Folk-Songs of India


Since 1927 I have been traveling in various Provinces of India to collect folk-songs. It is a great joy to me to live among the villagers and to listen to them singing their indigenous songs. My note-book is always with me, my pen ever ready to record these songs, and my camera ever ready to yield the pictures of village life. I am myself a villager. But I cannot confine myself to my native village in the Punjab. I have the urge to see each village of India. You may call me a Gypsy–a way-farer going from place to place. I am glad to see new faces, but the real joy comes when I peep into the hearts of the people, and that is possible through their songs. I have so far collected songs from more than thirty languages of India. This song-pilgrimage is now the mission of my life.

The true heart of India lives in her seven lakhs of villages. The vitality of the Indian villager is India’s real vitality. "Villages are like women;" observes Rabindranath Tagore, "in their keeping is the cradle of the race. They are nearer to nature than towns, and are, therefore, in closer touch with the fountain of life. They have the atmosphere which possesses the natural power of healing. It is the function of the villages, like that of women, to provide people with their elemental needs, with food and joy, with the simple poetry of life, and with those ceremonies of beauty which the village spontaneously produces and in which she finds delight." The voice of India’s villages is, indeed, par excellence, India’s innermost voice; the threads that sew through it are of the past and of the present; and the past and the present prophetically throw their shadows into the future.

India’s folk-songs are of many varieties; they pervade all walks of life; they are deeply associated with various religious rites and social ceremonies; men and women, young and old, all alike share the joy of song. They are redolent of the common joys and sorrows of the Indian people.

Folk-songs are always the Gypsy Children of the Muse, and they come as easily to the people as the sweet notes to the nightingale. Their characters have always the true air and light of the village life, and, in the words of the poet, "they live in description and look green in song." We are impressed by their spontaneity, freshness and originality. They always offer us a true source of joy and inspiration in life.

The aspirations and ideals, the loves and hates, the hopes and the beliefs of the people tell their own story in folk-songs; the tears and smiles of the people speak in the first person; nothing is hidden here; even the most secret compartments of the heart are thrown open. We can take them as the real auto-biography of the people.

The urge of song has never been the monopoly of a particular country. Songs are omnipresent. They are the same all the world over. Their birth-place is the same universal heart. Do away with the difficulty of language and you will find the same songs in all countries. There is, of course, difference of local colour, but that makes them all the more pleasant. It is very seldom that the local colour in them is entirely local in appeal.

The wandering bards have been serving as the moving universities of folk-music in all countries. Patriotism touches many of their compositions. But they are not expected to be Hiders and Mussolinis in their outlook of patriotism. They may simply celebrate their love for their respective countries without shouting a war-cry against their neighbours. And we observe that songs of patriotism current among the villagers in various countries harmonize in one orchestra. Here is an Indian folk-song, from the Khasi hills of Assam:

O, Land of the Khasis,

Sweet land of the Khasis,

We are all in love with thee.

Thou didst cradle our hoary ancestors.

They are now no more with us,

Their memory lives ever fresh in our hearts,

A memory proof against death’s sharpest darts.

O, Land of the Khasis!

We are all in love with thee.

This Khasi song can be in tune with any folk-song of simple patriotism, current in any part of the world. Especially is it in tune with many Indian songs. The bard of Nepal can be heard celebrating his native land as "a golden Heaven." The Coorg bard in the Western Ghats calls his home "a star- besprinkled Heaven." A Gujarati song describes Gujarat as "a country dyed with henna." If the Kashmiri bard sings of the Jhelum:

‘The Jhelum is a river of love serene,’

the Burmese poet sings of the Irrawady in the same spirit:

‘Irrawady, my Irrawady, my dearest Irrawady!’

The Kacha road in Utmanjaee, a Pathan folk-song, well illustrates people’s love for home:

Some sing of their streets,

and others adore

the river-bank pebbles in their lore;

there is a kacha road

in Utmanjaee,

really an inspiring thing to me;

just a short road,

a dirty way,

having no particular goal,

but the way of Paradise–

my sweetheart’s abode,

springs out of this tiny road.

Some sing of hill-peaks,

and others adore

south or north of home in their lore;

there is a kacha road

in Utmanjaee,

really a sacred thing to me;

just a narrow way,

so small a road,

having no particular goal,

but by its side

lies a sacred platform

where stands my love

to kiss my hand,

with all her charm.

