On monsoon evenings in Lucknow of the 1950s, people on the streets would often gather around transistor sets at tea and paan shops to catch a singularly charming voice singing folk songs of the season, such as kajris, saavans, jhoola and malhars. Women at home would sit ready with pens and notebooks to jot down the words of those songs to present at the next family gathering. And in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, the few houses that boasted a radio turned into community listening centres.

Such was the magic of Radhavallabh Chaturvedi’s music and Panchayat Ghar, his radio programme on folk art on Akashvani, Lucknow. There were songs, nautanki, plays and easy banter in Awadhi. A dynamic charm could be found in the airwaves as Chaturvedi chatted with his on-air collaborator, the satirist and poet Chandrabhushan Trivedi, who was better known as Ramai Kaka.

A trained classical musician, Chaturvedi worked at Akashvani, Lucknow from 1942 to 1974 and died just a year before he was to retire. But in the short 57 years of his life, he collected, notated, archived and presented 5,000 folk songs of Uttar Pradesh with a rare passion. He sang them of course but he also spotlighted the folk singers he encountered on his field trips to discover unknown gems of the folk repertoire.

The accomplishment is hard to overstate. The folk music of Uttar Pradesh gives expression to nearly every aspect of human life – seasons, ceremonies, kinship, rituals, faith, love, longing and even the tedium of work. It can be found in every region of the state, in multiple dialects, especially Awadhi, Bhojpuri, and Bundeli. So varied is this art of the people that folk evangelists have spent entire lifetimes collecting songs of just one form. Eminent among them are Laxmi Ganesh Tiwari, Arjundas Kesari, Shanti Jain and, of course, Chaturvedi.

In the short 57 years of his life, Chaturvedi collected, notated, archived and presented 5,000 folk songs of Uttar Pradesh with a rare passion. Credit: panditradhavallabhchaturvedi.com.

June marks the 50th death anniversary of Chaturvedi, whose exhaustive folk compendium, Oonchi Attariya Rang Bhari, was a landmark publication. The book, whose title was drawn from the mukhda (refrain) of a Bundeli wedding song, was published posthumously in 1977 by the Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi. Collated from Chaturvedi’s scattered notebooks, it was an effort to conserve the state’s folk music traditions. With a treasure trove of known and nearly extinct songs, the book was such a hit that it soon ran out of print. For decades, it remained scarce, until it was reprinted in 2018 by the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

“Known folk songs such as chaiti or kajri were being sung and performed on radio even before him, but what he did was to dig out and present those numerous ceremonial songs that were a part of our life cycle and which were fast disappearing – songs for birth, annaprasan, mundan, janeu, dozens of different wedding rituals,” said Chaturvedi’s daughter Neelam, a retired Doordarshan official. “Then there were the songs of the working classes, of the dhobis, the farmers and women at domestic chores, the chakiya geet and the panghat geet. Few knew of them till the book appeared and these songs have been sung by many since then.”

Another reason Chaturvedi became a household name was that he wrote a ready reckoner on classical music, Sa Re Ga Ma, that reached the home of every aspiring singer and became a part of school curricula.

On his birth centenary in 2017, vocalist Shubha Mudgal paid a tribute to him by presenting a selection of his songs at an event titled Khazane Lok Sangeet Ke.

Khazane Lok Sangeet Ke.

Jaideva Singh, the legendary musicologist and then head of the Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi, points to the rare spirit that drove Chaturvedi’s work in his preface to Oonchi Attariya: “This was not just about a broadcaster doing his job; he was also an connoisseur and master of the form.”

Interviews with his daughter, a reading of his books, and the many tributes penned by his coworkers, music scholars and critics on his untimely death in Hindi arts magazines, such as Chhayanat and Sangeet, paint a picture of an exceptional musician and unusual human being, generous and affable despite the severe personal challenges he lived with. Progressive in his thinking – he preferred to be known by his first name – he was also typical of the syncretic tahzeeb of Lucknow.

Life of tribulation

Chaturvedi’s life was marked by so many hardships that it is difficult to imagine how he wrested so much joy out of his music. For the most part, he lived with his extended family in a cramped two-room house in ramshackle Masjidwali galli in Hata Rasool Khan, a basti in the Lal Kuan area of Lucknow.

