A guttural voice opens an iconic story from the Mahabharata. The scene refers to the “Dushasana Vadh” from the war of Kurukshetra — Bhim has just killed the Kaurava. He is now offering Dushasana’s blood to Draupadi to redeem her vow of gracing her hair with Dushasana’s blood.
Teejan Bai, 58, dressed in a bright red sari with a dot of vermillion on her forehead, her hair combed neatly into a long plait, walks with a swagger of gadadhaari Bhim. Her ektaara on her shoulder, Teejan begins to recite the ballad she has picked for the day. “Tohe sharam laaj na aaye Nakul,” she bellows, when he offers her the blood. Seven male musicians sit behind her, obeying every command Teejan puts out for musical arrangement. The harmonium player coaxes an old-style peti into a backnote as Teejan’s voice wafts in the humid air.
“The audience seemed quite excited today, so I chose to showcase an episode from the veer ras. If it’s a serious day with intense audience and my mood permits, I choose to put out the Draupadi cheerharan episode,” says Teejan, minutes after her performance of Pandavani, or the ballads of the Pandavas from the Mahabharata, in Central Park, as part of the Raag Rang Festival organised by Sahitya Kala Parishad
As we chat, Teejan talks about the traditional way of singing Pandavani — a folk singing style where tales from the Mahabharata are narrated. The form originated in Chhattisgarh and was performed exclusively by men. Teejan is the first woman from the Pardhi community (the one known to sing this form) to perform Pandavani. “The day I decided that I was going to sing Pandavani, I was beaten black and blue by my father. No woman had ever dared to sing this style of music. Music, outside of one’s house was considered blasphemous anyway. Since ma and babuji were not letting me sing, I ran away from home and landed at Chandrakhuri,” says Teejan, with a smile, the crimson of her paan-stained teeth competing with the redness of her hair.
Growing up in the sleepy village of Ganiyari, almost 14 km from Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, Teejan was always lapping up bhajans by her mother and Pandavani her grandfather Brijlal Pradhi sang to her. But her singing the form professionally soon had her ostracised from her community — the Pardhi tribe, for being a woman singing Pandavani. “I am glad there were people who loved what I was doing and began inviting me despite me living in a small hut away from everyone. Do you know I have been to Paris eight times now?” says Teejan, who is the recipient of the Padma Shri and a Sangeet Natak Akademi award.
But what bothers Teejan most is that none of her children perform the Pandavani. She has never made them learn either. “But I teach. I have more than 200 students across the world,” says Teejan, who never learnt music formally. “Arey classical training kahan se karenge bitiya? Hum toh bas performance dena jaante hain,” says Teejan, and begins to tune the ektaara, the one she brought along from her village, with that confidence of the Gods she left behind in Ganiyari.