We are looking for the house of Bijli Rani and Chand Rani in Natwar, a sleepy little village 70 kilometres from Ara, Bihar. In the distance, a tractor passes by, jangling to the raucous beat of Kamariya kare lapa lap. Shops play tinny Bhojpuri numbers, all heavily auto-tuned.
In this narrow alley, everyone knows of Chand and Bijli. Three decades ago, the two sisters were the stars of the Bhojpuri live performance industry. They were not coy women singing about love and biraha. They were, like the protagonist of Avinash Das’s film Anaarkali of Aarah, troubadours of desire. They sang songs, explicit about lust and longing: Raja chhu ke jani chhodi bada mann karta, or Jobanwa jamp maare choli mein. They knew how to string men along, with a wink and a thumka. They were the toast of the naach, celebrations of marriage, birthdays hosted by the relatively rich and mostly upper-caste men of rural Bihar, where alcohol flowed late into the night.
“When they got on the stage and sang, it was mayhem. In a patriarchal society where women didn’t go out much and did only household chores, here were these singers performing on stage, singing double-meaning songs,” says Patna-based Nirala, who runs the website, bidesia.co.in, and is a researcher of Bhojpuri music.
But Bijli Rani is not home to tell us of those electric nights. She no longer lives here. Nor does Chand.
We find our way to her niece’s house nearby. Roshni Rani is 18 years old, dressed in a black T-shirt and a pair of harem pants. She was 15 when she started singing and dancing in The Great Rekha Rani Theatre Company, led by Bijli’s daughter, Rekha. The troupe charges between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000 for a performance, and Roshni earns almost Rs 15,000 a month in a good season (April-July and October-March, when all weddings and Hindu festivals take place). Roshni’s songs are innuendo-laden, full of playful allusions to sex, and she performs for raucous crowds of men, who whistle, applaud, dance and fire guns.
On one such night of ribaldry in Sasaram, a village in Rohtas district, a bullet nearly killed her.
“This was last year. I was twirling on the stage at a baraat naach, when a bullet grazed the side of my eye and hit me near the left ear. A pistol was fired by a drunk man,” says Roshni, without rancour or rage. Was anyone arrested for the shooting? “They say he is on the run. I don’t believe it though,” she says.
One wayward drunk is not a dealbreaker for her. “There is something about that applause. It wants me to keep dancing,” says Roshni. Her work has taken her to Delhi and she will soon be travelling to other parts of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. She doesn’t underestimate the risk. “[But] risk toh kis kaam mein nahi hai? Shaadi mein bhi toh hai (There is risk in everything, no? Even in getting married),” she says, with a wry smile.
Ara, a town near the confluence of the Sone and Ganga rivers, is at the heart of Anaarkali of Aarah, a film about consent and the life of a musician. Swara Bhaskar plays a pan-chewing, innuendo-slinging Bhojpuri singer, who makes a living by performing lewd songs on stage. The film is loosely based on an incident in 2011, when Chhapra-based Bhojpuri singer, Devi, complained of being molested by vice-chancellor DP Sinha of Jai Prakash Narayan University in Chhapra. Says Das of the character in the film: “She is the singer of these raunchy numbers, she is relatively poor and is low on police priority. As her songs are full of sexual undertones, people assume that she is inviting them to touch her.”
Devi, 39, recalls being the object of such impertinence. “The men begin to consider you their property and misbehave on the stage. I wasn’t even singing anything lewd, yet a drunk public figure got on the stage and tried to touch me,” says Devi, in a phone conversation from Mumbai. She took back her complaint after Sinha, who almost lost his job, apologised to her in public. But she also moved to Mumbai, and began singing more “acceptable” numbers and songs of devotion.
Another thread in the film comes from the story of Tarabano Faizabadi, a singer who had to flee Faizabad after being sexually harassed by neighbours and those in the audience. She is believed to have come to Delhi’s Seelampur. The filmmaker’s search yielded no results but his research led him to Munnibai, of the Munni Orchestra Group in Ara. Once a nautanki artiste, 49-year-old Munnibai now performs on stage, besides running a brothel.
Dressed in a blue-and-yellow sari, she welcomes us with paan in a music room that has seen better days. A mattress lies on the floor, and dusty harmoniums and tablas line a shelf on the wall. First, we must speak to her “aadmi” (patron) for permission to quote her. That out of the way, Munnibhai is a little less wary, though still guarded about the past. She was the daughter of a courtesan, who grew up in Ara amid music, dance and the idea of entertaining men. “I learnt music at the feet of the gurus. I took taaleem from them and began to do mujra naach when I was 17-18 years old,” she says.
But what she learnt is not what she performs now. “Who was listening to that music? Sunnewale toh khatam ho gaye ab. You can’t go hungry after a while,” says Munnibai. As competitors and age caught up, prostitution was the only way out.
In Bihar, most women who sing and dance belong to nomadic communities such as Nat and Bhaat, who have been involved with the arts for centuries. Many others are from the “lower” castes, poor and without an education.
When Roshni’s mother passed away half a decade ago, her father asked his sister to take care of her, and she found refuge in Bijli Rani’s home. Theirs was a family with a history of music, even if those glory days are only the stuff of family conversations. “Ma [Bijli Rani] was not happy with the idea of us learning the songs she sang on stage. But she would sit with a baaja (instrument) and teach us something that her mother, my naani, taught her. These were the songs she learnt as a child while accompanying her parents for nautanki performances,” says Rekha, about the songs that are no longer sung at any naach.
