Saturday, April 16, 2016

Unusual Occupations - Nomad singers of folklore

N- Nomad singers of Folklore

Milman Parry, often referred to as ‘the Darwin of oral literature’ is best known for his work involving the study of Homer and how oral poetry worked and how such traditions survived the centuries unabridged and unadulterated. His theorized that it is illiteracy that works best when an epic tale survives generations. The illiterate artistes' capability to remember such colossal quantities of verse are apparently diminished when they get familiar with the written word. ( Courtesy : William Dalrymple : Nine lives)

William Dalrymple in his book 'Nine lives' chronicled Mohan Bhopa the singer of the Pabuji Epic from Rajasthan. The Bhopa- Bhopis from around Jodhpur are traditional artistes who carry on the tradition of epic folklore that has been transferred to them orally for generations.
Unusual occupations, this time features a lesser known artiste from the same genre. Narayan Bhopa and his wife Mitwa Bhopi who perform at different tourist destinations and festivals all over India.  They belong to a tradition of singers from Rajashtan, who render an ancient folklore epic that has been handed over to them from generations by the forefathers. They recite the Dev- Naraynan epic.

Narayan Bhopa, his wife and son along with their grandson were called by the Goyal family (the Seth) to perform at his resort in Bangalore. Goyal’s resort is situated off the Jigani industrial estate amidst equalyptus plantations, a lake and what once may have been the main watering hole for a thriving village's ecosystem. Not far away from the resort is Electronic city, Bangalore’s answer to Silicon valley housing thousands of knowledge workers who work for the big corporations notable among them being Infosys, Wipro and HP.

Narayan Bhopa and his family were testing waters in Bangalore, to look at the probability of staying longer term since the city is thriving with tourists, international conventions where they may find their potential  clients and sponsors.   For now they had been invited and were living under the hospitality of one of their kinsmen whose ancestor may have been their village landlord and a wealthy patron who sponsored their forefathers. Over generations,  an affluent family member who had probably migrated to Bangalore but still felt an obligation to patronize the nomad singers who folklore they had all grown up listening to. 

Handed over from one generation to another, the Bhopas perform ‘ Jagrans’ that involve singing , dancing and playing the Ravanahatta, the 18 stringed musical instrument  for about 8 hours or longer spread over 4-5 nights. The performances are the rendition of a local epic that normally chronicles the story of warriors and martyrs, of love and war, or traditions and epics that have been immortalized by the oral renditions over the centuries.  

When performing outside of Jhuggar, their native town not far away from the city of Jodhpur, the traditions gets compromised and abridged to a one to two hour performance during the day. More often than not these performances are tailored for tourists who visit to get a first hand and arguably authentic experience of the dying folk art at tourist destinations.  

Thanks to William Dalrymple for chronicling Mohan Bhopa and Batasi Bhopi of the Pabuji sect, the folk rendition now invariably finds a prime slot at the Jaipur literary festival and a number of other international conventions that happen in and around  Delhi. Although Mohan Bhopa has passed on, his sons have taken over and their art has been getting a fair bit of international attention.  

The other popular sect - the Dev-Narayan tradition of epic has not been so lucky. 
Narayan Bhopa renders the Dev-Narayan folk epic. Narayan Bhopa and his family have also performed in Jaipur and Delhi for tourists and in upmarket hotels a number of times. 

They live in tents and travel wherever they are called for. Mitwa Bhopi proudly talks about their performances in Nagpur, Vishakaptanam, Mumbai and now in Bangalore in what is a Hindi with a heavy Rajashtani dialect. In her forties or early fifties, Mitwa has always accompanied her husband for the performances. Fully veiled when performing, she accompanies her husband and son and sings with a full throated husky voice, that even to the tone deaf and musically illiterate can stir emotions of passion, love, longing, grief and martyrdom through this powerful medium of folk music. It is only when she lifted her veil in private ( when her husband and son had gone to meet the Seth) and spoke to me that I could see that she was a woman in her fifties ,with greyng hair and a skin tone that had grown rugged with travel and performances across various terrains over the years.

