Memories Unveiled – Backstage with Bhanwari Devi

 

The rigour of rehearsing for hours at a stretch seems to have caught up with 50 year old Bhanwari Devi on the afternoon of October 20. The renowned Rajasthani folk singer is due to be on stage with the Gypsy Allstars for one of the most anticipated acts of Jodhpur Riff 2013 this evening. Her sound-check for the act is on soon. But she’s running a fever. She’s lying on a couch in a room at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, where her performance will take place. On a table next to her is a plate with slices of apple and a paper cup full of black tea. “What does she want,” asks Hedda Leonardi, manager of the Gypsy Allstars, when Bhanwari asks for some salt to add to the pieces of apple in Hindi. Leonardi seems a little nervous. The Gypsy Allstars have been rehearsing with Bhanwari for a few days now. She is an important part of the show they have planned. But Bhanwari’s face, famously veiled when she sings, is the epitome of calm as she waits for her sound-check. She has collaborated with many celebrated musicians before this, among them singer Rekha Bhardwaj and Sona Mohapatra for Jodhpur Riff, and Hard Kaur for Coke Studio, and performed at festivals such as the Edinburgh International Festival. She seems confident of being able to deliver.

Seven hours later she is backstage with her 26 year old son Krishan Bhopa, laughing with a group of Manganiyar musicians who have their act before hers. They are a group of about 20 in all, a mix of young and old. They are seated around the green room in groups of four or five. Some of them are tuning or practicing pieces of music on their instruments. Bhanwari is the only female musician in the room. Her veil has been pulled back from her face, covering only her head now. In two hours, when she goes on stage, it will be back on again. Manganiyars who enter the room greet her with a Namaste. A few touch her feet.

Krishan pulls out a photo album from his bag. The pages are made of textured hand-made paper on which photographs have been stuck on with glue. The first photograph is one of a smiling Bhanwari, her head covered. She’s looking off camera. There are many snapshots of Bhanwari performing at various music festivals. Also, there are candid moments from their travels. A widow for over a decade, Bhanwari, has had nine children. Of her three daughters, one passed away when she was young. Two others are married. Of her six sons, four are too young to work and are either studying, or helping in farming the land she has back at her village. Two of them Krishan, a farmer, and Inder, a driver, work full time. They are also the only two children to have pursued music as a career alongside their other professions. They play the dholak as well as the harmonium. They accompany her when she tours to perform.

There are photographs of other musicians in the album too. One is a close up of a girl, wearing dark lipstick and heavy make-up, and singing into a mike. Her head is covered by a portion of her red sari, that has a golden border. One of the older Manganiyar points towards a lanky, bespectacled young man in his group and bursts out laughing. Bhanwari peers over his shoulder at the boy and begins to giggle. “That’s him in the photo, when he was a child,” she says. “He was dressed like a girl when he was singing.” He was 12 when the picture was taken. Now he’s 20. He takes the album and starts leafing through it with a group of other Manganiyars in another corner.

Also in the album are a few images that aren’t stuck, which lie loosely between the pages. There is one of Bhanwari and Inder bending over and touching a wave as it washes over their feet. Both of them are looking up into the camera and grinning. “Juhu Chowpatty (a beach in Mumbai),” she says. “That was the first time I saw the sea.”

There is another photo, at the beach, of Krishan alone. He is wearing a shirt and trousers and sunglasses. His hands are on his hips and he’s looking into the distance. I tell Bhanwari he looks like a hero from a Bollywood film. She throws her head back and laughs the loudest I have heard her laugh so far. Bhopa smiles sheepishly.

Soon enough she is called to perform. With the veil now pulled over her face, obfuscating the smile, she quietly walks on to the stage. Her seemingly disembodied voice takes over the entire performance. The audience tunes out of everything else. The strength of her song is awe-inspiring and formidable. Only, I can still hear the echo of the laughter backstage.

 

(Image: Bhanwari Devi and Krishan Bhopa at her rehearsal with the Gypsy Allstars. Jodhpur RIFF/ Oijo)