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PASSIONS

Popularising Indian folk music

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ROMANCING THE FOLK: Shefali Bhushan records an artiste on one of her many trips around India

Folk music might be Bollywood's latest fad, but recordings are few and usually tucked away in the darkest recesses of music shops. But one website has attempted to transform folk music from a dying art form to a living repository of our unofficial history.

The portal - www.beatofindia.com - is a collection of over 5, 000 songs and has introduced 80 folk singers from Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to a worldwide online audience.

The woman behind this endeavour is Shefali Bhushan, a singer and filmmaker whose concern at India's apathy toward folk music prompted her to do something. "I had been toying with the idea of doing a television series on Indian classical and folk music, " says Shefali, enconsed in her south Delhi home-cum-office. "I tried hard to push it, but Indian channels aren't the kind that commission any thoughtful programming," she rued.

The idea for a TV series was shelved but that's when beatofindia. com came about. "NK Sharma, who's a theatre director, suggested that Prabhat Agarwal, friend and entrepreneur, and I should look at popularising folk music online," recalls the 40-year-old. Born in Allahabad into a musical family, Shefali is a trained singer and musician who can play the guitar and harmonium.

The suggestion was timely. Pakistan had Lok Virsa, a foundation dedicated to preserving Pakistan's folk heritage but there was no organised effort in India, yet. So Shefali with Agarwal, NK and another partner Aiyana Gunjan kickstarted www. beatofindia. com roughly 11 years ago.

They set out from Delhi to travel some dusty roads armed with audio-video recording gear. They knocked on doors and found many a song. With many artistes reluctant to come out of their houses into studios, making them feel comfortable was the first step. So, the trio had to be ready to record whenever the singer decided to sing. Each recording would take upto 15 days
"Most of the stuff is pure, unpolished. We remove background noise, if any but what you hear is what we heard," Shefali explains.

The result: 30 hours of authentic folk music which was promptly uploaded on the website. If the entrepreneurial group was under the impression that money would come pouring in, they were mistaken. "We thought member contributions would come in but it got really difficult to sustain, " she shares, before clarifying, "It's not that we were looking to make money. "

It was then that the idea of selling a music compilation was floated. Celebration of Life had ten tracks sung by artistes from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttaranchal. On the compilation released in 2000 were lost voices like Shyam Lal Begana and Urmila Srivastava and a young Manoj Tiwari, who has now earned fame and fortune in Bhojpuri cinemas. "We managed to sell 100 copies through family and friends and 10 per cent of the royalties was set aside for the singers. We managed to send Rs 300 to each of the ten. It wasn't much, but they were deeply touched by the gesture." That one album created some momentum.

The fairly simply designed website now offers CD sets of songs from Himachal, from Braj, from the Malwa belt of Madhya Pradesh, charts the rustic traditions of Rajasthan and Punjab and the unmissable Bhojpuri and Awadhi songs. Available at Rs 30 per download, the website is like a box of sweets for music lovers, some of whom keep coming back for more. "There is a certain loyal clientele who have bought the entire catalogue." Members get three songs free.

The sales reduce the pinch that is felt when expenses mount. And there are quite a few. "Travelling costs for 4-5 people with equipment... It's not easy to sustain," she shrugged. The royalties, though, continue to be paid, and for some artistes have amounted to more than Rs 25, 000.

The attention has helped several singers build careers and reputations. Begana, the singer from a village near Allahabad, who held a government job before he was approached by BOI, has been doing a lot of concerts, not just in India but even in Mauritius. "He's also written a book." Some of the Beat of India singers have been co-opted into Bollywood. One of the older singers featured on the website, Deshraj Lachhani, sang in the blockbuster movie Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.

One of Shefali's favourite singers, one that she came across in her search for India's lost gems, was Swarn Noora who figures prominently in the Punjabi compilation. "She's the daughter of Bibi Noora, the famous singer in the Sufiyana Qalam tradition. We did a great concert at the India Habitat Centre in 2005. Sadly her son, Dil Bahar, didn't remember the purana stuff which was a mini tragedy, " she said regretfully.

But what the soft-spoken, Modern Schoolpassout looks back at fondly is the opportunity that she and her like-minded friends managed to create. "There's a huge amount of satisfaction that accompanies this work. We haven't made any money, but we have opened a tiny window for these artistes to get the recognition they are due. Most of these artistes are old and there is no one to carry their legacy forward."

Plans are afoot to add a South Indian chapter to the website though with Shefali spending more time in Mumbai to devote time to film projects such plans are at best precarious. "Logistics are a problem. You always need a local person. We don't have a deadline for South India, but hopefully this year or next. " A musical journey that is definitely worth continuing.

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