Khudiram Hajra, a 75-year-old kirtaniya, or kirtan performer, is a resident of Bengal's Rasui village in East Burdwan's Ketugram. Though the name Khudiram is common among Bengalis, this man's legacy lends an inimitable aura to his presence, making him stand out among his several namesakes.
On reaching his village, his wife Sohagi Hajra (65) accompanies me to the riverside in search of Khudiram. While approaching the bank, we notice an elderly man walking in our direction carrying bamboo sticks on his shoulder. He smiles warmly and greets me with a "Jai Nitai", evoking the name of the friend and disciple of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu — a 15th century Indian saint who led a sect of Vaishnavism in Bengal, and is popularly considered an incarnation of Krishna.
Khudiram Hajra on his way back from the banks of the Ajay river
Vaishnavism is a significant Hindu denomination, whose followers are called Vaishnavas. They consider Vishnu or Krishna as their supreme being and spiritual guide, and kirtans are hymns or songs dedicated to the supreme lord.
When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu started his Sankirtana movement (congregational chanting of the Lord's name), people of West Bengal's Nabadwip city — irrespective of their religion — joined him with Mridanga and Mandira (cymbals), singing hymns in protest against the ruler of Nabadwip, Chand Kazi, who had banned the name-chanting and worshipping of Lord Vishnu in his area.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu popularised the song-and-dance tradition for performing kirtans. "In my opinion, kirtans are to assemble people irrespective of their race or caste, irrespective of whether they are rich or poor. It is a form of protest. Kirtans also stand for something new or a new beginning," says Dr Jayita Dutta, Associate Professor at the Department of Bengali at Hooghly Mohsin College.
Khudiram and his wife Sohagi
In Vaishnavism, the sun is believed to be a manifestation of Krishna, and in the Bengali month of Kartik (mid-October to mid-November) the time for his slumber begins. During this period, the kirtan verses sung at dawn by kirtaniyas is known as 'bhorai' — derived from term 'bhor' meaning dawn.
Back in the day, kirtaniyas would wander from one village to another singing the 'bhorai' through the month of Kartik in the early hours of dawn, and wake up to the rising Sun-god. While this tradition has mostly died out, a few artistes from Burdwan and Purulia are struggling to keep it alive; among them belongs Khudiram Hajra.
Hajra was born and brought up in Rasui, and since his childhood, he has been a part of an open-air opera where he was a performer at a Krishna jatra pala (theatre troupe performing the life of Krishna). A man named Mahadev taught him how to perform kirtans.
Khudiram chats with his neighbour Ramprasad
"One day, when I was performing a kirtan on the occasion of Kali Puja, I was confronted by a man who accused me of not having proper rhythm," he says. After this incident, he decided to take proper training from their local music teacher Satyanarayan Ghosh, from whom he learned rhythm and the harmonium. However, on account of discriminatory laws enforced by local brahmin villagers, Hajra was unable to pursue formal education.
"At that time, those who had money and were from a higher cast were considered privileged. My children were also victims of discrimination but now things have changed," he says. "I was happy with the skills I had acquired but was in dire need of money," he adds.
Khudiram on his way to Taora village while performing Kirtan
In 1965, he was invited by the ruling Congress party to perform Namakirtan (a type of kirtan where the lord is praised by his different names) at a cultural event, where he was gifted a harmonium by an officer named Ayub Hosen Khan.
"Our country was in a period of great political and social turmoil; people used to die of hunger. Moreover, every year the flooding of the Ajay river washed away our crops. We were in a very stressful situation," he recalls.
His parents were fond of music, and encouraged him to pursue his love for the same. With sheer force of will and the company of his harmonium, he formed a kirtaniya group, which helped him support his family.
"The brahmins of my village warmed up to me when they saw me doing kirtan. Winning their love was my biggest achievement," he says.
Khudiram with his students
With age and reduced mobility, Hajra can now lug around only a lighter version of his old harmonium, the one gifted to him by the officer. "I still miss the harmonium that officer gave me — that was my first achievement but it felt heavier as I grew old. The one you see beside me weighs much lesser. I like its mild pitch. On exchanging the old one for this, I even got 2,000 rupees," he says.
Khudiram starts his day early with muri (puffed rice) and tea, following which he visits the villages of Baranda, Taora and Billeswar everyday to give music lessons to his students. He teaches Rabindrasangeet, Nazrulgeeti and kirtan. "As gurudakshina, my students offer rice, vegetables, and sometimes money, which helps me," he says, smiling.
Every evening, he visits local temples to perform Namakirtan, and every year through the month of Kartik, he performs 'bhorai' around neighbouring villages.
Khudiram's 'bhorai' till this day, sounds like a defiant protest against the oppression perpetrated by brahmins, especially in his past, even though it later transformed into a bond of friendship between him and his oppressors.
All photographs © Satwik Paul for Firstpost