A young breed of social media influencers is on a cultural mission
Geeta Rabari (Photo: Kamlesh)
SHE IS THE TAYLOR SWIFT of the folk-devotional music world. Wherever she goes, be it the Surajkund Mela or an arts festival in Mumbai, she holds up a small economy on her slight shoulders. With over 4.5 million followers on Instagram, a single picture of hers, dressed in a demure yellow Banarasi silk salwar kameez for a wedding in the family, draws tens of thousands of likes in a matter of hours. She lives out of suitcases more than at home—Delhi, for the past several years, after her family moved from rural Bihar for the sake of her musical career—and at 23 years of age, has reached the peak celebrity status usually reserved for the Shreya Ghoshals and Lata Mangeshkars of Hindi film music. Despite the fame and the laurels, Maithili Thakur has retained her sense of humour. “I think 90 per cent of the work I do comes from the government,” she says. She is only half-joking. Ahead of the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22, both the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government went on a massive promotional spree, sponsoring junkets for influencers, producing films, releasing books, and backing young devotional singers. Prime Minister Narender Modi himself took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to share a playlist of over 60 bhajans in various languages, besides singing praises of a select few artists, including Maithili Thakur, in individual posts. “The occasion of Pran Pratishtha in Ayodhya is reminding my family members across the country of every incident related to the life and ideals of Lord Shri Ram. One such emotional incident is related to Shabri. Listen to how Maithili Thakurji has put it in her melodious tunes,” he wrote in his post on X, sharing a link to the bhajan. Thakur has 4.44 million subscribers on YouTube—more than many Bollywood singers. She attributes some of this success to the government’s active promotion of folk artists. Growing up in Urain, a village in Bankatta panchayat, Benipatti block, Madhubani district, in Bihar’s Mithila region, she learnt to sing from her grandfather and her father, a music teacher, but never imagined her music would become popular. “Humare ghar mein hamesha bhajan-kirtan ka mahaul raha hai (There was always an atmosphere of bhajan-kirtan at home),” she says, speaking on the phone from Ahmedabad airport while waiting for a flight to Jaisalmer. “I started my social media accounts after nearly winning Rising Star (a televised singing competition in Hindi that airs on Colors TV) in 2017 because I wanted to stay relevant; I did not want to disappear like so many singers do. I first wondered what to post. Enough people were doing Bollywood covers, but no one was exploring the variety of songs we have in Maithili, like sohar and sandauni. I posted a kirtan in Maithili and as expected, it didn’t do well. Those were the days when I would dress up and post a picture, posing like a heroine and imagining that I would get a lot of views, but I didn’t have many followers.
“God has been the soundtrack of my life. There has been a flurry of bookings this year because of the prana pratishtha,” says Geeta Rabari
Then I tried doing a cover of a popular Bhojpuri song and that clicked. Then onwards, there were likes on every song of mine. Soon, people started texting me to ask how to become famous. Artists began to send links to their songs asking me to do my own version and post it on my channel—this made me sit up. Now I felt, everyone knows Maithili Thakur.”
By chance, she stumbled upon a fast-growing segment in online entertainment, but devotion had always been a way of life for a young Maithili Thakur. “I was only too glad to give up my childhood dream of becoming a playback singer because now I was getting a chance to be myself. Singing of god, playing the harmonium, with my brothers Rishav and Ayachi backing me on vocals and tabla—this is the life I had known before I began to try out for reality shows,” she says. Why did a classically trained musician, who had obviously put in thousands of hours in riyaz and impressed the judges on Rising Star and Indian Idol Junior with the aesthetics of her taans, give up artistic pursuit to sing popular bhajans? How did she not get swayed by the glamour of Bollywood? “I get immersed when I sing of god. When I read a page of Bhagavatam or Ramcharitmanas, I am fascinated; I want to read the next page. This kind of music is the most fulfilling for me personally,” says Thakur, who did not attend school till the age of 11, preferring to spend all her time at home learning music. There was a brief period when she studied to be an IAS officer— “Bihar mein bahut craze hota hai”— but that dream too crumbled against her rapidly advancing singing career. A youth icon, Thakur sings in Maithili, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Punjabi, and other languages, dresses in saris and salwar suits, and often wears a tilak and a tulsi mala. “A few decades ago, all families in Bharat used to pray together, observe vrats and perform rituals. This culture died out, but now there’s a new wave among the youngsters,” she says. “Five years ago, as a new stage artist, I would notice that 90 per cent of my audience was middle-aged or older. Now, wherever I go, 90 per cent of the audience is made up of youth. This is a drastic change and I never expected it,” says Thakur.
Parallel to Thakur’s rise, and instrumental to it, the cultural narrative in India has migrated into the newer media of social networks, shaping and being shaped by the Hindu efflorescence that has marked Narendra Modi’s two terms in office. Devotional music, while always a large and profitable industry, has now reached a crescendo with the frenzy around the Ram temple, with artists known and unknown—including passengers on an Indigo flight—taking a stab at virality by putting out versions of popular bhajans. If there is someone yet who hasn’t heard Meri jhopdi ke bhaag aaj khul jayenge, Ram aayenge, they may well be living under a rock the size of Ayodhya.
