Legendary folk musician Mahendra Mishra led a double life and played a vital role in India’s struggle for independence

Mahendra Mishra’s statue in Chhapra.
All photos courtesy: The Bidesia Project

First published:

Indian folk icon who also printed fake notes to fight the British

Mahendra Mishra popularised the Poorvi genre of Bhojpuri music and played a rare role in India’s struggle for freedom

On a busy road in the village of Mishrauliya – in the Saran district of the east Indian Bihar state – a statue sits pretty in the middle of an intersection. It is a crude work, but that does little to diminish the identity of the man it portrays.

Most people know Mahendra Mishra (or Misir) as a noted folk singer from the region, credited with popularising the Poorvi genre of Bhojpuri music, which also includes Kajri, Baramasa, Jatsaar and Chait, popular in parts of Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state.

But few are aware that Mishra also ran a clandestine operation in the first half of the 20th century, printing fake currency notes to fund the freedom fighters leading the struggle for India’s independence from the British colonial rulers.

Mishra was born in Mishrauliya in Bihar.

Mishra was born on March 16, 1886, to Shivshankar Mishra and Gayatri Devi in Mishrauliya, about 10km (six miles) from the district headquarters of Chhapra, where a majority of people worked in subsistence farming.

The young Mishra was athletic, with a keen interest in bodybuilding, at the local “akhada” (wrestling arena), and horse riding. But he also spent most of his days at the village temple, something that contributed to the two contrasting facets of his personality.

Interest in music

On the one hand, Mishra was inspired by the bodybuilders at the akhada who spent hours working on their chiselled bodies, while his evenings were spent in the company of singers chanting hymns in praise of the Hindu deity, Lord Rama.

His family, comprising his parents and six younger brothers, wanted him to pursue the latter.

A lack of interest in conventional education resulted in Mishra being sent to a Sanskrit language school in the same village, run by Pandit Nanhu Mishra. That too never caught his interest, and he eventually dropped out of school altogether and dedicated his time to poetry.

When his father passed away, Mishra, as the eldest son, took on added responsibilities to help the family, which mostly depended on the ancestral land to make a living.

Subsistence farming is the primary occupation in the region.

However, Mishra’s interest lay solely in the world of words and music. His early days were spent in the company of senior folk musicians, and then he embarked on his own journey.

He mainly composed music in the Poorvi (literally meaning “eastern”) genre, which followed an oral tradition passed down over generations. His most famous songs – Kaise Din Biti Ram (How Will the Days Pass, Rama) and Aadhi Aadhi Ratiya Ke (In the Dead of Night) – are sung to this day.

As word of his talent spread, he was soon invited by individuals to perform for private audiences in cities such as Varanasi, Lucknow and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh.

Soon, Mishra began to inspire a number of folk musicians in the region. One such artist was Bhikhari Thakur, who was a regular at the music sessions organised by Mishra.

Though Thakur lived near Mishrauliya, the two musicians came from different social structures – Mishra was a known “zamindar”, a landowner, while Thakur belonged to a community of barbers from Kutubpur village and was ranked lower in the hierarchy of India’s complicated caste system.

At the time, the two castes lived separate lives and had few occasions to mingle in their daily affairs. But music brought Mishra and Thakur together.

Some believe Thakur, who also founded a theatre troupe, was Mishra’s disciple. But Munna K Pandey, assistant professor at Delhi University who has researched Thakur’s works as a folk musician and playwright, dispels the notion.

“It’s a misconception that Bhikhari Thakur was Mishra’s student. But he was certainly influenced by him because Mishra had a great understanding of music. There are a lot of clues in Thakur’s compositions, for instance, a lot of his songs are composed in Poorvi, which is a genre credited to Mishra,” Pandey says.

Yet, the two contemporaries are spoken of in the same breath, as they composed songs based on their observations of the society around them.

According to Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Simit Bhagat, Thakur was christened the “Shakespeare of Bhojpuri music”, his performance drawing crowds from afar, often days in advance.

Bhojpuri folk artist Ajay Mishra holding a photograph of Mahendra Mishra.

British rule

Pandey believes that while Mishra’s works were popular in their own right, his role in counterfeiting currency notes and subsequent imprisonment also earned him infamy in the years ahead.

The British ruled India with an iron fist as one of their many colonies and suppressed any uprisings. On one occasion, when Mishra was bound for a music festival near Kharia in Bihar, some elders chided him for pursuing music at a time when the country was in the shackles of colonialism.

“They told him: you were born in slavery, do you also want to die in slavery? You have such a healthy body, do you want to just dedicate yourself to music?” Mishra’s grandson Ramnath recalls the conversation.

It was also an age when slavery had made way for indentured labour, as hundreds of Indians from the region were bundled off to British colonies as far as Fiji and Guyana to work on farms there.

Most left in the hope of a better future, never to return home to their families. This separation gave rise to a distinct genre of music called Birha, where songs about migration were composed by Mishra and others.

A documentary film made by Bhagat, In Search of Bidesia, reflects on the practice of indentured labour while highlighting Mishra’s contribution to Bhojpuri folk music.

For instance, one of the songs in the film, often wrongly attributed to Thakur, talks about the yearning between two separated lovers:

Ke kara se aag mangab
Ke kara se paani
Ke kara par chodke jalay
Julumi jawaani ho raam

(My hearth is without fire
And my thirst aching for water
Who have I to call my own?
This youth of mine is not kind to me, my Lord)

“Mishra was well aware of the situation around him, and a lot of his songs were about separation and longing as a result of this migration,” Bhagat says.

The temple built by Mahendra Mishra.

