New Delhi: I laid the bricks; built the buildings; floor by floor;
floor by floor made Hindustan.
Now, I and my son often keep staring at the sky.
Brother o brother; labourer bhaiya; we were made peasants.
But O Ram, I and my son now sleep in hunger.
These lines are a loose English translation of a few verses plucked from a song – ‘Bhaiya O Bhaiya’ – set in a Purbanchali dialect.
Though recorded in 2018 for the award-winning short film Bhor, the song has been released officially by the film’s director just recently. This was because the score – sung on several virtual music sessions during the national lockdown by its singer Kalpana Patowary – was widely shared on social media, including in a tweet by former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi.
— Rabri Devi (@RabriDeviRJD) May 21, 2020
Speaking to The Wire from Guwahati, Kalpana said the song received considerable attention from listeners, primarily in the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar belt, only now “because it is a song of the times”.
“We saw such heart-rending images (during the migrant crisis due to the coronavirus-induced national lockdown), like that little boy sleeping over a suitcase and being dragged by his mother. So many people died on the way in an inhuman manner. The hardship that these people face in their daily lives is not new, but the coronavirus crisis forced many of us to confront it and it shocked a lot of people. I think the song had something that people could relate to while watching what was unfolding on our streets,” she said in a telephonic interview.
Aside from being a popular folk artist and a celebrated Bhojpuri singer, Kalpana is also a BJP member – she joined the party in July 2018 in Patna in the presence of then-party national president Amit Shah and Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Modi. During the conversation, the singer, though, expressed her disappointment about her senior colleague in the Bhojpuri film industry and fellow party member Manoj Tiwari for not speaking up for the migrant population in their time of need.
“I respect him but still want to point out that I was a bit upset with him, because after all, he was put in an important position by the party mainly keeping in mind his connect with the large Bihari/Purbanchali migrant community of Delhi,” she said.
As to why she was seen reaching out to several migrant workers stuck in various states, including those from her home state Assam, Kalpana said, “I felt that the section of people walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes were the ones who had made me. I am today a popular Bhojpuri singer only because people like them celebrated my songs.”
Kalpana is also of the opinion that the long-incarcerated peasant leader and anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) activist from her home state Assam – Akhil Gogoi – should be freed from jail. “Akhil’s thinking and ideology may be or may not be different from mine, different from my party, but finally we all represent Assam and will have to realise that two brothers from a family may have different beliefs and thinking and may often fight over it but finally, they are brothers. Like I am Assamese, he is too. I don’t believe in crushing thoughts opposed to mine,” she stated.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Who wrote the song ‘Bhaiya O Bhaiya’? When did you sing it?
The song was originally part of Bhor, directed by Kamakhya Narayan Singh, who is also from Assam like I am. It was collected by Vijay Singh whom I have not met and was put to music by Bapi Tutul. Bapi Tutul is a popular name in Bollywood circles for background music; he has worked in several Ram Gopal Varma films too. The song was used as a background score in Bhor – not in the film, but when the casting titles at the end was rolling. The film was about casteism in the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar belt, set amidst the Musahar community.
But when I sang the song, I felt a special connection. As an artiste who has grown up listening to Bhupen Hazarika and also as a musician who has researched deeply the songs of Bhikhari Thakur, I felt the song was special. I didn’t get any financial remuneration but I still sang it because I felt the song itself was a form of remuneration and will be one of my memorable songs. The film went to various festivals but the song was never promoted. I began to increasingly feel that I myself must take the song forward and sing it during my stage shows, which I did.
The song has become considerably popular only now.
Yes. That’s because listeners could connect with the song better now. The country saw the massive exodus of the migrants from urban areas back to their villages because of the national lockdown, and it grew worse by the day. We saw such heart-rending images, like that little boy sleeping over a suitcase and being dragged by his mother. So many people died on the way in an inhuman manner. The hardship that these people face in their daily lives is not new, but the coronavirus crisis forced many of us to confront it and it shocked a lot of people. I think the song had something that people could relate to while watching what was unfolding on our streets.
From the time the lockdown was announced and the migrant community began to get restless to go back home, I opened any virtual singing session with this song – realising that it was a song of the times. (She also sang it on sessions organised to mark the International Labour Day on May 1) After about a month, the director of the film also felt its [growing popularity] and released the song officially.
You were quite proactive during that time, helping migrant labourers from Assam stuck in various states.
Yes, aside from humanity pushing me to do it, I had two other reasons for it. In 2019, I had lost my sister in Bengaluru. (She reportedly died an unnatural death in an alleged domestic violence case) We had to fight for the custody of her seven-year-old daughter. During that fight, I saw the ugly belly of the system. That fight is still on. The child didn’t want to go with her father, said as much to the child rights commission but was still sent with my brother-in-law only because he was the biological father and we as such had no right over her, though she wanted to be with us. She was screaming when she was dragged away from us. The whole incident made me realise that she, even if a girl child, had asserted her right, somewhere the system failed to hear her.
