Report of Varanasi programme held on 3rd and 4th June, 2014

Executive Summary
Purpose of the Cultural Meet

With the aim of ‘paying back to the community’ G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, organised a cultural meet in Varanasi on 3rd and 4th June 2014 under the project Migration and Cultural Traditions of Bhojpuri Region – A Research and Documentation Programme’, sponsored by the Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust, Mumbai. This meet was the first of the six cultural performances aimed to be held in three destination points namely Surat, Mumbai and Ghaziabad, where people from the Bhojpuri region migrate in large numbers, and one in each of the three homeland clusters, namely Varanasi, Arrah and Champaran. The cultural meet was designed as an interactive space for Bhojpuri folk singers from the homeland and destination, literary poets and writers, academicians of various disciplines working in the field of migration, students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and other cultural agents living in adjoining villages of Varanasi, for discussion and interaction around migration and migration folklore.

Another purpose of the cultural meet was to bring to the public forum Bhojpuri folk poets who compose Bidesia songs in newer forms. These village poets, who are endearingly known as ‘kaviji’s, remain largely unknown to the Bhojpuri people although their compositions are sung by many Bhojpuri lead singers. While the singers and composers make good money but the kavijis themselves lead obscure lives, often in penury on the margins of the society. The interventional aspect of the meet was to enable the village poets (kavijis) to interact with prominent Hindi poets, critics and other litterateurs, which will not just give the kavi jis their rightful place in society but will sensitize the Bhojpuri/Hindi literary world about the plight of these obscure song writers.

The seminar and cultural meet was organised in collaboration with the Department of Hindi, BHU so that the student community, most of whom belong to the Bhojpuri region, could be sensitised about the issues surrounding migration and about the rich folklore generated by migration in Varanasi. It was hoped that they too could help to collect and document the folklore present in their villages which is on the verge of extinction. In addition several cultural agents from adjoining villages interested in migration and folklore were invited to participate in the seminar so that a network of researchers could be created who could help us in the project.

Impact of the meet

Several kavijis who had been identified during field work in the region by the research team of the project, were invited to the seminar and brought together on a common platform with Bhojpuri singers, Hindi literary poets and writers, academicians, students and cultural agents. Through the seminar they were accorded respect and prestige since they are usually obscure and unknown by the Hindi literary community, academicians, scholars etc. Our research team conducted long interviews with the poets and cultural biographies are being prepared on them. Their poems and songs have also been recorded and documented for our archive, which will be translated into English later.

There was positive interaction between all stakeholders attending the seminar, which helped to sensitise each section about different aspects of migration, and the folklore generated by migration. A network of researchers and cultural activists was created who will be able to assist us in collecting and documenting Bhojpuri folk songs and folk culture which can still be found in remote villages of this region, but which are on the verge of extinction due to the onslaught of commercialisation.

The extensive media coverage about seminar and cultural meet in Hindi and English newspapers and TV channels helped to disseminate knowledge about migration and migration folklore among the common people.

The participation of students and youth had a positive impact since many uploaded and posted photographs and write ups on their social media sites, which helped to create a wider audience for the seminar, along with sensitising other youths about the issues of migration and Bhojpuri folk culture.

Detailed Report

Under the project “Migration and Bhojpuri Folk Tradition“, sponsored by The Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust, Mumbai a two day Cultural Meet was held on 3rd and 4th June, 2014 at Varanasi. With the name Ámrai’ the meet was the first of the six cultural meets of the Bidesia folk form which have been planned to be organised at the three destination points where migrants from the Bhojpuri region go in large numbers in search of work, namely Surat, Mumbai and Ghaziabad, and in the three homeland clusters in the Bhojpuri region of UP and Bihar, namely Varanasi, Arrah and Champaran, as a part of the intangible outputs of the project.

The meet was organized in collaboration with the Department of Hindi, Banaras Hindu University. The objective behind organising the meet in collaboration with the university was to sensitise the student community about the issue at hand.

