Pandavani in Paris

BRAVEHEART Teejan Bai: `If I hadn't faced fierce opposition, I may not have pursued Pandavani with such passion' PHOTO: K. GOPINATHAN  

The first 10 minutes of my interview with Teejan Bai, I just sit admiring the tonal variations of her yawns. A plane "Aaa... ", a staccato "Ha... ha... ha", one accompanied by a long-drawn "Hey, Radhe Shyam... " As the prima donna of the folk tradition of Pandavani singing stretches and bends her body in keeping with the rhythm of her yawns — in a manner few women would dare do when someone's watching — my prying eyes note her orange sari, maroon blouse, pan-stained teeth, bright pink lipstick, thick silver anklets and nail polish in a shade of purple I have never seen before.

Then she summons her nephew, a young lad in a red T-shirt with "Ferrari" written on it in every conceivable direction, to make a paan for her. As she manoeuvres the Calcutta paan in a corner of her mouth, a different personality seems to take over Teejan. With extra helpings of chunha in between, she begins to tell the tale of her life, just as she would narrate the battle of Kurukshetra in one of her charged performances.

"I can remember exactly how my mother dragged me out of the house by my hair and left me on the other side of the road," says Teejan. "She forbade me from crossing the road and nobody from my caste was allowed to help me." All because she was doing the sacrilegious: a woman singing Pandavani, the Chattisgarhi folk tradition of narrating stories from the Mahabharata through songs and prose narratives.

She continues, with dramatic gestures, bringing alive the scene before my eyes: "I lay there by the road, a girl of 12, shivering in the cold, with no food, nothing to cover myself with... " She then built for herself a little hut and borrowed a handi from one household and a bit of rice from another of other castes, since her own Pardhi tribe of nomadic, landless workers had decided she didn't belong with them. Another blasphemy was that she was already married, but had never gone to the husband's house. "They wanted a bride who cooks, not one who sings."

"I feel scared when I think of those days now. But at that point of time, I was firm as a rock and nothing could persuade me to stop singing. In fact, if I hadn't faced such fierce opposition, I may not have pursued the art with such passion!" Come what may, she wasn't going to stop singing Pandavani, which her mother's uncle had initiated her into. Those were days when "verses came to her in her dreams" and entire scenes of the epic "appeared before her when she closed her eyes". She looks up and sighs: "Kasht hamne nahin jhele, Krishna prabhu ne jhele!"

Her first performance was at 13 in her neighbouring village. Her popularity slowly grew and so did her repertoire. Now, she has enough stories to tell for two months without a break, all from memory. She has never written down or recorded a single word. "Jab dil aur dimag me likha hota hai, record ki kya zaroorat?"

Teejan reached national and international platforms after her talent was recognised by theatre stalwart Habib Tanvir. She went on to win big recognitions, including the Padmashree. Teejan is now employed with the Bhilai Steel Plant. "I can't read or write. So I just put my angootha and come back." Married and separated many times, she now lives with her fifth husband ("He is from another caste."). Teejan has students all over, including a good number in France. There is a special glow in her eyes as she begins to describe the beauty of the Parisian evenings, lifting her head up slightly so that the juice of the paan doesn't dribble down. "Paris ki shyam ki kuch alag hi rang hain... "

After the whole world has recognised her, her own village too has. "You see, those early days I was the daughter of my family. Then I came to be daughter of the entire Chattisgarh, then the entire country and now the entire world!" Tossing another tiny ball of chunha into her mouth, she adds: "Tell me, who were the people who troubled Draupadi the most? Her own family!"

She can identify with Draupadi and her travails, but the character in the Mahabharata closest to her heart is Bhima. That evening, at her performance at the National College grounds as part of the Mahabharat Utsav, there is an added energy as she narrates the battle between Bhima and Dushyasana. Teejan's androgynous voice fills the huge pandal, as the raagi (a male artiste accompanying her), utters comic-feminine "Ha... haa... "s every now and then. The tanpura, adorned with feathers in multiple colours, becomes a gadha as the battle grows fierce and Dushyasana is felled. Bhima summons Draupadi to the battlefield — "Everyone made way, saying `ladies first'," raagi interjects — and bathes her hair in Dushyasana's blood as revenge for the vasthrapaharana. Krishna declares that Bhima is indeed the true husband for standing by Draupadi all along.

I wonder if it is this feminist streak in Bhima that endears him to Teejan. But Teejan has her own take: "Lady jo hoon, gents ka role accha lagega hi!"