The echo of the desert

May 17, 2020

With his flamboyant attire and melodious voice, Krishan Lal Bheel represented the traditional music of the desert

Krishan Lal Bheel, who passed away on May 7, was the inheritor of a long tradition of folk music in the area that saddles Cholistan and Rajasthan and stretches as far as Thar.

This area has been very rich in music, and the range extends from very rudimentary folk playing and singing to the high classical tradition. Jaipur was one of the centres of dhrupad before it became a formative influence in the kheyal. It is possible that it enriched itself by incorporating the folk musical traditions of that area.

These musicians could be allied to a temple or a shrine, since the nature of their expression is more syncretic and rooted in the lived culture of the land. Their traditions have evolved over centuries and have been strong enough to resist the various pressures the divisive present seems to exert on it.

Dressed in the flamboyant colours of the desert - the mustard, the saffron, the greens and reds, these minstrels sing in basic modal structures that are derived from Sindhi bharaveen, mand, sorath, aimen, khambavati and many others listed by Shah Lateef as surs.

The lyrics too about love, devotion, sacrifice and longings are very much imbued in the local coloration and expressed in the everyday language. The preferred language for Krishen Lal Bheel was Marwari though he could sing the traditional compositions in other languages or dialects that are spoken in the vast desert expanse.

Krishan Lal Bheel not only had a following in this area, but was also appreciated in other parts of the world. He was not promoted unduly as is the case with some artistes who are favoured for being the representative of a certain form of music that has originated in a particular area.

Of late, there has been a growing tendency to emphasize the music, poetry or language being part of a particular minority group. Efforts are then made to save or highlight it as a mission.

This integral linking of an art form to a particular group, religious sect or an ethnic denomination clearly violates the organic principle of the transcendence of art. It is more like reading it as an anthropological add-on and not a critical understanding of it as a form of art.

As a formative influence, it has to grow from the soil, but to limit it there is the way of a social scientist not an art critic.

Krishan Lal Bheel belonged to a wider tradition and was appreciated for the originality of the music. There was no effort to promote him; his songs resonated with his audience on their own. This testifies to his relevance as an artiste and not as a symbol of a small group desperately in search of a support system.

Known as bhagats, these singers and musicians were roving minstrels that literally walked a significant portion of the land, singing and dancing. They were not confined to a village or a town.

Their music was conditioned by their travelling and they sang traditional songs which had a rich mixture of folk religious wisdom and the heightened sense of a local habitation and a name.

Bhagats were inheritors of a long tradition of singing and playing that straddled a major portion of the land including the present day Haryana, parts of southern Punjab, Rajasthan, Sindh and Thar. It is possible that the tradition may be traced back to the Bhakti movement and to Meera Bai, one of the major figures of that era.

Bhakti movement was more a cultural integration at the popular level, overriding the iron-clad distinctions that faith imposed. It was a cultural coexistence that was practiced in other forms and gave birth to various dialects and languages that are still spoken.

Baba Fareed, Kabir and Nanak were representatives of that movement. Compositions based on their lyrics are still heard across the length and breadth of northern part of the subcontinent, including Pakistan.

Meera Bai was a vocalist par excellence and wrote, composed and sang in the wilderness of the region, abandoning her high class credentials. She performed at the folk level and rendered bhajans which are chanted and sung till now. The language all of them employed was the vernacular and not set in the straitjacket of dos and don’ts. It was the language of the people and subsequently became the basis of the linguistic map of northern subcontinent where these languages are still alive.

The accompanying instrument has usually been the ektara. The rhythmic accompaniment is also provided by the strumming of the instrument.

It, therefore, serves both the purposes of creating the melody and providing a rhythmic base, something that is seen to be very handy for musicians who are not limited to a place and do not sing and perform while sitting. Rather, the singing and dancing goes on while they are on the move.

Ektara figures in the mythological descriptions and has a long history of primal sonic embedment of this region. The strings must have been made of gut initially. However, steel strings have replaced them for a long time now, though the basic structure has not undergone any great change.

Most of our folk artistes live in poverty and Krishan Lal Bheel was no exception.

He had won many awards from the government and culture institutions - the President’s Medal for the Pride of Performance, Lok Virsa Lifetime Achievement Award - and had a huge fan following. Unfortunately, it was only poverty that stood by him till the end.

The echo of the desert