The meet was organised in Varanasi with the aim of “paying back to the community”, since Varanasi had been an important recruitment centre or depot, as they were known, for indentured migrants during the colonial period. The prospective migrants, who were recruited by colonial recruiters from remote villages around Varanasi, were collected in the depot in Varanasi from where they were taken to the main depot in Calcutta. They were then dispatched to various colonies like Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji etc., by ship. Migration from Varanasi is a harsh reality even in the contemporary period and a large number of people from villages adjoining Varanasi migrate to various cities of India in search of work. The sorrow which results from the separation is reflected in the Bhojpuri folk culture and the Cultural Meet provided an interactive space for Bhojpuri folk singers from the homeland and destination, academicians, literary poets and writers, and Bhojpuri folk poets and folk song writers, who are established and renowned in their own spheres, where they could discuss the ground realities of migration and its reflection in folk culture.

The first day of the meet was earmarked for academic discussions on the theme of migration and folk culture, while the second day was devoted to cultural performances.

The first day’s proceedings were held in Hotel Gateway, a famous landmark of Varanasi. Several renowned scholars, academics, writers, Village poets (Kaviji) and other intellectuals from diverse disciplines presented their views and opinions on the theme of migration, with special reference to the migration from the Bhojpuri region in the colonial period, whose impact can be seen among the Bhojpuri diaspora living in countries like Suriname, Trinidad, Mauritius, Guyana, etc.

In the naugural session of the seminar, which was presided over by Prof. Chauthi Ram Yadav, a well-known Hindi critic and orator from Varanasi, the Project Director, Professor Badri Narayan of GB Pant Institute, Allahabad, introduced the theme of the seminar. He said that social scientists and litterateurs both have different experiences about migration and the seminar was an interface between the two. In addition the seminar was an interface between the singers and village poets (Kaviji) living in the homeland and those living in destination points. He added that Varanasi was selected as the venue because this city was an important place for migration as it was a recruiting depot for migration during the colonial period when people from the Bhojpuri region were taken to work in colonial plantations in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad, Fiji etc., by colonial masters. Premchand has also written a novel based on this phenomenon.

The Director of GBPI, Professor Pradeep Bhargava then formally welcomed the guests and spoke about the various activities of the institute. While speaking about the seminar he said that migration was an economic activity but it is reflected in social and cultural domains. Migration is usually the result of the desire for earning money and people migrate because they don’t have means of livelihood. Also many people migrate for a better living condition like building houses. Sometimes castes also migrate to earn more wealth or ‘dhan’ like the Marwaris of Rajasthan who migrate to various places in India, especially Kolkata.

Professor Badri Narayan added that money is the main reason for migration but since it takes people away from their homes and families it is criticised heavily in folklore. Although people leave to earn money but money by itself cannot fulfil emotions. It is only culture that can fulfil and release emotions and so crying and singing usually go together. The basis of folklore is pain that arises from separation. This is exemplified in the Bhojpuri folk culture where the mass migration has given birth to the culture. In his speech Professor Badri Narayan mentioned that a term which is being used in the project is ‘gram kavi’ or ‘village poet’. Each village has the tradition of having ‘gram kavis’ who reflect the consciousness and pain of the village, like Bhikhari Thakur in the colonial period. They are the barometers of social change and although they are themselves progressive but they become regressive when it comes to money since the singers and composers get all the credit and money while the poets themselves remain anonymous and overlooked. It is important to empower this agency and bring them in the literary sphere so that people know them and appreciate them.

He said that one aim of the project was to do literary and cultural activism and identify ‘gram kavis’ or ‘village poets’ of the Bhojpuri region and give fellowships to them as they write poems and songs which are resources for literature but are now being forced to write for the market in order to earn money, which can be seen in the present day Bhojpuri culture.

He also added that although the pain of separation is experienced in both destination and homeland and the recovery of loss through culture is found in both the places but most studies usually focus only on the destination. In this meet the aim is to look at migration and folk culture from the homeland perspective to get a different picture of migration.

