Samar Singh, Bhojpuri actor (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
RANJEET RAHI LIES on a bed in the passageway that connects his studio to the control room, his left leg wrapped heavily in bandages. Just the day before, a metal rod was implanted in Rahi’s leg to fix a broken bone, and there is visible anguish on his face.
Suddenly, someone shrieks from the studio inside, “China ka kya baat kare?/kabza kar raha Nepal (What do we talk of China/Even Nepal is occupying some of our territory).” And a wave of anger rearranges Rahi’s face. An error in enunciation has occurred, and Rahi screams out an expletive. But that is unnecessary. Tensions are already running high.
Sitting in the control room, a visually challenged singer-cum-lyricist named Nitin Lagan is providing supporting vocals today. And across the glass that separates the control room from the recording studio is the singer with the moniker Anjana who, if you press him, will tell you that his name is Ghulam Nabi, and who stands today, bent over a stool, rewriting passages of his new song while enduring the expletives and directives raining down upon him from the passageway outside.
We are in Jaunpur, a city in the eastern end of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Just a little over a week remains before the final phase of the state election here, and work has never been busier.
“There is just no way BJP will come to power. You can ask anybody in UP today,” says Samar Singh, Bhojpuri actor
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Rahi’s studio specialises in making songs for Bhojpuri films. But during elections, like many studios elsewhere in this area, the music composed is almost entirely political. Studios such as this serve a crucial need of electoral politics in UP—churning out eardrum-shattering numbers that can be played out at rallies, online music videos that can juice up manifestos and run down a party’s rivals, and songs that can spread on mobile phones and help give local candidates’ campaigns a little more thrust.
Rahi estimates he has composed about 250 campaign songs in just the last few months. His singers today—Lagan and Gabi— are incredibly prolific. They write their own songs, sing them, and with a little help from Rahi, also arrange their own music. The two have been up all night writing songs for the Samajwadi Party (SP). These will be recorded in a single day, and released the day after. The two also make for an interesting bunch. Gabi runs a chicken shop nearby and moonlights as a singer of SP’s songs. Lagan, who writes and sings songs for Bhojpuri films, sings for any party for a fee. There is a third singer around today, Ullan Soni, who runs a jewellery store nearby, and who has received an order for some BJP songs.
This is the reality of much of the music being produced in the ongoing elections. Chicken shop owners, visually challenged singers and small-time jewellers, comprising an invisible workforce, churning out songs for multiple parties in studios that make both Bhojpuri film and political propaganda songs.
MUSIC HAS ALWAYS played a part in UP elections. But it has never been this prominent. Covid-19-induced restrictions on campaigning have pushed parties and candidates to find more creative means, such as music production, to drum up support. From releasing multiple official tracks using the help of established artists to having small studios such as Rahi’s to produce quick catchy numbers, from devotional music to rap songs, from the songs of the Bahujan community to protest tracks put up by commoners, the music industry around the elections in UP has never been this prominent in recent history.
If there is one song that has come to dominate the soundtrack of BJP’s election campaign, it is ‘Hum Ram Ko Layenge’ (whose first lines go, ‘Jo Ram ko laye hai/Hum unko layenge’ or ‘Those who have brought Ram/We will bring them to power’).
Using the heady cocktail of religion and politics, the song—sung by the devotional singer Kanhaiya Mittal—urges people to vote for those who have brought back Ram. It has become so popular that one finds it playing almost everywhere in the state, from crowded political rallies, inside cars, even at weddings. And Mittal has been touring not just UP but also Punjab and Uttarakhand to sing versions of this song in favour of the BJP units there. “I first sang this song at a function attended by a BJP councillor in early December. Suddenly, BJP felt this is good. Then they worked on it and it went viral. In less than a month, I was sitting in front of Yogiji (at a function) singing this song to him,” he says.
“Bhojpuri music is stuck in all these blouse hooks and lehenga strings right now when it can really be a way to capture people’s imagination,” says Neha Singh Rathore, Bhojpuri folk singer
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But while a devotional song has become the anthem of this election for BJP, the anthem at the other end has turned out to be one not commissioned by an opposition party, or composed by some famous singer, but by a young woman on YouTube singing and complaining about the government in rustic, folksy ballads.
It all began with a riff on the song ‘Bambai Mein Ka Ba?/ What’s there in Mumbai?’, sung by the actor Manoj Bajpayee to highlight the plight of Bihar’s working class in 2020. Neha Singh Rathore, originally from a village in Bihar’s Kaimur district, who moved to a hostel in Varanasi after her college education because, as she says, the internet here is more reliable, made the song her own with her version ‘Bihar Mein Ka Ba’ during the Bihar Assembly polls in 2020. Rathore has now come out with three ‘UP Mein Ka Ba’ songs, apart from other songs, and she’s become something of a household name among the young internet-savvy generation of UP voters.
Only 24 years old, Rathore is representative of a new and confident generation of citizens coming of age in India’s smaller towns and cities. “I wish I had some nice story to say about how I began singing, but there is none,” she jokes. Her mother would sing folk songs at weddings sometimes, she says, and occasionally, when pestered, she would sing too. She put up her first folk song on YouTube in 2018 (in favour of the Swachh Bharat Mission), and has since been singing on several issue-based subjects. Rathore views herself as a jankavi (people’s poet) and a jangayak (people’s singer), and she feels it is incumbent upon her to goad people to question their government’s performance when they come seeking votes again.
