A voice from Kumaon

Admirers of Indian Ocean, one of India’s leading rock bands are likely to be familiar with Himanshu Joshi as the band’s vocalist. What most may not be very familiar with is the rather special repertoire of songs from Kumaon in Uttarakhand that Joshi has collected and carefully documented for several years now. He inherited these songs and ballads from members of his family including his mother Hema Joshi, his maternal grandmother, and his maternal uncle, the late Mohan Upreti, whose contribution to theatre music and to preserving the folk music of Kumaon is lauded and remembered even today, more than a decade after his passing. Joshi has vivid memories of his grandfather’s home in Almora, where he recalls his uncle’s interactions with Kumaoni folk musicians, particularly the hurkiyas from a community of singers, dancers and entertainers, known for playing the Kumaoni hand drum called hurka. The Upreti home was visited quite regularly by the hurkiyas who would sing and bless the home and its occupants in exchange for meals. The songs of the hurkiyas also became part of Mohan Upreti’s collection, many of which have been inherited by Joshi. Joshi also talks of his uncle’s association with other Kumaoni stalwarts such as poet Brijendra Lal Shah, and theatre director Brij Mohan Shah, with whom he worked tirelessly to recreate the immortal love epics of Kumaon such as Rajula-Malushahi, often recomposing traditional tunes for the music-theatre productions that became his hallmark. The Kumaoni Ramlila conventionally performed during Dusshera over a marathon nine days of the festival, was also adapted for such productions by Mohan Upreti who presented these productions under the aegis of the Parvatiya Kala Sangh in Delhi, where he worked and lived for many years. After Upreti passed away in 1997, nephew Himanshu Joshi carefully compiled and studied over four hundred compositions from the Ramlila, ultimately documenting them for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts as the ultimate tribute to his uncle’s legacy. A selection of these can be sampled on the singer’s website.

Photograph courtesy Himanshu Joshi: http://www.himanshujoshi.me/indianocean.html#sthash.31xYwt85.dpbs

Gifted with a warm, gentle voice, Himanshu Joshi generously agreed to share a few of the compositions he inherited from his family. “Saanjh Pari”, a sandhya geet or song sung traditionally by women at dusk as they light a prayer lamp, or when they draw ritual patterns called aepan on the floor with rice paste, is a song that Joshi heard his mother and grandmother sing at home. The version he sings for readers of Music Matters, he informs us, could have been stylised somewhat by Mohan Upreti with flourishes typical of Hindustani classical music.

Poorabi ko dina” is another composition that describes sandhya or dusk swaying gracefully across the Himalayan mountains. Joshi explains that unlike other parts of the world where darkness descends suddenly at dusk, the evening light sways gracefully across the mountains, as it does in Lord Ram’s Ayodhya, Lord Krishna’s Dwarka and Shiva’s abode at Mount Kailasa. Kumaon’s great balladeer Mohan Singh Rithagaari is said to have sung this composition exquisitely.

Rugu Rugu Basant” is the hurkiyas way of welcoming Vasant or the onset of spring, while “Boyo Saraseyun” gives listeners a taste of Kumaoni wedding songs. Folk music from Uttarakhand remains relatively unknown and unheard in the mainstream, which has accepted the music of Punjab, Rajasthan, and at times Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with greater alacrity. But with a little help from talented and committed singers of Kumaoni origin like Himanshu Joshi, some day these lilting melodies too may find their just deserves.

(This was first published in my column Music Matters for the Lounge section of The Mint on Jan 24 2015.)

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

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