Wearing a colourful ghagra  and a scarf around her head like a gypsy troubadour, Kalpana Patowary stood on stage at Bangalore's Samsa Amphitheatre and asked in Bhojpuri, Ganga ki yaad aati hai?” Do you remember the Ganga?

The audience, men and women from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh working in the southern city, went wild. Hearing their mother tongue so far away from home had stirred their deepest emotions.

But the audience on that evening was far from homogeneous: it spanned states, languages, class and culture. Students, young professionals, old couples and migrant workers had come to listen to the Patowary, the Queen of Bhojpuri, performing a special programme with her mandli.

That evening, the performance, conceived by the non-profit organisation Maraa, aimed to acknowledge the presence of these anonymous workers, who move from site to site building the city but have no meaningful interaction with it. It wanted to help them build a new relationship with the city.

In the build-up to the event, activists from Maraa spent three months visiting labour colonies in Bangalore to record not just workers’ living and working conditions but also their emotional states. They wanted to find out how the workers daily dealt with being away from family and working in a new city.

They also discovered that almost all these workers were familiar with Kalpana Patowary’s music. They decided to get her to sing in an evening to show that this new home also had a place for the migrants, their culture and their music.

'A More Gangaji', a song written by Bhikari Thakur, known as the Bhojpuri Shakespeare.

After the performance, Kalpana Patowary spoke about her unusual journey to Disha Mullick from Khabar Lahariya, an eight-page weekly local language newspaper brought out by a collective of 40 rural women journalists in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This interview first appeared in that newspaper.

Your performance in Bangalore was so uninhibited, people danced like it was a wedding. What has been your experience of being a woman performing in Bhojpuri for such diverse audiences?
(Laughs). Elite audience ka dimaag aur dil ka connection thoda alag hai. Elite audiences have a different mindset and connect with my music differently [from a working-class one].) This audience expressed what it felt, and I enjoy that.

I’ve performed in villages and small towns, where there are no hotels, no electricity. I have performed by the light of diyas. I like seeing how people live there, the manner in which they enjoy themselves. They are so open. I used to be scared. I’ve sung for political campaigns, amongst many criminals, dacoits, whatever you call them. The men with big moustaches.

When you dress up and appear in front of these audiences, what is the way in which people are seeing you? Are they seeing you as a rani [courtesan]? Until now, that has been the only way of seeing women performers. So what I would do was sing Ganesh ke Papa, which was a hit song, in which Lord Shiva’s wife pleads with him, as any woman might, to not overindulge during the Holi festival.

Then I would sing a bhajan. After the bhajan, people’s gazes would become saatvik, very pure. And then I would sing a filmy song with many sexual innuendoes. So one minute the atmosphere would be very heated, then I would sing a bhajan and it would calm down.

Slowly, as you sing ghazals and bhajans you occupy different corners of people’s hearts. People began respecting me, I went from being Kalpana the gayika (singer) to Kalpana didi (sister). So people come and dance with me, but they don’t look at me disrespectfully.

You are the voice of many of films and music that resonate with large numbers of people. How do you feel about being part of the colourful Bhojpuri film industry?
Yes, I sang many item songs, songs with double meanings. That also is a part of this culture. Fifteen years ago, when I started out, people said, acche ghar ki ladkiyaan nahi gaati (women from good families do not sing in public). Either they are ranis, linked with a kotha (brothel), like Bijli Rani and Gita Rani. These courtesans were allowed to express their sexual and other feelings. But they were not good women.

The type of singing that is allowed for good women is devotional music. And here I was, a woman from Assam. I saw singing as a profession. I brought that perspective into my Bhojpuri singing. So when I sing Saiyaji Dilwa Mangelein Gamcha Bichayeke, it’s like Meena Kumari singing as a courtesan in Pakeeza. It doesn’t make Meena Kumari a courtesan, right? I take on that role. I enjoy it [the song] like I am one of the ranis, one of the ladies too. I become Pakeeza, I enjoy the beauty and the desire, the shringar (eroticism).

These sensuous roles of a wife or a newly-wed woman, I become those characters and enjoy it. I sang this song, Ago Chumma Le La Rajaji, which is about migrant workers. A wife is telling her husband that he should go [away to work] if he has to, but asks him to kiss her before he goes. She’s singing in their bedroom.

