IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to find anyone who is fond of India and isn’t aware of the Mahabharata. No other story from India has been similarly eulogised, rewritten, interpreted, translated, sung, narrated, danced to, choreographed and philosophised over for centuries now. It continues to be India’s greatest war ever fought. But what is it about the rustic voice of a bashful balladeer woman that transforms these oft-repeated stories into an ethereal experience? Armed with a simple tambura, when Teejan Bai, 60, sings these songs in her Pandavani style, the epic becomes an unforgettable encounter.
Sukhwati and Chunuk Lal Pardhi belonged to the traditional community of bird-catchers. Abject poverty drove them to make mats and brooms in Ganiyari village, about 15 km away from Bhilai, in Chhattisgarh. Teejan was the eldest of five children. The family could barely manage a daily meal and a girl child was usually considered a burden. A simple roof over their head was luxury and they lived in a roadside shack where Teejan grew up. All that they had was her maternal grandfather who was a Pandavani artiste. He was the breadwinner of the family and became Teejan’s first source of inspiration. “I learnt the art from my Nanaji while he did his rehearsals. He never taught directly. Girls were never allowed to think about performing, let alone learn it. Even he did not come to know that I had become his silent disciple till he once caught me at his door,” she says.
As per village customs, Teejan was married off at age 12. Binding down the freethinking teenager proved impossible, and an abusive first marriage came to an abrupt end. Out of concern for the depressed teenager, her grandfather decided to keep her busy with his art, and Teejan’s interest in Pandavani increased, much against the wishes of her family. “I chose the Kapalik style of Pandavani, where the narrator depicts scenes from the epic and improvises. This gave me more freedom to think, to enact the dramatic elements, to be fearless and to make the story mine,” she says. Till then, women who performed had always preferred the Vedmati style, where the performer sits and narrates the story to a small gathering. Teejan, who started performing at the age of 13, had already stirred up a hornet’s nest. The highly conservative village community she belonged to ostracised her. Girls never performed, more over Teejan was stubborn about the way she did things. She was not liked by many. “I would be insulted every time I left my village with the tambura. I tried to convince them that I am going to sing the stories of Mahabharata. They would taunt me saying ‘Yeh anpad gawaar ladki phir se kahaan jaa rahi hai, dekho! Isko kisne bulaaya kahani sunaane? (Where is this illiterate girl heading again, look! Who has called her to narrate stories?)’.” But she refused to be deterred. Her persistence paid and she gave her first performance on a makeshift stage in a Chandrakhuri village in Durg district for a princely sum of Rs 10. This made news in her own village as no girl had ever achieved this sort of fame.
They began accepting her and her style of art, with much hesitation. She decided to take some informal training under Umed Singh Deshmukh. Invitations from surrounding villages started piling up. She had, by now, mastered the art of Pandavani and had created her own genre. Habib Tanvir, the famous theatre personality from Bhopal, noticed her in the 70s, and recommended her performances to several other festivals. Soon Teejan was performing for the Prime Minister and heads of state and was hailed as the world’s first female exponent of Pandavani.
Indian women have this amazing ability to tolerate things, keep the pain in their hearts and continue doing what they are supposed to do. I did exactly that
But hardships continued at home. “People in my village called me ‘characterless’ because I sang and danced in public. My second husband used to beat me and stopped me from performing. What could be more painful for an artiste than not being able to perform? I can never forget the difficult path that I have left behind,” she says. “Indian women have this amazing ability to tolerate things, keep the pain in their hearts and continue doing what they are supposed to do. I did exactly that,” she adds. Over the decades, she has re-married three times but has never stopped performing.
Over the centuries, various versions of the Mahabharata have evolved. Classical, folk and many other traditions have taken the same stories and presented them in various artistic ways. Several scholars have written their own interpretations. What are the roots of Pandavani? What version does Teejan follow? “I follow the version by Sabal Singh Chauhanji. It is loosely based on and inspired by the Sanskrit version by Bhasa. But the stories all come to the same. Even other versions have the same Pandav and Draupadi. Everyone’s versions are fine. No writer is right or wrong,” she says. How long would it take her to render the entire story in her own charming style? “From the Adi Parva to the Swargaarohan Parva, it would take me a 120 full days and nights to complete the entire story of the Mahabharata. I have been fortunate to narrate the whole story several times. I am not a machine to go on and on for days and nights. But if you leave me to my good mood, I can even complete the whole story in two months,” she says, reaching out for her paan sandook.
I have come across several people who consider Teejan a bit of a diva. She has a reputation of being moody, often eccentric and is known to even throw tantrums. Having met her many times over the years, I am curious about her ticks. “Artistes are moody people. That is because art has its own moods and shades and they, as artistes, are nothing but instruments of their respective art forms. Do you know, it hasn’t been many days since my younger son died? Do you know what a mother feels when she sees her own son dying? I have emotions but can’t be loud about expressing them. I can’t keep sitting at home and crying either. I use my art as a medium to express my pain. When I deal with episodes like Kunti-Karna Samvaad or how Subhadra deals with the death of Abhimanyu in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, I remember my own son and can’t stop my tears. Only those who know what I’ve gone through will understand what I am putting into my art. Real art comes from one’s own life experiences. But God has meant me to do this work, so I have to. The show must go on,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. We decide to take a break. I ask her if I should come another time. She says ‘no’, goes into the washroom and returns looking composed. I notice she has washed her face and applied make-up to cover her sorrow. She pulls out her bag, makes another paan and we order more chai. She receives a phone call and sounds slightly cheerful by the end of it. “Koi Paris bulaa raha hai, programme karwana chaahte hain (Someone is calling me to Paris for a show).”
