Ire against folk singer's win in Bengali reality show is reminder that folk music is still viewed as 'poor country cousin'
Folk music carries within it a cultural context that makes it an uneasy fit in a talent show format, where versatility across genres is key.
The immensely popular Bengali singing talent show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Zee Bangla created history last weekend. For the first time ever, a folk singer was declared the winner. And that has landed the channel, the show and the judges in a soup.
The comments on Zee Bangla’s Facebook page have been overwhelmingly negative. The judges, all of them reputed musicians, have been accused without evidence of everything, from conspiracy to bias to outright corruption. It reached such a pass that Lopamudra Mitra, herself a renowned singer of both folk music and Rabindrasangeet, had to take to social media to defend her husband, composer Joy Sarkar, who happened to be one of the judges.
“I have lived with Joy Sarkar, a through and through music aficionado. I know him to the core,” she wrote online, indignantly rejecting the charges against him.
No reality show verdict will please everyone. But the furore over Arkadeep Mishra, the folk singer who won the competition, brings up a far more contentious issue than one season’s singing champion. It’s about the very place of folk in mainstream music. “People ask me how a guy who sings folk songs can win the trophy. My question is, why not?” says Mishra.
Bengal has a very rich folk tradition. The music of the wandering minstrel Bauls, inspired by Muslim Sufis and Hindu Vaishnavs, is probably the most famous. But there is also a whole genre of songs penned by the saint and social reformer Lalon Fakir. There is Bhatiali, the river songs of boatmen in a region rich in rivers. There is Kavigan, a singing duel between poets, and the Bhawaiya song of buffalo herders, elephant trainers and cart drivers. But these songs have rarely found a place in singing contests, which remain focused on Bollywood, Bengali film, Bengali modern and semi-classical music, with occasional forays into Rabindrasangeet, or Rabindranath Tagore's songs.
Some say this also points to a class bias. Commenting on the hegemony of the upper caste bhadralok over all aspects of Bengali cultural and political life, Aniket Ghosh writes in Outlook that the “ideal” music associated with “erudition and education” is Rabindrasangeet. “Such has been the dominance of this form of music as embodying Bengali culture, that the music of the masses such as Bhatiali, Bhaoia and Baul styles have largely been pushed to the background,” writes Ghosh.
The irony is Tagore himself freely borrowed from folk melodies, whether Bengali or Scottish, for songs. The other icon of Bengali bhadralok-dom Satyajit Ray often used folk songs and folk music in his films. In Pather Panchali, he uses a twanging single-stringed iktara as the perfect musical accompaniment to the sweet seller walking through the village with his swaying pots of sweets. In his film Hirak Rajar Deshe, he has a very senior folk singer Amar Pal sing a song about the inequities of life that became quite a beloved anthem. But folk music still remains the poor country cousin.
Zee Bangla’s talent show tried to change that by incorporating folk music into the main platform for the past few years. Instead of a folk music special episode, they have made folk singers full-fledged contestants. The folk singer Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya was instrumental in making that happen. A fount of knowledge about folk music, he educated the audience about its history. In 2017, Bhattacharya died in a car accident, but the channel has made sure to include folk singers as contestants every season. However, they’ve never actually won the big prize.
One of the charges levelled against Mishra’s victory is that while other singers are penalised and eliminated because they don't show versatility across genres, folk singers are given a pass. Mishra tells Ananda Bazar Patrika, “Every artist has his own preference. My preference is folk. That does not mean I don’t know other kinds of songs.” But angry music lovers feel that the judges were determined to favour folk to make some larger point about inclusivity at the expense of other finalists who showed more versatility and technical prowess. Mishra retorts, “We wholeheartedly accept a Bollywood song based on a folk song, but can’t accept its truest form with open arms.”
The problem is, it will never technically be a level playing field with a classically trained singer. And it’s not meant to be. Folk songs are meant for ordinary people — farmers, tillers, boatmen. They are earthy and soulful and mark birth, death, marriage, harvest, not technical wizardry. A BBC series Rhythms of India recently focused on all the musical traditions of India, from classical to folk to fusion. The presenter, sarod player Soumik Datta, said in an interview that Kavita Krishnamurti told him in the early days she would practise relentlessly before delivering a single take for a playback session. Now, of course, with musicians recording tracks separately, a singer can give as many takes as she likes. Folk musicians, he pointed out, operate on a different plane. The folk drummers of Kerala play for 10 hours straight with thousands of people following them, and their performance is about both stamina and surrender — a cultural and religious matter, and a spiritual experience. It’s not about one form being better than the other. It’s about all forms getting the respect they deserve.
“Faced with globalisation and urban migration, the most vibrant practices of India’s villages are beginning to fade,” says Datta. Zee Bangla has tried to turn back that tide. Though musicians like Sarwar Khan and Sartaj Khan or Purna Das Baul or Dipali Barthakur or The Kutle Khan Project occasionally break through to mainstream acclaim, folk music carries within it a cultural context that makes it an uneasy fit in a talent show format, where versatility across genres is key.
Hemanga Biswas was a singer and political activist as well as a legendary chronicler of folk music. His daughter Rangili said in an interview, “He firmly believed that folk singing is non-codified,” and its sensibility was defined by geography, history and the culture of a particular region. She dubs it “bahirana, a mode of learning that draws upon the traditions of a particular region, and is firmly rooted in the cultural specificities of the same.”
A music show cannot hold on to that cultural specificity as it tries to make a level playing field out of incomparable genres, judging everything by the same scorecard. That’s like trying to artificially recreate inside a studio something as spontaneous as petrichor or saundhi mitti, the smell of that first rain on sun-baked earth. Perhaps folk music requires its own talent show instead of being shoehorned into this one. It needs patronage, but the danger is when its promoters, however well-intentioned, come across as merely patronising.
As for Arkadeep Mishra, this year’s winner, singer Lopamudra Mitra tells Ananda Bazar Patrika he’s been made to feel like a gallows victim despite having won. Anyway, she says, when another season starts, no one will remember who came first and who came second or third. Eventually it won’t matter whether he is a folk musician or classically trained or a rock star. In the musical rat race, she says, like everyone else, he will have to run alone.
Or as Tagore said, ekla chalo re, which incidentally is itself inspired by a folk Harinaam kirtan folk song.