Being a Bhojpuri Queen

Singer Kalpana Patowary on her foray into Bhojpuri music, folk fusion and her latest works……

Why do people call you a ‘Bhojpuri Queen’? How did you develop this affinity for Bhojpuri folk music?  

KP: Geographically I am from Assam, the North East India. Being an Assamese woman, from different generation it feels good as Bhojpuri happened to me out of my comfort zone. I am not related to the soil of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar in any angle. Normally whenever someone gets recognized in any given field the subject is somehow related to its object directly or indirectly. But my case is RARE. Here I feel the chosen one to reflect outside the box and correctly comprehend other’s cultures, practices and ways of life. Bhojouri Queen, the term came from my fans and the media friends….I think. Once there was an interview session happening in one particular channel…and the backdrop was like…BHOJPURI QUEEN KALPANA PATOWARY….that day I was reintroduced to myself.

But the truth is I never chose Bhojpuri. It is the other way. Bhojpuri chose me. I sing in 30 different languages. I just love to explore the whole world with different beliefs and cultural practices. I think my outlook go beyond mere tolerating. My country India’s greatness lies in Secularism and through Art, Kalpana Patowary is also trying to sustain it.

How come you know so many languages and comfortably sing in them?

KP: Well, at first let me express my gratitude to the Lord for giving me the opportunity to explore this planet Earth as an artiste, celebrating diversity and celebrating originality. Frankly, I do not know all the 30 languages I have sung. But I just love to chase the Phonetics of each and every language and Boli. Every language has its own vibrations. I feel blessed to have been born in a country that speaks so many different languages and dialects.  In Mumbai, diction was a problem at first being from Assam. But by God’s grace I proved myself in the Bhojpuri language which is even more problematic. That’s what worked in my favor.

Where did you pick up so many folk forms from?

KP: It’s so interesting looking at art today, because many people love to pick things up solely for the use of gimmicks. It became easy for me because I got fame in out of my comfort zone in Uttar Pradesh – Bihar – Jharkhand and there was a lot of travelling involved, getting to meet a lot of people from different cultures different beliefs. I also got the tag “Bhojpuri Queen”. That fame tag had some responsibility. It’s not just like that. It forced me to follow the path of different folklores, songs from Birth till Death…the Sanskara geets. Today it has become my sanskara to live and breathe like this…picking and acquiring different folk belief of this human race. It gave me sleepless nights, my money, my time, my effort, seeking out information at every angle, always hungry to learn more and work toward learning not only the art form, but respect the culture, the history and the roots behind the art form because they are there for a reason.

Every regional music has its own song elements and flavors. What do you like most about each provincial music?

KP: I like to BE that particular region, the element itself to sustain. I never criticize or Judge why the particular regional music is like this or it should be like that. You have to love the know…..i just WITNESS that particular element in that given time. For me, it’s not Provincial.. it’s actually INTERNATIONAL…..its World music.

What is the current status of independent folk artists in India? Do you think that their voices often get lost in the crowd of mainstream film and bandmusic?

KP: In India, there is no concept of independent music. Here, everything is synonymous with films. Music is a medium to emote through songs. Today, people want to see big stars in songs and a lot of emphasis is laid on the visual appeal rather than the sound. If a video doesn’t have a known face, it will not be promoted. So, independent artistes have less freedom here.

Hopefully, but, now things have changed. Folk or regional music is International today and so are the Folk artists. We need to understand that an International artist like Shakira is popular with her regional colloquial language worldwide.

Also, earning a living from Art is what every artist wants. As a musician you are a creator. Whether you’re a composer, lyricist or a performing artist, you create works. These works automatically become copyrighted once they are documented; for example through recording or writing. We need to know about the music copyright and the publishing rights. Copyright is the most important asset today as a musician and every musician need to understand its concepts and how to maximize income from it can turn your carrier, make you money and help you get exposure.

