By Satish Purohit
Legendary Uttarakhandi singer Narendra Singh Negi’s songs are as holistic in their vision as they are rich in the rustic idioms of the Gadhwal Himalayas, says Satish Purohit.
Growing up in Mumbai, Gadhwal, the land of my birth and the refuge of my ancestors, made its occasional presence known through little gifts sent from the villages back in the hills. There were rustic treats like bukhana (coarse parched rice), arasa (deep fried sweets made from rice) and rote (unleavened bread sweetened with jaggery and deep fried in ghee). We also had parsad – ceremonial leftovers from offerings made at the shrines of the deities. And, almost invariably, there were audio cassettes of Gadhwali folk songs written, composed and sung by folk icon Narendra Singh Negi (62).
Back then, Gadhwalis mostly lived in the slums of Mumbai. Often, as many as eight to 10 men lived in an 80-square-feet slum kholi. Under the hot asbestos roofs, Negi spoke to the men in songs that celebrated fresh snow falling on the hills, of flowers that heralded the arrival of spring, and of the snaking paths winding through the mist-shrouded mountains. Not surprisingly, the men were often moved to tears. The songs spoke of the need for protecting trees, managing resources, and
appealed to the people to give up barbaric practices like animal sacrifice. Since then, Gadhwalis have moved on in life and are well represented today in corporate jobs, business, and creative fields like advertising and film-making. Negi’s songs have kept pace with the changes and have faithfully mirrored the changing social and economic realities along the way. Negi’s songs continue to give voice to the deep pain that is part of being a woman in the hills, of beauty and youth that wilts under the weight of hard labour. The pain of married women separated for years from their men who leave for the plains in search of employment continues to be a theme he has revisited over the years.
Negi’s career began in 1974 with the launch of his very first album, Buraans. Since then, he has produced an album every year. Today, 35 years later, his poetry, earthy, idiomatic and evocative, continues to find audience among listeners of all ages. He speaks for the farmer, the common man, for women. His songs mourn the disappearance of old ways of respect. He abhors excesses wrought by big dams, crass commercialism and blind imitation of inorganic values undermining the culture of the hills. Life Positive spoke to him about his musical and poetic journey.
Your songs deal with issues like environmental damage, harm caused by big dams and empowerment of women. These are not subjects that find place in most folk music performances. Tell us something about how you choose topics you wish to write on.
|Folk icon NS Negi with his wife|
I live in the hills and I travel extensively. I meet people from all walks of life and give a patient ear to what they have to say. Their concerns, their dreams and problems are inspiration for my songs. I have an ear for dialects and always respect the sensibilities of the region a song comes from. If I write a song on an issue, I always incorporate the peculiarities of the dialect that is spoken in those parts. An artist, especially one who expects to make a mark in folk art has to be connected to the earth and the people. In 1983, before Tehri town went underwater for the dam, I spoke to several villagers living there. People spoke to me not only about losing their lands and sources of livelihood but also about the violence done to their feelings. They wept as they told me that there was nothing they could do to save the familiar markers that made their world: places that had names and memories attached to them, ancient trees, orchards, mountain paths and houses built generations ago. I wrote the number Tehri dooban lagyun chha beta dam ka khatir to give voice to the pain. The song is in the form of a letter written by a father who asks his son to see the village for one last time before it went underwater (see box).
What is happening to our world? The government created a dam that supplies electricity to the plains but the villages in the mountains where the dam stands have no power. City dwellers in New Delhi and Agra waste thousands of litres of water flushing their toilets supplied by dams like ours. It would be
|We have poisoned Mother Earth, we have polluted the Ganga and now our very atmosphere is being poisoned.|
nice if they also built bridges over our rivers so children do not have to take a boat across the dangerously turbulent rivers everyday to school. Trees are being felled in the mountains. Sources of water are drying up. Heavy power projects are threatening the hills with radiation and ecological damage. All of us should do our bit to make a difference. I am an artist. I do my bit by giving voice to the aspirations of the people.
It is argued that the dams should not be opposed because they generate cheap electricity, ensure water supply to several villages and also bring revenue to Uttarakhand which can use the money for developmental works.
Uttarakhand has some of the best flora and fauna. We have some of the best scenic beauty in the world. We have some of the most revered Hindu temples. Why don’t we encourage tourism? Why not develop floriculture, horticulture, dairy farming? Even as we speak there are 500 big dams being planned in the state of Uttarakhand. Is this the only way we can generate revenue?
It is known that proximity to high-tension electric wires causes cancers and other ailments. Uttarakhand is a small state, how will we save ourselves when there are heavy dams every few kilometers? What is the future of our children? We have poisoned Mother Earth, we have polluted the Ganga, and now our very atmosphere is being poisoned. Solutions that are local, small and sustainable are the need of the hour.
Satish Purohit is a writer, editor,
translator, journalist, and lifeskills coach based in Mumbai.
He may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
You have written songs that urge people to give up the practice of animal slaughter in the temples of Uttarakhand. Some say it is proof of a visible shift in consciousness that several individuals have been turning ‘vegetarian’ over the years. Do you think a New Age is dawning?
I don’t know if that is the way I would put it but it does appear that several positive changes have come about in the last few years. When I opposed the barbarity of sacrificing animals I was criticised soundly by several traditionalists who viewed it as interference with sacrosanct rituals. The opposition was especially strong from members of the Rajput community to which I belong. However, I stood firm because I believe vegetarianism is a nobler way of life. Why eat meat when there are so many other foods to be had? I used to be a meat eater and began questioning if it was ethical to continue to do so. It has been 22 years since I gave up meat. My wife followed suit but my children continue to be non-vegetarians. I do believe that a satvic chetana is spreading around us. Young people are turning vegetarian in big numbers in the hills. Anna Hazare’s non-violent campaign against corruption is something that gives me hope. The movement was effective, it was non-violent and it brought people of all castes and communities together. Yes, the world is certainly becoming a better place in many respects.
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