The Legacy Of Bhikhari Thakur

Kalpana Potawary is a popular Bhojpuri singer, also having notable presence on Bangla and Assamese music landscape. Her latest album on legendary Bhojpuri cultural personality Bhikhari Thakur has been released by one of the top music labels in the world, Virgin Records / EMI Music, London. In this article, she is telling her journey in making this album. She can be contacted at contactmusicbox[at]gmail.com.

Kalpana Potawary

              Bhojpuri is a lokbhasha or folklore spoken in 14 nations all over the world and in major towns and cities of India.  It is widely spoken in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and some parts of Madhya Pradesh. This lokbhasha like any other is a document of society, civilization and culture. It is also a grand depositary of commonners’ feelings, such as happiness, sadness, etc. Currently, as an artist, I am trying to explore Bhojpuri artistic tradition and Bhikhari Thakur.

              Bhikari Thakur was a Bhojpuri playwright and poet, often termed as the ‘Shakespeare of Bhojpuri Literature’. Thakur was born in a barber-family on 18 December 1887 at Kutubpur (Diyara) Village in Saran District now in Bihar province. He is best known for the creation of the twentieth century theatre form ‘Bidesia’. Bhikari Thakur belonged to the barber community, a backward caste, who abandoned home and hearth to form a group of actors who dealt with issues of contestation: between the traditional and the modern, between urban and rural, between the haves and the have-nots and so on. Appreciative native Bhojpuri audiences consider Bhikari Thakur as the incomparable founder father, propagator and exponent par excellence of this form. He was a folk poet, a folk singer, a folk dancer and actor.

               In ninteenth century when Bhikhari Thakur was struggling to make ends meet, he was impressed and inspired by movements carried out then by famous Bengali social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ram Krishna Paramhans & Swami Viveka Nanda. This simple and poor young man, quiet impressed by Bengal’s ‘punarjagran andolan’, returned to his native place Qutubpur, and watched, noticed his society’s problems minutely and enriched and enlightened with ideas on every social level that can be seen and felt in his compositions. He took ‘the Renaissance spirit’ positively and decided to deliver it to the Bhojpuri society through songs, poems and drama.

After decades, I am humbly attempting to explore the person who was transformed from a poor barber into a Bhojpuri cultural institution musically.

Questions Central to My Project

              In this reigning global music scenario Bhojpuri music really stands high. While Bhojpuri literature still needs a solid grounding, its music is big enough to cause even political parties to seek mileage from it. But do we really know where its roots stand, where does it comes from?        

              First, if we talk about Bhojpuri music, we should know about Bhojpur, named after the famous philosopher king and polymath of medieval India Raja Bhoj. Where it is…? Mainly, three districts Ara, Chhapra of Bihar and Balia of Uttar Pradesh constitute today’s Bhojpur and the boli or language spoken in Bhojpur is actually Bhojpuri. It is a different matter that now even Avadhi, Banarsi, Maghai, Angika and even to some extent Maithli is also included as a part of Bhojpuri culture as people know it nationally. But the core of Bhopuri boli is actually limited to only Ara, Chhapra and Balia.

I believe that Bihar has not been explored musically. It is always the Uttar Pradesh side is considered as Bhojpuri. Even in Bollywood, it is always the Uttar Pradesh folk. My effort is to acquaint myself with the original Bhojpuri language music. When I put myself completely in Bhojpuri research work, my search stopped at two important persons, first, Bhikhari Thakur, and second, Mahendra Mishra. I chose Bhikhari Thakur. The legend’s life, the way he shaped the future of Bhojpuri music, the richness of his songs overwhelmed me to the core.

               Secondly, I am very much concerned about the inheritance of Bhikhari legacy to the next generation. We have to know the authenticity of Bhojpuri music in its original and raw form to present to the world especially to all those budding singers and artists. Today, if asked about Bhikhari Thakur, the current generation will simply satisfy themselves by saying he was the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri literature and……! And some might just sing a very polished version of Bidesia. Among the masses of Bihar and other Bhojpuri-speaking areas, he needs no introduction. But the so-called mainstream ‘culture’, like always, has conspired to keep mum about his immense contribution, actively avoiding, even mentioning his name and have full stopped him with giving the title of the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri Literature. Hence, there are no serious documented accounts of his works till now. Why so? There are organizations who are also trying to revive him. But practically, none could bring out ‘The Artist’ from the legend ‘Bhikhari Thakur’. Now here, I don’t want to take the credit, but yes I think I am blessed and the chosen one to think and document this project. It’s my turn to give something I can as a Bhojpuri artiste. I am trying to bring the original vibrancy and richness of the Bhikhari Thakur folk forms to the world at large so that people can experience the originality and richness of Bhojpuri music. I am hopeful that this project will generate a mass interest in Bhojpuri music in a genre like WORLD MUSIC category.  I believe that this is an endeavor with a cause.

