Given the number of states, union territories, cultures, languages, and dialects in India, it’s no surprise that the country is also home to a multitude of genres and sub-genres of music. Indian music has been used as a blanket term to refer to anything between classical and Bollywood tunes. One can live their entire life in India without visiting every part of the country. But when it comes to music – or folk music in this instance – we’ve all undoubtedly come across quite a few different forms, often without even visiting the particular states from which they originated.
Content in folk music can range anywhere between educational lessons or tales about the way of life in different communities. Instruments can also be specific to the varied types of music, and they may be crude or artisanal in nature, providing a more authentic sound that is native to a particular culture. This week You & I takes a look at a few of the different types of Indian folk music that have been developed and performed for generations. – Roshni
Dating back to the 15th century, the word Baul originated from the Sanskrit term Vatula (God’s madcap), which can be loosely translated to ‘insanity inspired by divinity’. Conceived in rural West Bengal, the songs tend to focus on philosophical and allegorical matters leaning towards the love between an individual and their personal god. It also covers folk tales and commentary on a range of contemporary issues. Baul music is played on the khamak (a one-headed drum with an attached string that is plucked), and the ektara and dotara (a single and multiple stringed instrument). Not aligning themselves with a particular religion or caste system, these musicians are celebrated for existing outside of convention, apart from their music and poetry.
Native to northeast India, this Assamese folk music is performed during the Bihu festival which takes place thrice a year, celebrating the harvest season, the Assamese new year, and the end of the harvest season. Bihu geet is accompanied by dance performances which include the Husori (performed by girls and boys) and the Jeng Bihu (performed by a group of women). The lyrics focus on nature, religious customs, love, interpersonal relationships, social awareness, and cultural festivities. The instruments used to play Bihu geet are the dhol (drum), pepa (hornpipe), taal (clash cymbals), toka (bamboo percussion instrument), xutuli (flute), and banhi (flute) to name a few.
Described as a folk literary genre, Ladishahs are satirical stories conveyed in song. Devoid of any metaphors, these stories are sung in the simple local language. The subject matter cover occasions including Eid, religious festivals, weddings, and natural calamities like earthquakes and floods. Both singer and song were referred to as Ladishahs, and the songs are accompanied by the dhukar (metallic percussion instrument). Entertaining yet thought-provoking, the purpose of Ladishahs is to convey two core elements: humour and satire. Ladishahs have been around since the 18th century, but today, unfortunately, it is a dying art form.
Symbolising the union of Indian and Western musical traditions, this musical form evolved among the Goan Catholics. While the majority of these Konkani tunes focus on the themes of love, mandos or mande (plural) evolved over the years to include political events and satirical tones. Slow in rhythm, mande are accompanied with a dance which represents a sophisticated and elegant lifestyle, reminiscent of its colonial roots. Mando is played using the ghumot (percussion instrument) and violin, an apt representation of Indian musical traditions meeting the Western. Today this folk music has evolved to include different types of guitars as well.
Rooted in religion, this form of folk music focuses on the devotional and emotional aspects of a person. Particularly prominent in Karnataka and Maharashtra, Bhavageethe literally translates to ‘emotion poetry’. A form of expressionist poetry, the performer’s facial expressions, wit, and spontaneity are important aspects of the rendition. Accompanied by light melodies, the genre also covers subjects of love, nature, and philosophy. Equipped with the freedom to source material from a range of compositions, be it verse or song, both Kannada and Marathi Bhavageethe have paved the way for numerous performers from different musical backgrounds. The type of instruments that can be used for Bhavageethes include the veena (string instrument), violin, and flute, among others that are used to make light music.
A folk singing style native to Rajasthan, Maand is also performed as a classical form of music. The genre originated from nomadic singers recounting tales of war, heroes, and love in royal courts. Carried down through generations, the songs remain to this day and are now performed in folk fairs, festivals, and concerts across the country. Distinct in its wavy pattern of singing, Maand is one of the many folk genres that has ventured beyond its geographical roots. This was made possible by blending Maand with classical ragas, a melodic framework derived from scales, a trend that has also been seen in the musical forms of Ghazal and Thumri. The handcrafted instruments used by the performers include morchang (wind percussion), sarangi (string instrument), and kamaicha (string instrument) to name a few.
A folk music genre based in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Villu Paatu is an age-old form of musical story-telling. It relies on the villu, a bow-like instrument fixed with bells. The songs mainly focus on social issues and mythological stories. A combination of narrating and singing, the Villu Pattu is a popular form of an elaborate performance piece. It can either be carried out by a group of performers (singer, narrator, listener, musician) or by a duo (singer and musician).
A theatre-style performance, Pandavani is a lyrical folk ballad that tells the story of the Pandavas, the main characters in the epic, Mahabharata. Pandavani uses two styles of narration: Vedamati and Kapalik. While the former sees the lead artist rooted in one spot and performing in a simple manner, the latter includes the narrator enacting scenes and characters, supported by a team of musicians and vocal support – which is comparatively livelier. Devoid of any props, the performer is armed with the music alone. Designed to capture and maintain the audience’s attention, the singer-narrator-actor incorporates dance as a medium as well. The musicians use instruments like the harmonium, tabla, dholka, and majira.
Practiced by the Zeliang tribe, this style of indigenous music retells the history of Nagaland. A combination of music and dialogue, the folk songs also include the tribe’s stories of love, brave deeds of warriors, and their legendary heroes. The music is complemented by the quick-paced Zeliang dance, which matches the rhythm of the music. One of the main instruments used during the Zeliang is the Mrabung (single string instrument).