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ITEM NUMBERS

Faux folk style on screen

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RAUNCH NACH: Bhojpuri actor Rani Chatterji does the thumka

Poet and humourist Ashok Chakradhar remembers as a child being sent disguised as a girl into khoeeya, the UP version of a pre-wedding 'ladies sangeet'. The stuff he heard, he says, brings a blush to his cheeks even now. The songs centred around some fruity suhaag raat stuff, and for obvious reasons the men were strictly not allowed in.

"I count these songs as virechan (cathartic) for the women. These are rare occasions when you can violate the everyday rules of propriety in the safety of an all-woman gathering. Holi is yet another occasion to let loose," says Chakradhar. "But the moment you set these songs out of these contexts they become unacceptably vulgar."

Hindi films have been freely importing Bhojpuri folk songs out of their cultural cocoon and set them in the overtly sexual context of the item number. So what gives them the folk stamp? The uneven, rustic quality of the singer's voice, the beat, the traditional tunes and the kamariya, mohalaa, balamwa, nazariya, thumka that pepper the song. For the rest, if you take the costumes, the moves and of course the lyrics, they are just an exercise in dressing up vulgarity in some ethnic garb.

The folk song has been reduced to a parody of itself in item numbers, be it Munni badnam hui (famously adapted from the original Launda badnam hua naseeban tere liye), the loaded Chadh gaya upar re or the equally coarse Saat Saheliyan. The obscenity quotient of these songs allegedly inspired by folk tunes is really high and no one rues it more than folk singers themselves.

Rakesh Upadhyaya, a celebrated and traditional Bhojpuri folk singer, says that item numbers have pushed up the popularity graph of his music. A whole lot of songs that few heard outside the villages and their mela grounds are on the hit chart. "Folk forms like chaiti and kajri are very much a part of the life of the people in the villages, heard by the elders, the women and children as well. You can't put an Adults Only tag to them by giving them this very vulgar twist. In fact the reaction to this perversion of folk songs is so severe in the NRI pockets of South Africa, Thailand and the Gulf, that connoisseurs refuse to let me sing any non-traditional songs," says Upadhyaya. The one film song that stayed true to the folk idiom, he says, was Mehengayi dayen from Peepli Live based on the Mirjapuri kajri style.

Of course folk songs can be quite unblushingly direct. Upadhyaya cites the song sung to welcome a bridegroom at the dwarachar (welcome) ceremony where the brother-in-law is mercilessly teased. "There are ways to interpret a song and you have to keep the context in mind at all times," he says.

The key, very disturbing, theme common to these distorted folk songs is the image it often builds of a lone, voluptuous and helpless woman caught in a circle of panting wolves. Munni, Sheila and Raziya are all in the same distress of having to beat back some really aggressive rakes.

"The underlying violence in the lyrics of these songs is somehow very medieval, very cruel - they play up this image of virile, drunk thanedars and senapatis pawing at a dancing woman in a bazaar. In the filmi item songs, the women are supposedly enjoying the male gaze. If they are supposed to celebrate the beauty of the woman's body, great! But we all know that in the real world, this woman will be the victim of violence, not adulation," says Chakradhar. The soul of these songs, the poet believes, is lost in the eagerness to create yet another rocking new dance number.

In a twisted trend, the ribald Bollywood fakes are now perverting the real thing as well. Bhojpuri non-traditional folk albums are now almost synonymous with raunchy, coarse stuff like Toda na choli ka bataniya. The circle of distortion is now complete. And the days when you could expect to hear heroes and heroines lip synch folk tunes like Nadi nare na jaao (Mujhe jeene do), Nain lad jainbe (Ganga Jamuna) or Lal lal honthwa (Lagi Nahi Chhoote Ram) are long gone.

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