CHOWTAL: The lost tune once sang to herald Holi deserves a revival

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” पपीहा बन बैन सुनावे नींद नहीं आवे।। 

आधीरात भई जब सखिया कामबिरह संतावे।।

 पियबिन चैन मनहि नहीं आवत,

 सखि जोबन जोर जानवे ।।१।।

 फागुन मस्त महीना सजनी पियबिन मोहिं न भावे ।

पवन झकोरत लुह जनु लागत,

गोरी बैठी तहां पछितावे ।।२।।

 सब सखि मिलकर फाग रचत है। ढोल मृदंग बजावे।।

हाथ अबीर कनक पिचकारी हो,

सखि देखत मन दुख पावे ।। ३ ।।

है बिधना मैं काह बिगाड़ो जनम अकारथ जावे।।

लालबिहारी कहत समुझाइ हो,

गोरी धीरजमें सुख पावे ।।४।।

-Lalbihari Sharma

It doesn’t ring a bell, does it?

Well just sing these words and then add a combination of four claps joined by Dholak and Manjira and a pair of singers, sitting opposite of each other and signing lines of Hindi text antiphonally. This will give you a long lost form of Indian Folk song variety called “Chowtal”, also called Chautal and “Chaar Taal” and is one of the taals which was renowned and often used in the past.

Shri Krishen Chowtal Group

This folk song comes from North India, specifically from the Bhojpuri region (consisting parts of western Bihar and Eastern UP). This was originally sung by locals for sheer pleasure, to pump in enthusiasm and to celebrate the beginning of Phagwa or Holi festival. The beginning of this folk style can be traced back to pre-colonised India. But for an art form which is ancient not many people know about it and here is the reason why.

Many art forms faded as native Indian were sent to different colonized countries to work as labourer or “coolie” and with them they took bits of their own culture.  Many people from the Bhojpuri Region went to (present day) Fiji, Mauritius, and the Caribbean as indentured workers and slowly the tradition of Chowtal vanished.

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One such worker was Lalbihari Sharma, a man originally from Chhapra(Bihar) was bound to the Golden Fleece Plantation in British Guyana. During his life at the alien land he wrote Holi Songs of Demerara (published in 1916), a collection poems written in the form of folksongs. Some of his poems were in the form Chowtal, was written in the dialect of his village and in the style of 16th-century devotional poetry.

Sharma’s collection of poems depicts the longing of one’s culture, motherland and people whom they had left behind.

His work was later translated as “I Even Regret Night” by Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir, who has been critically acclaimed for his work.

With a substantial Indian origin population, these countries now share many cultural similarities with us, Chowtal being one of them. Even though the region that originally sang these songs is slowly forgetting about this art form, it is still quite alive in the Caribbean.

India has been called the great grandmother of tradition and there is no doubt about the varieties of different art forms this land has been home to. It is high time now that we reclaim our long lost artistic cultures and preserve them as our legacy.

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― Roy T. Bennet

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