Simit Bhagat’s documentary, “In Search of Bidesia” looks at Bhojpuri folk music that narrates the story of indentured labour during the 1900s.

Gopal Maurya and his troupe in Buxar, Bihar.

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In Search of Bidesia is a poignant narrative of longing, pain and separation

Angana mein kheech khaach
Duvare par paani
Khala uncha god pari
Shajal ba jawani ho raam
Shajal ba jawani ho raam

My feet get dirty when I step outside
And I will start to slip before long.
With all this filth sitting in our courtyard,
And a deluge waiting beyond our door,
What if I step the wrong foot forward,
On this ground that’s slippery?
Oh lord, so is my youth that unsteady.
So is my youth that unsteady.

— Poetic translation by Avanti Basargekar

In the remote village of Mishrauliya in Chhapra, Bihar, Mahendra Mishra penned the above lines which talk about a young bride’s insecurity, in what seems to be an eternal wait for her lover to return. The words may have been written over 60 years ago, but the sentiment belongs to a time from generations before him; a time, that this corner of India has kept alive through its folk songs.

In Search of Bidesia’, a film by Simit Bhagat, is a poignant narrative of longing, pain and separation, that dates back to an era which has been resigned to history books and selective accounts by fourth generation migrants. But even as most of this documentation lies stashed away in a handful of public archives around the world, in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the stories have been kept alive through a genre of Bhojpuri folk music, some of which have been passed down over many generations through the oral word.

“Bidesia, as in a person, who has migrated to bides or a foreign land. Bidesia is also a type of Bhojpuri folk music, which reflects the stories of these migrants and the title of the film has been used as a metaphor for the entire culture revolving around it. Through my journey, I am trying to tell the story of this dying culture and the forms of artistic expressions that this migration gave rise to,” Bhagat says.

The songs come from a time when slavery was abolished by the British and instead, the practice of indentured labour was established in 1834. Indians, who were exploited in their own country, were painted false dreams of a better life and greater income in around 15 British colonies, extending from Fiji in the east to Suriname in the west.

In her book, ‘Coolie Woman – The Odyssey of Indenture’, Gaiutra Bahadur writes:

“The British traffic in indentured servants was a third the size of its trade in African slaves, who the Indian laborers succeeded on plantations across the globe. From 1838 to 1917, the British transported a million Indians, half of them to the Caribbean, to grown and cut sugar cane.”

A few left their loved ones behind and departed alone; others, took their beloved along on what they were told would be a six-hour boat ride, only to watch them perish at sea on a voyage that lasted months. And most from this community had hardly ever stepped outside their village, let alone set sail to a foreign land.

“The only difference between a slave and an indentured labourer is that the latter’s role was time bound. But even once their contract had ended, most had few resources to get back home. Besides, they didn’t know what they would come back to either. So they went in the hope of a better life, but instead, were exploited in a new land,” Bhagat says, after a recent screening of a part of the film at a panel discussion, ‘Lest we Forget – Descendants of Indenture’, which was organised by the Commonwealth Foundation as part of the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival.

While employed with a donor agency, the 33-year-old from Mumbai first has the opportunity to visit these areas a couple of years ago and meet some of the musicians who had kept the tradition alive. On his return home, something about the music stayed with him and Bhagat decided to document the songs before they were forgotten.

“Nobody knew who had composed a lot of these songs, though they were being sung for generations. Back then, there was no means of communication, so only when somebody came back home after the indenture period, would they hear of these tales of atrocities,” he says.

“So on one hand, the women were singing about separation and longing, while the men were singing about why they had to leave the country. And we know of similar songs being composed in these former British colonies as well. It was their way of staying connected with their homeland, so each evening, they would get together and sing and make music,” he adds.

While starting out on his hunt, Bhagat had little idea on the kind of film that he wanted to make. All that he knew back then was that he wanted to record the songs and the story of the artists he met en route. Starting in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, where he met his first protagonist, Kailash Mishra, he logged around 1,200 km on his motorcycle as a one-man team travelling the two states. It was during the same journey that he also met a Birha singer, Gopal Maurya, from the Naxal-affected Buxar district, who narrated the story of indentured migration and the emotional loss that his people experienced.

“The story is told through the music and is taken forward by the artists who feature in the film,” says Bhagat, whose first film, ‘My Disappearing Farms’, was nominated at 9th CMS Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife International Film Festival and Forum in New Delhi last year.

Before starting out, Bhagat braced himself for the worst as a solo traveller, given the bad press that the region has generated over the years. But from finding help on a desolate stretch in Mainpuri after surviving an accident and a flat tyre, to being hosted at a stranger’s home who is today a dear friend, Ajay Mishra, his comfort level grew over each mile that he covered.

“A cop treated me to chai after hearing why I was there, another sang a few lines for the old songs, lamenting on how new-age Bhojpuri music was an embarrassment that could hardly be watched with family. Another person helped locate an artist in a village nearby, whose input was vital for the project,” he says.

Meeting one artist set him on the hunt for another a few hundred kilometres away, and in between the five trips he made, on the whole, he would conduct his own research, primarily through archival accounts in India and the National Archives in London.

“There has been a lot of documentation in terms of anthropological studies, but not much has been researched on the folk music tradition of the same story. The script was woven while on the move. I never told them I was making a film, so everyone was comfortable recording in their own environment. They were amazed that someone from Mumbai was interested in their art form, when a lot of their own folks had moved on to newer forms of entertainment,” he says.

Bhagat found that most artists usually sang for themselves, or had the opportunity to perform at local festivals and celebrations once in a while. Then, there were other genres such as Jatsaar, Kajri, Barahmahsa and Chaiti, which had their own songs and references, specific to an occasion or a season.

“The Jatsaar was sung by two women while they ground grains on a jaata, which was essentially a manual, stone grinder. But this has today been replaced by a machine, so the whole ritual of sitting, singing and passing on the songs orally while at work, which had continued for many generations,  doesn’t exist anymore,” he says.

“These artists don’t have a big audience now, so there are few means of making money. Some have even joined the mainstream Bhojpuri industry to earn a livelihood,” he says.

A few rewarding moments came in meeting the likes of 92-year-old Saraswati Devi and recording four songs with her, while listening to tales of migration from the neighbouring village that had travelled to her when she was a young girl. Or Sohil Mishra, the 12-year-old son of artist Ajay Mishra, who was learning the art from his father and in turn, keeping the tradition alive.

The genre has seen new songs being composed even today, and while the context may be different, the sentiments remain just the same.

“Migration continues even today from these villages to the big cities in India. So while back in the day they wrote about awaiting letters, these days, words like “mobile-wa” have sneaked into the lyrics. The essence though is the same — of their loved ones moving away and what seems to be a never-ending wait of their return,” Bhagat says.

The words from the days of yore then, never get old.

Rote rote aasuon se
Aankh jal jaate hai
Preetam mera milta nahi
Haddi bhi gal jaate hai

Life sparks from a fire within
My tears have set my eyes ablaze
Meeting my lover is a distant dream
My bones will rot before I see him again

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