Gender barrier broken in Agra musical tradition

Updated: Aug 02, 2011, 13:47 PM IST

Agra: In a social revolution of sorts, women have been inducted for the first time in Bhagat singing troupes, a 400-year-old musical tradition unique to Agra.

A fortnight-long workshop to revive Bhagat singing concluded here Sunday evening with five women, all in their teens, being inducted by khalifas (gurus), apart from 13 other artistes, into the troupe.

Jaya Badlani, among the five women, said: "Bhagat singing is traditional media at its best. I am excited to be a part of this heritage."

Another inductee, Himani, said that when she first approached a troupe, she was not allowed to join. But now, she hoped to keep the Bhagat singing tradition alive.

"Bhagat singing flourished and ruled the cultural domain in the 19th century and during the freedom movement, but after Independence, had few patrons...But thanks to the dedication and sustained efforts of some passionate khalifas, Bhagat singing is assured of a fresh lease of life," said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

The tradition, which finds mention in Ain-i-Akbari, historical record of Mughal emperor Akbar`s court, was initially a dramatised form of kirtan (devotional songs), with a rudimentary plot.

Bhagat, a derivative of the word `bhakt` or devotee, has a religious fervour and orientation, and found full expression during the Vaishanavite movement. In later years, more chivalrous and historical plots were added to the performances.

Bhagat akharas mushroomed in Mathura, Agra, Vrindavan and Hathras, which was then the flourishing centre for nautanki (folk theatre).

The administrator of a Bhagat troupe is called khalifa, who inducts new members after careful screening and an elaborate process that includes presentation of a turban to the guru and distribution of prasad.

The language used is a mixture of Hindi, Urdu and Braj Bhasha. Nagada, harmonium and dholaks are the chief accompanying instruments. The performances last till the early hours of the morning. Old timers recall Bhagats being very popular during the British days.

Agra was the chief centre of Bhagat singing, with akhadas of repute holding periodic contests in Belanganj, Moti Katra, Loha Mandi areas.

Veteran khalifa Phool Singh, 92, sees new hope for the art. "Not just in India, but in foreign lands too Bhagat will now find supporters and patrons," he said.

Ratnesh Verma, chief of the regional culture centre, said Agra`s identity was not just based on Taj Mahal, but also its rich cultural heritage.

"Luckily, the patrons, from old-time khalifas to the modern-day theatre artists, have come together to save this dying tradition," Verma said.

IANS