Neha Singh Rathore’s friends have frequently warned her that she is putting herself in danger.
“You may end up a Gauri Lankesh,” one of them told her, referring to the outspoken journalist who was shot dead on the doorstep of her home in Bengaluru in September 2017.
Such remarks would scare most people. But Rathore takes her friends’ words of caution as compliments.
“What fright?” asked the 23-year-old whose folk songs in Bhojpuri critique both Central and state governments have made her a social media sensation. “Our democracy gives us the right to question the government and I am doing just that.”
Rusticity and rebellion are the hallmark of Rathore’s songs. Take this: “Rojgar deba ki karaba drama; kurusiya tohar baap ke na ha.” Say clearly whether you will provide us employment or will continue to indulge in theatrics. Let me remind you that the office of power you are holding doesn’t belong to your father, which you think you have rightfully inherited.
Or, this sarcasm about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s promise that it would usher in “achchhe din” or good times: “Kandhe jholi, haathe katora thamaye gayeele; achchhe din aayee gayeele ho.” They promised good days, but what we have actually got is a bag on shoulder and a begging bowl in hand.
Rathore, who lives in Jandaha, a tiny village on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border, started composing and singing folk songs in 2019, after finishing her graduation. Over the past year, more than 90,000 people have subscribed to her YouTube channel Dharohar. Her Facebook page and Twitter account are equally popular. Her fans include filmmakers, journalists, former bureaucrats and, of course, opposition politicians.
“Who doesn’t like to be praised?” asked Rathore, the daughter of architect Ramesh Singh and homemaker Champa Devi. She said the applause helped negate the toxic response she receives from trolls. “Some say don’t do politics or else you would be ruined; others call me an anti-national and traitor. But raising the voice of the suffering masses is not a crime, is it?” she wondered.
Even Rathore’s family was initially not comfortable with her new-found fame. Her father, who works with a firm in Agra, would be particularly worried every time he saw an adverse comment about her work on social media. “With my admirers outnumbering my haters over a period of time, my folks at home are now okay with my passion to sing,” Rathore said.
Her village Jandaha in Rajput-dominated Ramgarh block of Bihar’s Kaimur district is approximately 200 km from Patna and 100 km from Varanasi. The village school only runs up to Class VIII so Rathore had to move to block HQ at Ramgarh to complete her secondary-level education. After that, she went to Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh to do a B.Sc.
Though Jandaha gets power supply for much of the day day, internet connectivity plays hide-and-seek with users. That doesn’t deter Rathore. She ecords and uploads a video with her smartphone almost every week.
She now has 50-odd hit videos to her credit. Though she mostly works alone, her friend Himanshu Singh Suryavanshi occasionally helps her with ideas that she works on to develop them into compositions. “I don’t have to slog for days to write my songs,” she said, “as the ideas are scattered all around, which you can sniff if you are a sensitive human with a nose for news.”
The crooner does not have any formal training in music. Early this year, she went to Rishra in West Bengal to enrol herself at a multi-activity centre to take singing lessons. But she left the course midway. “I couldn’t comprehend anything,” Rathore said. “That was not my cup of tea.”
As her “only inspiration”She names her mother, whom she saw sing folk songs at family weddings.
The lack of logistical support and training hasn’t prevented Rathore from dreaming of lofty goals. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of playback folk singer Sharda Sinha and restore the lost glory of Bhojpuri music, a genre that is now notorious for tawdry tunes filled with double entendres.
“Even if we go by the partial count made in 2011 census, Bhojpuri is spoken by over 51 million native speakers, including inhabitants of Fiji, Surinam, Mauritius, South Africa, Nepal and, of course, our own Hindi heartland,” said Rathore who aims to ensure that the rich Bhojpuri literary tradition of writers like Bhikhari Thakur and Gorakh Pandey lives on.
For now, Rathore is pleased with the recognition she is receiving because of her satirical verses about politics and politicians. Her recent songs have dealt with topics that include migrant workers making long treks home on foot due to the coronavirus lockdown and rising unemployment.
In one tune, she punctures Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s claims of “sushasan”, or good governance. “Jab-jab morey saiyan holey Arab ke rawana, tab-tab jiyara johey ego eijo kaarkhana.” Whenever my husband leaves for work in the Gulf, I wonder why Bihar doesn’t have industries for which people like my husband could work and earn a living without suffering the pangs of separation from family.
In another, she ridicules Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s claims to have ushered in “Ram rajya” in a tune about the Hathras gang rape: “Jahanwa khaki mein raaj dafnaat hoi, mai bitiya bina chhachhanaat hoi, baap beti janmawe mein deraat hoi; ta bujhiha ki Ramraj ha.” In today’s Ram rajya, khaki is used to bury bitter truths, mother wails to see the body of her dead daughter, man is afraid of fathering a daughter.
Raj Kumar is a former deputy resident editor with the Times of India, Patna.