I Just Called To Say

Bhanuj Kappal
Grist Media

A small stage is set up near an auto-rickshaw garage in an anonymous corner of Khar, in suburban Mumbai. People offer prayers at a colourfully lit Ganesha idol as the muffled sound of a dhol floats in the background. Onstage, Ramanuj Pathak ‘Chingari’ – former taxi driver and struggling Bhojpuri singer – is performing a mournful folk lament set to a harmonium and the ubiquitous dholak rhythms that form the backbone of Bhojpuri music. He sings of longing, of separation, and of mobile phones.

This is one of the first scenes in Bidesia in Bambai, filmmaker Surabhi Sharma’s new documentary about the Bhojpuri music industry that thrives on the fringes of Mumbai. The film explores the Bhojpuri migrant experience through their music, taking us to the hidden corners of the city where this community lives, works and celebrates. It takes us to makeshift stages running on stolen electricity and to bigger events like the annual Chhath Puja celebrations on Juhu Beach.

There are stars who perform all over the country as well as struggling taxi drivers and construction workers chasing their musical dreams. Recorded in small studios scattered across the city, the music is distributed through CDs, DVDs and mobile phones to the taxi drivers, sweatshop workers, courier boys and laundry men who consume it.

At every performance you can find these young men, mobile phones in hand, recording even as they stare wide-eyed at the performers. Women are largely absent from the audience though they’re well represented in the ranks of the performers.

It took four years for Sharma, 43, to make this film. She worked on it in spurts, spending the rest of the time doing other work to finance its production. During this period, she’s seen Mumbai replace Delhi as the main centre of production for Bhojpuri music, with big budget companies sharing the stage with smaller, independent artists and production companies.

"In April this year, Kalpana Patowary became the first Bhojpuri singer signed by the London-based Virgin/EMI Records label, a sign of the growing interest in Bhojpuri music." Bidesia in Bambai puts you right in the middle of this thriving subculture. 

Running through it all is the motif of the mobile phone – as a lyrical prop as well as a means of recording, circulating and consuming the music. The mobile phone is a recurring presence in Bhojpuri music. It appears in devotional songs as a 21st century prayer device, it has replaced the letter in bidesia-pardesia songs of longing and separation, it plays cupid to young romances in songs full of sexual desire and lustful double entendres.

As Sharma puts it, the mobile phone has become a motif that “contains within it the meanings of home, of desires, of romance, of technology bettering our lives.”

Partly, this is a matter of convenience. With 900 million subscribers and counting, the ‘mobile’ has found its way into the daily life of rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the two main states where Bhojpuri is spoken. It forms the main link between the family back in the village and the workers who migrate to the big city in search of employment. It helps villagers access important information about agriculture, education, health and employment.

In an area where few have formal bank accounts, people transfer and deposit money using their phones. And it allows migrant workers to send money back home through mobile banking services, such as the World Bank-funded Eko Financial Services.

“Women will forget to put on kajal but they won’t forget their phones,” says Raj Kumar Pandey, a Bhojpuri film producer-director who has recently forayed into songwriting. “Things people are close to and pay attention to, those become sort of props in the song because people can relate to them. This is why phones have become such a common prop now, like the dupatta or the sun and moon or kajal.”

But the ubiquitous nature of mobile phones is only part of what makes it such an effective prop. Another, more important reason is its connections with home and with the popular themes of migration and separation.

Migration has been an important part of Bhojpuri folk music for almost two centuries, ever since men began moving to cities to find work and escape the poverty and feudalism of 19th century Bihar and UP. Some moved to Calcutta and Mumbai, others were taken to Mauritius, Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji and other colonial countries as indentured labour. Today, there exist Bhojpuri migrant communities in big cities across India as well as abroad.

Sharma documented some of these communities in Jahaji Music: India in the Caribbean, her film on Indo-Caribbean music released in 2007. In Trinidad and Tobago, Indian and Caribbean influences have merged in the form of Chutney music – folk-derived popular music sung in Hindi, English and Bhojpuri. Both Chutney and Bhojpuri music share strong elements of satire, lyrical wordplay and layers of double meanings.

The themes are, of course, different, but the two musical forms share one more characteristic: they both constantly refer to the contemporary moment, in the form of contemporary politics, contemporary media and contemporary technology. In Trinidad and Tobago, this translates to race relations and fancy cars. In Mumbai, it’s migration and mobile phones.

