So much of our musical tradition is in folk songs, yet so little is available on the shelves. Music labels are still busy milking the Sufis of Punjab, the Langas and Manganiyars of Rajasthan and the Bauls of Bengal.
But hardly anyone has turned his ears elsewhere. It’s the biggest and the most shameful gap in a century of music publishing in India.
There’s possibly just one exception to the dismal trend: Beat of India, a Delhi-based for-profit company started by Shefali Bhushan and a few friends in 2000.
Over the next six years, Bhushan trawled Middle India in search of folk musicians and recorded them in situ. Was there a method in going about it? “There could be no method to the madness because there is simply no resource for such information. The best help we got was from programme officers at some of the local All India Radio stations,” says Bhushan.
The project began as a website — beatofindia.com — where entire recordings could be heard for free. Then came a few CDs that were distributed not so professionally, “through friends”. The hope was that sponsors would come forward. But this being India, nothing of that sort happened. In order to sustain Bhushan struck a distribution deal with Frankfinn five years ago. There are 10 CDs in all, some of which can be spotted at the back of racks placed usually in an unlit corner and marked ‘Folk’.
Most of the music is from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab. Why nothing of the large repertories from the south or the northeast? Bhushan blames it on the lack of time and resources, but promises it’s on her rather long wishlist.
In ‘He priye’, a collection of Awadhi and Bhojpuri love songs, many of the tunes and accompaniments are traditional. What’s exciting are the voices. The unpolished edges of Manoj Tiwari, Urmila Srivastava and Sucharita Gupta cut though pretensions to assault your senses. Some of the tabla and harmonium players can be counted with the best in business, but pity we don’t get to know their names.
The voice that stands out is of Babunandan Dhobi, who seems to be missing at least some of his teeth. His ‘Jahi din nanad’, sung unadorned to the clangy beat of kartaal, talks of a wife pining for her parents — a theme that keeps repeating. Manoj Tiwari’s ‘Ankhiyan bhaili laal’ (a woman requesting her lover to let her sleep) and Mohan Lal Kanskar’s ‘Ram kare more devra’ (a woman who prefers her brother-in-law to the absentee husband) are among those that plough a different field.
The songs in ‘Hori hai’ are from the same neigbourhood — not just the geography but the mindspace, too. Apart from soaked chunris, a certain fondness for devars keeps creeping in.
Rajbir’s full-pelt voice in ‘Aa jaiyo shyam’ is the coarsest of the lot. And Jawahar Lal Yadav’s ‘Bolo sararara’ is of the same tree as Peepli Live’s ‘Mehengai dayein’.
You can download the songs from beatofindia.com. I’m told the online sales peak around the time of holi, with the large non-resident Bhojpuri population playing a big buyer. What’s better online is you can customise a CD with various songs. Here’s a chance to put your money where your ear is.
Wide of the wicket
And now for something completely different. With a little help from Universal Music, ICC Development International has come out with De Ghumake, an album that leads with the official cricket World Cup song of the same title. Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s effort — which will now be played ad nauseam — is no ‘Waka waka’. And apart from Slumdog’s ‘Jai ho’, Rang de Basanti’s ‘Khalbali’, and Lagaan’s ‘Chale chalo’, the album is filled with the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Why, o pointy lords of cricket, why? Forget going for it — this googly hasn’t even landed on the pitch.