A Bhopa would normally perform with his wife and another accompanying male artiste who would also normally be from the same family.  This is usually a son who will in the future take over the reins from his father along with his wife.

The Bhopa Family

Bhopas who invariably are simple villagers, sheperds, cowherds and are often illiterate.  They are illiterate, not so much because they cannot afford formal education. Their nomadic way of life renders access to education impossible since a Bhopa singer is trained from a very young age. Their disinterest towards formal education is to preserve the oral tradition that may get diluted with the advent of the written down words and lyrics. 
The day before, I met them, they had performed at the 100 acre sprawling Art of living ashram at Kanakapura Road in Bangalore and were felicitated by Sri Sri Ravishankar amidst roaring applause by an auditorium full of spell bound audience.

When the minions from the corporate world  arrived at the resort for a fun filled offsite, an away-day from work, little do they expect to have folk artistes entertain them. The folk artistes are just one among the many attractions that would help them de-stress, strategize or achieve whatever else they have come for. 

The folk artists have to compete for attention among other distractions like archery, volleyball, snorking, rope climbing, a inviting swimming pool and a much publicized rain dance with a more funky DJ playing the popular bollywood numbers. 

It was evident they were feeling out of place and were deliberately trying to fit in.  They would hover  around them for a performance and irritably for some tips especially from foreigners.  

Before we warmed up for the other attractions at the resort, Narayan Bhopa, his Bhopi, their son and grandson captured our attention with a folk song that seemed to have Bollywood flavours. A bunch of us tried to dance for the rhythm to set the mood. 

Playing the Ravanahatta

While Narayan Bhopa played the Ravanahatta, the fully veiled Bhopi sang with a husky voice, a folk song, whose lyrics we could not fathom, their son Ram Nivas Bhopa who could at best be a boy in his late teens or early twenties played the dholak.

The little boy barely two or three years old, bare foot, wearing dirty torn clothes with snot drying in his nose danced to the tune. The little kid is Ram Nivas Bhopa’s first born. He had left his wife back in their village as she was now pregnant full term with the second one. This little kid, who would grow up to be the torch bearer of the tradition that had been passed on to generations was being trained young.  A little too young.            

When the song and dance settled down and everyone else took to other attractions, I approached Mitwa Bhopi to strike a conversation and to understand more about their occupation and their ancient folklore. 

It is an occupation that has been ordained on them by their forefathers. They carry it out with immense pride.  But they are painfully aware that the tradition may die slowly over the generations, if they do not find sponsors. 

Sponsors in the form of wealthy landlords and reigning princes were easy to come by, a 100 years ago.  Since India's independence  and with consecutive generations of wealthy landlords moving away to cities and away from the country, and the princely states getting dissolved and dis-empowered, the Bhopas are now finding new avenues like the heritage hotels in Jaipur, Udaipur and Delhi or even worse in resorts like these where they could perform to a listless wild audience.  

Perform, but not the Epic folklore that runs for 4-5 nights but a  very abridged version that tingles the senses and nostalgia of the culture seeking tourist or an urbanized yuppy.


  1. VGPAL4:29 AM

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  2. Anonymous1:13 PM

    Fascinating, Jayanthi. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I really enjoy reading this post about the folk music. More power to them and you for bringing them to us. Commendable and brilliant post, Jayanthi:)

  4. This is so interesting and unique take to another unusual occupation. I loved how you described the history and then you met them right here in Bangalore. Awesome post!

  5. Wow! Now this is right up my alley... My storytelling mentor travels to India regularly to listen to performances like this. I love epics, but I don't usually get to hear them performed in the traditional way, so I read them whenever I can. I would love to witness a performance in person one day...

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

  6. These traditional folk arts are nearly dying and it is people like Bhopa who are trying to keep the art form alive!


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