It was a nifty Rajasthani folk fusion track that introduced us to 39-year-old Kalpana Patowary a few months ago. A tall Assamese girl in a multi-coloured dress stood next to East India Company vocalist, Papon, and belted out Baisara beera, a track with elements of Rajasthani maand that turned into a dance jam with its heady beats and harmonium interludes. Unshackled by genres, Patowary’s high-pitched, raw and confident voice had the “urban” audiences swaying to the groovy hook and hit Coke Studio @ MTV’s YouTube video over a million times.
A casual ride in a Delhi autorickshaw reveals more. The autowallah is playing a string of Bhojpuri numbers at a crescendo amid the evening din. These include the raunchy Saiyaanji dil maange re gamchha bichhayi ke and Dheere dheere daalo sayiyaan ji, and the rollicking Balamwa chhakka maar gayil. The innuendo-laden metaphors may sound crass but what works is the quintessential folk flavour and the power-packed voice of Patowary.
A casual slip of her name, and there is immediate affection in the voice of autowallah Mohanlal Yadav. This is, as he claims, “hamara rock”. It sort of does, qualify as Bhojpuri rock — no roll, no alt, not even indie, just Bhojpuri rock.
Patowary is currently the “reigning queen of the Bhojpuri music industry” and her decade-old body of work is marked with versatility. “Among Bhojpuri speakers, she is a rage, equally popular as a singer of devi geet and popular numbers. When she performs in villages, entire fields become venues and people travel overnight to listen to her,” says filmmaker Surabhi Sharma, whom she featured in her critically acclaimed documentary, Bidesia in Bambai (2013).
Growing up in Guwahati with her folk musician father singing Assamese ballads for a living, Patowary had not in her wildest dreams imagined singing for Bhojpuri films. “I was always performing with my father in the remotest parts of Assam as Bhupen Hazarika would play on the radio. Bhojpuri was nowhere in the vicinity,” says Patowary, who married her high school classmate Parwez Khan and moved to Mumbai in 2001. Soon, she was learning from Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, the doyen of Hindustani classical music.
She found herself singing jingles and remixes at first. After many visits to many composers, she landed a T-Series project, an album called Gawanwa Leja Rajaji (2003) that was a huge hit. “I didn’t know the dialect, its utaar-chadaav and practically nothing about this industry. I also didn’t understand the language,” says Patowary, who had to circumvent her Assamese accent to get the cadence and the rusticity of the Bhojpuri dialect right. Now, if she finds certain lyrics offensive, she asks for the lyrics to be changed.
Nitin Chandra who directed Deswa (2011), the first Bhojpuri film to travel the festival circuit, attests Patowary’s talent. “What has worked for Kalpana is her voice. She’s got a brilliant one. She should use it better,” he says. Patowary differs. “A house has a bedroom, a temple and a kitchen. There is space for every kind of music,” she says.
Her quest for Bhojpuri literature led her to the songs written by Bhikhari Thakur, known to many as the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri literature. Her work on Thakur has resulted in an album titled The Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur. She has also completed a project titled The Sacred Scriptures of Monikoot, which include songs from 15th century Vaishnav Bhakti movement.
For now, Patowary is working on a few Bollywood projects. Her collaboration with Mika Singh on the chart-topper Gandi Baat from Prabhudheva’s otherwise dud R…Rajkumar (2013) has already put her on the music map in Bollywood. She has recorded with Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar and worked on a project with Trilok Gurtu. “But I will keep singing Bhojpuri songs. Those people have given me immense love and affection. I will keep entertaining them,” says Patowary.