Folk Art: A Mirror of Changing Tastes

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BY CLARA A RODRIGUES | NT NETWORK

For 43-year-old Amitava Bhattacharya, founder-director of Banglanatak dot com a social enterprise which works towards encouraging, sustaining and developing both folk art and the folk artistes, watching percussionists from Kerala, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh playing indigenous percussion instruments from their respective states with folk dancers of Punjab dancing to their rhythms will always be etched as one of his most memorable moment in the entire 11 years of his work in the field of reviving traditional arts. "I will never forget this," he says with contentment.

His decision of leaving a well paying job as a software professional in California was never a difficult one despite the eyebrows it raised among his family and friends circle. He explains, "I never regretted my decision. Everyone thought that I was mad. This move was beyond reaction. It was unbelievable for many. But I had the confidence. This has been the best decision I have ever taken."

Today, Banglanatak dot com, which was awarded the global advisory status by UNESCO in June 2010, rakes an annual turnover of ` six crores, which is a massive jump from the ` one lakh they earned in their first year in 2000. "It is a social business which channels its profits towards folk artistes. We run like a corporate and have a 65-member team of qualified people. Four of my colleagues are engineers," remarks Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharya, an IIT software graduate saw two possibilities of using art and culture as a means of development. "Communication does not reach the rural belt of India. They have no access to the either the television or the newspapers. Most social messages created at top levels of administration do not address themselves to the local myths and misconceptions. India is big and beliefs vary from community to community. We can use culture as an alternative medium to reach out to the people."

Bhattacharya started the ‘Culture and Development’ project in 23 states. This project ensured the participation of locals by empowering them through their cultural strengths. Artistes were trained to continue their art. Local communities were mobilised and local culture got a boost. "But using culture as a medium of development was not sufficient in helping the people," points out Bhattacharya.

"What is the use if artistes cannot earn a livelihood from their art which is their passion? Since they cannot find a source of earning in their art, they are forced to take up jobs which they would otherwise have not taken up," says Bhattacharya.

In 2004, Bhattacharya started the ‘Art and Livelihood’ project where dying arts of Bengal were given a new lease of life. Says Bhattacharya, "Livelihood is not about income earned, it is also about being engaged in a work for which you have an aptitude. The youth today are getting attracted to the arts. Industry is not the only answer to employment. You can earn here your own livelihood through arts. This contributes to the Gross Domestic Product of a nation, and also acts as a catalyst for social development."

"This was an experimental model where we worked with 3, 200 artistes in six art forms in six 6 districts of Bengal. We conducted a baseline study to assess the aptitude and knowledge of the artistes after which we chose unrecognised artistes who were marginalised because theirs was a rural art form."

Shivshankar Kalindi, a folk percussionist says that now he gets recognition as a singer and also the opportunity of going to places like China and the UK.

Saurav Mandal, a folk singer sings riverine songs. In college, he formed a folk music group. Says Saurav, "Many expected me to work in the city after my studies but they are surprised when I say that I can earn a living from folk music. There are no folk singers in my area anymore. They have changed their professions to earn a living." Jhumur singer, Naren Hansda, says that he would have left folk singing if not for this initiative.

Banglanatak dot com provides medical insurance to its artistes. The organisation has got the support from the ministry of rural development, Central government, and was selected as part of the European Union project, ‘Invest in People’. Says Bhattacharya, "We are self-sustaining. We did not have the funds at first but we had the will".

By forming self-help groups and establishing banking linkage, artistes were given continuous training following the ‘guru-shiksha’ approach. This was done so as not to tamper with the authenticity of the art form. Simultaneously, a direct market linkage was routed by making presentations at various festivals and educational institutions. What followed next was an exchange and collaboration initiative which gave these artistes an opportunity to perform at international and national festivals, fairs and also bring international artistes to Bengal.

"What is important is to bring in new audience to these art forms. This will happen only if the audiences find it attractive," says Bhattacharya.

"I was happy to see, 30 per cent of the audiences at Margao’s Ravindra Bhavan were below 20 years of age. If art is to survive, we need the youth. Indian folk music is rhythmic. Today, world folk music is ruling the global markets," says Bhattacharya.

"One of the problems facing Indian folk music is that we have lengthy productions for which urban crowds have no time. There is a need to give it a contemporary approach. The Chau dance from Bengal, normally depicts stories from the Ramayana but our artistes performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth in London. The Chau is not the Ramayana, it is a dance, what the artistes did was just enact another story. Folk music changes with time. We must not resist change. Folk art is a mirror of changing tastes," says Bhattacharya.

Banglanatak dot com also helps in the documenting of the oral traditions of folk art. The documentation is simplistic and involves the people. The songs of these artistes have already been released in the form of music albums.

For folk musicians like Noor Alam Khan income has greatly improved. Artiste Sarat Chandra Kisku says that now he has the money to send his children to school to study. Earlier he performed at music programmes on an ad-hoc basis but now he performs regularly.

Bangalnatak dot com has plans to reach out to the rest of India in reviving art forms. We have plans to start something like this in Goa and Bihar," reveals Bhattacharya.

"In Goa, such a revival would help in two areas – it would reduce dropouts in schools. Secondly, tourism from the beaches will spread to villages. And this tourism would be community based and sustainable," says Bhattacharya.

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