| Bhojpuri emigrants
Image: KIT Museum
Nearly 150 years ago began an agonising saga of migration from the Bhojpur region of India. With Britain actively engaged in agriculture in colonies across the world, there was a great need for skilled labourers – a need that was largely filled by the impoverished people of what is today western Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh, who were particularly skilled at growing sugarcane. In their efforts at controlling Indian life, the British had systematically destroyed many rural enterprises, in particular the colony’s small-scale sugar and molasses industries. This dynamic had led to the creation of a large group of surplus labour in the region, which in turn was shipped off to work on plantations in Suriname, Mauritius and the Caribbean islands. Between 1873 and 1916, 64 shiploads of workers – more than 34,300 men and women – were ‘recruited’ to work as indentured labourers on sugar plantations in the far-off islands.
This was not an exodus that went unrecorded at the time. Indeed, newspapers and magazines such as Saraswati, Vishal Bharat and Pravasi were launched with the specific aim of educating the people about what was taking place, and many novels and short stories were written during the period around the theme of departure. Some of these dealt with the deep anxiety felt by wives and other relatives who had remained at home. The exodus also led to the emergence of a number of unique rituals and superstitions, and ancient goddesses, capable of fulfilling the wishes of deserted women, were rediscovered or invented. One of these was Sankata Devi, who had the power to protect faraway husbands and to ensure their safe return; her temple in Benaras became an important pilgrimage site during the peak period of colonial migration. What crime have I committed that you left the country and did not tell me your feelings before leaving?
As I sit on my terrace I keep remembering your face in my heart.
But you did not even send me a letter.
I don’t know in what country and on which road my beloved is now living.
The barber says that there is no hope my beloved will ever return.
The separation caused by this migration also gave birth to a new and distinct folk culture, one that gave expression to the disquiet felt by those left behind. Attendant forms of this culture include: the kaharwa, a folksong sung in the Kahar community that narrates the pain of separation from a wife or beloved as a result of migration; the chamraudha dance of the Chamar caste, the songs of which cover the same theme; the barahmasa narrations, which detail the different emotions that each month of the year brings; and the nautanki popular theatre, performed during festivals and weddings. These folk traditions remain alive today in several Bhojpuri villages, as do many other rituals, customs and superstitions that date to the period of the great migration.
Because it grew out of the trauma of separation, this folk culture came to be known as Bidesia. In some other Southasian languages, the word videshi refers to the natives of foreign countries, but the Bhojpuri word bidesia refers to those Bhojpuris who left their homeland for overseas. In one sense, bidesia is an affectionate term for non-resident Bhojpuris; in another, it refers to the works of folk tradition composed in memory of those non-resident Bhojpuris. As such, Bidesia is not a word with a single, clear meaning, but a term steeped in multiple and overlapping cultural significances.
Due to its expression of the collective anxiety that characterised the area’s communities at that time, Bidesia came to be extremely popular in villages and cities throughout the Bhojpur region. Today, the laments of folk artists who sing of the dislocation caused by present-day migrations to Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad or Bombay echo the Bidesia of old, and keep alive the memory of those early pangs of separation. These laments are also joined and built upon by artists in such faraway places as Suriname, Mauritius and the Netherlands.
The multitudes of the Subcontinent, of course, have experienced migration for tens of thousands of years. But the migration of the colonial period took place on a massive and sudden scale, and the places where the emigrants found themselves were often very far away, where contact with the homeland was exceedingly difficult. This inevitably caused significant pain to huge numbers of people, both those who had left and those who were left behind.
Bhojpuri society did respond quickly in an attempt to stop the migration – for instance, with a ‘ban’ on overseas travel. To go abroad to earn money came to be considered sinful, and to avoid becoming social outcastes, men who did so had to appease the gods by feeding large numbers of Brahmins. Few could afford to do so, and rather than change their plans, many chose to keep them secret. The migration did not stop, and increasingly became a central facet of Bhojpuri life, and one that was reflected in the region’s performance traditions. Poorvi lok sangeet, for instance, is a genre of folk music that reverts back to memories of the homeland. Another genre of Bhojpuri song is ganga geet, songs about the Ganga, a river strongly invested with emotion as most migration took place from the Calcutta port.
It was in 1917 that Bhikhari Thakur, the singer often credited as the originator of Bidesia folk culture, pioneered the tradition of what he called ‘Bidesia theatre’. Soon, the songs that were sung in these theatres were known as Bidesia songs. The style employed by Thakur became so popular that other nautankis making use of this style also came to be called Bidesia. Other urban theatre companies began to put on Bidesia productions, and before long Bidesia became the popular folk-theatre style of the Bhojpur region as a whole.
Be careful; your bad fortune will come to an end.
From Calcutta, we were sent to a depot in Suriname where we were fed rice.
After a difficult, three-month journey by ship, we reached Suriname, which we had earlier taken to be Shri Ram’s land.
As soon as it was morning, the bakara [white owner] called us and promised to send us back to India after we had completed the five-year contract.
34,000 Indians came here and 12,000 have already gone back.
Between 1837 and 1926, 64 ships came here.
We came here as jahaji, people on ships,and remained as jahaji brothers.
Kishore [the poet] does not know whether to call this his good luck or his bad luck.
|Image: Nivedita Singh|
Bidesia plays generally follow the sad story of a young bride whose husband has been forced to leave her behind in order to seek employment in pardes, foreign lands. The plot develops as Sundari (a common name given to this bride) arranges to send a message to her husband. She begs the messenger to release her husband from the clutches of the city woman for whom she assumes he has fallen, and to bring him back to the village. The plays also narrate the emotions of the young man, particularly how he feels upon returning to his village after having been away for many years. It was the common chord that these narratives struck in the hearts of Bhojpuri audiences that made them so popular. The interspersion of comic relief, satire on the existing system, and statements on contemporary social dicho-tomies added to both the appeal and longevity of Bidesia theatre, which is why it remains a phenomenon today.
The Bidesia effect – the sense of loss caused by long-term migration – is found in both the homeland and the land of emigration. There is a common heritage of dislocation evident in works composed both by resident Bhojpuris and in the diaspora, from the Caribbean islands to the Netherlands. (Bhojpuris arrived in Amsterdam from the Dutch colonies to which they had originally been taken.) In Mauritius and Suriname, the descendants of migrants sing songs that describe the impact of their severing from their Bhojpur roots.
In one style of Bidesia song, a woman asks her loved one why he emigrated. In Suriname, poetry is composed in the local Sarnami (a language that is a mixture of Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Magadhi and other languages) that takes the form of responses and explanations to such questions. These songs are now also composed in the Netherlands, where over half the Bidesia population of Suriname moved after 1970 – and to where they once again took this still-evolving, multi-generational tradition.
~ Nivedita Singh is a photojournalist, currently working with the G B Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad.