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Teejan Bai - Folk Artist

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Kirti Priyadarshani


While Pandavani was just about fluttering out of the chrysalis, little Teejan was picking up the first inflexions of this traditional art form. Ganiyari village, some 14 kms north of Bhilai, never saw much riches, the families subsisted on minimums though some did send their children to school. Not Chunuk Lal Pardhi and his wife Sukhwati. In their household there was just enough to keep the hearth burning, education was a luxury but Pandavani was a way of life. Growing up amongst four siblings, Teejan Bai often heard her grandfather regale the family with the stories from the Mahabharat. Teejan, not even 12 then and already married, was enamoured by the folk art. She picked up the basics and trained informally under Umed Singh Deshmukh.

At 13, she gave her first performance in village Chandrakhuri (Durg) for a whopping ten rupees.

The oldest of five children, she was married off at 12. Her marriage split and she was ostracised by the community because of her love for Pandavani. She gave her first performance on a makeshift stage in a neighbouring village for Rs 10. Invitations from other villages started coming until she was noticed by Habib Tanvir, the famous theatre personality from Madhya Pradesh. She went on to perform for Indira Gandhi, participated in several festivals and became the first female exponent of Pandavani.

She took to the Kapalik style of Pandavani, where the narrator depicts scene from the epic and improvises consistently. Till then, women had preferred the Vedmati style, where the performer sits and narrates the story. Along the way she remarried thrice, and now lives with her fourth husband and five children.

A sheer sign of �oman empowerment�and a role model for many is Teejan bai. A 45, year old Folk artist from Chattisgadh district, who charms people with the force of her narrative and performs her own interpretation of the epic, Mahabharata. 

On 19th August Teejan Bai floored Students and staff of TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) with her recital of the Mahabharata at the TISS campus and the programme was sponsored by the TISS Chapter of SPIC-MACAY. As Teejan Bai's tale unfolded Bhishma, the perfect knight the chivalrous Karna, the noble Pandavas, the mightly Dushasana, Draupadi, and the legend among legends Krishna came alive on stage.

Teejan Bai, who was trained by her Nanaji (maternal grandfather) is the first Pandwani woman story-teller. Teejan Bai, with, performs her own interpretation of the epic, Mahabharata.. She took to the Kapalik style of Pandavani, where the narrator depicts scene from the epic and improvises consistently. Till then, women had preferred the Vedmati style, where the performer sits and narrates the story.

"Teejan Bai interprets the Mahabharata as per her own perception within the traditional framework. But often offers a social 'critique,' sprinkling her tale with words like yaar, time pass and sometimes English words, picked up from conversations and television serials," assessed leading dance critic Sunil Kothari in Bombay Times.

Teejan Bai While her accompaniment is a sort of an extended family. Her husband, brother-in-law, chacha and another two village associates accompany her on the harmonium, dholak, banjo and tabla. "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 of a performer," she says of an association that has run for nearly 30 years.

Her shows take her away from her family in Bhilai several times a month. "But my husband is with me, he even comes to drop me to work when I am at home," she says coyly. It was after her appearance in the Festival of India that the Bhilai steel plant offered her a job. An illiterate Pardhi tribal, she was taken on the muster roll as a labourer. Since passing tea and giving water was hardly the services her seniors would take of her, she remains confined to the muster.

Teejan Bai has lot of awards to her credit the prime ones being, the Padma Shri in 1988 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1995. She still appears humble when it comes to her own achievements. "I am uneducated so I cannot tell you when the Pandavani style of telling the story originated. Probably at the same time that the Mahabharata was written because in those days, there were very few people who could read," she says.

 "England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, Tunisia, Malta, Cyprus� In a single breath she rattled off the names of the countries she has performed in. "But Paris remains my favourite. The people in Paris are so wonderful," she says with a wide grin and makes it a point to mention that she had visited the city all of three times. 

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