Tribals in western Madhya Pradesh have been signing life’s dignity and divinity in their devotional songs, which sometimes echo Kabir’s soulful call and Govind Maharaj's wakeup chant.
The spirit hasn't changed for the past 50 years, but, of course, the time has replaced the single-stringed ektara with the multi-stringed tambura, harmonium and dholak.
Just wait for the dusk to fall and listen to the tiny hamlets nestled amidst the rolling hillocks reverberate with devotional songs which seek better understanding of human life, soul and god.
Despite their socio-economic backwardness, tribals in this western Madhya Pradesh belt don’t ask for wealth from deities in their bhajans that are being sung for over a century. Instead, they seek God in his nirgun (attributeless) form.
"Unlike others, we don't ask for gold, house or long life. Our bhajans see human life as a water bubble whose existence is too short to ask for anything. Instead we sing how divinity shapes the world," said Kaliyabada village resident Balabhai Meda, a popular Bhili (dialect) bhajan singer in tribal-predominant Alirajpur and Jhabua district.
An example is Meda's most-liked number, "Jungle, janwar ne valkho re, ghadanewala ne valkho re," which asks listeners to look how God shaped forests, animals and rivers.
"Even if they invoke goddess Saraswati, it is to seek wisdom," said Shivganga Abhiyan (NGO) founder Mahesh Sharma who has been working among tribals for past 18 years.
The bhajans sung by other known Bhili singers Bucha Baveria, Peethu Maharaj and Janubhai Bhilwal have similar philosophical leanings.
Academic researches show influence of 15th century AD mystic saint Kabir’s poetry on tribals of western MP. His writings which travelled orally to different parts of country shaped their thoughts and music.
"That is why I am a kabir panthi bhajan singer," remarked Congress party leader and ex-Sondhwa janpad panchayat (Alirajpur district) president Shamsher Patel who belongs to Bhilala tribe.
Other influence has been Gujarat's Govind Maharaj who through his bhajans mobilised people to fight the British 150 years back. Another revered saint Mavji of Rajasthan also influenced tribals’ devotional leanings.
"Both are revered figures. We sing their bhajans," singer Balabhai Meda said.
However, tribals' devotional songs which they perform at public functions differ from ceremonial songs like those sung on weddings or during worship of their clan deity.