So when the whole migrant crisis unfolded, I was in that disturbed state of mind. When I saw little children in such pathetic conditions on the streets due to the lockdown, some question arose within me: Why are the state and the national child rights protection commissions silent on it? Why are they not coming forward to help such children? In a crisis situation, such bodies needed to show their worth. After all, they are paid for it.
Importantly, I felt that the section of people walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes were the ones who had made me. I am today a popular Bhojpuri singer only because people like them celebrated my songs. I belong to them. I am not a rich person’s musician. I have also sung a lot of songs based on migration, songs that revolved around the term ‘Pardesi’. I realised only now how migration has been a part of their cultural being too and therefore so many songs have that ‘Pardesi’ angle. I strongly felt my popularity would be of no use if I don’t stand for the people who have made me popular. I felt I will have to at least speak up for them.
I also felt my senior colleague in Bhojpuri films and fellow party member Manoj Tiwariji, who was in Delhi at that time, could have done more. After all, he was in a powerful position then in the National Capital Region. I respect him but still want to point out that I was a bit upset with him, because after all, he was put in an important position by the party mainly keeping in mind his connect with the large Bihari/Purbanchali migrant community of Delhi.
Poor people don’t want much. In response to the recent illegal coal mining issue in the Dehing Patkai rainforests in Assam and the continuing Baghjan fire tragedy in the state, I have responded in a similar manner. I have said that when the state can take so much from their areas, why can’t they (the locals) be provided basic things, like free education, a house, a means of livelihood? That is not much to ask in return for what the state is getting from their region. My response to the migrant issue was along the same lines.
Won’t it be seen as speaking against your party?
Why should it be? I am not speaking against the party, only talking about our responsibilities, my responsibilities too. Politics doesn’t mean only criticising the opposition members. We need to do a bit of soul searching too. Finally, the party will also see its advantage; I am speaking up for such people as a party member and it will help.
I must also point out here that though the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJD) is our opponent in Bihar, the song you had referred to was shared by the former chief minister of Bihar Rabri Devi on Twitter because it signified something. It must be said here that it was only during the Lalu Prasad Yadav regime that the rachnawali of Bhikari Thakur, who belonged to a lower-caste community, could finally be published through the Rashtra Bhasha Parishad.
Talking about the migrant issue during the pandemic, many in Assam also realised that the state – traditionally a region that attracted migrants – has also become a migrant producing region.
Yes. I have seen this very closely in UP and Bihar but it needed the pandemic to make me realise that it is an ugly reality of Assam also. People like you and me had gone out of Assam not because we didn’t get two square meals a day but for better opportunities in the fields that we have chosen. But this lot of migrants from the state had to leave their home for livelihood reasons.
During the recent crisis, so many young labourers from our indigenous communities had contacted me from various states seeking help for food supply or to return home. It is worth pondering. We will have to try and trace the reasons behind it.
I am not an expert on this issue but I want to give an example. There is a popular Facebook page from Bihar called Muzzafarpur Live. Muzzafarpur, many would know, is famous for its litchis. During one such live sessions on that page, I had asked the local people about the state of litchi-based factories due to the pandemic. Most people said they don’t have too many of those there anyway. So what I understood was that there have been no steps taken to create better employment opportunities in Muzzafarpur around a thing that the place is otherwise famous for. So will it not then trigger migration?
In Assam too, the solution to address migration must be through tapping such resources, say the bamboo that is so abundantly grown.
Why are you calling this particular song a protest song? Are you looking at singing more such songs in that genre?
It is a protest song because in the suffering of the mazdoor also lies his protest against the injustice done to him.
In Assam, we have had a tradition of protest songs. But what happened during the time of say, Bhupen Hazarika, is not there anymore. Kamal Kataki, who used to be with Hazarika, has written a few such songs for me to sing. My father also had composed one song which I had sung. In the future, I also want to sing in other languages that we have in Assam. I strongly feel that such songs have not been given enough space on the mainstream Assamese stage and I want to change that.
Aside from the need to sing protest songs in Assam, I feel there is also a need for such songs in the UP-Bihar belt. I would like to work in that regard too.
Finally, many prominent people including artistes in Assam have requested the state government to release peasant leader Akhil Gogoi from jail. Do you want to say anything about it?
Yes. Akhil’s thinking and ideology may be or may not be different from mine, different from my party, but finally we all represent Assam and will have to realise that two brothers from a family may have different beliefs and thinking and may often fight over it but finally, they are brothers. Like I am Assamese, he is too. I don’t believe in crushing thoughts opposed to mine. We don’t have such a political culture in Assam.
But like in the rest of India, it is slowly seeping in the state too. I will give you an example of a better political culture. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not support Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi’s policies but would oppose them beautifully, say, through a poem. He would attack the policies of the government but never the personality of leaders. In fact, it said a lot about his personality also. I think keeping this in mind is very important. The beauty of Indian democracy lies in unity in diversity of different ideologies – just as in our incredibly diverse Indian culture.