Star of the Folk – An Interview with Kalpana Patowary

Kalpana Patowary, 35, is one of Bhojpuri music’s most popular singers today. She is often referred to as ‘the Bhojpuri queen’. Originally from Assam, she was inducted into music by her father, Bipin Chandra Nath, an Assamese folk singer. She is also a disciple of the legendary Hindustani classical singer, Ustad Gulam Mustafa Khan. Although her first language is Assamese, she sings in Bhojpuri, Hindi, English, Bengali and 23 other languages.

Patowary made her debut in mainstream Indi pop with her remixed album ‘My Heart is Beating’ in 2001. Her first Bhojpuri album, ‘Gawanwa Leja Rajaji’, released in 2003, was a bestseller and established her as a prominent figure in the Bhojpuri music scene. Despite her mainstream success, Patowary has continued her interest in various lesser known folk forms. Her most recent album, for instance, titled ‘The Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur’ is the first recording of the work of Bhikari Thakur. Known as the ‘Shakespeare of Bhojpuri’, Bhikari Thakur was an Indian playwright, lyricist, folk singer and social activist, who developed the folk theatre form of ‘Bidesia’. Fresh off a special performance of Thakur’s songs at Jodhpur Riff,  Patowary is surrounded by a small group of admirers as she settles down on an empty stage for this interview with ‘Riff Diaries’.


You are originally from Assam. How did you come across the work of Bhikari Thakur? What about his songs appealed to you?

My father is actually a folk singer and through him I was introduced to Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, who’s considered a god in Assam. I’ve been inspired by him since childhood. He wasn’t only a singer or only a lyricist, or only a music director. He had his own ideas and thoughts. His belief in the Marxist philosophy, for instance, had led to him writing songs which were revolutionary, like Dhola he Dhola and Ganga Behti ho Kyon, which he translated too later on. These songs really influenced me.

When I came to Bombay I came with big dreams. But I was struggling and there wasn’t much of a choice about which songs I would be paid to sing. In Assam I had sung a lot of Western songs in a band. And in Bombay I first did a remix song with Times Music— My Heart is Beating. Through them I got in touch with T-Series Super Cassettes and they called me to sing and that’s how I was introduced to the world of Bhojpuri music. Overnight, suddenly, Kalpana became a Bhojpuri singer. Whatever people wanted me to sing I would sing— whatever the lyricists wanted. And I did a lot of work in the Bhojpuri film industry.

But, maybe with age and maturity, I felt, ‘Who is like Dr. Bhupen Hazarika here (in Bhojpuri music)?’ I thought about this for some time, and two or three names came to me. Bhikari Thakur was one of them. Another is Mahendra Misir, and then there’s Vidyapati, who’s a famous Mithila poet. I found Bhikari Thakur’s name very strange. Bhikari (beggar) and Thakur (lord)— they’re like opposites. So I wondered: ‘What is this?’ Then I found out that he was a hajam, a nai (both these words mean ‘barber’) and an uneducated villager. Despite this he was knowledgeable. The things he writes about… I am stunned at how anyone can write like this, on such complex issues, without even being educated. Like his work Kalyug Prem. Even the phrase ‘Kalyug Prem’— how can a layman even understand this concept, let alone express it so well? In it he was talking about wine addiction and using that idea as a metaphor. Many homes in the villages had been destroyed because of alcohol addiction and that was what he was referring to, directly.They’re poor people, they don’t have money, yet they’ll spend on alcohol and hit their wives. This is still going on. We sit in metros thinking that everything’s fine but it isn’t.

There was something else I had begun thinking about as well. Many youngsters come on musical reality shows, nowadays, especially a lot of girls. When I started 10 years back, girls singing was looked down upon in the world of Bhojpuri music, but today, especially on the Mahua Channel (a popular Bhojpuri TV channel) there are a lot of female singers competing with one another and I got the feeling, and heard too, that some of them want to be like me. So I felt a sense of responsibility.

So far I had done mostly ‘item songs’ which were from a completely different world from this. I said: ‘No, I need to do The Legacy of Bhikari Thakur.’ It took me three years to do the research as it was difficult. It took many years just to get the original songs. Bollywood or Bhojpuri films don’t play these types of songs— the rhythm is completely different. Suddenly I met Ram Mangia Ramji. There was a show in Dhara village (Chattisgarh) where he performed before me. He was singing Gangaji. I met him and I asked for his help and we made the album. I didn’t think: ‘Let’s keep a 35 to 45 rupees tag, a reasonable price.’ That’s why I didn’t go to T-Series or Wave to produce and distribute it. I went to Times Music and EMI Records. I explained to them and Virgin Records what the album was about. They understood that I wanted Bhojpuri music to go to a completely different level, like Punjabi music has gone to, for instance. And I asked if they could please help me. EMI and Virgin Records saw what I was saying and slowly The Legacy of Bhikari Thakur was accepted internationally, and is still being accepted. From that platform, another platform is (Jodhpur) Riff and that is taking Bhikari Takur one step forward.


How is folk music relevant to us today? And how can we include it in our modern lives?

MTV’s Coke Studio is a good example of how relevant it is. This time I was there with Papon and with Rajasthani folk artists to perform the song Baisara Beera. When I went for rehearsals what struck a chord with me immediately was Nathulalji (Nathulal Solanki), who was playing  the nagada… Suddenly it made me remember my father and how he used to make me sit on the cycle and take me for shows. He was a folk singer. And yet, on the other hand, were Kalyan Barua and all the others with the lead guitar, the bass and the beatboxing. There were two worlds coming together. These days everyone is doing fusion, because that’s what the new generation is interested in. Because in fusion, the heart, the soul, that bhav (feel), is the same. It’s just some of the outer structures that they use that are modern. And that’s the way in which Papon and a lot of other people are working as well…


Have you seen any of the concerts at Jodhpur Riff?

