“Urbanization is good but your culture is your identity”

Malini Awasthi

“The Indian connect to Culture and Language is as strong and as pure as the Ganges”

Malini Awasthi, who hails from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, was here recently to participate in the World Bhojpuri Conference being held in the context of the celebrations commemorating the 180th Anniversary of the arrival of Indian Indentured Labour at Aapravasi Ghat.

She gave a demonstration of her talent as a renowned Bhojpuri folk singer after the Yaj ceremony that was held there, to great applause and appreciation. In the interview that follows, this great artist who is the recipient of several awards and is widely travelled, shares her thoughts with Dr Neerunjun Gopee about her contact with local Bhojpuri and Indian culture. She is positively impressed by the efforts that have been made to preserve several aspects of the culture, and makes suggestions about how these can be further strengthened, enhanced and enriched…

What has brought you to Mauritius?

This is interesting. Well, I came to Mauritius in 2000 to participate in the World Bhojpuri Conference as an artist in a delegation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. That was 14 years ago, and I fell in love with Mauritius. The strong roots of our culture were so predominantly visible, and I told myself that every Indian, especially every Indian from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar must come to Mauritius to see how wonderfully they have retained our language, our culture, our festivals and Folk Music! That trip was not only inspiring but also educative. I got a beautiful opportunity to experience the Diaspora Culture by interacting with various delegates and artists from all over the world, which later led me to visit Holland, Suriname and Fiji.

So this time, when I got an invitation from the Bhojpuri Speaking Union and MGI and a special call from Sarita Boodhooji, the chairperson of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union to present a paper at the World Bhojpuri Conference being held I knew I had to come to beautiful Mauritius again!

You are a renowned folk singer, but have had training in Hindustani Classical music. Can one be a folk singer without such a training? In other words is there a ‘methodology’ and ‘system’ (swaras, alankar, staals, ragas, etc ) in folk music singing as well?

Yes, I am trained in Indian classical music to postgraduate level, and I think this is reflected in my singing. To answer your question, classical music is the backbone of all kinds of music. It helps the artist refine and strengthen his or her voice and teaches the intricacies of beats and rhythm.

Having said that I have known so many folk artists who don’t know the ‘abcd’ of classical music and yet they are powerful performers. As in classical music, folk artists use gamak, meend, khatka and linger on sustaining notes. Often, this is an inherent talent amongst folk musicians. But quite a few learn folk music from their fathers, uncles or gurus in villages. This is the case with women too. So you see the oral tradition of teaching within family, within community, and within society continues.

Tell us a bit about your impression(s) of Mauritius and of the Indian culture scene here.

Mauritius is like a mini-India. We share the same beliefs and same ideology; we have the same roots and culture.

When we entered for the inaugural function of the World Bhojpuri Conference at MGI, we were greeted by hundreds of women singing jyonhaar and jhoomar for us – that sight is imprinted in our minds forever.

I was humbled and moved to tears to feel the depth of Indian Culture which refuses to die, will never die. Just imagine, 180 years is a very long time; generations have come and gone but the Indian connect to Culture and Language is as strong and as pure as the Ganges. Yes, there are changes in the language but then that is also a quality of dialects, they adopt naturally.

The Mauritian Government has done a lot to maintain this. Mahatma Gandhi Institute is a delight to experience. There are so many music faculties and a Folk Music Department over there. I have learnt that Mauritius has a 24/7 Bhojpuri TV channel. This is indeed remarkable. The Bhojpuri Speaking Union is also doing great work.

I also came to know that there is an effort to start Bhojpuri at primary school level: now even in India we don’t have this! I have felt that there is keenness among you to know and to retain your culture. In modern times it is a challenge to keep the young generation involved and interested in folk music, as is the case in India too. Youth has to be taken under the umbrella, they have to understand that urbanization is good but your culture is your identity.

What is the official status of Bhojpuri in India.

There is a movement to get Bhojpuri included as official language. Let us all hope this happens soon.

Has Bhojpuri gained popularity/greater visibility through its use in Bollywood films – or is this just caricatural?

In India Bollywood is very big and very popular. Because of its gripping beats, melodious compositions and sweetness in diction, Bhojpuri has always been a favourite of Bollywood.

Time and again we have seen huge hit songs inspired by Bhojpuri dialect and Bhojpuri traditional composition. In olden days we had great music directors like Naushadji, Madan Mohanji, Chitrguptji and Lakshmikant Pyarelalji who belonged to UP and Bihar who understood the soul of Bhojpuri. Thus, whenever they used Bhojpuri songs in their films they created marvels. For example,

Nain lad jaihe to manva me

Holi aai re kanhaai

Do hanso ka joda bichhud gayo re

Savan ka mahina pavan kare sor – etc.

Nowadays it’s all about getting a hit number, so a lot of experiments are being done. People love Bhojpuri songs so the idea is to just include one without getting under the skin of the song, very often they turn out to be a caricature. But a few songs have been huge hits too.

To what aspects of local Bhojpuri culture have you been ‘exposed’? What are your impressions of the Bhojpuri culture scene in Mauritius?

I spent my early childhood in Mirzapur near Banaras and later I spent my formative years in Gorakhpur. These places are known for beautiful Bhojpuri literature and Bhojpuri music. Then I got to live in Azamgadh, Faizabad and Banaras. All these places have a very rich and old tradition of folk music in which they impart education as well.

Then I also came to personally know quite a few folk artists, with whom I spent time and worked with them through my organization called ‘Sonchiraiya’.

Regarding my experience about Bhojpuri culture in Mauritius, I would add that I was offered to taste suran ka achaar (pickle of suran) and I was like Wow! Suran is a Bhojpuriya delicacy. I also visited the local market to have the Mauritian flavour and I found all traditional vegetables sold that we Bhojpuriyas eat.

I was also impressed by the pictures of various deities gracing the houses, and the tulsi chaura at every house.

I’ll tell you something that I found even more interesting. While I was at the Conference, I was invited to a temple on Devothaani Ekadashi. When I reached there I found all the women dressed in red and singing folk songs. They asked me to sing one Tulsi vivaah song for them. I was surprised and taken aback by the request. Of course I sang but it was overwhelming to see their deep faith and knowledge of our culture. It seemed as if we were in a village in Bihar and not Mauritius! That is why I respect Mauritians for their efforts to retain that Indianness. It is really heartening.

Do you have any suggestions for preserving/enhancing/improving Bhojpuri culture here? What about possibilities of exchange with India towards this end through government and other institutions? Would you be in a position or be willing to help this process, and in what way?

Both India and Mauritius are like Brothers. We share a bond that connects us through blood, culture, history and language. A lot can be done, and should be done.

Good Bhojpuri artists must be invited to Mauritius not only to perform but also to conduct workshops. Artists should spend some time over here and groom selected singers of Mauritius. They need to be taught not only the Bhojpuri songs, but also be groomed about the voice techniques, as well as explaining the songs and their context.

I am sure Mahatma Gandhi Institute and Ministry of Arts and Culture can lead this kind of initiative.

Together both the countries need to work on not only Bhojpuri music but also Bhojpuri folk dances, folk theatre, folk arts and folk cuisine.

I will certainly be very happy to offer my help in this context. For example, I could run a detailed workshop here if I am requested to do so. I have been doing this back home in India. Not everybody can be a good teacher. It requires patience and focus, and selflessness. For my organization Sonchiraiya I keep grooming young students, as well as elderly women who could not pursue their career because of family and various other reasons. I train them for public performance. And these experiments have been very popular and successful.

I will feel honoured if I am asked to assist the cause of Bhojpuri in Mauritius. I will be grateful if I am able to work for my Language and Culture, and in the process help bring both the countries closer.


* Published in print edition on 14  November 2014

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