His daughter Neelam refers to this resilience in her preface to the last edition of Oonchi Attariya, citing a tribute to her father by a close friend, Nandram: “From Dr Rajendra Prasad to the fakir everyone has heard him and swayed to his music. But his worldly needs were never met. Which is why in Lucknow, in a noisy, filthy galli of Lal Kuan, in two rooms he has lived his entire life. If you manage to cross the galli and reach the home of one of the top folk musicians of the country, he will say: ‘I am sorry I can only offer you this broken takht to sit on, but please sit back as comfortably as you can.’”

A rare clip of a duet Chaturvedi sang with Ira Nigam.

The musician’s tribulations had begun as a child. Chaturvedi’s father, a nazir (inspector) for the British Raj in Moradabad, was keen for him to grow up and become a daroga but all he was interested in was music. For him, the school regimen held as much terror as the beatings at home for pursuing a “feminine” interest. The year he turned 18 he left home for Lucknow to join Maris College of Music, now called Bhatkhande Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya.

In 1942, after he graduated with a classical vocal degree, he was appointed a composer at Akashvani. Radio at the time was a dynamic medium that drew the best talent in town and offered great opportunities. It catapulted Chaturvedi to fame and popularity, with Panchayat Ghar making him a household name.

Chaturvedi did not pursue a classical career per se, but his skills, say colleagues, were indisputable. In his singing could be hard the rigour of his Maris training. Here is a banna, a eulogy to welcome the bridegroom, sung in his voice, one of a handful of his recordings to survive.

Chaturvedi sings a banna.

He was also particularly adept at tuning the tanpura, a task that needs immense skill. Colleague KK Srivastava recalls a very fastidious Begum Akhtar insisting that he be present at her recordings.

After he would return from work, the roof of his tiny house in Lal Kuan would turn into a free gurukul of sorts at night. “There would be a steady inflow of people coming to learn from him, classical and folk,” Neelam recalled. “He wouldn’t charge them a paisa but teach them till nearly midnight. The classes were so popular that neighbours would come up to their roofs to listen. So, across the locality, every roof came alive with his music.”

Various family tragedies meant that Chaturvedi had to care for a large number of relatives, young and old, and making ends meet was hard. He would work at Akashvani till 8 pm, and then, when not hosting a gurukul, head out for performances. He was a staple at the kathak performances of Shambhu Maharaj and was especially prized for his collection of dance music. On Lucknow’s culture circuit, he was a popular figure, known for his idiomatic and witty Lakhnavi talk.

Collective mind

In his work on categories of Indian music, ethnomusicologist Ashok Ranade talks of the fascinating factor that marks folk music apart from art music – folk forms, he says, are an expression of the collective mind rather than of the individual spirit.

But the folk songs of Uttar Pradesh – and of the entire Hindi belt – also have strong links with the Hindustani classical music system. “Ragas like Mand and Pahadi came from folk traditions,” said Sunanda Sharma, vocalist and leading student of Girija Devi. “And in folk, you often hear strains of ragas like Pilu and Khamaj. When folk is sung in its own context, it is sung straight but singers of the purab ang (east) have picked these songs and bolstered them with effective ragadari to craft wonderful works, as Siddheshwari Devi and Girija Devi did.”

Chaturvedi did not pursue a classical career per se, but his skills, say colleagues, were indisputable. Credit: panditradhavallabhchaturvedi.com.

It was between 1942 and the early 1970s that Chaturvedi undertook his research into folk music of Uttar Pradesh. He traversed the state, stopping at ashrams, temples and gurudwaras, and seeking out little-known singers and songs. On his trips, he would inevitably be accompanied by large registers. Whenever an opportunity arose, he would ask to hear folk songs, notate them there and then, and then sing them back just to ensure he got them right.

In his book he talks, among other things, of the working songs of women and why they are important: “The words of the song, their emotions and melody, all absorb the women so deeply that they manage to grind mounds of wheat. The music does not allow the women to feel the exhaustion and tedium that this tough chore brings.”

His daughter recalls the many registers Chaturvedi filled with songs, introductions and notations. Only a few could be found after his death because he was generous with sharing them. It was from the few surviving ones that Oonchi Attariya was built.

A self-effacing, good humoured and content soul, Chaturvedi did very little to promote his work in his lifetime. But that did not stop it from finding an audience. The inspiration for some of the best-known folk songs in Hindi films, such as Ab Ke Baras from Bandini and Kaun Rang Moongva from Heera Moti, came from his collections.

Kaun Rang Moongva from Heera Moti (1959).

Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at writermalini@gmail.com.