Immensely talented artistes with great range like Ila Arunji, Sapna Awasthiji, Rekha Bharadwajji, Kailash Kherji, Sukhwinder Singhji, yourself and the youngster Harshdeep Kaur are very few voices that can be heard across Bollywood music. Do you think folk music and devoted folk artistes are not getting their proper dues in popular Indian music?

KP: It’s not like that. One has to give time, money and effort to do Independent music in the right way. One has to research and and get going through ones projects. As of me, I am trying to archive every single folk belief that comes my way. And then one has to promote also what he or she is trying to say. If I do nothing and waiting for the popular music category to come to my doorstep and when it not happens, I complain of not getting my due…..i don’t buy that line. In my case, other than independent stuff I am very much active and busy doing Bhojpuri Film Music and interestingly the industry get operated from Mumbai itself….not from Patna or Banaras. I am singing even 8, 9 songs in one single Bhojpuri film. So I am everywhere …in the popular music scene and my independent stuff….both.

Does Indian host many folk festivals and platforms to patronize and promote the genre on a pan-national level and export the same on a global scale?

KP: Yes, music festivals have become big in India today and folk artists are getting good exposures on global scale. Music festivals like Nh7 Weekender, Rajastan International Folk Festivals are growing big in India.

Recently you performed alongside Dhruv Voyage at Blue Frog. How was that experience?

KP: Dhruv Ghanekar, is the co-founder of the path breaking Blue Frog – a State of the Art Live Performance venue.We first met while we were performing with Trilok Gurtu in Blue Frog. We both collaborated for the song “Baare Baare” for the album Voyage, weaving a rich tapestry of Assamese folk and traditional grooves combining with tunes of Maghreb region of North Africa.   In 2015, I produced a Bhojpuri musical document “Anthology of Birha” a folk form of the Ahirs of Uttar Pradesh and from that album we together collaborated on a track Khadi Birha in the 4th season of Mtv@CokeStudio with folk tunes of the Ahirs of Uttar Pradesh merged with African music. This Bhojpuri track ‘Khadi Biraha’ in Mtv@CokeStudio popularized Bhojpuri folk music to the class and was critically lauded and received thousands of views on YouTube within a week. We formed the band “Dhruv Voyage”where I was on the vocals, Gino Banks on Drums, Sheldon in Bass Guitars, Arthur Gregorian on sexaphones and Ramon Ibrahim on Keyboards and Dhruv Ghanekar on guitar. The six members came from backgrounds varying from folk to jazz and blues to Indian sound. As promotional activity, we have till now performed in True school of Music Mumbai, at the October fest Bacardi Nh7 Weekender – the happiest music festival in Kolkata, Bangalore and Pune. We also performed for the first anniversary of Blue Frog Bangalore this 17th June 2016 and again performed live on 24th June 2016 in Blue Frog Mumbai with featured guest Carl Clements, Saxophonist and Flautist from America. Through VOYAGE..i am being able to be a BRIDGE presenting rural country folk to the sophisticated society. Bridging the provincial and sophisticacy. If I am performing for a 45 minutes gig, then I am singing 8 languages here in Voyage.

What’s your take on folk fusion?

KP: I don’t want my folk music to be trapped in our villages. Yes it’s safe there in its original form, but of no use unless we make the world hear our very soulful and meditative music. Folk music is something that has been synonymous with India’s rich heritage for centuries the music from the hearts of Indian lands are now finding a world stage, evolving into a new genre.

Do you advocate experimental work in music or staunchly believe that no format should be tweaked or twisted for innovation?

KP: One should always reinvent himself all the time….You are free to speak your mind in independent music scene but first one should record the original raw thing and then opt for fusion, otherwise we will be lost and forget who we were, who my forefathers were, what my root was…

Being a disciple of the legendary Hindustani classical singer Ustad Gulam Mustafa Khan, what was the learning stint like under his tutelage?

KP: For me, he is more of a spiritual guide to me than mere vocal training.

