I was born in a small town of Bundelkhand, near Jhansi. Now as simple as this may sound, I complained about being born in a small rural unit for the longest time.
Initially, the difference between a village and a city wasn’t that apparent to me. So I enjoyed being where I was. I had a very simple yet adventurous childhood – going to impromptu picnics with my cousins and grandfather over the weekends, learning swimming, climbing rocky plateaus, fetching water from distant wells and what not. I enjoyed it all.
Soon, it was time to start school. My parents decided to send me to an English medium school located in the nearest town. Despite sharing a rural orientation, they secretly harboured a simple dream of their kids speaking fluent English like city kids. So my sisters and I were sent to that English medium school. My city school classmates were not very welcoming towards my rural identity at the beginning. Also, my dialect was an odd mix of Bundeli with a few words from a sophisticated Hindi dictionary. My teacher often shouted at me for bringing my colloquial diction into the classroom.
It was then that I started shedding my indigenous skin in pursuit of social acceptance. I started lying about my native place, erasing all traces of Bundeli from my accent and feeding English vocabulary to my diction. Soon I was transferred to a boarding school, and there too, I lied about being a city dweller. The thought that being a city kid brings acceptance and validation among peers was now deeply inbuilt in me. I entered college with the same thought system.
It was last year when the Covid-induced pandemic hit us that my parents invited me back to our age-old home in the village. Out of all viable options, I reluctantly took a train to my hometown. I knew this time it would not be 15 days or a month-long break but would last several months.
At home, my neighbours visited me to ask all sorts of questions centring around the magnificence of Delhi – is it really a big city? Did you visit Qutub Minar? Did you travel by the metro? Do girls really wear short skirts?
I would patiently respond with a ‘yes’ to all their questions, but never quite entertained their curiosity.
Something about being home was agonising for me. Stuck in the loop of mundanity, I took to refurbishing my age-old bond with my grandfather and befriending my rural identity.
My grandfather is a kind and amusing man who looks for humour in every small aspect of life. Unlike men of his time, he doesn’t live his life by the strict noblemen code and believes it’s okay to sometimes not have a purpose in life. Soon I started hanging out with him. My grandfather is not an educated man, but he has the entire encyclopedia of our land, Bundelkhand well uploaded in his mind. He started telling me about all the great warriors of this land: Rani Laxmi Bai, Alha Udal, and king Chhatrasal.
All of this encouraged me to write a research paper on Bundelkhand. I wanted a sense of belonging and an emotional connection with the land that was mine. The land that never abandoned me. So with the help of my grandfather, I started interviewing local folk artists, local leaders and Bundelkhand University professors.
And this is what I briefly learned about my land.
Named after the Bundela kings who ruled this region during the 14th century, Bundelkhand is a region with hilly terrain, plateaus and rivers like Betwa and Ken. The majority of the Bundelkhandi population speaks the local Bundeli dialect and is dependent on agriculture for livelihood.
This land witnessed the inception of the 1857 revolt with the warrior queen Rani Laxmi Bai refusing to hand over her state to the East India Company. The local history also sings the folklore of its two Bravehearts, Alha and Udal who fought against Prithviraj Chauhan in the battle of Mahoba. The region has a celebrated tradition of singing folk songs and dancing during various regional festivals, in praise of nature’s beauty and during family functions like marriages and the birth of a child.
Singing has always been a part of Bundeli people’s daily routine. Farmers sing ‘Faag’ songs when they harvest their crops. During the month of Kartik (Hindi calendar month), women of Bundelkhand observe fast for a month and visit nearby ponds or rivers every morning to take a dip and sing ‘Kartik’ songs in praise of Lord Krishna. Women in the household sing ‘Sohar’ songs when a child is born.
Other popular Bundeli folk songs include ‘Alha’ songs. These songs are mainly recitals of the heroic deeds of local hero warrior, Alha. Farmers sing ‘Alha’ songs during monsoon season to entertain themselves. ‘Dadre and Gari’ are popularly sung during weddings, to celebrate the romantic union of a new bride and groom. There are ‘Lamtera’ songs also. Farmers sing these songs to express their gratitude to God after looking at their Rabi crop flourishing.
Contrary to its thriving folk culture, the present social-political realities of Bundelkhand are grim and concerning. Today poverty, hunger, illiteracy, lack of employment opportunities and acute water crisis are forcing Bundeli people to migrate to metro cities and serve as cheap labour.
The water crisis is such grave that it says when in Bundelkhand a woman carries a water pot on her head for 3-4 km she prays: “more gagri na foote, chahe balam mar jaaye,” which roughly translates to: “Let my husband die but please god, don’t let my water pot break”.
Writing this research paper became the beginning of my quest to not only seek my aboriginal identity but also to be worthy of it by writing about it. So now I write about the place I belong to.
Manvi Gupta is a self-proclaimed writer and journalist.