Only those who know what I've gone through will understand what I am putting into my art. Real art comes from one's own life experiences
Teejan’s tambura—with its bright red base, and with a few peacock feathers attached to tall bamboo reed—is essential to her art. As she performs, she plucks the strings with the other hand to keep a constant rhythm. “The tambura has always been a part of my life. As a child I would see this in my dreams and I didn’t know or understand what that signified. A kind village elder told me that would be my destiny. I believe it is an avataar of three different gods I worship and always think of. Hanumanji, Saraswati Maa and Krishna. I carry the blessings of these three with me where ever I go,” she says.
A deeply spiritual person, she is a great devotee of Saraswati and Krishna. Does her spirituality connect to her art? Would she have been less spiritual if she was to tell other folk stories and not the Mahabharata? How has kept her faith despite the many challenges? “I think my Pandavani is a blessing from Krishna. I feel I was born to tell these stories. I have no regrets or nothing against God. I pray every time there is a show, for every show is fresh and new to me. I feel some good energy within me when I pray. Without the blessings of God, I wouldn’t be able to even move,” she says.
Teejan Bai is able to inhabit every character with an ease, which even seasoned theatre actors would find near impossible to pull off. How does she do this, I ask her. “These are characters for you?” she asks me with a mocking grin, “I have lived with them all my life. They are all real and in me. What else do I have other than this one story to tell? I own them. They speak to me and I tell you all the stories. I feel I am possessed by them and they are asking me to tell you their stories so you don’t forget them too,” she adds with authority.
For the last 40 years, her orchestra has been more or less the same. A harmonium, a dholak, a banjo, a tabla, and the chorus hold the show together. Almost all the members of her troupe hail from her family. “We all live together. They all have internalised the story too. Our best practice is when we are on stage. From my lip movements and the quivering of my cheeks, they can make out what I am singing. Moreover, experience is the best tool for a performer. They know when to pause, when to comment, when to sing and when to respond,” she says.
Even the most passionate storyteller risks boredom after endless performances. One wonders how she keeps herself inspired, repeating the same story for decades. “Boredom? What is that? I have never known of it! Mahabharata has all the navarasas. In every Parva there are different shades. Tell me what human emotion you can’t find in the Mahabharata? Kshama, karuna, krodh ,sab kuchh hai. When you are so involved, where is the question of being bored?” she asks. Every time she performs, she becomes one with the art.
WHO DOES SHE identify most with in the Mahabharata? She promptly says, “Bhim, I love the character of Bhim. Few people understand his character. He goes through so much in the story but we know very little because he is not the central hero. Moreover, I have got a lot of appreciation for doing his role being a woman. Once in Paris, the audience kept asking me to do the same thing again and again and there was endless applause,” she recollects.
Currently living in Bhilai with her family and grandchildren, Teejan Bai is not tied down by habits, nor does she regret that her children have not taken to her art. “My students will carry forward this tradition. So what if I my children won’t? Today I have over 150 students who come from different parts of the world all the way to Bhilai and train with me. They work very hard because I keep a very strict routine. I got it from my masters, gurus and God’s blessings. It is not mine. I am just an instrument for it. After I die, this will continue. Just like the stories of the Mahabharata continue to live even today, long after the whole era ended,” she says.
In Teejan Bai’s voice you hear the lament of Gandhari, the curse of Kunti, the wisdom of Vidura, the blood-curdling laughter of Sisupala, the dilemmas of Arjuna, the lust of Keechaka, the undying bhakti of a cheated and humiliated and yet hopeful Draupadi, the scheming mind of Shakuni, the retribution of Bhima, the echo of the Panchajanya, the valour of Abhimanyu, the sublime philosophy of the Gita and the blessings of Krishna. Characters come alive, scenes and plots unfold, and courtrooms, inner chambers, battlefields, gardens, groves, birdsongs and emotions are born as Teejan takes you along her narrative journey. The tambura has a life of its own and transforms into everything—from palace pillars to doorways, war flags to emblems, Bheema’s mace, Arjuna’s bow to Krishna flute. Her narrations are laced with colloquial slang where she sings, dances, shouts and delivers dialogues through the performance and finally leaves her audience enthralled. With each performance, Teejan, the shy village girl fades out and you meet all the characters of the Mahabharata.
Many books, articles, research papers, scholarly commentaries have been written on the epic. But like the folklore scholar AK Ramanujan said, an epic gets a new life every time it is rendered, no other version of this comes out more alive in anyone else’s voice than Teejan Bai’s. For close to five decades, she has single-handedly spread the folk ballad form of Pandavani and saved it from fading out. For her contribution to Pandavani, she has received several prestigious awards, such as the Padma Shri in 1988 and the Padma Bhushan in 2003. She has travelled extensively and has performed at village fairs and at the most prestigious venues across the world. She has also become a symbol for women’s empowerment and has inspired scores of village girls to break the shackles of patriarchal systems and stand on their own feet.
Her performances are always extraordinary emotional experiences. At Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata, she did an excerpt from ‘Draupadi Cheerharan’. In Delhi, at the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Meghdoot theatre, she performed ‘Karna Arjuna Samvaad’. In Bengaluru she performed ‘Karna Kunti Samvaad’ to a packed Chowdiah Hall. By the end of her show, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the auditorium. For her, it was just another show as she packed her bags to head for the next. While getting selfies clicked and posing for photographs with her fans, Teejan returned to being the shy village girl. But she will always be remembered as a legendary woman who became the most enigmatic voice of the Mahabharata, like no one else in the modern cultural history of India.