I missed two or three. I had heard of yesterday’s evening show with Babunath Jogi… I was interested in that. I want to do something with him actually. I liked yesterday’s Scottish and Rajasthani fusion which they were trying to do. But there’s just one thing. Yesterday I felt the Scottish… Yeh nahin dikhna chahiye ki un logone Rajasthani ko ‘chance diya’. Aur aap oopar hain, aur Rajasthani music ko sirf aap ne ‘use’ kiya. Ya toh baraabar ho. Yeh feel nahin honi chahiye ki ‘un logone humein guide kiya’. (It shouldn’t seem as if they are giving the Rajasthanis ‘an opportunity’. And that they’re above them, but are simply ‘using’ Rajasthani music. They should be equal. It shouldn’t seem as if one group in a collaboration is ‘guiding’ the other). But then again, from Rajasthani or Indian music itself we need music directors and composers to come up and guide the Rajasthani folk musicians and use elements of their music in their compositions. Baat ek hi hai, lekin dekhne mein thoda alag hai (It seems like the same thing—whether the folk musicians are guided, or whether their music is imbibed, by an Indian or foreign musician—but when put together one combination seems a little different from the other). I have a bit of a problem with the former (foreign musicians guiding the Rajasthani folk musicians), perhaps because those musicians come from a completely different ethos. Then I have heard about this girl from Reunion…


Maya Kamaty…

Yes she was really good. I missed her performance and Manu Chao, I missed it, though everyone was talking about it. I also really like the ambience of the festival in the morning. You don’t see it anywhere else, in any other music festival to this extent: the idea of music with nature (during Jodhpur Riff’s dawn concerts). It gets you to try to know yourself. You find yourself. This is (Jodhpur) Riff’s specialty.


Have any of the artists or their music interested you? Are there any others you would like to collaborate with, besides Babunath Jogi, at the festival?

Lots. There are many that I haven’t explored. I’ve done a lot of work with Trilok Gurtu, he’s a well known percussionist. And he’s like a mathematical musician.


You’ve done Massical (Gurtu and Patowary’s music project which involves classical music but aims to integrate all kinds of music in order to reach a ‘mass’ audience) with him.

And I’ve done a lot of shows with him. And after working with him I realized I don’t understand anything. I mean, on one hand I’m singing and on the other I’ve got to keep counting beats. I’d like to, at some point, come here with Trilokji, do something with him. But right now I’m having fun doing everything. I’d like to sing some Assamese songs here as well…


What kind of music do you feel would blend well with Bhojpuri or/and Assamese music?

African and Bihu. Actually all Assamese music, African music would go very well with. There’s been a lot of greenery in both Assam and Africa, so the traditional music that stems from life in the forests in these regions may go well together. The African drum beats— you find a lot of such elements in Assamese music.


You have already worked with Rajasthani artists on Coke Studio. What did you learn from that collaboration? Were there any challenges you faced as a singer, in integrating the Assamese, Rajasthani and Western forms?

When I was singing Baisara Beera it felt like Bhojpuri singing, nothing different. It was live-singing in the studio, so, four times, I had to sing this song live. That was a challenge, to see if you were getting the sur (tone) right. But I enjoyed everything else. I want to do Bhojpuri next time I do Coke Studio.


For Trilok Gurtu’s album you worked separately from the other artists (she recorded in Mumbai). What was the difference between that experience and recording in the same space? How is that, for you, different from live collaborations at a concert, like in Jodhpur Riff?

It will definitely be different. There’s a technical problem when you record live, because you’re recording everything together. Everyone’s miked together. There can be leakage from one to another. If I want to increase the volume of the chorus, then with that the volume of two other musicians, for instance, will also be increased. Those are the technicalities, but everything else is fine. In fact, after a rehearsal, when everyone is playing together, then the ‘soul’ is stronger, that bhav (feel) is stronger. In a duet which I’m recording currently, I’ll sing and then (singer) Udit Narayanji will sing, but there seems to be no real connection between the two voices because we’ve recorded our parts separately. When you’re singing and listening at the same time, when you’re recording together,there is a connect. That’s one drawback (of recording separately), but then again it’s so convenient, to record that way…


Apart from Bhikari Thakur, what other Assamese or Bhojpuri folk singers do you wish to explore? Also, what role might a festival like Jodhpur Riff play in Bihar or Assam— in promoting the folk music there?

In Bihar there are situations that I still don’t understand. If something like this was done there I don’t know what kinds of problems we’d face. There’s still a lot of casteism there, for instance, especially politically. So the government there needs to understand that it is important for a festival like this to take place. In Assam, of course, it will help a lot. There is a lot of talent in the entire North East.

Actually, now, I’m working on a project called Sacred Scriptures of Monikut. Just like the Bhakti Movement happened all over India, like there was Guru Nanak and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, in Assam Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhavdeva spearheaded a similar movement. But people don’t know about them. For this movement they made a lot of music. We call it Kirtan Ghoxa and Borgeet. There are many spiritual songs there and I want to take them in a different direction. These things could happen so easily if there was something like (Jodhpur) Riff there. Jodhpur Riff is quite different, even from other festivals in the country. There should be one in Assam, there should be that vision.


(Image: Kalpana Patowary performs on stage at Jodhpur Riff. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff)