Category Archives: Musically speaking

Tuning in to Chhath festivities

02e9deeb-442c-42b4-9264-c260e35fffb8Gone are the days of stereos and radios that used to play Chhath songs. Today these songs are just a click away on YouTube channels and can be played on smartphones too. Here’s an amplified look at the rise of the digital wave in the festive milieu. 
Till a few years ago, legendary folk singer and Padma Shri Sharda Sinha’s mellifluous voice wafting out of the stereos and speakers filled the air with festivities across the nook and corner of the twin states of Bihar and Jharkhand, parts of Uttar Pradesh, especially during Chhath. Her name was and is still synonymous with by far the grandest, most significant festival celebrated by the natives of these states all over the country and even world. Bihar Kokila as she is fondly called had released her first album on Chhath way back in 1977, and that was quite a feat. “Convincing a music company to release an album in Bhojpuri featuring Chhath songs was an ardous task then, but I am glad to have spearheaded that movement to give respect to our musical culture, language, tradition, and festival,” she says beaming with pride. In a first of its kind, she went on to release two of her songs Supawo Na Mile Maayi and Pahile Pahil Chhati Maiyya on YouTube in collaboration with Neo Bihar and Champaran Talkies last year, and both the releases had taken the social media platforms by storm. “People can tune into the Chhath songs at the click of a button on their smartphones. Technology has made access easier, audience base wider, and reach deeper,” Sinha adds.
Her contribution to the world of music can be gauged from the fact all the singers who have grown up listening to her have followed in her footsteps, trying to make a mark in the space of Chhath songs with their offering, year after year, but knowing well that nothing can beat her popularity. You may choose to love some, hate others, but one thing is for sure, you can’t ignore them and the opportunities that have come their way, thanks to the digital platform like #YouTube. They need not go to a music company to release their album; the power to do so rests with them, and it is just a click away. Their channels on YouTube boasts of lakhs of fans (subscribers), and the number of views is a measure of their popularity that further translates into monetization, and sets the cash register ringing. These young brigade is scripting the new era of Bhojpuri music, resurrecting it in their unique way, jostling to grab eyeballs and vying for attention from one and sundry, loving to hate each other in the process. Even then the bottom line remains that each one of them has a loyal fan base, and the other one can’t make a dent in that.
Another interesting trend is the popularity of an FB page, Chhath Parv, managed by Ankit Verma and his team that has emerged as the one-stop destination for the Chhath doers, and watchers alike all over the world. “It has more than 10 lakh followers, and our posts get an average of 10K shares,” says Verma. It provides a virtual connect to many who visit the page to watch the hues of festivities from across the country and also different parts of the world.
One step at a time is what binds them together in this feature on Chhath. The popularity of these songs, music, lyrics, theme, etc., depends on the likes and spikes, because ultimately, the good, bad and ugly rests with the public who knows it all. But as Delhi-based Namitha Chaudhary says, “Many singers have Chhath songs to their credit, but on this auspicious occasion, it is Shardajee’s voice that sums up the religious fervor. It touches the chord of our hearts.”
Here’s our rundown of the major Chhath releases that created ripples on the digital platform this year.
Nitin Neera Chandra | Tradition keeper 
Buoyed by the overwhelming response to his last year’s video Pahile Pahil Chhati Maiyya sung by Sharda Sinha, featuring Kranti Prakash Jha and Kristine Zedek, National Award-winning filmmaker Nitin Neera Chandra’s Chhath offering this year is Kabahun Naa Chhooti Chhath. The story is a sequel to last year’s video but has a more profound message for the masses. “Our first story was about a Punjabi girl married to a guy from Bihar who commits to doing Chhath so that there is no break in the family tradition. Our story this year is how her husband takes up the responsibility to fill in for her pregnant wife by fasting on Chhath. Our idea was to tell the world that it’s not only the girls, who have to carry our family tradition, but boys can pitch in to do the same when needed.” Chandra roped in Hindi film playback singer Alka Yagnik and Bhojpuri Samrat Bharat Sharma Vyas to croon the song penned by Ashok Sheopuri that subtly highlights the fact that it is only in Bihar that people worship the setting as well as rising Sun. He also went on to release an instrumental version of the song by flautist Sudhir Karandikar and a Karaoke session on Neo Bihar’s YouTube channel.
Kalpana Patowary | Unity in diversity
The Assamese singer Kalpana Patowary, who is the uncrowned queen of the Bhojpuri music industry, hit the right notes with her Chhath video on the theme of communal harmony. Patowary sings in 30 languages and sang her first Chhath song in 2002. “I don’t belong to Bihar so didn’t know the much about it, except the fact that the Sun is a source of live energy and Chhath is an occasion to thank it for its benevolent presence in our lives,” she says. The video touches upon how Muslim families have been worshipping the Sun God, following the rituals to the T. Her rendition of Ug Ho Suraj Dev was originally sung by Vindhyawasini Devi with music by Bhupen Hazarika. The soul of this version is its mesmerizing storyline, and captivating vocals that show Patowary invoking the Sun God dressed the traditional Assamese way with orange vermillion smeared from forehead to nose. “I have a personal connection with the festival as I am married into a Muslim family. There’s an old lady in Jamalpur, who fasted and prayed for me during Chhath when I was expecting. I went to pay my obeisance after my twin boys were born to thank the deity for blessing me with motherhood,” says Patowary, adding, “Such songs are needed to combat the wave of religious intolerance and negativity floating around us.”
Khushboo Uttam & Dr Ranju Sinha | Noteworthy songs  
As a young girl, Khushboo Uttam idolized Sharda Sinha and entered the world of Bhojpuri playback singing with high hopes to make it big. But Uttam’s dreams came crashing with every attempt. The lyrics of her songs were to be blamed for it. “She was undoubtedly the choice of masses, but crass for the classes. But that never dampened her spirits and every time, she tried to bounce back, stronger and better,” says Dr Ranju Sinha, lyricist, and filmmaker, who has been collaborating with the singer since the last few years. Blessed with a trained voice, she had her basics in place. Uttam’s tie-up with Dr Sinha gave her songs the much-needed sanctity that took her popularity notches higher. “I have tried to capture the many moods of Chhath with my songs. Rahe Daura Ke Raur Fharmaish talks of raging issue of GST, Aai Gaile Katik Ke Mahinawa helps one soak in the festive spirit while Dhukur Dhukur Chale Garnetor portrays the banter between a couple,” says Uttam, adding, “the music is peppy and catchy.” Both Sinha and Uttam are grateful to the digital medium for reducing the dependence on music labels and distributors, paving the way for young and budding talents to win their share of audience attention.
Megha Sriram Dalton and Amit Jha | Melody on Track 
Filmmaker Amit Jha grew up wondering why don’t the elderly in the family pass on the tradition of doing Chhath to the daughter. “Why is the daughter-in-law favored over the daughter? Why is it the boy who is the keeper of tradition and never a daughter?  It is gender biased,” he says. The nagging thought led him to make a short film, Dhiya Poota that means daughter and son in Bhojpuri that was released on YouTube last Sunday. The other idea that he has touched in his offering is how families yearn for a male heir. “A girl child is a blessing in the truest sense, but that doesn’t deter parents to wish for a boy,” he rues. Another nuance is the use of an inflatable pool to offer arghya (prayer to the Sun). Once he had the idea in place, everything else came around including lead actor Seema Biswas. He wanted a singer who had a touch of folk in her voice for his film. A popular singer on the Bollywood circuit, Megha Sriram Dalton was the perfect fit. “I approached Megha, and the only things she asked me is, when can she come for the recording,” he quips. For Megha, it was a God-send opportunity, who had been relegated to the chorus when it came to Chhath songs, in her decade-long musical career. “I was longing for an opportunity to lend my voice to a Chhath song. I am glad that this opportunity came my way with Chhathi Maiya Dihin Na Asis,” she says.

