Folk art form Banchari find its way into textbooks, to be part of varsity course
For about 1500 residents of Banchari, a village located nearly 85 kilometres away from Gurugram, the onset of spring is announced with the beats of nagada (a large drum) and songs that celebrate the love of Lord Krishna and Radha.
Setting the stage for the festival of Holi, a group of young artists clad in white kurta shirts and pajamas or dhotis, colourful turbans, a cloth tied around their waist and a garland around their neck come out and start practising the medieval song and dance of Banchari- the art form that has got its name from the village.
Over 800 folk songs written by 150 poets, mostly in Braj Bhasha, which make up the core of this folk song-and- dance form have been passed on from one generation to another since ages. Most of this transfer has been word of mouth because only a handful of songs can be found in documents.
However, in a new push to conserve the Banchari art, the Haryana Vishwakarma Skill University (HVSU) is working to launch two one-year courses in Bachari art — one diploma and one certificate course. The university has roped in four music teachers from universities and colleges across Haryana to prepare the curriculum. The faculty will not only document the songs and dance routines but also trace the history of the art form.
Banchari is a complete performing art as it involves singing, dancing and playing a range of musical instruments. Usually, the artists stand in a line with each one assigned a particular role. The Banchari songs are a complex mix of various local musical styles of storytelling to suit the flavour of each story. These include bhajan (devotional), rasiya (love songs), alha (martial), phag (holi songs), jikri (singing paeans), doha (couplets), gaahe, pataaka, and dhamaal.
The artists’ attire also conveys a sense of transformation with the white of kurta-pajama/dhoti and the colourful accompaniment.
Depending on the mood and story of the song, a range of musical instruments are played. These include harmonium, dholak, manjeera, bansuri, jhanj and khartal. However, the most impressive instrument used is a couple of nagada, drums so huge that they are moved around on small wooden platform with wheels and pulled by a rope.
The artists start practising from the festival of Basant Panchami and continue for about one-and- a-half months till Holi. They also participate in the Ramleela and stage plays akin to Nautanki in Awadh.
The folk art, now confined to Banchari and nearby villages, is only being kept alive by the village artists, who pass it on to next generation through the guru-shishya parampara.
Though the women are adept in the art form, they are not allowed to perform outside the village, because of social taboos. There is no mention of women poets in Banchari. The village elders confirmed that there has been no tradition of women performing Banchari.
The Bancharis remember their first known poet as “Dada Vijjeyji” but there is no record as to which year he belonged. Some of the famous exponents of the art are Chhaju-Nathan, Hira-Tularam, Kunwarlal-Sukram and Randhir Masterji-Santoshi Masterji. However, not much is known about the era they lived in and whatever information is available about them is through oral history.
On a Sunday, every month, a kavi sammelan is held at the village chaupal where elders listen to the younger artists and give them tips to improve their skills.
“Village elders used to sing and dance in the praise of nature and various seasons, to appease gods and goddesses, and it became a tradition. We do not know when it all started but the tradition dates back to middle ages,” said Chandan Singh, a Banchari practitioner, who leads one of the 10 groups which perform the folk art in the village.
Giriraj Singh, 65, who has a copy of some songs written by one of the Banchari poets, Kanhaiya, said, “Our ancestors tried to write some songs but even those are not available fully. An artist has to practice a lot to master the songs as each genre of the songs has a different tone and tenor.
Banchari falls on the Braj 84 kos yatra (a nearly 252 kms pilgrimage originating from Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh). The pilgrimage finds mention in the Vedas. However, a few of the 84 places mentioned on the original route exist today. Nearly 80 per cent of them are situated in Mathura, while others are in Aligarh, Bharatpur, Gurugram and Faridabad. Banchari is one of them.
The village, located 26 kms from district headquarter of Palwal, is famous for lathmar Holi, also called Banchari Holi. The lathmar Holi recreates the legendary visit of Lord Krishna, who was a native of Nandgaon, to the town of Barsana, where his beloved Radha lived. When the lord teased Radha and her friends, they responded with sticks. Today, new cement and concrete houses line up the streets of the village. It is also famous for cotton cultivation. In fact, the word Banchari literally translates to fields of cotton.
Explaining the importance of running an academic course to teach Banchari, Col (retd) Utkarsh Rathore, joint director and head of short term course department of the HVSU, said: “Rising Western culture has left folk arts vulnerable. Even the artists who perform Banchari know very little about its history.”
The university plans to launch the diploma and certificate courses from the session starting September.
Kripal Chand Yadav, a Gurugram-based historian, said there is no mention of Banchari folk in the history.
“It is a local festival where lathmar holi is played and people sing together to celebrate festivities. The area is part of Brajbhoomi but there is no documentary evidence to trace the origins of the tradition,” said Yadav.
Aware of the fact that their songs and dances will be documented by the university, the villagers are enthusiastic. “It is important for the younger generation to learn the art form as people usually prefer youth for performances. A university course would also help our youth get jobs in the culture department,” said 70-year-old Tek Chand, who had a certificate of participation in India Fair during the Dubai Shopping Festival held in March-April 1998.
HVSU officials said keeping in view the low education levels in the village, the government has decided to keep Class 12 as the eligibility for diploma and Class 8 for the certificate course. The classes will be held on the campus of a government industrial training institute (ITI) in Palwal.
The village youth are hopeful that certified education in art will open better job avenues for them. “More than 30 village youngsters are ready to take up the course,” said Anil Kumar, 20, a graduate.
A public performance by women artists, however, still remains a pipe dream. Chandan Singh said it is against their tradition. “Girls in our village do go to school. They may take up the university courses, if they wish. But no public performances for now,” he said.
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