On Research Methodology

                 My methodology is some kind of autobiographical. The whole journey, from realizing the utmost need to captivate the legend musically, to the completion of the whole audio – is my methodology. Being the protagonist of “the Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur” I want to share this blissful experience with all concerned. When I realized that I have to take the responsibility to revive Bhikhari musical zone, I was actually worried. As a Bhojpuri singer it was my burning desire, but there was no such musical documentation anywhere. From where to start!

            I visited to many remote areas in Bihar to gather knowledge about Bhikhari Thakur’s artistic practices. Then one fine day in a remote village called Bakhorapur in Ara, Bihar, I was about to experience a very sparkling moment of my life. I was there for a cultural show. Before my performance one very aged artiste, about 95 years old came and performed. His performance was so rustic, his voice, oh my god!! I gulped. I was thrilled to meet him as he was a nartak from the original Bhikhari Thakur mandali. I bowed and took blessings from him and the dream to make an audio on Bhikhari Thakur musical era was going to transform into reality. I have heard many artiste singing Bidesia, even in films. It was good but somehow for me it was a polished version. This old man had a completely different presentation. Then I returned back to Mumbai and got busy in completing professional commitments. But that desire was still living inside me. I tried to find Bhikhari Thakur on internet, but failed. Searched books about him but in vain. Then one fine day, a local Patna artiste came up with the ‘Bhikhari Thakur Rachnawali’ by Rashtrabhasha Parishad, Bihar. I was so happy to get it in my hands and started studying it, about the inner facts of the entire social, political and spiritual elements of the Bhikhari time zone. But again one challenge surfaced, where to get the original thekas (rhythm) and original compositions as sung the way Bhikhari Thakur used to. Again I had to visit Bakhorapur, meet that rustic nartak and request him to sing for me. He understood my intentions, agreed and the local villagers helped me to record the rustic nartak with his vadya mandali (musicians). Now I was ready with the documentation part. Second phase of this audio project was about to start in a professional music recording studio in Mumbai.

I chose nine tracks:

1.    Bhikhari Parichay – …….an autobiographical introduction about the legend.

2.    Dagaria Johat Na – a folk form called “Jatsaar”. Household village women share their feelings and sometimes even their secret desires while grinding the wheel.

3.    Babu ji – This was a way Bhikhari Thakur raised his voice against gruesome  social custom  “child marriage”.

4.    Ram Lila Gaan – A song joyfully describing Lord Rama’s royal wedding procession from Ayodhya to Janakpuri.

5.    Piyaari Sundari  – Here Bhikhari Thakur deals with the passion of a newlywed  couple forced to be separated because of our most socio economic issue UNEMPLOYMENT.

6.    Kalyug Prem – Kalyug prem, here refers to “wine”. According to Hindu mythology,several thousand years before it was foretold during Samudra Manthan that “wine” will be  most sought after in Kalyug. This song is a painful expression of the many leading ladies of our society who daily faces their addicted drunkard husbands and how after sometime this family falls apart.

7.    Lagania – Bhikhari thakur was mainly a Rambhakt. He considered goswami Tulsidas as his Guru and ‘Ramcharitmanas’ as his ‘aadhar grantha’. He used to get inspired by watching ramleela, raasleela and bengali yatra. He himself used to do ‘raamleela’, and considered it as a medium of ‘mukti’.

8.    Raas Lila – A play of asthetics or more broadly “Dance of Divine Love” –here Bhikhari Thakur depicts the Krishna Bhakti tradition, the rasa-lila is considered to be one of the highest and most esoteric of Krishna’s pastimes. In this tradition, romantic love between human beings in the material world is seen as merely a diminished, illusionary reflection of the soul’s original, ecstatic spiritual love for Krishna, God, in the spiritual world.

9.     Bidhata – This number also deals with a socio economic issue. Husband moves to distant places for employment, newlywed young wife left behind with burning physical desires and its outcome.

Now, with the helping hand of the Rachnawali, the script was ready in my hands. To keep the music simple and, of the legends time I chose to use a minimum acoustic instruments. Finally I was rendering my voice to the most esoteric singing moments of my career. I was very careful and particular while maintaining the raw Bhojpuria accent of Bhikhari Thakur’s time. Here I took inspiration from that respected aged nartak whom I recorded in Bakhorapur. At last the audio of the Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur is now complete! This desire to keep the legend alive and to introduce to the world the real Bhojpuri music, Bhikhari Thakur became my PASSION. This passion I am carrying can be taken to a different level with your support only.

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