Folk studio: Several artistes, organisations are making effort to recognise, revive and re-establish traditional folk music


Ja ja re apne mandirva, a classical bandish (a melodic composition), is once again on the lips of Indian music enthusiasts, almost 300 years after it was written and composed by Sadarang aka Naimat Khan, a Hindustani music composer of the 18th century. All the credit goes to singer-musician Salim Merchant and his composer-brother Sulaiman Merchant who gave it a new lease of life through their music album, Bhoomi 2021, that was released in October last year.

The bandish in Bhimpalasi raga was reinterpreted into a modern avatar by the Merchant brothers along with Rajasthani vocalist Sattar Khan Langa and music director Vishal Dadlani. The raga conveys the emotions of a newly married couple and how a wife stops her husband from romancing, as her mother-in-law will see them doing it. “What’s interesting about this bandish is that every Indian classical music student learns and starts his music training with this raga. It intrigued me. Also, the album has rekindled the raga, bringing back age-old folk to life in a more contemporary manner,” Salim Merchant told FE over a telephonic chat.

The Merchant duo is not alone. Many traditional artistes and organisations are now making a concerted effort to recognise, revive and re-establish age-old traditional folk music. The underlying reason behind this is the need to impart and instil these traditions to the current generation, besides adding musical value and breathing a new lease of life to the dying art.

According to Jodhpur-based Govind Singh Bhati, who has worked and organised various podcasts with over 40 traditional artistes, folk traditions are slowly dying and so it becomes important to collaborate and align with artistes now so that they don’t fall apart. “For instance, kamaicha, a musical instrument, is now played by 10 people in Rajasthan or Lakha Khan is one of the greatest living exponents of the sindhi sarangi, one of the few players to play with this instrument,” says Bhati, who is a creative producer, festival and event consultant, and co-founder of Bluecity Walls, an organisation working with culture, arts, education, and events.

Folk traditions are social documents of how ancestors lived their Indian values. According to celebrated folk singer Malini Awasthi, folk songs are a living documentation of history, culture and tradition, and forefathers have always tried to awaken us through various lessons of life.

“When I started with stage acts in the early nineties, there were very few takers of folk music, as they didn’t understand the seriousness and intention of the folk culture. Society was changing with an instinct to disown everything that was Indian—there was revolution called the Internet, migration to nuclear families, and grandmother songs were treated as regressive, folk traditions,” says Awasthi, a Padma Shri awardee who as part of her folk performances has developed a unique style of infotainment. A Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, Awasthi is also passionate about preserving the intangible oral traditions of India and a torchbearer of the Purab Ang Gayaki of Banaras. She has documented and disseminated various traditional folk forms of Indian music like vintage thumris, dadras, kajri , jhula, holi, chaiti, sanskar geets, shram geets, ritu geet, sufiyana kalams and other forms of music from Awadh and Benaras.

Sarangivadak, Ustad Kamal Sabri performing at Punjab Kala Bhawan Sector-16 Chandigarh

Clearly, folk music renditions are making a comeback and their revival is important. India’s traditional folk music carries a rich legacy, history and diversity in it, at the same time, music has a universal language that cuts across all barriers and binds everyone. Agrees Merchant, “Folk music is a medium to preserve our cultural heritage and carry forward the legacy and history to the next generation. The whole idea of Bhoomi 2021 is to stay connected to the traditional odes and introduce them in a modern way as it is more palatable for listeners to digest, keeping the musicality and singing intact.”

In the past, Merchant produced a bandish called Sanwal Mor Muharan based on raga Sindhu Bhairavi and another song representing one of the darkest days in Indian history—the Jallianwala Bagh massacre—with singer Harshdeep Kaur.