The first speaker of the session was Kedarnath Singh, a famous Hindi poet. He spoke about the linguistic displacement which follows from physical displacement, and also the loss of memory which occurs. Memory is usually stored in a language and when language is lost memory is also lost. While narrating his experience during his stay in Trinidad he said that there exists a great cultural vacuum there as they have lost both Bhojpuri and Hindi and have very little knowledge about India. As a result they also have very little knowledge about the geography of India. However they are filled with anguish because of this loss and like to know more about their place of origin and their roots. In Mauritius however the situation is different as the Bhojpuri people there have tried to retain their culture and language.

The next speaker in this session was Prof. Balraj Pandey, Head of the Department of Hindi, BHU, who expressed his happiness at being linked with the project. He spoke about his own experience of being the beneficiary of migration as his grandfather had migrated to Singapore at an early age and used to send money home. He himself has started a project of documenting memories and words of Bhojpuri which are not being used any more.

The following speaker was Prof. Badri Narayan, who said that today people of Indian origin who form the Diaspora have a lot of money but their souls are fractured due to the pain of separation from their homeland. It is only when they talk about India and their folk culture that they are rejoined since only literature and culture can help in this process. He requested the university teachers present in the seminar to link their students with the agenda of documenting Bhojpuri cultural traditions that are on the verge of getting lost due to the onslaught of commercialisation.

Prof. Chauthi Ram Yadav ended the session by congratulating the GB Pant Institute for the project and said that he was happy that the project was focusing on the homeland while discussing migration. He spoke about his observation of migrants in Holland where children and youth are comfortable with Dutch and English rather than Hindi and Bhojpuri and are thus losing their original language and culture. He also said that most folk songs of the Purvanchal region are women oriented and narrate the pain of women whose husbands migrate to other places like Kolkata in search of livelihood.

The first thematic session, which was held after the tea break, was on ‘Migration and Culture’. It was presided over by Prof. Arun Kamal, a famous Hindi poet and academician. The first speaker Mr. Taiyyab Hussain, who belongs to the Chhapra region, is famous for migration. He focused on the folk culture evolved by Bhikhari Thakur during the mass migration that took place from here to Mauritius, Trinidad, Suriname etc., in the colonial period. Many of the plays written by Bhikhari Thakur narrated the social problems that emerged because of the migration. The folk culture of this region today is being affected by market, Hindi films and also by classical singers who are all claiming it. There is also negative effect of migration as some migrants like to watch blue films and commit social abuses like rape etc.

The next speaker was Mr. Hariram Dwivedi, a famous folk singer, who spoke on the effect of migration on folk and folk culture. He said that some migration is temporary and some migration is permanent and both kinds of migration face different problems. People who migrate permanently take their folk culture, language and tradition with them. These remain for some time but their following generations gradually start accepting the new culture of the destination and lose their original culture. In this process the traditional culture and language often gets lost over generations. The ones who return to their homeland after some years of migration usually become hybrids, which affect the culture of both the homeland and destination.

Mr. Dwivedi added that the Purvanchal region, a region that witnesses the maximum migration in the country used to face a great deal of droughts earlier. This led to large scale migration as people started leaving to earn money. They wanted to save money to build houses in their villages but the women did not want them to leave even though they needed the money. This pain of the women is reflected in most of the Bhojpuri folk songs.

Prof. A.K. Joshi of the Department of Sociology, BHU, spoke about his experience in the Andaman islands where a large number of people from different parts of India were taken there as prisoners during the colonial period. Their following generations have stayed behind there and have developed a hybrid culture due to the assimilation with each other.

The last speaker was Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra, who is both a famous Oriya poet and a social scientist. He narrated his childhood experiences from his village when he was asked to write letters on behalf of people whose sons had migrated to other places. He said that migration leads to both loss and gain as a hybridity is formed which is a constructed identity. Social scientists have a deterministic view of migration and talk about the pain of migration while writers and poets show the reality in which migrants also experience moments of happiness.

Mr. Nagendra, editor of Hindustan, spoke about his experience with migrants in Jails as prisoners wanted to be set free so that their wives did not leave them.

Prof. Arun Kamal concluded the session by saying that the entire history of civilization was the history of migration and there would be no progress without migration. He said that migration is always from lower to a higher category or from insecurity to security, such as during riots, but folk culture moves from higher to lower as migrants seek their lower culture which they have left behind.