“I don’t believe I am a saviour or a changemaker. I am a lover of stories who connected with deities almost as a friend,” says Vinay L Varanasi
Down south, there is a perceptible surge in interest in Carnatic music and its vast repertoire of compositions about Lord Ram. Among the songs shared by Modi on X is an old Kannada film classic, Poojisalende, as rendered by 27-year-old Sivasri Skandaprasad, an up-and-coming Carnatic musician from Chennai—she moved to Bengaluru a couple of years ago—who, like Thakur, dresses in Indian clothing, wears a bindi, and represents a dharmic way of life. “I grew up in a conservative family, learning music and dance. It did not take me long to realise that art, for me, came from a place of surrender to god. When I practised Varugalaamo Ayya (a composition from the 19th-century musical opera Nandanar Charitram by Gopala Krishna Bharathi, where Nandanar, a devotee of Lord Shiva, asks for permission to come closer to him) every day for my arengetram at the age of 10, that sadhana left quite an impression on me. It became a pooja,” says Skandaprasad, who has given up dancing professionally to focus on music. Her schedule has been packed of late. Close on the heels of a successful Marghazhi music season in Chennai in January, she has toured Hyderabad and Mauritius, and yet, to her, the most satisfying performance of all was the one at the ISKCON temple in Bengaluru where the garland fell from the deity as she was singing. “It felt like a blessing from Lord Venkateshwara,” she says. “We live in times when people want to get to the ideology and the activism of an artist before the art itself. I am a proud Hindu, I have always been one, but I am not here to thrust my values on anyone.” While Skandaprasad claims to be politically neutral, she runs an organisation named Ahuti that aims to promote “Bharatiya art and culture” through classical music and dance classes and public discussions featuring leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, among others.
MUCH OF INDIA’S traditional art and culture, though not all, is intertwined with religion, and the idea of bhakti. To be sure, bhakti is in vogue now. On Instagram, it takes the form of songsters in resplendent silk saris, dharmic toys for children, Krishna devotees spinning with abandon in Vrindavan, and beatific young preachers who are referred to with an honorific or two—as in ‘Devi Chitralekhaji’ and ‘Jaya Kishoriji’, both incredibly popular ‘motivational speakers’ with 2.4 million and 10.7 million followers, respectively, on the social media platform. (Both declined to be interviewed.) Bhakti is no longer simply personal prayer, or chants spilling from temple loudspeakers and satsangs, it is also an idea filling the streets— take, for instance, the silent revival of nagarasankeertana, a tradition of singing hymns in a procession about town, in Karnataka— and young minds. “Rama is not even my ishta daiva—Krishna is—but the Ram temple consecration triggered emotions in me and brought tears to my eyes,” says Bhargavi Venkatram, a 28-year-old classical musician from Bengaluru. “Because of platforms like Instagram, many Hindus are finally able to express their beliefs because they think it is important to do so.” Venkatram, who has trained from an early age to be a serious concert musician, says that music, for her, is a marga (path) to bhakti. “I enjoy singing compositions with an aspect of bhakti rather than the purely technical facets of classical music,” she says. While she grew up a practising Hindu, she says it was during the pandemic that she began to make sense of traditions like bathing before cooking, not touching serving vessels while eating, and washing one’s feet before entering the house. “I realised that much of what my grandmother followed was really just basic hygiene,” she says. Venkatram’s rendition of Ramanai bhajithal, a popular Papanasam Sivan composition in raga Maand, was shared by Modi’s account and she was also called upon by news channels to sing the ‘Hindu’ version of Raghupati raghava rajaram, a bhajan that, until now, has been taught to children as a secular prayer synonymous with Mahatma Gandhi.
