From Bhojpur to Bambai, in song & spirit

(You can also read this here)

Kalpana Patowary and Ramanujan Pathak (Below) in stills from the film

On a sultry Mumbai evening, Vijaylal Yadav is on stage, singing songs of home, love, loss and belonging. “The wife wants a pair of jeans, but her husband refuses. ‘I can give you a mobile phone, but not pants’, he tells her over the phone,” Yadav explains in Hindi, before he starts singing in Bhojpuri. The ‘wife’ is now pining for her husband, calling him back, demanding to know where he’s gone, leaving her all alone. The audience cheers.

Another evening, another dais. A young girl and boy, flanked by dancers dressed in sequin-laden lehengas and garish makeup, are singing love songs, flirting in rhyme for the benefit of a rather massive, excited audience. “I poke my beak in your cup of nectar,” is the (translated) refrain that the boy directs at his duet-partner, who simply giggles in return and eggs him on. Meanwhile, the audience, largely comprised of young, seemingly hormonal men, are more interested in watching the dancers with mouths wide open. Some are even taking pictures or shooting videos on their mobile phones, seduced by the song, the dance and the warm Mumbai night.

Shooting these ‘scenes’ as they play out in real life, with an unobtrusive camera, is filmmaker Surabhi Sharma. Bidesia in Bambai, her latest documentary on migrant music, covers a musical culture that is now transforming itself into an industry in the suburbs of Mumbai. As she walks through the alleys of Adarsh Nagar and Nalasopara, both residential spaces far away from the main city, and questionable in terms of legality, she finds yet another example of how music becomes the reason for and means of survival for an entire community.

“In 2008, I completed a film called Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean, which was about a different manifestation of Bhojpuri migrant music. Chutney, with elements of both Bhojpuri folk and Bollywood, gave me my first experience of making a film on music. It made me wonder about the kinds of histories that musical cultures can hold within them,” says Sharma.

In the film, we see several examples of these histories that Sharma set out in search of — the Bhojpuri appears as a migrant, a poor man, a taxi/auto driver or rickshaw-puller, a man proud of his language and assertive of his space in this city constantly at war with ‘outsiders’. We also witness the processes of a bustling metropolis viewed through the eyes of this man, and of how he attempts to negotiate with it.

The music, too, as any contemporary form, has the power to re-invent itself and assimilate foreign influences. Apart from folk songs of departure and arrival that Ramanujan Pathak specialises in, there are also the raunchy ditties, the bhajans, the Bollywood style beats in Kalpana Patowary’s studio sessions and songs devoted to their identity. “Unlike Bollywood, this is a brand of music that is not even attempting to reach out to a pan-Indian audience,” points out Sharma. In other words, it might be welcoming of foreign influences, but it is also proud of its own legacy, and caters to an identity.

Bidesia in Bambai is the latest example of a growing trend — that of looking at music as more than just a cultural artefact. It is now viewed as a carrier and capsule of that very culture from which it emerges. Sharma says that Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade, a documentary that put the spotlight on protest music by dalits in Mumbai and brought the Kabir Kala Manch to fore, reassured her that it wasn’t necessary to explain the music to create a narrative about contemporary politics, society and culture. “Now, there seems to be a conscious acknowledgement that music can be the site where socio-political tensions are released,” she observes.

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