Her songs serve another purpose. Rathore hopes that she can help rehabilitate Bhojpuri music from the double entendres and sleaze it has been reduced to in Bhojpuri films. “It is stuck in all these blouse hooks and lehenga strings right now,” she says. “When it can really be a way to capture people’s imagination and talk about the big issues of the day.”
JUST A LITTLE over 70 km away from Rathore’s location, a crowd of students has gathered in the corridors of the second floor of a pharmacy college in Jaunpur today to peep through small openings in the walls. Below in the garden stands the subject of their curiosity. Dressed in a simple grey shirt and trousers, a pair of flip-flops on his feet, the Bhojpuri star Samar Singh pinches his eyes under the afternoon sun as he listens to the director explain the scene.
The shoot of a new Bhojpuri film, Atoot Bandhan, is underway. There are no vanity vans here or the Army of hangers-on one finds at Bollywood shoots. Outside the perimeter of the scene being shot, just a few people wait on Singh, their sunglasses resting not on their foreheads but at the back of their heads.
Bhojpuri films and their music are many things to many people. To some, they are tasteless productions. But to its audience, it is an industry that caters to the void left behind after Bollywood turned its back on the hinterland. It is also a fairly large film industry. A new crop of Bhojpuri stars are rising, with the likes of Singh making space for themselves alongside established names. And like many other Bhojpuri stars during election time, Singh is also much in demand.
“Give me one name in Bollywood who can do what we do as quickly as we do,” says Nitin Lagan, singer and lyricist
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Singh is one of SP’s star campaigners. “Everywhere it (the election contest) is a little tight, I need to go there,” he says. Singh, who like many other male Bhojpuri stars sings and acts in his films,
has sung two songs for the party in this election, with ‘Janata Uttar Pradesh ke/mangat ba Akhilesh ke, button dabiya cycle ke’ becoming especially catchy.
Singh draws up a chair, drinking milky tea from a small plastic cup, as he launches shortly into a laundry list of all that has gone wrong in the state over the last five years. “There is just no way BJP will come to power. You can ask anybody in UP today,” he says.
THE DRIVE FROM Lucknow to eastern UP can feel like a journey through time. The impressive Purvanchal Expressway, opened to the public only some months ago, transforms into a small crowded road as we turn to Ghazipur, stray cows constantly holding up traffic, the urban rapidly turning into the countryside. A thin sleet of winter fog clings to the fields. As the sun rises, and the fog expands in its light, it gives the distinct impression of smoke covering entire kilometres of fields. We travel from one pointed finger to another, through crowded bazaars, lanes and farmlands, until we arrive at the doorstep of a house only half complete.
Inside, Vishal Ghazipuri and Sapna Baudh sit on plastic chairs, their three-year-old son moving in and out of rooms, the roof above entirely absent. Ghazipuri and Baudh, who belong to the Bahujan community, are missionary or what is known as Bhimgeet singers. They move through towns performing songs about the life and times of BR Ambedkar and other anti-caste leaders. Ghazipuri, who often experienced casteist slurs or prejudice at studios in Delhi where he travelled to record his songs, even established his own studio in Ghazipur a few years ago.
The couple started doing well. They purchased a car, started building a house for Ghazipuri’s parents, and began to dream of a brighter future. Then, two years ago, Ghazipuri felt he should expand his range to also sing songs centred on contemporary issues. All hell broke loose.
“How can we say we live in a democracy when those in the Bahujan samaj continue to get threatened like this?,” says Vishal Ghazipuri, Bhimgeet singer
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The two continued to upload songs like ‘Aaya Desh Vikreta/ Here comes the person who sells the country’, ‘Ek Tha Hitler, Ek Hai Jhootler’ and ‘Nijikaran Dhokha Hai/Privatisation is a scam’—all critical of BJP—online, even as threats from anonymous individuals started pouring in. These threats continued to escalate, often filled with vile casteist remarks, and in October 2020, the couple’s studio was set on fire. With the police allegedly dragging their feet on the case, and the two intent on not stopping being critical of the government, they had no recourse but to flee. Along with their then two-year-old child, the couple remained in hiding all of last year, staying at one spot for just a few weeks at a time before moving to the next. When they did get sloppy once, in March last year, they found a vehicle blocking the path of their car, and a group of men carrying guns threatening them to withdraw their cases.
“How can we say we live in a democracy when those in the Bahujan samaj continue to get threatened like this?” asks Ghazipuri.
The two have only recently started living in the open again. The incidents of the last two years have set the couple back considerably. Without being able to perform openly, they have been able to neither complete building Ghazipuri’s parents’ house nor restart their studio. The two, like many others in the Bahujan community, are loyal supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Even though there is little or no party support, singers such as Ghazipuri and Baudh move through the state campaigning for votes for the party.
About 100 km away at Rahi’s recording studio in Jaunpur, despite the constant bickering between Gabi and Lagan, the two share a brief moment of camaraderie. Lagan raises his face from the mike and says, “Give me one name in Bollywood who can do what we do as quickly as we do.”