This song created a furore. You can’t really object to it, because it is said within a certain boundary and it is said out of love. At the same time, how can a woman say something like this? When this song would play, gun shots would go off. I had no idea what was happening. But then I was told, people were happy, the shots were out of enjoyment. Dabangai!

But still people comment a lot, including on social media, that I am singing “impure” songs and also those of Bhikhari Thakur. [A writer who began the Bidesia folk theatre movement, influenced by 19th-century reform movements, and is called the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri literature.]

In spreading Bhikari Thakur’s art are you creating a bridge between the folk tradition and contemporary culture across the globe?
From a Bidesia play, there’s a song, Pyari desh tani dekhe da humke, in which a husband is telling his wife, “I want to see other countries. Let me go.” In the Bhojpuri world, there are many songs around this theme [of migration], because people have always left, to go to all corners of the world.

The songs express the feelings of pregnant women as they are in the final stages of labour, of wives when their husbands are away, and they are singing to their in-laws. There is the Kajri [a form of folk music from UP and Bihar], songs of the monsoon, in which women talk about missing their husbands in the rainy season.

So [the challenge is to ask] how I can take the feeling in these songs and tie it to other traditions with similar feelings? Last year I went to Trinidad and Tobago, where people who once migrated from Bihar are now running the government. It was a very emotional trip. People want to know about their ancestors. People welcomed me so warmly on each stage, you know, like in the old days, when you got a letter or a package from your village. That was what I saw in their eyes when they were listening to me sing. People gave me new songs and said, you sing these songs now, songs that our uncles and aunts sang, in your voice. It’s my duty now to do this.

How did you become acquainted with the Bhojpuri language and culture?
Today, Bhojpuri has become much more than something I sing. It’s not easy to find your way into the hearts of women in villages, into their homes, their kitchens.

In villages, women don’t call their husbands by their names. So in one song that I sang, called Ganesh ke Papa, Parvati, the mother of Ganesh, taking on the avatar of a village woman, tells her husband, Bholenath [Shiva], “Ey, Ganesh ke papa, bhang mat khayei aur.” It was a record-breaking sale!

There’s a folk form called pachra in UP, where they sing to please the Devi when someone has small pox, and it describes the qualities of neem. I sang that; it was very well accepted. Now there are so many families I’m close to, only through my music. I visit them, eat with them. At one point, when I was unable to have children, there were many mothers keeping the chhat fast for me.

In my career, I had achieved a kind of success, tasted stardom. I had seen lakhs of people line up to come to my performances. Sirf mundi dikhaye deti thi. I could see only their heads. At some point, you feel alone in this crowd. So I started connecting, talking with myself. I’d sung what people wanted me to for too long. It was time for me to begin singing what I wanted to, express my thoughts.

My father was very influenced by Bhupen Hazarika, and, in turn, so was I. He sang from a Marxist perspective, about the everyday problems of everyday people. So I started searching for Bhupen’s thought, his values, in my music. I looked and looked, and found, first, Kavi Vidyapathi, a Maithili writer, and Mahendra Misra, or Misirji he is called, who is the creator of the Purbi form.

And Bhikari Thakur, whose name attracted me most. Who was this? No one knew. He had died 100 years ago. I kept searching, and one day, in a village, I stumbled upon a 100-year old nartak [dancer]. This was in Bakhorapur, Ara. I realized that he had been a dancer in Bhikari Thakur’s troupe many years ago. He was a child then, but through him, I unearthed a treasure. This is how I began working on the Legacy of Bhikari Thakur.

Will you return to your Assamese roots?
Yes. I have various projects in the pipeline. But I am reluctant to give up one form or music for another. I want to continue to immerse myself in multiple influences. In my life, I’ve come across opposite situations very often, both in my personal or professional lives.

I was a Hindu in love with a Muslim. I was an Assamese singing Bhojpuri music. I like the idea of knowing and learning about new cultures. I never knew Hazrat Mohammad. I knew only Bholenath, Shiv, and I was brought up in a Vaishnav bhakti culture.

But I’ve never thought from the perspective that many educated people have in our world today – that one belief is right and one is wrong. I’ve taken interesting aspects of different religions and cultures, seen what is useful. There’s a beauty in this.

'Haath me Mehndi'