We keep hearing of the oral tradition of the East, notably India, where the vedic texts were passed down through generation of sages by word of mouth. The various gharanas in our classical music are also rooted in this tradition. Why, our education system itself was based on the oral tradition not long ago. I still remember the kids of first standard screaming after their teacher the Tamil alphabets and the numbers and later the multiplication tables and rhymes. I bet the words and numbers and the tables would be etched forever into the minds of the kids, standing them in good stead well into their adulthood. (I never of pointing out that my weakness in math is due to my not attending the first two standards in school, having been admitted straightaway into the third standard!)
Today one increasingly hears of complaints from parents that their children ‘hate to write’, while happily repeating the things they have learnt in class. One wonders if it is not simply because their fingers are too tender to hold the pencil and they are not yet ready to begin writing. Despite experts saying that a child is not ready to begin writing till it is at least till the age of five, we are in the race to make scientists and astronauts of our two and three year old kids and push them into the rigours of not only writing but also giving ‘tests.’ With the result that the art of learning by rote which by rights should be taught in the pre-primary and primary classes is lost forever. All we hear are desultory rhymes from the tiny tots, nothing more. How can a child remember the tables when the words are not dinned into his or her head repeatedly?
Why, there used to be oral tests as part of the exams when we were in the primary classes. We were required to solve math problems mentally and give the answer. For someone with the fear of numbers, it was a nightmare, but I liked to answer the other subjects. It effectively not only increased the speed of calculation but also helped children overcome shyness and fear of public speaking. By the same token, as one grew older one was told, to write and learn in order to remember the words. It also effectively put paid to learning by rote, since one made up one’s own sentences and sequences when one wrote the answers or essays. I am all for the ‘oral tradition’ in learning at least in the lower classes.
Music is one field in which the art of listening can play a great part. I have seen children learn to sing flawlessly as they listened to their brothers or sisters learning from a master. Lata Mangeshkar has said that at the age of five, she had corrected one of her father’s students when she heard him repeat a mistake. And how did she do that? By listening to her father teach while she played outside the room!
And now coming to the main story, let me tell you how effective this tradition can be especially in the performing arts, through the life of Teejan bai, the renowned folk artiste from Chattisgarh.
(In the last few weeks among other personal things which necessitated much travel, I also happened to meet this legendary woman, whom I have seen performing on shows on TV from the time the Festival of India had begun back in the mid-80s. I am sharing part of the interview with you here.)
This illiterate but gutsy woman stood up to her entire community of shikaris, as she took up the Pandvani style of folk theatre in which the narrator tells the story of the Pandavas (Mahabharata) in Chattisgarhi, accompanied by musicians and dramatization. What is more, she broke into a hitherto male bastion when she started singing in the kapalik style – the standing style which only the men performed, as opposed to the vedmati style of performing while seated.
‘I happened to listen to my chacha nana singing the Mahabharat while I huddled outside his hut to escape from the rain and when he finished with the words ‘bole brindvan beharilal ki jai’, I felt some change in me. I wanted to sing like him too,’ she says between chewing paan. Her face is made up garishly, her hair in a long plait, her lips betel stained and her eyes kohl lined. When she ascends the stage she is dressed in the sari worn in the Chattisgarhi style holding her tanpura, which she had herself designed when she had been a teenager. Instead of the ektara, (one-stringed instrument) which was traditionally used, she made her own three-stringed one from scratch. This tanpura becomes her prop as she enacts one of the episodes on stage – a mace, a bow or Draupadi’s sari.
She asked her grandfather to teach her and he agreed. For one whole month she listened to him sing and learnt, not understanding the words fully but learning them by rote. He began with Adiparv which details the birth of Bhishma and ended with the Swargarohanparv, when the Pandavas ascend to the heavens. She says that she has not added or deleted a word from her original lesson of that one month, all through the years but her performance has been embellished by her rustic wit and polished to a fine art today.
The instinctive performer that she is, she gauges the mood of the audience before deciding on which story to enact on that particular day. For instance she chooses the ‘dushashan vadh’ or some other war episode if the crowd is boisterous and loud. If there are more girls in the audience, it is Draupadi swayamvar. Interestingly she performs a lot in schools and colleges including the IITs and IIMs. She intersperses her performance with bits of rustic wit and a smattering of English words to bond with and elicit laughter from her urban audiences. She recalls how apprehensive she had been of performing in to city audiences when she had been a teenager. The credit of unearthing this gem of a folk artiste goes to Habib Tanvir of Bharat Bhavan fame. Since the 80s, Teejan Bai has been India’s cultural ambassador, travelling world-wide, performing her own style of Pandvani of which she is the ‘writer, director, singer and actor.’
Though none of her children or grandchildren have taken to Pandvani, she is happy that her more than 150 students are keeping the art form thriving. Do they also learn by listening as she had done? ‘No, they write it down,’ she smiles. Whew! That makes one feel better that this art form will not fade away with the second generation of artistes.
From her first remuneration of Rs.10 as a 13-year-old Teejan Bai has gone on to earn the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan in addition to the Sangeet Natak Akademy award. The unlettered artiste has also got an honorary doctorate under her belt. ‘I wonder if I could have achieved so much had I been literate and educated,’ she smiles in her disarming way.
She is a feminist in the true sense of the word, rejecting a child marriage, going against family and community to keep her art alive, braving all kinds of odds including three failed marriages and coming out on top – all to keep her art. Today she is a contented mother and grandmother, in her fourth marriage not having neglected her duties as either.
She was going to give a performance the day I met her, even though she had still not recovered from the shock of losing her young son of 32 a couple of months ago. ‘My guru always told me that one should forget one’s own anguish when one is an artiste and perform regardless,’ she said wiping her eyes surreptitiously.
Today at 69, though her face is etched with the ravages of time and pain, she is still the drama queen and going strong, vowing to perform as long as her feet can carry her on stage.
Here’s wishing more power to Teejan Bai’s voice and feet!