Teejan Bai got her art from her grandfather, and the resistance to it from her mother. Today, she is the carrier, preserver, guru and more of her art — Pandavani.
The conversation between Teejan Bai and Draupadi, the queen at the centre of Mahabharata, ends on a high note with Krishna's intervention. This one is a happy episode with some sprinkling of caste commentary — true to Teejan Bai's free and flowing interaction with herself. This particular episode being performed by Teejan Bai, at the recently concluded Arth Festival in Delhi, is based on Draupadi vivah. She enters the text of the Draupadi vivah scene, which she had perhaps memorised as a teenager, once again, as a familiar guest to Draupadi's big day, and there is no one to stop her at the entrance. Krishna participates in the light banter she creates around Draupadi, singing away her arguments with him. All for Draupadi. All on her behalf.
Teejan Bai, the artiste, I have adored for nearly three decades, is in her sixties. Yet, during her own improvisation of and version of this episode and epic, when she plays the beautiful but doubtful and slightly fussy bride in Draupadi, she fits into the coy-princess mould, effortlessly. Out comes every emotion-trinket from her narration trunk.
Fifteen odd minutes after she steps down from the dais, Teejan Bai is still panting. Being the singer, actor, narrator, sootradhar, and the various characters in her episodic quest into Mahabharata takes a lot from Teejan Bai. It has sprawled — across her life. I enter her makeshift green room with her permission and touch her feet. She presses my head with her hand affectionately, and gesticulates, asking me to sit and wait while she gets a grip on her breath.
This gives us time to sit in silence after her passionate performance. Then, she talks of bliss. "Aap logon ko anand hai, waise mujhe bhi anand hai (I derive the same bliss from narrating these stories as you do by listening and watching)." The narrative she created has gargled through her own throat and thirst for knowledge and retelling for decades.
Sensitive gender equations cut through her narration of stories based on Mahabharata. She speaks for genders — for the women in Mahabharata, for men, and for Shikhandi. She screams for Draupadi in the queen's cheerharan at the hands of Dushasan and rattles off the Kauravas and the Pandavas. "I don't like to claim that I am a big bhakt of Krishna. It won't seem appropriate to say I am one. There are so many other bhakts of Krishna who know more than me. But it is true that I derive a lot of joy in representing stories surrounding him through Pandavani, in all his moods. What would be Pandavani without Mahabharata and Mahabharata without Krishna?" she adds.
She became the bearer of Pandavani. However, her valour resides in the way she cleared the path. She resisted gender bias. She stayed on. She helped in making room for women in performance of Pandavani. "Main kala ka srot bani (I became the source of this art). Main raasta saaf nahin karti to wohi loag chal sakte thhe kya (would the women have walked the Pandavani path without my cleaning and clearing it for them)?”
She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year for her contribution to arts. But very few celebrate her place in womanhood. Though breathless, she is ecstatic on this new achievement. She says, “I have never asked the government for anything. Wo mujhe aadar dete gaye, dete gaye, dete gaye (they have continued bestowing honour on me). Fortunately, I have not wished for more than honour. I have faced a lot of humiliation for sustaining my presence in the art and for continuing to perform. These awards make me feel that I have been strong."
Representative of no kingdom in particular, she rightfully negotiates with the characters placed in Hastinapur. Owner of a fan cult — which comprises of people from across all walks of life in India and abroad, she cuts a beautiful figure herself, dressed in a striking saffron saree, silver ornaments and sindoor. Draupadi, the princess and the wife of the Pandavas is at the heart of Teejan Bai's own gender discourse — in Pandavani — the art popular in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh and loved by the neighbouring states.
Her role and relationship with the character of Draupadi is hard to label. When her narration of Mahabharata stories in Pandavani involves Draupadi, the thin line between an artiste and woman fades. Teejan Bai stands between Draupadi and Arjun, between Draupadi and Krishna, between Draupadi and Dushasana, with authority. Sometimes, she cuts a motherly figure for the sake of Draupadi, rebuking those who have wronged her. She thunders across the stage, using her ektara as a prop, when any woman's character and dignity stand in friction with the men in the epic.
Between memories, some not so good memories and memorising of the texts that were handed over to her by her nana ji, maternal grandfather, Teejan Bai remembers where the madness for Pandavani all started. Being born a Pardhi in Ganiyari village in Chhattisgarh's Durg district, she was bound walk into stories, narration and the natural cusp of art and life waiting for her embrace. Her grandfather introduced her to stories and storytelling.
She was 13 when storytelling turned from being a thing of quality time spent with her nana ji, into material for practice. She gave her first performance. "Dus rupiya mila tha (I got Rs 10 as my concert fee)," she adds. The exchange of art between the guru and his brilliant disciple would go well with an exception to times when Teejan Bai's mother would find her practising.