The Sound of Music

By Shillpi A Singh

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it sums up the ardour and zest with which folk singer and Padma awardee Malini Awasthi has pursued her passion for music, relentlessly. Today, her unflinching faith and untiring efforts have given a new lease of life to the once dying folk and traditional music from the eastern parts of the country and moved it out from the so-called ghar-angaan (households) to national and international stage, making it an inseparable part and parcel of our humble being. Highly acclaimed for singing diverse folk forms – thumri, dadra, sohar, banna, jhoola, jajri, holi, chaiti, vivaah, dhobiya, nirgun – Awasthi mainly sings in local dialects such as Awadhi, Bundelkhandi, Braj and Bhojpuri.Her songs have touched a chord, among the masses, and the connoisseurs alike, regaling audience spread across the urban and rural pockets, and belonging to different age groups, spread across the country and also the globe. They help the older generation relive the days of yore when these songs were sung at home by the womenfolk, and provide a link to the younger generation for staying connected with the rich and varied musical heritage.

The President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, presenting the Padma Shri Award to
Smt Malini Awasthi, at a Civil Investiture Ceremony, at Rashtrapati Bhavan,
in New Delhi on March 28, 2016.

Noteworthy contribution  

A native of Uttar Pradesh, Awasthi spent her early years learning the nuances of classical music from a guru at home. “My parents were not singers but had a taste for music. We (elder brother, sister and I) grew up listening to LP records at home, mostly classical renditions of musical stalwarts, thanks to our father. My sister used to take lessons from a guru who used to come over at 5.30 am. I joined his early morning class when I was barely five,” she says, fondly reminiscing her initiation into the world of music. Her father, a doctor by profession, who was then serving at the government hospital at Mirzapur, made it a point never to miss a classical music concert if it was happening at Banaras or Allahabad. “He took all of us along. The performances inculcated a deep love and understanding for music,” she says, recalling the days when her father used to pack them in a car and drive them to attend concerts. Even her mother had a great role to play in developing her musical taste. “She couldn’t sing but had once heard a song by Siddeshwari Devi (bindiya ka rang uda jaaye). She liked it a lot and asked my music teacher to help me with it,” she says of her mother.

Malini Awasthi spent her early years learning the
nuances of classical music from a guru at home.

Musical tutelage

As her father had a transferable job, he was posted next in Jhansi and from there he moved to Gorakhpur and then Lucknow. These places only added to her musical training and gave her the much-needed exposure. “In Gorakhpur, I had the privilege to receive musical training from two renowned gurus – Shujaat Husain Khan and Rahat Ali Khan. I received lessons in folk, classical, Sufiyana and ghazals from Rahat Ali. I was barely 14 then and to get an opportunity like this only helped me hone my voice and perfect the nuances.” Awasthi is revered for her fluency in ghazal and Sufi singing that comes from the sound knowledge of Urdu received from these two legendary teachers. For the uninitiated, Rahat Ali Khan had trained only two students in his life, one was Awasthi and the other one being Punjabi pop singer Daler Mehendi. By then, she had started giving programmes on radio and performing on stage. “My first appearance on radio was for Bal Jagat where I recited a poem and then sang a bhajan,” she says. She took to stage soon after and recited a song based on raag desh at a doctor’s conference in Gorakhpur. “I had no inhibitions and I was fearless because that is what my gurus had taught me. A performer on the stage attracts attention of audience so one must always respect that; appreciation and criticism that come a performer’s way mould him as an artiste and help him improve his art.” When her father moved to Lucknow, she got an opportunity to pursue a degree in Hindustani classical music from Bhatkhande University. A high-grade artiste of radio, she had already performed at festivals across the country and had also started doing television shows for Doordarshan. 

Malini Awasthi with legendary Hindustani classical singer
Vidhushi Girija Devi whom she fondly called Appajee.

Changing track

It was at one such performance at Bhatkhande, legendary Hindustani classical singer Vidhushi Girija Devi whom she fondly calls Appajee heard her sing. Impressed with her voice, Appajee showered praises on Awasthi and asked her if she would like to accompany her to Kolkata and learn music. Overwhelmed at this offer, Awasthi almost jumped with joy. But her wedding with Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS officer Awanish Kumar Awasthi was fixed by then and she was couldn’t go with Appajee. After marriage, she accompanied her bureaucrat husband as he served in different districts but all along, she relentlessly pursued her passion for music. “I am blessed to have him as my life partner who has supported and encouraged me all through,” she says about her husband. As luck would have it, he was posted in Varanasi, and during this stint, Awasthi once again got a chance to continue her music lessons from Appajee. “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting,” says Awasthi, who lapped up every opportunity to stay in touch with music, from performing during cultural programmes in the district where her husband was posted to imparting music lessons to schoolchildren. She read and researched extensively on rural folk art forms and keenly observed how the folk music was slowly withering away for lack of attention and appreciation. The exposure strengthened her knowledge base and made her resolute in pursuit of music. “The strings of a musical instrument rust if left unused. I didn’t want my vocal chords to rust, so kept honing it by practising and singing. I didn’t sing for money. I didn’t care if the stage was big or small. I didn’t want to lose touch with the audience. I just wanted to perform,” she says.

Malini Awasthi is a performer at heart.

Performer at heart

At times, Awasthi carried her children along, travelled in trains and buses to perform at All India Radio, and at other programmes across the country. “There used to be chain bookings in those days. I had performances at three places – Raipur, Raigarh, and Ambikapur – and I carried my daughter who was four and son who was one and a half to all these places, with my mother and mother-in-law in tow because I didn’t want to miss it. Such was my level of attachment to music,” she reminisces. It was at one such cultural function at Azamgarh that Gajendra Singh heard her sing and requested her to participate in a music reality show, Antakshari. “It was a life-changing experience, and I realised that one could create a space for oneself in public memory by sticking true to one’s musical roots,” she says about her first TV show. One thing led to another, and she did two other music-based shows (Sa Re Ga Ma and Junoon) and won the hearts of judges and audience alike. The best takeaway was a word of mention by none other than Lata Mangeshkar who called her a promising singer.  The film offers started pouring, but that didn’t excite her to move bag and baggage to the city of dreams. She did lend her voice to many songs in Hindi films, most recent being Mano ya na mano in Laali Ki Shaadi Mein Laaddoo Deewana that hit the theatres in April this year. “My heart is here, and even though I go for recordings to Mumbai, I rush home because there is a sense of belonging and connect with my land,” says Awasthi.

A true daughter of the soil, Padma Shri Malini Awasthi wants to popularise the songs, culture and language, which she says, “if not revived may become obsolete, and extinct.” 

Power of popularity 

“With great power comes great responsibility,” she says on what it means to be a celebrity, adding, “I am thankful for all the praise and popularity that has come my way. It is a matter of great honour and I am trying in my own small way to use it to benefit folk music and other artistes.” Awasthi is clear about her goals. A true daughter of the soil, she wants to popularise the songs, culture and language, which she says, “if not revived may become obsolete, and extinct.” She is doing her bit, giving folk music its long-awaited due and respect, that it rightfully deserves. “As a singer, I am trying to make my songs relatable and relevant for my audience so that folk never becomes redundant for them.” She has formed an organisation called Son Chiraiyya to promote young and budding talents. “The name is symbolic of our rich heritage, and it aims to preserve, conserve and promote singers and artistes.” And whenever her NGO organises a programme, she doesn’t perform but chooses to anchor the show. “My job is to present other talented artistes,” she quips. That’s the passion and true sound of music that has touched the chords of so many hearts, on home ground and foreign shores alike, keeping Awasthi on her toes, and her calendar chock-a-block with shows, concerts, music festivals, in India and abroad.  

Songs Sung by Malini Awasthi

Mano Ya Na Mano | Laali Ki Shaadi Mein Laaddoo Deewana

Dil Mera Muft Ka | Agent Vinod

Sawan | Jaanisaar 

Teri Katili Nigahon Ne Mara | Jaanisaar 

Sunder Susheel | Dum Laga Ke Haisha 

Saiyyan Mile | Chaarfutiya Chhokare 

Bhagan Ke Rekhan Ki | Issaq

Joban | Ata Pata Lapata 

Mann Ki Asha | Bumm Bumm Bole 

(This article was published in the August 2017 issue of Rail Bandhu)