Tell us something about the influence of the bard of Brahmaputra Bhupen Hazarika on you. Did you have a personal association with him?

KP: An avalanche seemed to have burst on the streets of Guwahati. For three consecutive days, wave upon wave of people kept flowing night and day towards a common destination – Judges’ Field, where lay the mortal remains of the man who had found a place in the hearts of all the people of the North Eastern part of India, especially his homeland, Assam. Bhupen Hazarika is The Voice of the People.

His first composition, written while still in his teens, was ‘Agni yugar firingoti moi’(I am the spark of the age of fire). It was an expression of his revolutionary thinking. As a student in Columbia University, in the USA, he met Paul Robeson, who told him that the guitar is not just a musical instrument; it can be a social instrument, an instrument for change. His interaction with Robeson and Richard Wright, the great cultural activists, left a lifelong mark on Hazarika.

In his lyrics, we meet the barely clothed farmer and the poor fishermen. Every aspect of Assamese life and society, and all the communities of all other states of the seven sisters, find a place in Hzarika’s songs. That explains the outpouring of respect and honor from states like Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and others.

The Luit (Brahmaputra River) has a special place in his songs, it was his strength. He said, “Just as there would be no Paul Robeson without the Mississippi, so there would be no Bhupen Hazarika without the Luit. He described Marx, Gorky, Lenin, Paul Robeson, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as his ideals. He sang about Nelson Mendela, and about racial discrimination. He himself had been a victim of caste discrimination. He was prevented from marrying the woman he loved because of his caste, and he was taunted by some as ‘modar ‘, a flower which is never used in any religious rituals.

I never met him physically, but Bhupen Hazarika is infused deep inside me by my father. I am done. Now it is lot more than persona.

Tell us something about your accomplished folk singer-father Sri Bipin Patowary who had not only introduced you to Kamrupiya and Goalporiya Assamese folk music but also trained you in the same.

KP: For me music starts here. It reminds me of my mentor father, my early childhood riyaaz and performances. I didn’t start my musical career taking lessons like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, neither with Harmonium, nor with Tanpura. My learning of music, doing riyaaz and all started with Dotora singing Kamrupiya and Goalporiya lokgeet. Both are two separate districts from Assam. And Dotora is one of the oldest instruments in the world. Its significance is to such a degree that it should be added to the list of “Masterpieces of the immaterial heritage of ASSAM”. Its sound speaks about Aam Bharatiya Log, Hum logo ki Lachargi, our daily problems whether related to financial one or emotional and spiritual, I feel Dotora has a distinctive sound of mass appeal. But that time when my father was trying to transfer, to infuse folk forms into me, I was a little reluctant. I had a feeling as if folk music is actually very deglamourised……how fool I was.

You are also breaking stereotypes with music by singing Chhaprahiya style of Purvi folk music which was so long a male monopoly. How did you dare that?

KP: I am the first Non-Bhojpuri speaking singer who could present for the first time in Bhojpuri Music history an age old tradition of “Khadi Birha” folk tradition to the International platforms like Mtv@CokeStudio, Nh7 Weekender,Blue Frog with world renowned musicians. 

I am also the first woman to record and sing the Chhaprahiya Purvi style. “The day I decided that I was going to sing this Purvi folk form, being a woman I was challenged by my inner being. No woman had ever dared to sing this particular Chhaprahiya style of Purvi folk music as it demands a high octave range.” Without compromising on the conventional and traditional value of Chhaprahiya Purvi, i continued to add interesting innovations. Until I set foot on the scene, Purvi was a male preserve. But today Purvi is known as if I was the one to engender it. Devra Tudi Killi from album Pyar Ke Rog Bhayil released from T-Series was an experimentation to record it in a Female voice as it needs High octave vocal range to render. Years later the song becomes a history itself.

Tell us something about your tryst with world renowned percussionist Trilok Gurtu and the collaboration for a Neo jazz folk fusion project Massicle.