The seminar then broke for lunch.

The post lunch session was on ‘Migration and Folklore’ and how migration is reflected in folklore. The session was presided over by Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra. The first speaker was Ashish Tripathi, of the Hindi department, BHU, who spoke about the effect of Paris theater on Bhikhari Thakur’s nautanki style of theatre.

The next speaker was Krishna Mohan, also of the Hindi dept., BHU, who spoke about the reasons that led to and are still leading to, mass migration from the Bhojpuri and Awadhi regions of UP and Bihar.

The next speaker was Mannu Yadav, a famous folk singer of Varanasi. He spoke on the Biraha folk style, whose variations are found all over the Bhojpuri region.

The next speaker was Amrita Bera, a Bengali poetess and translator of Taslima Nasreen, who spoke about the migration from West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The next speaker was Paramita Satpathy Tripathy, a famous Oriya writer. She spoke about her observations on migration from Orissa and also about her observations of the Bhojpuri culture among the people of Indian origin during her visit to Mauritius.

The other speaker in this session was Ramanuj Pathak, a Bhojpuri folk singer who migrated to Mumbai. He spoke about his experiences in Mumbai where he went in search of work twenty two years ago. After dabbling in several professions he finally became a taxi driver, which is still his profession. Alongside he used to accompany Kailash Nath Mishra, a famous migrant Bhojpuri folk singer based in Mumbai, on musical instruments, when he used to perform in cultural programmes organised by Bhojpuri migrants in Mumbai. He then started singing independently and today he has become a successful Bhojpuri folk singer who is asked to perform in several events organised by the Bhojpuri migrant community of Mumbai. He sings both devotional songs and folk songs on the Bidesia theme.

The last speaker of the session was Suresh Mishra, a Bhojpuri folk poet, who spoke about Mahendra Mishra, a famous poet of the colonial period who had composed several poems on the theme of migration taking place at that time. His poems reflect the same pain which was seen in Bhikhari Thakur’s plays.

The second day of the seminar, which was held in BHU Law auditorium, was devoted to cultural performances and poetry recitations by Bhojpuri folk singers. In the first session there was a presentation of poetry by renowned literary poets of Hindi and Oriya, who were representing the vernacular, on the theme of migration. These poets included Dr. Kedar Nath Singh, Arun Kamal, Bishnu Mohapatra (Oriya), Anshul Tripathi, Paramita Satpathy Tripathy (Oriya), Badri Narayan, Naval Shukla, Ashish Tripathi, Anil Mishra and Amrita Bera.

In the second session there was recitation of Bhojpuri poems on the theme of migration by famous Bhojpuri poets like Tarakeshwar Mishra Rahi, Suresh Mishra, Prakash Uday, Kailash Nath Mishra, Bhalchandra Tripathi, Ravindra Srivastav Zubani, Hariram Dwivedi and Jawahar Lal Kaul.
In the third session there were cultural performances by Bhojpuri folk singers from the destination point like Ramanuj Pathak, who is a migrant from the Bhojpuri region living in Mumbai, and Kailash Nath Mishra, a famous Bhojpuri folk singer living in Mumbai, and by Bhojpuri singers in the homeland like Mannu Yadav, who sang Biraha folk songs on the theme of migration which are usually sung by women whose husbands have migrated, and Prabha Rani, a local folk singer of Varanasi.

The cultural meet had a positive impact on the student community of BHU who were present in large numbers on the second day which was devoted to cultural performances. Several students recited literary poems on the theme of migration and also sang Bhojpuri folk songs on the same theme which they had heard from their relatives who had faced migration. The large number of photographs and status messages about the event uploaded on social media sites, which have become an important medium for interaction and sharing ideas today, bear testimony to the success of the meet among the students who were present.

The meet was also widely covered by the media of Varanasi, both print and electronic, and in both English and Hindi. This helped to spread information and knowledge about the issues surrounding migration, which is a common occurrence in Varanasi and the adjoining regions.

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