Face of Bhojpuri music

As Mishra’s popularity grew, he became the face of Bhojpuri music, attracting audiences far beyond the region. One such performance took him to the eastern metropolis of Kolkata.

Two accounts of this performance exist. The first was mentioned in a book by Suresh Kumar Mishra, a teacher based out of Uttar Pradesh, who wrote about how a British officer was left spellbound by Mishra’s talent and met him after the performance.

When he heard of Mishra’s modest background and realised his unflinching passion for music, he decided to reward him with machinery to print fake currency, perhaps to help him improve his conditions back home.

The other version, narrated by his grandson Ramnath, suggests Mishra was introduced to some leaders of the independence movement in Kolkata and was given the machinery so he could help the freedom fighters.

Once back home in Mishrauliya, Mishra started printing fake currency notes around 1915 to fund the revolutionaries from Bihar and Kolkata, and aid their efforts to liberate India.

“There was a lot of poverty at the time in this region – no food to eat, no clothes to wear. If these things were not in place for the freedom fighters, how were they to contribute to the struggle for independence? So he printed the notes to help the families of freedom fighters when they were away and did his bit for the freedom struggle,” Ramnath told Al Jazeera.

“The workers would come under the cover of darkness and leave with gunny bags of grains in which the money was concealed. This was his way of doing social work and crippling the British in the long run.”

Those in the know regularly visited Mishra’s home in Mishrauliya, which featured a huge “kotha” (courtyard) in the front where performances were held, while fake notes were printed in one of the rooms at the back.

“When somebody said they were going to the kotha, it was evident where they were off to since there was no kotha in a 15-km radius,” says Ajay Mishra, a musician from Chhapra who continues to keep Mishra’s legacy alive.

“He was selfless and didn’t use any of the money for himself, else he would have been living in a mansion of silver. He left behind no bank balance, no assets. It explains why his family still lives in a modest house and survives on the meagre income generated from agriculture,” Ajay adds.

Fake currency printed by Mahendra Mishra.

Fake currency and incarceration

Mishra continued to print fake currency notes for nearly four years until the British got wind of his clandestine activities.

Surendralal Ghosh, an officer from the Criminal Investigation Department, was planted in Mishra’s home posing as a helper named Gopichand. It took Ghosh three years to uncover Mishra’s operation, and on April 16, 1924, police forces surrounded his home.

“There was an uproar in the village, with many thinking they were dacoits [armed robbers] and hundreds descended with sticks and swords to defend him. Knowing his reputation, nobody believed police could land at his doorstep. It was my grandfather who stepped out and asked the mob to go home before surrendering himself,” Ramnath says.

When Mishra was presented at the local court, he saw Gopichand there and later wrote a song about the time they had spent together:

Pakal pakal panva
Khilavle Gopichanva
Pirtiya lagake
Bhejavle jail khanva

(Nice young betel leaves
Gopichand fed me
He made me fall in love with him
And eventually sent me to jail)

The court sentenced Mishra to 20 years in jail, which was reduced to 10 years after an appeal in the Patna High Court. During his time in Buxar jail, Mishra continued to pursue music – his most famous work during this time was a musical rendition of the Hindu epic, Ramayana – and is said to have left a deep impression on the guards. A popular and civil prisoner, his sentence was remitted, and he was released early.

“He was a Bhagat Singh meets Devdas meets Tansen kind of a person – more like a fictitious character for many. A doyen of Bhojpuri literature, his songs are sung even today in this region. He is remembered as a folk singer and a ‘note chhaapne wala’ [someone who prints currency notes],” says Nitin Neera Chandra, a filmmaker who plans to make a film on Mishra’s role in India’s independence movement.

Folk musicians from the region continue to keep Mishra’s legacy alive.

Mishra’s legacy

Mishra returned to Mishrauliya after his jail term and continued to make music. He died on September 28, 1946, less than a year before India got its independence, leaving the next generation to enjoy the fruits of his labour, the way thousands of other freedom fighters did before him.

A number of Bhojpuri folk musicians continue to keep Mishra’s legacy alive. However, today, folk music is often associated with vulgarity, songs laden with sexism, double-entendres and blaring beats, a far cry from its refined past. Many contemporary Bhojpuri artists have openly stated their preference for this more vulgar form, believing it targets the younger generation better.

“This is a corrupted version of the Bhojpuri language. But how can their million views be compared to Bhojpuri folk music? These songs have momentary popularity, while folk music has strong roots which is why it has survived till date,” Pandey says.

Others, like Bhagat, believe both forms of music have their own spaces and relevance today.

“A truck driver prefers this new form of Bhojpuri music that is loud and vulgar, hence there is a market for it, while there are others who still enjoy compositions by artists like Mishra. I think both these forms of Bhojpuri music have their own set of audiences and can coexist,” says Bhagat, who founded the Bidesia Project.

A major focus of the project is to document songs that follow the oral traditions of Bhojpuri music, as popularised by the likes of Mishra.

Most remember Mishra for his music rather than his role in the independence movement. His songs such as Humni Ke Rahab Jani Dunu Ho Parani (I don’t know if I will be around for long) or his brand of “Poorvi Nirgun” (devotional songs from the east) have been immortalised by folk singers such as Sharda Sinha and Chandan Tiwari, respectively.

“Anyone who has some idea of Bhojpuri folk music is well aware of Mishra’s contribution,” says Kailash Nath Mishra, a folk musician from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh.

Ramnath believes his grandfather’s role in the freedom struggle has not been duly recognised. “The government has done nothing so far to recognise his efforts. The least they can do is declare him a freedom fighter,” he says.

Translation of poetic verses by Avanti Basargekar

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