi argued that folk songs are vanishing because their ritual and agricultural contexts have also vanished. The task of documenting folklore, he argued, now rests with poets, playwrights, and novelists, even though the permanent nature of writing damages oral tradition. A folk song in performance is always reinvented. When it is written down, it becomes fixed. It is no longer a folk song.
Here I must pay my respects to Dr. Kalburgi and his ideas, and acknowledge that he was assassinated for his ideas on August 30, 2015. How I would have loved to speak with him and ask about Kannada oral tradition. I would have loved to discuss Renu’s writing, as well as the folklore of northeast Bihar that I have been documenting for the past 10 years. I would have suggested that Renu might be an exception to this oral-literary divide. Renu’s literary genius allowed him to perfectly represent his community’s folk songs. The songs in his writing are not fixed; they are true folk songs. This is what fascinated me about Renu and compelled me to visit his village.
I was a PhD student in Hindi literature, and I had just finished reading Maila Anchal while studying Hindi in Jaipur. I am a singer myself, with a background in western opera. Perhaps this is why Renu’s treatment of songs seized me. I had never encountered an author with anything comparable to Renu’s deep familiarity with a folk song tradition. I wondered: will the songs in Maila Anchal still be performed today? To find out, I boarded a train to Patna, then a bus to Purnea, then asked around until I found my way to Aurahi-Hingana village.
I arrived just in time to work with elderly performers who sang with Renu, and I have been returning every year since. I worked with the aged clown Thithar Das, and marvelled at his brilliant comedy. I recorded women of the village, including Renu’s sisters Manu Devi and Mahati Devi — expert singers of shiv-gauri, savan bhado, jat jattin , and other genres found in Renu’s writing. I played Holi and marvelled at how the political commentary of Independence-era Holi songs has adapted to the political scene in Bihar today. How can I describe how I felt when I first heard a song from Renu’s fiction performed live in the field? It was when the bidapat singer Ramprasad Mandal led a group of villagers in a barahmasa , which are sung while transplanting rice seedlings: “In the month of Phagun I must depart; I put on my yellow sari and take to the road...” Ramprasad had not read Maila Anchal . He knew the song because he was a farmer. He had sung these lines his whole life, and he remembered Renu singing them in the rain-soaked rice fields. Ramprasad brought Maila Anchal to life for me.
Ramprasad is no more. He died too young, in his 60s. He was a great teacher. Every time I visited his home or sat with him in the fields, he told me something new. For every question, he had a song in response. “Come back again,” he always said. “Bring your microphone, and I’ll explain something else.” I thought I had years more to work with him. Today I can’t listen to my recordings of his beautiful voice without grieving.
Nunnu re babu re ... I learned these lines from Renu’s grandson Nishantkar as we sat late at night in the mud-and-thatch hut at the front of the courtyard. He wrapped up a blanket, rocked it in his arms, and asked me to sing it to the baby that my wife and I were expecting. When I finally saw a bidapat performance, I learned it was a verse from Thithar’s bawdy clowning. That is why everyone laughed when they heard me sing it.
Performance and preservation If I could have spoken to Dr. Kalburgi, I would have told him how every instance of bidapat in Renu’s writing ends with the abandonment. Performers renounce bidapat in favour of the nirgun genre, in which the new bride’s journey to her sasural is understood as a metaphor for death. Performers in the village describe the same progression. How would Dr. Kalburgi have interpreted these thoughts on the inevitability of loss? Would he have revised his call for the need to preserve folklore? And how would he have interpreted this lullaby, in which the loss is reversed? An aged clown sings of a mother’s return to her birth home, where her baby is born and embraced, jokingly, by the maternal grandmother. This song is still a significant part of a community’s identity in this village in northeast Bihar, even though it belongs to a tradition that is no longer performed.
How wonderful that Renu provided a blueprint for Dr. Kalburgi’s vision. What forms will 21st-century Maila Anchals take?
(Ian Woolford is a lecturer in Hindi language and literature at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He is researching the life and work of Phanishwarnath Renu.)