“I beg to differ that Punjab has kept its folk tradition alive… where do you hear Heer in its purest form today? I agree the independent Punjabi music market is thriving, but it is all Punjabi pop. And it’s the same case with other states of India,” says renowned folk singer and this year’s Padma Shri awardee Malini Awasthi.
In Chandigarh for a concert at the Tagore Theatre to celebrate the International Women’s Day courtesy Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi, Awasthi talks at length about reviving the folk tradition, being a proud feminist and how she believes in issues and ideologies and not political parties. It was in October last that Awasthi participated along with Madhur Bhandarkar and Anupam Kher in March for India in Delhi. “I am all for freedom of expression, but not at the cost of breaking a nation. We all need to learn to co-exist,” says Awasthi.
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It’s Women’s Day, and Awasthi feels that women don’t need to become like men. “Instead, it should be the other way round — men should emulate women. We should take pride in being a woman, in our feminism,” says Awasthi, who, to elevate the status of women and celebrate the girl child, has tweaked an old Bhojpuri song to Meri bitiya ke mal deo tel and created a song on Sita’s birth.
The biggest strength of any folk art, she notes, is its power to act as a unifier. “It includes everyone in its fold, irrespective of caste, colour, creed, sex, religion, economic status… the folk form sees no bias or difference. It’s the most positive form of art and music. It addresses society and is undertaken as a group activity. Look at how there is a folk song for every occasion, how beautiful that is,” says Awasthi.
Although trained in classical music by legendary Hindustani classical singer Girija Devi, Awasthi found herself drawn to the rooted nature of the folk music. “You either have that folk feeling within you or not. I found mine and I started pursuing it from 2000 onwards,” says Awasthi who sings in Awadhi, Bundelkhandi and Bhojpuri, and presents in Thumri and Kajri.
With commercial music eating into the folk space and cinema and television diluting the language, Awasthi feels that in order to revive the folk arts, the government should introduce it at school level through a small booklet of general knowledge about one’s region. “Unfortunately, our own Bhojpuri cinema has maligned the reputation of a state and its people. No woman can watch any of the Bhojpuri films. It has been reduced to sleaze and jokes.”
At her end, she has been running her organsiation, Son Chiriya, a platform for local folk artists. After Bollywood songs like Sundar Susheel (Dum Laga Ke Haisha), and Dil Mera Muft Ka (Agent Vinod), Awasthi is now working on an album and looking forward to two songs in the film Laali Ki Shaadi Mein Laddoo Deewana starring Akshara Haasan and Vivaan Shah.