“The middle class and working class of these communities don’t have enough money to go home regularly,” says Pandey of the Bhojpuri migrants in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. “That’s why the 'pardesiya' and 'bidesia' songs are so popular. They express the pain of [the worker's] wife, his family and also the man himself. The pain of having to kill his desires and his longing for his loved ones in order to make money.”

By making instant communication accessible to almost anyone, the phone has also helped alleviate some of the pain of separation. Its appeal as a lyrical prop to songwriters like Pathak ‘Chingari’ is self-evident. “The mobile phone fits well into the pardesia and bidesia themes,” agrees Kalpana Patowary. “It provides connectivity, like letters did in the earlier songs.”

Bhojpuri music's engagement with technology is also altering its conception of romance. In the Economic & Political Weekly last year, independent researcher Ratnakar Tripathy explored the romantic possibilities opened up by mobile phones in the rigidly conservative society of rural India – as portrayed in Bhojpuri popular music. He found that these songs allow young boys and girls to circumvent strict social conventions in a society where arranged marriage is still the norm.

Phones enable young lovers to set up secret and safe meetings and to communicate their desire covertly and privately. This has led to a whole genre of ‘missed call’ songs such as Tora Maari Ke Missed Call.

“It enables them to imagine a different kind of romance and love life,” says journalist and writer Naresh Fernandes, who wrote about the phenomenon for The New York Times’ India Ink blog last year. “Take the missed call... It’s the mystery of who it could be that is exciting, even if you don’t call back or act on it.”

Whether such romances work out or not isn't the point. The songs showcase technology as both alluring and corrupting, as evident in the trend of ‘mobile-waali’ songs like Hath Mein Mobile in which a bold woman crosses social boundaries and strides confidently into male-dominated arenas – all with a phone in her hand.

The mobile-waali is both objectified and empowered, with men lusting after her even as she chooses who to engage with and who to ignore. Yet other songs portray the migrant worker’s anxiety over how to deal with the phone-toting urban woman and the challenge she represents to social orthodoxy.

Bhojpuri songs reflect upon other social and political challenges as well, especially the city’s hostility towards migrant workers from Bihar and UP. Mumbai needs their labour but does not want them to stick around, relegating them to the fringes where they are vulnerable to political attacks and the frequent demolitions of their homes and places of work. In such situations, the music becomes a way of mobilising their Bhojpuri identity.

“The songs might not be directly political,” says Sharma, “but the performances become the site of a direct response to this hostility. The music is a platform through which they are saying that we are the workers of the city, we belong to this city. These tensions are played out in the performances.”

So the annual Chhath Puja celebrations at Juhu Beach become not just a religious but also a political platform, reiterating the migrant’s right to live and work and prosper in Mumbai. The production and consumption of Bhojpuri music, in a city where their music studios are pulled down without warning, itself becomes an act of political assertion. And once again, the mobile phone becomes a crucial technology by virtue of its link in the distribution chain.

As Fernandes observes, the phone itself is also an object of desire and a projection of individuality. Working class youth, both in the city and back in the villages, invest time and money into making sure they have the latest ringtones and caller tunes.

Sharma mentions that during the film's shooting, Bhojpuri folk would constantly discuss the songs and videos each has on his phone. However, she adds a note of caution, warning us not to read too much into the mobile phone as a lyrical object. It isn’t the phone itself that is important, she says, but what it represents – nostalgia for home, the potential for romance and the possibilities for a newer, brighter future.

As for the songs, what they represent has not changed – whether sung by the mobile-waali or the Facebook-waali.

To watch the trailer of 'Bidesia in Bambai'
- click here

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist who writes about music, art and cultural politics. Follow him at https://twitter.com/StonerJesus

Also on Yahoo! Originals

Delhi rape: What’ll happen to the juvenile?

If convicted in the December 16 Delhi gang-rape case, will he be punished as a juvenile or as an adult? More

The Hunger Games, Again

India has a third of the world's malnourished children. The Food Security Bill proposes to guarantee basic nutrition even as we hear of children dying everywhere from Kerala to Bihar, from malnutrition to eating poisonous midday meals. Amid the march of grim statistics, Meghala's story is a reminder that the systems are failing our children and they are dying right next to us. Read

Politicians Should Upload Satire Sites, Not Shut Them Down

Amid the Narendra Modi satire flap, a stand-up comic explains why. Read

Surviving rape: The story of Suzette Jordan

What happens to you after rape? What happens to you after the police, the media and your chief minister scorn you? How do you begin to live again? An intimate profile of Suzette Jordan as she finds her way back home. Read