KP: I had earlier worked in 2009 with Trilok Gurtu in an International album called Massicle released from BIRDjam Label, Germany and have long wanted to make music together and we finally got that chance in my another musical documented album “The Sacred Scriptures of Monikut” released from Times Music in 2015. “The Sacred Scriptures of Monikut” is a musical documentation based on Brajvali’ hymns of saint Shree Srimanto Sankaradeva and his desiple Shree Madhavdeva and traditional endangered Assamese musical instruments to help create awareness among people, and also as a tribute to Assam.

The Sacred Scriptures of Monikut is one of my best and the most notable musical collaboration not only with various reputed artists like Guru Ruben Masangva – The Father of Naga Folk Blues, Angarag Papon Mahanta from the East India Company and Zubeen Garg but also with a variety of primitive instruments being used in this album from the traditional – ancient and extinct instrument Kalia to Sarinda to the Sundari to Doba to Djembe to Kahon to the tabla, shehnai, percussion, electronic hand sonic, drums, beads, electric piano, acoustic guitar, nakara to nagara to bortal to Flute, this album is a cocktail mix of different sounds.

Trilok Gurtu had been a major inspiration in this album. He collaborated in two tracks (Hari Namo Roxe & Muktita) in this album and forayed into the brand new territory of ambient Assamese music culture. Working with Trilok Gurtu has enhanced my understanding of my own music, and opened my eyes to a variety of musical possibilities. He is ahead of times.

You also produced a Bhojpuri musical document “Anthology of Birha”, a folk form of the Ahirs of Uttar Pradesh. Enlighten us a bit on this.

KP: Anthology of Birha is a folk form of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and a deliberate approach to travel back in time to collect the roots of BIRHA singing style, a folk tradition of YADAVAS.

Biraha are folk songs associated with the Ahir castes of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Ahiri castes include the Yaduvanshi, the Nandvanshi and the Gwalvanshi, who trace their ancestry back to the king Yayati. Kin to Lord Krishna, the cow herders left their titles and took their cows into the forests to await the coming of Vishnu, according to religious myth. Krishna is said to be a Yaduvanshi. In the Bhojpuri belt the Ahirs began the practice of singing the biraha.

How did the big Bollywood break Gandi Baat from R..Rajkumar happen?-

KP: Just a phone call from the music director Pritam Chakravarty.Thats it.

What other projects did you lend your vocals for?

KP: Released a popular recital of greetings for the Prophet – SALAM – Ya Nabi Salaam Alaika (O Prophet of God, Divine Peace is yours) in YouTube.

Duet song in Marathi Film Talim with Divya Kumaar,

Priyanka Chopra’s Bhojpuri production Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi where I have sung total 4 songs,

Made a record by singing 9 songs in latest Bhojpuri Blockbuster film Ram Lakhan releasing this August.

Begum Jaan is one of your forthcoming works. Talk to us about its music and the ace composer Anu Malik.

KP: I am very happy as the song is based on folk elements. Vidya Balan is much respected famine for me as I think she proved herself going beyond a mere Bollywood heroine. And Annu Mallikji’signature melodic notes are there in the composition. Looking forward.

Any other upcoming projects you would like to mention?

KP: Finished shooting the music video of my latest musical documentation album Jimo Chhayan – ‘the children of the sun and the moon’ of the North Eastern India. The album has Bihu folk songs from North East India featuring different community languages ie Deuri, Tiwa, Missing, Sonowal etc.

GANGASNAN – The Legacy of Bhikhari Thakur (Part 2)

LABOUR PAIN SONGS (Sohar) – how a migrant’s wife delivers her baby.

SHIKAYIT – a protest song.

Mahout Song – A folk project on Assams GOALPORIYA lokgeet.

UTA DESOR PALTA KOTHA – a folk fusion album.

Bollywood Film –

Vidya Balan’s – Begum Jaan

Aamir Khan’s – Dangal

and besides a lot of Bhojpuri stuff.