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In Search Of Bidesia traces the roots and traditions of Bhojpuri music of migration


With In Search Of Bidesia, director Simit Bhagat seeks to introduce audiences to the world of Bhojpuri migration music that emerged with the rise of indentured labour during colonial times.

Photo: The Bidesia Project

Shriram Iyengar

Mention Bhojpuri music and chances are you will think of loud, electronic-infused vocals with visuals of Manoj Tiwari or Ravi Kishan (as per your likes and vintage). This is a stereotype that is as misguided as it is incomplete. Simit Bhagat’s documentary, In Search Of Bidesia, seeks to journey into the heartland and bring out an aspect of Bhojpuri music and poetry that is as ignored as it is important — the songs of the migrants.

The documentary, which was premiered at the Dhaka International Film Festival on 16 January, is the result of a chance discovery by former journalist Bhagat.

“This was in 2017, I travelled across UP [Uttar Pradesh] and Bihar," the director recalled. "It was the first time I had been exposed to folk music. When we mention Bhojpuri music, the first impression we get is the seedy songs we are all familiar with. But when I heard some of the folk musicians singing these songs, I was amazed. I kept travelling for 50 days, crisscrossing Bihar and UP on my bike. It was basically the start of the film, and how the idea came up.”

A scriptwriter and social development practitioner, Bhagat was doing a solo bike trip through Allahabad, Ghaziabad, Ballia and Buxar. In these districts, he met musicians and folk practitioners who introduced him to the genre of 'separation' music. This eventually led to the film, In Search Of Bidesia.

The idea traces its roots to the music that emerged in the 19th century when, with slavery outlawed, the British empire decided to use the poor peasant workers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by sending them as indentured labour to other British colonies around the world, from places as close by as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to as far away as Fiji and the West Indies.

Most of the workers sent off being men, they left behind wives, sisters and mothers waiting forever for their return. This led to a new genre of folk music created by these women, influencing poets and musicians over the years.

Bhagat said, “I went from one place to another looking for musicians who are still continuing the tradition and still performing this form of music. That's how I got deeper into the topic.

"When the migration happened, it was mainly the menfolk who migrated out of India. The women were left behind. With no means of communication, people would be just left waiting to hear from their husband or brother. They would express their feelings through songs. This got into the folk traditions, and the artists of the time saw the pain of these women left behind and expressed it through songs.”

Bidesia refers to these generations of migrants who lost their way into the European colonies around the world. Over the years, these colonies grew their own diaspora and unique identities. Writers like VS Naipaul have spoken specifically of these ethnic diversities that made European colonies richer in language, music and food.

With desperate peasants willing to sign up as indentured labour in a bid to escape poverty and famine back in India, there grew a larger number of Indian men who were abandoned in British colonies like Surinam and Trinidad in the West Indies with no way back home. When the period of indenture ended, most of these labourers lacked the money to buy a trip back to India and were forever forced to accept a new homeland.

A report in The Economic Times newspaper in November 2017 stated that as many as 3.5 million men and women were signed up as indentured labourers and transported across European, mainly British, colonies around the world.

“Bidesia in Hindi simply refers to someone who has migrated to a foreign land," Bhagat explained. "British colonies across the world, when slavery was abolished officially, had to find people to work on their farms, sugarcane plantations, etc. With the abolition of slavery, it became difficult to find cheap labour. From their experiments, they realized that people from Bihar and UP were suited for hard labour. They identified people who could not read or write and got them to sign contracts. Today, it is not normal, but at that time you could get someone to work on a farm on a stipulated contract of five years.”

With these migrants abandoned in a foreign land, it was music that offered solace. Both at home and abroad, this separation led to the creation of new forms of poetry and music. The influence of American reggae led to the creation of what is now known as ‘chutney’ music. A famous example of this was the song ‘Lootela’ which emerged as a viral sensation back in 2012-13.

In addition to musicians in India, Bhagat travelled to London to meet descendants of these migrants to understand more. He said, “The perspective I am looking at is how music connects so many countries and how the pain of longing and migration was expressed through folk tradition and love. This helped to develop a whole tradition of music and love.

"I travelled to London. I spent a lot of time at the National Archives in London and met a lot of descendants of indentured migrants. I interviewed and met them to gather more information.”

With the film having had a premiere at the 18th Dhaka International Film Festival, Bhagat said he hoped it would open up a new perspective on Bhojpuri music. In addition to the film, the director has created The Bidesia Project, a non-profit that now archives such forms of folk music, literature and poetry to keep alive a forgotten part of colonial times.

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