The culture and the societal traditions of a community are shaped by the historical experiences that the people undergo. This statement would hold true for our own Bihari culture and traditions.
Unfortunately, the unique cultural heritage and rich traditions of the region have been largely neglected in terms of serious study or coverage until recently. The fact that the culture and musical traditions of Bihar have spread overseas and have been carried by the same people to far off lands such as Fiji and Mauritius notwithstanding.
My aim in the present piece is to highlight the particular effect that the colonial experience had on the traditions of music and culture in Bihar. The theme that recurs most often in the music of the region is that of separation and the longing that accompanies it. The indigenous term for the emotion is more apt, i.e. "Birah". This theme is the life blood of the highly emotive songs forming part of the folk renditions in the region. The emotion of birah also animates the larger musical traditions of Kajri and Chaiti, which are renowned forms of classical Hindustani music today. I would also draw your attention to the form of music that is completely indigenous to Bihar and was a direct result of the migration of large numbers of indentured labour from the region by the British. I refer to the form of music known as the Bidesia; translated, Bidesia can be simply understood as "foreigner". Unlike Kajri or Chaiti, Bidesia could not find for itself a distinct name in the realms of classical music.
The Bidesia form is distinctly and unabashedly heart rending. Its sole theme is the separation of family from family and the unending wait of those who were left behind. Its immense beauty lies in its simplicity, for it makes no qualms about the emotions expressed. The Kajri and the Chaiti will give you some respite from the feeling of loneliness and separation, Bidesia does away with such pretensions. The Bidesia evolved as a direct result of the British transporting our present day brethren to far off lands. Perhaps, this is an explanation for the emotions expressed, the intensity of pain and the frankness of the expression. It is conveyed mostly through the vehicle of a female protagonist and in this way, shares a commonality with other musical traditions of Bihar.
The Bidesia form of music has not been totally without fame. Besides being a part of the social fabric and shared cultural ethos of a people, it found recognition in the songs written by the great Bhojpuri poet, Bhikhari Thakur. The 1961 movie "Bidesia" immortalised some of them in the form of songs. One just has to listen to some of the Bidesia songs sung by Sharda Sinha to understand the pain and the emotion that flows through these songs. Amitav Ghosh’s acclaimed novel "Sea of Poppies" chronicles in detail the shared experience of a people forced by circumstances to leave home in favour of a foreign land. However, the Bidesia form has been largely forgotten today. It is not counted as one of the forms of classical Hindustani music. Qualitatively, it does not differ much from the Chaiti or other forms of music that are still considered to have their origins in folk music.
The theme of birah animates Bihari tradition and music like no other. To ignore it is to negate a part of the history that we Biharis have undergone as a community and something that we should preserve. The feeling of separation animates us still, with a large community forced to work away from their homes. In my humble opinion, the Bidesia represents this emotion better than any other vehicle. It is a sad fact that this rich tradition has not found widespread acclaim or adoption. One hopes that with the revival of Bihar’s political and economic fortunes, the people and the Government of Bihar will revive and protect these priceless forms of our unique culture for posterity.