I sat watching TV the other day catching the best parts of all interesting shows- read flipping through the channels, when my ears caught the rhythmic notes of a Rajasthani folk singer’s strong voice. He sat flanked by the musicians and another singer who provided continuity to the song when the lead fell away on a simple stage obviously of the TV studio. Having heard after a long spell, a ‘Bhopa’, the local name for the bard, I allowed myself a few more moments of richness as his voice cascaded easily from a normal to so high that it seemed to reach a low pitch and leave off abruptly to be taken over by his co-singer.
Bhopas are the traditional wandering minstrels of Rajasthan who narrate local folklores in their songs keeping alive the stories by verbally transmitting them from place to place. The Khar-tals (an ingeniously used palm sized flat wood pieces that are beat together in pairs) and the dholak (Indian drum) kept pace with the song and was soon joined by a small child who danced in perfect tune. Although their own families are the best keepers of such a mine of history and it is word of mouth how it still gets handed down to the successors. We of courses get a glimpse of such programmes through forums like the stage shows, films etc. A few moments turned close to ten minutes when the song got over and another performer got ready for her show.
The episode set me in flashback when India had just the one government owned channel ‘Doordarshan’ ruling the roost and we were fed quite patronisingly, and infinitely with a lot of ‘tasteful’ and ‘high standard’ programmes in the name of culture. That it led to the masses rebelling and running away from it is one part of the story. The major ones affected as it turns out, were the folk artistes like the bhopas and other stage performers who benefitted more from such patrons. In the olden days it was the kings and then the wealthy people who provided that necessary boost for the art to survive.
Imagine having to memorise one saga after another, with not a word turned here or there for the past hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, while epics like the Illiad, Odyssey, Beowulf and The song of Roland are restricted to the academic and literary circles, the oral epics of Rajasthan have traversed through huge tracts of time and managed to remain intact.
It’s a complete piece of history lifted as it is. Somewhere in my heart it gladdens me that our ancestors were witness to something, that we too are, sharing the same images and sounds as them. It’s like a moment of history captured and relived time and again. But with it comes a painful realisation that it is a dying art and hence the need to patronise it. The advent of computers, other and better job prospects and zero glamour of such art forms is keeping the de facto successors from taking up the grit and grime involved in this vocation.
I only hope we do not have to fall back on the old recordings of Doordarshan to be able to enjoy the sonorous and delightful sounds of the bards.