Shyama Devi, Bijli Rani’s mother, was an important figure in Bihar’s nautanki tradition. One of her contemporaries was Gulab Bai, the first female nautanki singer, who was awarded a Padma Shri in 1990, six years before she died. Nautanki, the operatic style of Indian folk theatre, originated in Uttar Pradesh, but travelled with its performers to Bihar. Shyama Devi was married to an instrument maker and tabla player, and the two performed together in a mandli. Little Bijli would accompany the two and watch wide-eyed, as her mother would “transform into various characters”.
During her time, nautanki music had not lost its sheen of respectability. Gulab Bai and Shyama Devi sang songs written by playwright and folk singer Bhikhari Thakur, and writer and freedom fighter Mahendra Misir. Thakur, also called the “Shakespeare of Bhojpuri”, is well known for creating the 20th century theatre form, bidesia, which spoke of caste, communalism and upheld women’s rights, among others. Misir was a folk singer and the pioneer of purvi, a form of Bhojpuri folk, and wrote songs for all the courtesans who lived between Benaras and Calcutta. “But we love to erase history. So, if you ask people in Bihar, they’ll say that he wrote deshbhakti geet. These men wrote of a woman’s heart, its pain and triumphs. Just because people aren’t comfortable with the idea of Misir writing for courtesans and yet want to own him as a cultural symbol, they hide behind a few deshbhakti geet,” says Nirala.
From Gulab Bai and Shyama Devi to Munnibhai is a steep fall in the arts. “With the passage of time, raga-based singing went into the background. Poverty not only led to double-meaning songs but also prostitution,” says Das. But, as his film shows, for many women, the music is a way to earn some freedom.
Almost 35 km west of Ara is Samvarsha, a village near Jagdishpur, where “party malik” Nirmal Gupta runs The Great Indian Sita Theatre Company.
Its lead singer is 21-year-old Nisha Vishwakarma aka Mogra, currently the talk of many villages because of her high-pitched voice and tuneful compositions. “She’s not pretty, but she is our T-Series. I can gamble thousands in her name and her voice wouldn’t disappoint,” says Gupta. Nisha is a lanky wide-eyed girl from Korba in Chhattisgarh, with a nasal voice as unmissable as her pink lipstick. As a manager and owner of the company, Gupta is particular about security and ensures there is a circle of barbed wire when the girls take to the stage.
Many of the women in the industry now are not from Bihar. Nirala believes that has a lot to do with the state’s patriarchal social culture. “Where are the female writers, poets and musicians of Bihar? Our social fabric has patriarchy woven in it to such an extent that men haven’t allowed their wives and daughters to learn music and dance. Instead, they have brought women from other parts of the country to entertain them,” says Nirala. “Their poverty has been exploited and nautanki has reached its present, degraded condition.”
Right outside the half-built, airless room, where she lives with six other girls, mostly from Chhattisgarh, Nisha tells us she loves the spotlight. “When I go to other villages now, people come and ask me, ‘Aap Nishaji hain na?’ It makes me very happy. Do you know I have also cut an album?” she says, and plays a song she had recorded with a local music company in Raipur. She makes close to Rs 12,000 a month, a little more than the girls who only dance.
Nisha is from an OBC family and her father is a carpenter back home. “My brothers used to learn classical music and I would listen. I love music. So I came here to mausaji (Gupta), who helps with these live performances. As a female singer, to find success in Bihar, this is what you sing. I live for the applause. I feel so good when crowds go crazy when I am on the stage,” says Nisha.
Her parents are not happy with the choice she has made. “They don’t want me to sing and dance as it is not considered nice for good girls. But it’s an art to stand on stage and perform,” she says.
Our search for Bijli Rani ends at Kela Mandi in Patna. Next to a row of coaching classes, the 51-year-old lives with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The wrinkles show from under a quick coat of make-up. She is wearing a yellow anarkali kurta and her hair is coloured brown. “I couldn’t live in that atmosphere anymore. So I moved out. I wanted my children to be away from the ashleelta (vulgarity) that is now the hallmark of Bhojpuri industry. Gone are the days when people came to listen. Now they want to stare at our bodies. I have seen and done both sides of it. But no more,” says Bijli Rani. On our request, she sings one of her favourite numbers, Piyawa jaat bada police je behaliya mein, from the film Gaadi No 11. The autotune machines are far away in Delhi, where she now records, and the song in her unadorned voice reminds one of biraha ke geet (songs of separation).
Bijli Rani was 12 when she began performing with her parents. With the decline of nautanki, and the audience moving to racy tracks, the tone and tenor of her music changed. Bhojpuri films were the trendsetters and Bijli Rani had to keep up. She also had to learn to dance. “You couldn’t stand in front of the microphone and sing,” says Bijli Rani. While music gave her money and fame, it did not shield her from violence at home.
Something, she says, snapped in her after her husband, who would manage her performances, threw her off a moving train because she questioned him on his affair with another woman. “He would just keep asking me for money for alcohol and sleep with other women. When I questioned him, he pushed me out,” she says.
That was 18 years ago. She was rushed to a hospital by the bystanders. She kept singing to earn a living, educated her children, and tried to keep them away from music and dance. “But I could not save Rekha. She wasn’t talented. Which is why she is singing those erotic songs,” she says. Bijli Rani’s latest album, Bob Cut Mein, was released in 2012. She also does small roles in Bhojpuri films. She has increased her devi geet performances at jagrans.
Has she seen Anaarkali of Aarah yet? “I hardly go to cinema halls. But it’s interesting if the issues of the singers in Bihar are being highlighted. I hope people understand that those women are human beings. Men should not consider them their property,” says Bijli Rani.