There’s a look of uncertainty on Saraswati Devi’s face. A resident of Delhupur in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, the now 94-year-old mumbles a few words, pauses, and looks around before trying again. The strain is evident as she gives it another go, before shaking her head in dismay. “It has been so many years and it gets really hard to remember the words," she says.

Her struggle finally bears fruit: She stitches together a few words and repeats them, this time with a tune in tow. From behind the camera, film-maker Simit Bhagat breaks into a smile.

This was two years ago, when the writer and documentary film-maker first heard of the rich tradition of Bhojpuri folk music, and set out to learn more about it, the first stop being Delhupur. When he researched the subject, he stumbled upon the name of another artist, Ajay Mishra, 46, and decided to meet him. That first meeting made him realize the need to document these songs, and after returning home to Mumbai, he quit a lucrative career in an international NGO to set up The Bidesia Project—a not-for-profit initiative to conserve and promote Bhojpuri folk music.

The archive is crucial at a time when there are limited platforms for the artists even in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The younger generation, glued to new Bhojpuri music in the hope that they too will become famous some day, has kept away from the folk form.

“While talking about folk music in India, you usually think about music from Rajasthan, Gujarat or Bengal. On the other hand, the notion of Bhojpuri music today is about obscene lyrics and blaring beats. That first meeting gave me a wholly different perspective to it," says Bhagat.

What got Bhagat’s attention initially was a genre known as Birha, which essentially spoke about the pain of separation. Back in 1834, a system of indentured labour had been started by the British after slavery was abolished. Indian workers were promised a better life in then British colonies such as Fiji, Guyana and Mauritius. Only once they reached their destinations did they realize that they were working for a pittance and were stranded in an alien land, away from their loved ones. The memories of home revived Birha and led to more songs, which have been kept alive since.

“Few had an idea of how far they were going. They were made to work long hours in miserable conditions. After a hard day’s work, they would gather in a common area and sing these folks songs, which was the only thing that they could hold on to in terms of identity in that strange land. And back home, there were other songs being written about separation as well," Bhagat says.

Even after the practice was abolished in 1917, they had no means of returning to India. “So these communities had little choice but to make the new country their home," he adds.

Gopal Maurya (right) with his troupe. Photographs Courtesy Simit Bhagat
Gopal Maurya (right) with his troupe. Photographs Courtesy Simit Bhagat

The oral tradition had never been comprehensively documented until The Bidesia Project. Most of the composers are unknown, but artists like Gopal Maurya continue to sing these songs even today.

“This part of our history got lost as we chose to focus on the independence struggle, but it has been kept alive through Bhojpuri folk music," Bhagat says.

Three descendants of these communities from the Caribbean islands, Mauritius and Fiji have even reached out to The Bidesia Project in an effort to trace their roots. “A few anglicized their names to conceal their identity. But the next generation wants to know more about their origins," Bhagat says.

Besides Birha, renowned musicians such as Mahendra Mishra and Bhikari Thakur from Chhapra district in Bihar wrote songs that reflected the state of society. During the 1900s, such was the draw of people like Thakur that people from faraway villages would arrive days in advance for his performances.

“He was known as the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri music—they called him Rai Bahadur. Besides migration, he wrote about contemporary issues, such as daughters being married off young, which few would speak about at the time. Today, other artists write about lynching and how society has been divided by it," Bhagat says.

Additionally, there are genres such as Chaiti and Baramasa, which talk about the seasons, or Jatsaar, songs sung by women while grinding grain. Once electric grinders came about, these songs faded away.

“The beauty of these songs is that when an artist hears it, he is free to add another verse to what is already existing. And it gradually evolves into a complete composition. This is exactly how it was back in the day as well," says Bhagat.

Saraswati Devi, 94. Photographs Courtesy Simit Bhagat
Saraswati Devi, 94. Photographs Courtesy Simit Bhagat

His journey started with a two-week motorcycle ride in 2017 across the UP-Bihar belt to meet these artists, while learning about others through word of mouth. The recordings would be impromptu, usually in a temple, in the fields or by the river. Bhagat then reached out and created a small team of volunteers, comprising poets and translators, to better understand the meaning of the words. Since January, the archive has gathered 125 songs performed by around 25 artists. They hope to reach out to more artists.

Along the way, Bhagat realized that few from the next generation were taking to the art form. “How we can provide a platform for the music to be heard and create livelihood opportunities for them? If it pays, it will encourage youngsters to pick it up and also change the notion of Bhojpuri music being vulgar," Bhagat says.

One can hear some of the artists on the Facebook page and YouTube channel of The Bidesia Project, and a performance collaboration with a co-working space is on the anvil. Online and live gigs have also been planned.

Bhagat realized he was on the right track when he met other artists from Jaunpur, the region Saraswati Devi hails from and learnt none of them had heard the songs he had recorded with her.

“Saraswati Devi is 94 today and barely speaks. I managed to record four songs, which would otherwise have been lost forever. And she’s just one of many such artists in this region," Bhagat says.

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