Projects galore

With diverse Indian traditions comes an assortment of projects that remind us of the traditional past. Earlier this year, Union law minister Kiren Rijiju danced to the beats of cymbals and drums with residents of Kazalang village in Arunachal Pradesh. The minister tweeted that such folk songs are the essence of the community. “A traditional merrymaking of Sajolang people whenever guests visit their village, these original folk songs and dances are the essence of every community in Arunachal Pradesh,” Rijiju wrote on his Twitter.

Instruments like sarangi and santoor are legacy of maestros reviving the culture in different ways. Ustad Kamal Sabri is the seventh-generation musician of a 400-year-old illustrious family of sarangi exponents from the Sainia gharana of Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. Sarangi has a unique ability to follow any genre of vocal music and no other musical instrument can match the quality of its sound. “It was earlier known as saurangi, which means a musical instrument with a hundred colours. Colours in terms of playing different styles of music such as dhrupad, khayal, thumri, kajri chaiti, tappa, ghazal, folk songs, bhajans, qawwali, also in world music genres,” says Sabri, who has been working with folk musicians of Rajasthan and has released a series of albums called Dance of the Desert since 2006.

Padma Shree Awardee Malini Awasthi performing Folk Musical Recital during 9th Arts and Heritage Festival at Tagore Theatre in Chandigarh on Friday, September 08 2017. Express Photo by Jasbir Malhi

“It’s a unique album in folk or fusion as for the first time in the history of recorded music we have played five sarangis together. That was the album to India’s submission for Grammy Awards in 2006, and sarangi was categorised as world music instrument in the American Academy of Music,” shares Sabri, who has collaborated with Ustad Rehmat Khan Langa and his sons in Rajasthani folk music, and revived raga Gaud Malhar, raga Nut Malhar and raga Ilaiyya Bilawal, which are 300 years old from the Moradabad Gharana and composed by great grandfather Ustad Haji Mohammad Khan Sahab, besides his other collaborations with musicians such as late Gangubai Hangal, Girija Devi, Western music jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek from Norway, guitarist Jukka Tolonen from Finland, Rickey Niles from West Indies and others.

Santoor maestro Abhay Rustum Sopori has been working on different aspects in Kashmiri music by reviving age-old music compositions in Sanskrit, Persian, Kashmiri and Hindi—and a huge repertoire of compositions of the family. Tabla is used in sufiana mausiqi (music), but Sopori is now working to revive wasool (traditional Kashmiri rhythmic instrument, a diminutive of pakhawaj) for his future concerts. Wasool is an extinct instrument of his great grandfather Pandit Samsar Chand Sopori, who was last in the tradition to play this instrument. “The propagation of rare instruments like Kashmiri sehtar (Kashmiri version of sitar and sounds like a veena) has been used in my recording in the film Shikara,” says Sopori.

While there is learning of the oldest compositions from various communities and contemporising them without losing their essence, such renditions result in a sound more instantly relatable to both young and old. Like the album Raitila Rajasthan, a project curated by Bhati, represents a mix of musicians from two communities of musicians, Manganiyar and Langa of western Rajasthan.

The project was created to promote the authentic folk music of western Rajasthan in 2016. “Raitila is a Rajasthani word which means made of sand and Raitila’s music celebrates changing seasons, birth, life, nature and Sufism. The band believes that the music has a deep connection with the lives of the people in the Thar Desert and it intends to maintain that connection of sand in its tunes, melodies, songs,” says Bhati.

The band features a range of traditional instruments including ancient and rarely seen Algoza (double flute) and Sindhi sarangi and sings in Rajasthani and Sufi. In June 2021, the band also released the debut album worldwide on Spotify and shot a video of a song for popular Netflix series Mismatched Season 2.

As regional arts and production manager of Jodhpur RIFF and Production and Folk Arts Head of Sacred Spirit Festival, Bhati has been working on creating new ideas to promote the performing arts for over a decade and has curated Sufi Rang, a Rajasthani sufi music project featuring Rajasthani musicians from Marwar region. He feels music has a deep-rooted connection with Sufism and such ragas are alive through folk music.