“We live in times when people want to get to the ideology of an artist before the art itself. I am not here to thrust my values on anyone,” says Sivasri Skandaprasad
For generations, Carnatic musicians have dressed in traditional finery, performed in temples, and lent their voice to pious sahitya extolling Rama and Krishna. From MS Subbulakshmi to Sudha Raghunathan, vocalists have more often than not launched devotional albums to reach a wider audience, making them household names. It is through their music that many of us absorbed, by osmosis, the devotion of the great poet-composers of the Carnatic tradition. But never have so many Carnatic musicians openly articulated their bhakti as they are doing today. For rising classical musicians like Rahul Vellal, Spoorthi Rao, and Suryagayathri, their first taste of success and renown have come not from the concert stage but from singing musician-composer Kuldeep M Pai’s devotional songs that have been widely shared on Instagram and YouTube. Some of these also made it to Modi’s bhajan playlist. Vellal and Rao are students of the veteran vocalist duo Ranjani-Gayatri. Gayatri, who calls herself a proud Hindu and eschews the term ‘secular’, admits that devotional music has become an easy launchpad and fallback for classical musicians today. “Earlier, artists entered the classical space, made their name in it, then branched out to sing in films or put down devotional albums—we too have done so. Now, as classical music has become increasingly technical and challenging, and devotional songs have assumed a brand value of their own—and film songs have lost all connection with classical music—young musicians are cashing in on the new Hindutva wave to gain followers. It is an interesting trend, but devotional lyric is only one side of Carnatic music, a profound art form with many aspects like melody, creativity, bhakti and rhythm,” she says. “This music is connected to the land. For the great composers, this music was a quest to answer their life’s profound questions. It was a part of their journey to self-actualisation. When we dissociate the sensory aspect from its devotional core, we are decontextualising the composition. Often, when you listen to Carnatic classical music, you are touched by it and you don’t know why. And as a singer, even if you are singing an alaap without words, or striking a shadja, if you haven’t internalised the spiritual core, you are missing the point.” Gayatri says there is a resurgence in interest in classical music corresponding to what she calls the “revival of dharmic consciousness”, with charismatic practitioners like Abby V, who happens to be a student, taking social media by storm.
“For five years now, 90 per cent of my audience was middle-aged or older. Now, wherever I go, 90 per cent of the audience is made up of youth. This is a drastic change and I never expected it,” says Maithili Thakur
IN FAR-AWAY Bhavnagar, Gujarat, Geeta Rabari is busier than ever before. “God has been the soundtrack of my life and now this track is louder than ever all around us,” says the 26-year-old. Along with her husband Pruthvi, who is also her manager, she is headed to Jamnagar and Ahmedabad, her home, for back-to-back performances. “There has been a flurry of bookings this year because of the pran pratishtha,” she says. With 4.4 million followers on Instagram, @geetabenrabariofficial is a folk icon from Kutch who has toured the world. She says she has much to thank Modi for. “I first met him at Rann Utsav when I was very young and he was chief minister. In 2019, when one of my songs became a hit, he invited me to visit Delhi with my family. His blessings have always been with me—even before he shared my bhajan, ‘Shree Ram ghar aaye’, ahead of the pran pratishtha. It is special to me because it is from my first Hindi album. Not only me, many folk artists from villages and small communities have made it big because of his personal involvement in promoting Indian culture.” Rabari sports elaborate Kutchi outfits that have become her identity and prefers devotional songs to other folk melodies. “Rabaris are nomadic pastoralists who have traditionally been devotees of Lord Ram. On Holi day, Rabaris from all around the country meet at the Vadvala temple to pray to Ram. Even today, while I awaited my turn to go on stage, I began to do Ram naam jaap with my prayer beads,” she says. Pruthvi, a civil engineer who quit his career to accompany Geeta, says she is an inspiration to young Kutchi women who, if at all, are only supporting artists in local gigs. “The men are the lead singers. Women would just fill in the gaps. Geeta has turned this s tereotype around.” While rural India has always preferred devotional and folk music, more and more urban youth are returning to their roots, says Pruthvi. “This reversal of trends is obvious from the sheer number of likes, follows, and shares we have been getting from urban centres in recent times.”
“Because of platforms like Instagram, many Hindus are finally able to express their beliefs because they think it is important to do so. I enjoy singing compositions with an aspect of bhakti rather than the purely technical facets of classical music,” says Bhargavi Venkatram
Other young artists are creating spaces for conversation and engagement around Hindu dharma. For the past four years, Vinay L Varanasi, a 30-year-old architect-turned-storyteller based in Bengaluru, has been contextualising stories from myths and epics for varied, often young, audiences through collaborations with dancers, musicians, and artists. In a series of his talks, he attempts to look at ancient temples through the eyes of well-known bhaktas associated with them—for instance, Kanchi and Shankaracharya, Tirupati and Annamacharya. “I don’t believe I am a saviour or a changemaker—Sanatana dharma does not need saving. I am a lover of stories who, while growing up, happened to connect with deities not at an esoteric level but almost as a friend. As I realised that a story was not just about a plot, but about communicating an idea, I began looking at ways to tell stories without dumbing them down.” Growing up in a fairly liberal Hindu household—his mother is a linguist and his father, a scientist—he attended an Anglo-Indian school. “My parents taught me to pray and taught me shlokas but never forced me to follow any rules. It took me a while to accept that I could wear vibhuti on my forehead and go out,” he says. A couple of years ago, at a workshop in a school, someone remarked to him that he hadn’t expected a man sporting a kurta and Vibhuti to be fluent in English. “I am used to being judged based on how I look, but I am okay with it because my Hindu identity wants to be seen. A lot of young people support my work, thanks to social media, which is how I have been able to do this full-time,” says Varanasi, who is currently designing deeper dives into “what is human about our deities and what is divine about us.”