Grand Competition of Traditional Bhojpuri Songs at Shivala Hall Petit Raffray

Tribute to our tradition bearers

By Sarita Boodhoo

It is commonly felt that the Bhojpuri folk songs brought by our forefathers are dying. That one by one, as the elderly custodians of this rich heritage die, it will signigy the end of a tradition. While this is not totally the truth, concern needs to be expressed as many beautiful and rare genres have disappeared.

The Indian Indentured immigrants brought a great deal of oral traditions with them, but due to negligence by society in general and authorities concerned, quite a good number of these intangible and tangible aspects of our culture have indeed disappeared. Genres such as the birha, godna and alha uddal are no more heard. But we are fortunate that all is not lost yet.

It is to the credit of our tradition bearers who despite great social and economic difficulties and poor living conditions have, without schooling and formal education, kept a good number of these genres still alive.

Genres such as lalnas or birth songs, the sabad sung by kabir panthis traditionally to accompany the funeral procession and known as nirguna, songs sung on the occasion of the colourful festival of holi, such as dhamar, chowtal, sumiran, hori are beautifully preserved. Rain songs known as harparawris, janeo songs (sung on the occasion of the sacred thread ceremony), the jatsaar sung by women while accompanying the turning of the janta, the grain grinding stones are still remembered by some of our senior citizens.

However, the richest collection preserved in the throats of our tradition bearers from generation to generation are the bhojpuri marriage songs associated with the pre-wedding, wedding and post wedding rites and traditions. These are wide ranging from Sandhya, hymn to the evening Goddess, gopal gari, devi devta ke geet, sumiran, mahadev songs, dharti bandhal, madar, sukar to the rhythmical and vigorous songs accompanied by dance known as jhumar, the imlighontai, barat songs, the tilak, haldi, the kunwar pat parchawon, homa songs accompanying the lighting of the sacred fire) the matkor songs, to the kanya dan, sindurdan, the kohbar, chumawal, khir khawai songs. And many more others are still remembered by our women singers. They are rich in texture, melody and rhythm and are an important segment of our folk literature.

The Bhojpuri Department of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute had done a fantastic job under the headship of Dr Suchita Ramdin in collecting, documenting and recording these songs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the same period, Dr Suchita Ramdin brought out the famous LP known as Swarna Chakra and she also published a monumental 572 paged volume entitled « The Sanskar Manjari », a huge collection of these ceremonial songs prevalent in Mauritius.

Under the impulsion of UNESCO, there is a worldwide movement at raising awareness of the importance of intangible heritage as humanity’s patrimony. The issue was first raised in 1973 by Bolivia. The adoption of the UNESCO convention of 2003 for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of which Mauritius is a signatory is the first legally-binding instrument specifically devoted to such a heritage.

The Ministry of Arts and Culture is currently doing its best to uphold these traditional items.

Nonetheless these tradition bearers have been for generations struggling hard to pass on the heritage benevolently and at great sacrifice, but with much devotion and love. They must be given sufficient incentives and encouragement in the face of globalisation and the threat of modernity which requires tradition to take a back seat.

In China for example, Zhu Zheqin, the Cantonese born singer has, after her world acclaimed Tibetan inspired albums Sister Drum and Voices from the Sky, now made it her mission to help preserve China’s traditional ethnic music. In 2009, after being appointed a UNDP ambassador, Zhu travelled through some of China’s remotest regions – accompanied by a film crew, photographer and writer. She recorded more than a thousand folk songs. Zhu says : « China today is basically all Western art ;… but we can’t only be a copy of Western things… ( Newsweek, November 29, 2010). Zhu’s lesson that China should draw on its diverse roots « to make sure our cultural transmission does not stop » should be a bell that rings a warning for Mauritius too.

It is pertinent that we in Mauritius should make the most to retain what is preservable. Mrs Reeta Poonith and Mrs Uma Busgeet are doing such a remarkable job at their own initiative and pace. Having watched their first attempt at this competition in 2006 at Petit Raffray, I was wonderstruck at their effort and perseverance, which they did on their own merits. They are this year presenting the second edition of these song competitions with new dimensions and concepts. Mrs Poonith and Busgeet are the Zhus of Mauritius.

Reeta Poonith comes from a background where for generations women have been singing in her family. Her nani, Jasodya Kalidin, was known as the Geetharine Kalidin and she died at age 96. Jasodya learnt the songs from her dadi who was a girmitia, indentured immigrant. She was always singing while performing work whether in the fields, or carrying fodder or firewood on her head or fetching water from the ponds or wells. She taught all her friends who walked long distances to sing, to ease the burden. Reeta Poonith’s own mother, Mrs Sonia Conhye of L’Amaury, also learnt singing these traditional songs from her mother. She started work at age six on the « tabissement » together with her mother Jasoda until she retired at age 60. She died in 2009 at age 86. She was a respected lady who had imbibed a lot of sanskar from her mother and had a huge memory of traditional songs. Women from all over used to go and learn songs at her feet. Reeta comes from a family of four brothers and three sisters. The house was always full of mirth, singing with dholak, lota whenever they would gather for festive occasions. She says that this heritage was latent in her. After her schooling, she got married at age fifteen and had a family of her own. She was fond of Hindi. One day in 2004, she came across a song « Homa bhaile jaap bhaile » which I had published in the Jan Vani Hindi newspaper. This aroused in her the dormant inheritance of her nani and mother. It created a declic and she started visiting elderly ladies in search of rare bhojpuri songs. She toured some 35 villages and met the singing groups.

At the same time, Mrs Uma Busgeet, retired Hindi Education Officer from Morcellement St André, approached Reeta Poonith as if by synergy and all three of us met in December 2006 and got a lot of energy from each other. 10 groups had performed on that occasion.

On 16 October 2011, some twelve groups from twelve villages from the North are participating in the second performance of the Lok Parampara Geet Competition. I have been to a few rehearsals and have been wonderfully surprised by the stamina, enthusiasm, patience, zeal and ability of memorising of these ladies. More importantly, they have also included younger women in their groups. Which is highly commendable. Some of the ladies are above 70 years of age and some are even above 80. One tradition bearer I met is 88 years old and she hails from Triolet. Tribute is paid to them for having kept this intangible cultural heritage alive.

We need to produce some ladies of the calibre and motivation of Zhu of China, Reeta Poonith and Uma Busgeet to take up the challenge. That is why, it is imperative to support this formidable work.

* Published in print edition on 14 October 2011

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