Some leave home for distant lands,

and others adore

far and wide travels in their lore;

how I wish to return

to the kacha road in Utmanjaee

really a thing so dear to me;

just an old way,

a narrow path,

having no particular goal,

but always leaps for it

my travel-worn heart,

sweet home’s memory

thus plays an important part!

The Gond, who compares his village to the moon, cannot be said to be devoid of the life-lit note of patriotism; and the peasant in the desert tract of Bikaner State, who compares his heart to a grassy plot in the rains, loves his village no less. The villager’s love for his soil is, indeed, a sincere note of nationalism; the village, where boys and girls grow up only to be married as a matter of course, has its own picturesque scenes and emotions, too, that never fail to temper its children’s sense of patriotism; generations come and go, but the songs of the people, their dances, their festivals and fairs are always there to add to their love for home.

The song of motherly love covers a wide range. What narrow frontiers can there be for the simple lullabies and cradle-songs? If the woman of Gujarat sings:

‘Thou art a sweet gift of my gods, my baby.

Thou art a cherished boon, fruitage of my prayers, my baby,

When once to thy mother’s lap thou hast come,

Live long, O, live long, my baby!,’

the Pathan woman, too, sings a similar song:

‘My baby is a juicy grape,

A gift to me from Allah’s garden.

If the woman of South India says in a Telugu song:

‘A small lamp lightens the whole palace:

My baby lightens the pupil of my eye,’

the Pathan woman can contribute her own note:

‘My baby is a star of the heavens,

Allah has blessed my lap with it.’

How a genuine folk-song is born is evident from a Birha song, sung originally by the Ahir in Bihar:

It is not a crop, brother, raised from the fields.

Nor indeed the fruit that a forest tree yields–

This Birha song of ours.

In heart, O Rama, it lives in every heart,

And whensoe’er emotions play their part–

We sing this song of ours.

Birha means separation from the lover or the beloved. But the Birha song is not always a song of separation. Any theme may enter into it. It is originally composed of four lines. The Ahir (cowherd) seems to be the uncrowned king of this type of folk-song. But how can he establish a monopoly? "Don’t you know any Birha?", I once inquired from a villager who was not an Ahir himself. "I know many," he replied smilingly, "though I cannot sing them like an Ahir." The Ahir is often a good flute-player. But his love for Birha songs is great and perhaps nothing can compete with it. They are his poetic asset which he hopes to carry even beyond his present life. "No matter if I go to Heaven or Hell after this life, I will not leave my Birha here," is a beautiful expression found in the Ahir folklore itself.

Love-songs are many. Here is one from Bengal. A far-traveled villager returns home, and wants to please his sweetheart with a few betel nuts and pan-leaves. But she refuses them and sings:

Thy betel-nuts I will not take, my love,

Nor will I take thy betel-leaves.

What love from a wayfarer can I expect?

And thou art always a wayfarer, my love.

Like an earthen pitcher is a wayfarer’s love.

Once it breaks, none can help it.

Thy betel-nuts I will not take, my love,

Nor will I take thy betel-leaves.

That love appears in the human heart as pollen on a tree is a popular idea in the folk-songs of the Punjab:

Daily I stand on the roof of my house;

Always I look for thee, my friend!

Lo, on the berry trees is formed the pollen,

And in my heart is formed my love for thee.

A Garhwali song begins thus:

Love is a wave of the Ganges.

Marriage-songs constitute quite a big family. Indispensable accompaniments of various rituals, the songs of marriage-festivities are supposed to have an auspicious influence over the marital life of the couple.

The Khondh bride, in Udyagiri Agency greatly enjoys her song addressed to her bridegroom, the hunter of tigers:

Where dost thou come from,

O thou, the hunter of tigers!

A hero with manly courage thou art,

O thou, the hunter of tigers!

Come, come, O come to my cot,

O thou, the hunter of tigers!

With a cup of wine I’ll serve thee,

O thou, the hunter of tigers!

The king of my heart shall I make thee,

O thou, the hunter of tigers!

The bride and the bridegroom, as seen in marriage-songs, talk to each other. The song of the Sora bridegroom has an air of freedom about it:

Come, my love, O come, my bee!

Hand in hand shall we dance:

Believe me, my love, O believe me, my bee!

Hand in hand shall we dance!

The inheritance of ancient religious stories, side by side with the folk-experience, is apparent in many parts of India. Ramchandra is still the beau ideal; Sit a is still there. Next to Ramchandra is the name of Krishna that they give to the bridegroom with a religious flavour.