She was 13 when she started performing. What began as a child's plunge into storytelling out of curiosity and love for stories, was bound to flourish in performance. Her mother did eventually soften in her stand towards Teejan's artistic oeuvres and turned her ear towards the child and her narration stills, but it all happened in trickles. "Ma to maarti thheen. Ladki jaat ka gaana bajana kahan achcha hota hai. (My mother used to punish me for singing and practising Pandavani. For girls to perform Pandavani, singing and dancing, was considered a taboo)."
Teejan Bai is not just a living exponent of Pandavani, but also its bearer, nurturer and mother. Being a guru became part of this journey which began in Chhattisgarh. “Today, I am teaching 217 disciples.” A sense of disappointment crosses her when I mention a few names of younger artistes practising performance. “They are my disciples, but these times are different. During our times, the gurus would get upset, in disagreement with what the shishya wants, and now, disciples do what they want. They sing what they want to sing and how they want to sing. I accept them as my disciples, but I am not too sure about what they think. I am serving the art.”
The other members of her troupe are all men. They double up as musicians, providing orchestration back up. Importantly, their role is much bigger than orchestration and singing. They become witnesses in Teejan Bai's narration — the first ring of audience to the kathavachak — the teller and creator of katha. They provide vocal back up and it is not merely in singing. They double up as members of her audience. When Teejan Bai builds up those crucial twists and turns in her stories drawn from Mahabharata, they press the situational anxiety, the excitement, the questions propped up in the process, and express these in short phrases to her over the microphone. There is always some scope for folksy jokes and gender and caste specific references. It is all part of her performance — enveloped in Pardhi sensibilities she had grown up in. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Fukuoka Prize, which was her first international recognition, for her contribution to preserving Asian culture.
Loving Draupadi and Krishna was worth the struggles and hardships. “Nothing stops her. Not even rain. Once, when we were performing in Chhattisgarh, it rained so heavily that the place we were staying at in the interiors of Chhattisgarh, got flooded. All the musical instruments got submerged in water. She was able to save her tambura. She gave a performance just with the help of the tambura,” Nahar Singh, who has been assisting Teejan Bai in her getting together line ups, and concerts, tell us about how she even shooed away a lion at one of the villages she was staying at for performance. “She has even performed in areas gripped by Naxals in Chhattisgarh. It has not been easy. But she has her own mind and goes by it. She says that the respect she receives from all quarters keeps her going and she will not step back. Governments have come and gone, and they have all helped her continue on the course."
Her health has hit rough patches during the last few years, but that doesn't stop her from travelling and performing. Her schedule for the next two months is ready and most performances lined up are for Chhattisgarh and the neighbouring states. Nothing, really, has stopped her from pursuing the art — not ill health, not the fear of losing voice to ill health and age.
When she was a teenager, nothing stopped it — not the fear of being disowned, not being eventually disowned by people of her family and community, not aspersions on character and art, not disrespect, not comments from men and women. “I did not give up. I faced hardships and disrespect. But so strong was my own passion and madness to pursue Pandavani that everything else meant to make me feel small faded before it.”
She got her first big break, thanks to noted playwright, director, actor and activist Habib Tanvir, who invited her to perform for former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Tanvir, too, was from Chhattisgarh. The big break from an artiste such as him would have meant continuing collaboration with Teejan Bai.
There would have been no lack of space and absorption for an artiste of Teejan Bai's stature, in his pool of Chhattisgarhi artistes, in Naya Theatre, Tanvir's illustrious group and repertory. But that, according to Nahar Singh did not happen. "She refused. She wanted to do continue with her own performance." Teejan Bai went solo, literally stood up for herself, performed standing — a style she picked and followed against the traditional style of sitting in her early years of performance, and live orchestration backing her in the process, she travelled countries.
I reminded her of her trips to Dehradun during the early 1990s, where I would get a chance to watch her on stage, and in the green room. “You have seen me performing during your childhood. I am performing even today. People like you keep coming to hear me year after year. That speaks for my art more than it speaks about my art perhaps,” she adds.
Teejan Bai is still so fond of eating paan. It seems to dissolve into her throat pretty quickly before the microphone. What emanates is a firm but a sweetened approach to characters. The episodes from Mahabharata, which fuel her material for the narrative of Pandavani, recede somewhere to the backdrop. On the foreground, the viewer-listener witnesses a matured art of narration — which came to her as a child, blossomed through her teenage, toughened during her youth and matured during the long but gentle years between her youth and now, between the performance of an oral tradition and the art of knowing it.
The template for addressing events is fixed in each katha. But Teejan Bai defines improvisation like a boss. She questions complex relationship hierarchical structures in the epic, often smirking and laughing through her act. There are very few artistes today in India who master the different disciplines of art and the rasas to make and perform one art.
Teejan Bai is the name of a journey that began and will end in the propagation of Pandavani folk without fear and favour. Her love for Draupadi, Krishna, Mahabharata, and that thick streak of sindoor, will flow like a perennial river in the tradition she has shaped for us.