Impressions from a one-of-its kind folk festival in a remote district of India


To speak of ‘folk festivals’ nowadays is to conjure up images that would not be too different from those we associate with any other ‘festival’ – a high-profile venue, exotic and low-key artists (along with some headline-grabbers) from around the world, a meticulously curated experience and a hefty price tage to accompany it. In our globalised, perennially ‘online’ world, this homogeneous and generic blueprint has come to dominate the concept of the ‘festival’ – another recipe for all-round enjoyment, often reducible to the mantra that anything, food, films or folk music, can sell if it is packaged well and marketed smartly and relentlessly. The result can be a perception of sameness across the festival spectrum, with the only difference being the concerned product.

Having personally given up on the ‘festival scene’ after a number of experiences that led to the above opinion, I was in for quite a surprise when I arrived in Chitrakoot on March 17 for Lok Lay, literally translated as ‘The Rhythm of the People’.

I had neither visited Chitrakoot nor heard of Lok Lay before. Regarding the former, my knowledge was limited to its reputation as one of the most backward districts in the country and as an important holy place within the Hindu tradition (Ram and Sita were the guests of rishi Atri and his wife Anasuya here during their vanvaas). Both aspects were confirmed on this trip. The region, situated astride the Uttar Pradesh–Madhya Pradesh border and divided administratively between the two states (with Chitrakoot town falling Satna district, MP), has all the trappings of remoteness: a uniform landscape of fields, red earth and dirt roads registers more strongly on the visual palate than the humdrum clusters of small stalls and shops and unassuming buildings that punctuate it. The occasional vehicles, generally buses and large share autos, that rattle past evoke a sense of the distance between the hinterlands and the discourses of modernity and development.

It is in context of this inescapable disparity that initiatives like Lok Lay take on a special significance. The organisers of the event describe it as ‘बुंदेली लोक विधाओं के संरक्षण-संवर्द्धन हेतु 6वा समारोह’ – ‘the 6th instalment of a festival for the protection and promotion of the Bundeli people’s forms of expression’. While this is succinct and does justice to the objectives of Lok Lay, it was more intriguing o note the sense of injustice and hurt that is conveyed in the invites sent out by the organisers:

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आत्मन्

आप सुजान हैं तमाम थपेड़ों के बाद सामाजिक एकता राष्ट्रीय अखंडता एवं मानवीय चेतना का अक्षय स्रोत आज भी लोक जीवन के लय में समाया हुआ है गाँवों के उपेक्षित वंचित अपमानितए पीड़ित एवं अभावग्रस्त जनों की दिनचर्या से शोषक समूह उनका श्लोकलय संसारश् मिटने में अभी पूर्णरूपेण सफल नहीं हो पाया है भ्रमित व्यवस्था भी अब तक सामान सम्पन्न नव सामंतवाद की ही पोशाक दिखी है चिन्ता की प्रशन है कि भौतिकवाद की इस अंधी दौड़ में मानवीय चेतना मूल्यों से दूर हो रही है मनरागी कलाकार या तो सुदूर वन.गिरी की और हैं या फिर झुग्गी झोपड़ियाँ संसाधन विहीन बस्तियों मेंए लुकाए छिपेए पड़े.डरे हैं उनकी कोई सुधि लेने वाला है ऐसी प्रतीति उनके पास नहीं हैद्य रचनाधर्मीए न्यायप्रिय जगत हेतुए यह एक चुनौती भी है

यह देश मेरा घरा मेरी गगन मेरा

इस भाव की पुष्टि हेतु एक मंच पर लाना प्यार.सम्मान देनाए हमारा लक्ष्य हैद्य इस प्रयास को आगे बढ़ने की कार्य युवा शक्ति ने स्वीकार किया है

Kindred Soul,

You are fortunate that, in the face of all manner of adversity, the values of social unity, national integrity and basic humanity continue to draw sustenance from the rhythms of ordinary life. Those groups that exploit the neglected, deprived, demeaned and scarcity-stricken rural masses have not yet been completely successful in eliminating their distinctive cultural character. Half-baked and failed efforts to extend patronage to the same have reflected the sensibilities of a persistent neofeudal mindset. It is indeed worrisome to consider the possibility that human values and consciousness may be receding further from sight as we pedestalise the blind pursuit of material gain. Artists who have traditionally promoted values that bind rural communities together are now only to be found in remote forests and hills or in slums, hutments, and resource-starved informal settlements, hiding and fearful of a hostile world, with no assurance of protection and nourishment for their creativity. This is a serious obstacle in our progress towards a better world.

“This country is mine, this house is mine, the sky is mine”

Our objective is to contribute to the realisation of the above sentiment, to provide a stage to local artists and performers, to extend the love and respect to them that they deserve. The youth have accepted the responsibility of taking this initiative forward.

It is difficult not to be moved by an appeal like this. There are no tangential perks, no offers, no vague promises of an unimaginably exhilarating or life-changing experience; the message is razor sharp in its focus on respecting local artists who are otherwise at the mercy of forces beyond their control. And what I found out over the March 18-19 weekend was that Lok Lay delivers on its promise, with no compromises or holds barred.

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Held on the premises of the Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS) headquarters, under a long white marquee (potentially accommodative of approximately 500 people) with a colourful stage at one end, Lok Lay brought together more than 150 artists from the districts of Chitrakoot, Banda, Bundelkhand and other neighbouring districts. Over the next two days, it provided them with media exposure (local and national), a solid sound system, and an audience for their various modes of expression. The sheer range of these modes is stunning: lamtera, pahunai, kachhiyai, kummarai, phaag, achari, kabiri, sairo, dimrai, rai, kolhai, balma, chhatthi jagran, sohar, nautanki, tamboora gayan, javara, dhak got, payi danda, and aalha are only some of the different genres of song, dance, drama and performativity that I learned about and witnessed for the first time, the potpourri representing a healthy mix of devotion, satire, craft and physical dexterity. The roster of performers included farmers, daily wage labourers (including women), the youth and senior citizens, whose commitment to underserved art forms found long-overdue validation and appreciation at Lok Lay

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Of course, it wasn’t a service only to the artists, but a gift to the audience as well, majorly the locals who truly understood and identified with the dialects and forms, staying up until the early hours of the morning, watching, listening, laughing, clapping, recording on their phones…and also voyeurs like me. My visit had been made possible by PRIA Founder-President Dr Rajesh Tandon, who has been instrumental in supporting and promoting Lok Lay from the very beginning and has spoken at length about its value in preserving local knowledge in the local idiom and thereby empowering artists and communities alike by establishing that their voice, perspective and ways matter. This edition of Lok Lay was dedicated to the memory of gender equality scholar and activist Dr Martha Farrell, who had attended the festival and addressed the artists in February 2015, mere months before a tragic terrorist attack in Kabul ended her life. Her portrait next to the stage served as a constant reminder that Lok Lay stands for respecting people and values ‘in the face of all manner of adversity’.

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Chitrakoot may not, in spite of having enjoyed the presence of Ram millennia ago, have paved roads yet, it may be drought-prone and lacking in literacy, but the soil of this overwhelmingly agricultural region remains fertile for the voice of its people, and that is both inspiring and refreshing for those who come from a world dominated by the agenda of consumerism.

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