A strong and sincere note of parallelism runs through a wide range of marriage-songs, as in a Telugu song, which the Andhra mother may sing even as a cradle-song, imagining the auspicious day of her child’s wedding-day:

You are dancing in the play-ground, O Peacock!

The hunter has come; now wind up your dance.

In your golden palace, you laugh and laugh, my daughter!

My son-in-law has come; now wind up your laughter!

He wears ear-rings coiled like snakes;

O whose son-in-law is this fair-complexioned youth, O housewife?

When the bride goes to her husband’s place the wedding-song turns pathetic, as a Bihari song depicts:

Costly indeed is the vermilion in the market place

Costly, too, the bridal veil with which I am decked.

But the vermilion on my hair tells of our parting–

I say Good-bye, dear Father, to thy well-loved home.

The song of the Assamese bride, too, is no less pathetic:

The birds bring up their off-springs

To beautify the branches of their trees.

Ah me, to adorn but a stranger’s house,

With love my mother brought me up.

That the girls are like sparrows is a common theme. A wedding song in the Punjab opens thus:

They are but a flight of sparrows:

Father, the daughters will fly away.

Long indeed my journey, father,

Pray let me know my destination.

The daughter of Gujarat, too, sings in the same strain:

I am but a sparrow of this green forest,

But I will have to flyaway to a strange land!

There is a long series of peasant-songs; at the time when the Indian peasant is beginning to feel the impact of the outside world as never before, it is essential that his songs of joy and sorrow should be studied from a new angle. When the Gond youth brings forth the rich refrain of his favourite song, telling us about his landlord who sold his sister to buy a dhoti, we should not pass on to his next song without visualizing a famine-scene.

The fear of hunger is present in many songs. Even the kachar creeper, that is too fruitful, remembers the horror of famine in Marwar:

I have nine children in my lap;

another nine are ready to walk with me

hand in hand

still I can give birth to nine more;

but how will they be nourished,

if a famine attacks us?

The suffering peasant is tired of his life; here is a contemporary song from the peasantry of the Punjab:

Make me not a peasant, O God,

Make me not a peasant.

In any future birth of mine, O God,

Make me not a peasant!

So poor look my crops,

just glance;

how can I jump

in the Giddha dance?

They have confiscated

my plough and yoke!

And the corn I kept for seed

I sold to feed my family!

O, I have failed to pay the revenue-tax!

O, where is the profit

of a peasant’s labour?

Make me not a peasant, O God!

Make me not a peasant!

In any future birth of mine, O God,

Make me not a peasant!

The bullock-cart driver, in Maharashtra, has his own contemplation, touching the fringe of the modern problem of exploitation:

O bullock-cart driver!

Poor bullock-cart driver!!

On your bread, so rough,

You have an onion–

Is it for this, just tell me,

You wander about the fields

All the day long?

O bullock-cart driver!

Poor bullock-cart driver!!

Songs are many. We may divide them according to the phases of life from birth to death. Most of the songs seem to be common to the people in almost all Indian Provinces; some are confined to various professions and modes of labour. Many of the longer songs, like the Pathan ballad of Mamunai who was killed by her own husband, or the Andhra song of Urmiladevi’s Sleep, have their separate, unique importance.

Since the dawn of Indian folk-songs, innumerable songs may have been sung and have disappeared, as none cared to preserve them. Who can say that there were no folk-songs in Vedic India, and again in the days of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? But it is probable that some of the ancient folk-songs, which disappeared from the living lips of the people, are reborn again and again in various forms in different languages and dialects of India. Songs, perhaps, never die.

It should be the duty of every son and daughter of India to spread love for these songs–these cultural and literary Kohinoors of India. We must welcome now the revival of all-India folk-songs. It will certainly offer new inspiration to all artists and literary persons. As every ripe fruit wishes that the dear hand of some man or woman should receive it from the branch before it falls down on the earth and gets spoiled, perhaps every genuine folk-song awaits the hand of a great poet who may transform it into a master-piece of poetry.

How fundamentally one is life all over India! The oneness of Indian life and culture pulsates in the songs of the Indian people, as we pass from one Province to another: same smiles and tears, same love for home, for nature; same hoary belief in the pity of gods; same metaphors and similes of life and death.

I have not been able to express my love for my country in political activity; nor could any form of social service suit me. I have only one work for my whole life–the study of Indian folk-songs.

I will put my collections one day at the threshold of India reborn.