“Two mainstream performing art communities Langa and Manganiar have been singing verses of Sufi poets from centuries in the modern time, the kalam of Amir Khusrau, Ghulam Farid, Baba Bullehshah and Shah Latif became very popular in these communities and they have composed songs using the poetry of such legendary saints with a melodious touch of the Rajasthani music. Projects like Sufi Rang help explore unknown poems and poets and popular sufi songs,” says Bhati, who has started Mehfil-e-Rajasthan, a live podcast on audio streaming app Mentza where artists from Rajasthan are invited for an interactive performance.

Revitalising rituals

While Awasthi believes that ancestors played an important role in keeping alive folklore via songs, most songs are oral traditions documenting different aspects of the society. “From offering lessons for an inclusive society to sohar ke geet (a typical song sung by women to celebrate the birth of a male child), all these are grandmother songs passed over for generations that teach us everyday lessons,” says Awasthi, who in December last year celebrated 10 years of her non-profit organisation, Sonchiraiya, which serves as a performing platform for various rural, tribal and folk artists from all over India.

However, the pandemic initiated performative and narrative interactions via some digital platforms where artistes now perform. “Since last year, folk musicians have shared their stories with audiences through accessible technology. Mehfil-e-Rajasthan, a live podcast on audio streaming app Mentza, was built with the intention to restore the faith of artistes to continue their age-old traditional music. This allowed people to listen to authentic Rajasthani music from the comfort of their homes,” adds Bhati, who feels the need to keep the roots alive is huge. “There is limited quality folk music in the public domain today and the idea is to make it available on digital platforms like Spotify, Apple music and others, and create a digital folk music library,” he says.

Folk music also has the power to keep people connected to their history and culture. And the need to stay connected with one’s roots was never as strong as felt in the pandemic. As shared responsibility to preserve traditional folk for generations, Canara HSBC Oriental Bank of Commerce Life Insurance in January organised ‘Me For My City 4.0’, a campaign and music talent hunt that brought back the spotlight on diverse folk music with renowned singers —Lakhwinder Wadali, Mame Khan, Papon and Hamsika Iyer, besides Salim Merchant, as part of the campaign.

“The idea is to promote music and musicians and give them a chance to shine especially after the extreme pandemic conditions. Campaigns like these can reconnect with the people across India,” adds Tarannum Hasib, chief distribution officer, Canara HSBC OBC Life Insurance.

In fact, to restore the glorious treasures of folk culture in states like Assam and the Northeast, Mumbai-based Ibson Lal Baruah has been working on archiving and scripting Assamese folk songs and tales. His project titled ‘Scripting, research, recreation, digitisation and archival of lyrics of folk songs and folk tales of Assam’ has been approved by the Union ministry of culture under the senior fellowship programme for the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT).

Baruah feels the speed of change in social life has deprived the new generation to access and practice folk tales, an important aspect of getting connected to the cultural roots. “The new generation is leading a completely urban lifestyle where the connection to their original culture and traditional values gets less focused. To grow up to be a responsible citizen and cultured personality one must have access to their original socio-cultural values which can be groomed up with the cultural resources like the folk music, literature, drama, art, etc. Some of my projects have been planned to ensure the accessibility and future projection of Assamese folk songs and tales among the new generation and spread the fragrance of Assamese folk literature to the readers,” says the professional sound engineer, who has blended folk instruments and melodies in different musical projects.

From a title song of a movie Rohingya: People from Nowhere (released on Apple TV), Baruah has also produced another instrumental theme for Assamese movie Bhoga Khirikee (Broken Window) directed by Jahnu Barua and song Deepor Beelor Paare Paare that appeals to save elephants, the ecology of the Deepor Beel, a lake in Assam. In the song, Baruah has used ethnic drums (dobad) and string instrument (dotora) blended with didgeridoo (Australian wind instrument) and nylon guitars.