Nearly two decades ago, Jitendria Haripal sang 'Rangabati', a number that was on everyone's lips. The cassette outsold the competition. Now, Haripal, a dalit and one of the foremost exponents of Sambalpuri geet, lives in penury in a slum, says noted journalist P. SAINATH.
Rangabati, O Rangabati (Colourful Lady) You are like a golden creeper...
IT was a hit song like almost no other. Though from Orissa, "Rangabati" captured huge areas beyond that State. The Golden Creeper spread through Chattisgarh, then entwined much of the Hindi belt. There was a time in the 1980s when no self-respecting truck driver hit the road without the cassette. Tea shops reminded clients of their existence with the song blaring. No one knows how many vinyl records were sold, but it made gold disc status within its first three or four years of play. As for the cassette version, its sales were in countless lakhs. It generated a fortune in revenues for both music companies and pirates.
The voice that powered that track has lost none of its charm and magnetism, but sounds dejected and weary today. For its owner lives on the breadline in a Sambalpur slum. Jitendria Haripal, a top exponent of Sambalpuri geet, made next to nothing out of the song's financial success. Haripal has shared the stage with other leading artists of this State. That includes former Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang, himself a fine musician. Haripal is a dalit from the Dom community. One who dropped out of school. And was never let into the music sabhas as a youth. The voice that launched "Rangabati" is entirely self-trained.
"Like people whose names you forget, but whose faces you remember, I know the raagas but not their titles.
"It is only when people tell me that the song you have sung is in this or that raag that I get to know the names."
When and how did Haripal decide to go professional?
"But I never did. Even today, I never think of myself as a professional. I am an artist, not a performer. This is a pride not a profession. It is art, not employment. It is a Dom tradition, too. What the people on radio and television call Sambalpuri geet is gaana. The music of the Gaana people. Of the Dom people.
"My father Mandath Haripal did not perform in public the way I did. He tried to make a living picking tendu leaves. But he was a talented musician. I used to go into the fields with him and sing. We were bhumihin (landless). No property, no assets. But we could sing. We had music.
"No. I was never formally trained. Nor did I ever do a course in fine arts. We are dalits, you see. How could we enter a music sabha? That too, in those days? And I could never afford a teacher. So I used to stand outside these sabhas or wherever classes or performances were held, and listen. I can recall times I stood in the rain listening to music shows where I would not be welcome inside. By these means, and simply by singing, I taught myself."
Haripal began as an artiste in All India Radio in 1971. "Those days the recording fee was Rs. 15. Some years later it became Rs. 75." It is Rs. 900 today in his grade which is "Senior B High" artist. But he feels he gets fewer recordings than are due to him each year. He has done road laying work, construction labour and other odd jobs at different times. "Music is not a safe source of earning."
"'Rangabati?' Ah, yes. I knew you would ask me about it. See you have come this distance to talk to me about that song. How many others have heard it in how many places? It is a love story, a duet. A simple love song in pure Sambalpuri style."
"It was an AIR recording around 1975-76. The writer of the song was Mitrabhanu Gaunthiya. As you know, that song exploded on the scene. All know how popular it was, and still is. Soon a music company - INDRECO - got interested. They wanted to cut a record. So around 1976, I went to Calcutta. And the recording took place." But the disc was not released.
The first of a series of tragic events had begun. A dispute over authorship of the tune. Haripal says, "How can anyone doubt it was my tune?" Someone did though and the row dragged on. Interestingly, no one ever denied that the song's phenomenal success was due to Haripal's rendition. Also the lively voice of his female co-singer Krishna Patel. The record was stuck. What happened next is not quite clear, but Haripal says he won in the courts. "The disc was released around 1978-79."
It was a smash hit. "'Rangabati' is an all-time great," says Syantan K. Rath. An Assistant Station Director of AIR at Sambalpur, Rath says, "Cassette sales in lakhs? We should be counting that one in millions. He certainly did a brilliant job with that song." The music company thought so too. It got Haripal to sign a contract. This, he says, was for three years, with the option of a two-year extension. And then the company went into a lockout.
"I was stuck. Even though there was a lockout, I was under contract. I could not perform for anyone else." Two years later, the company in that avatar, he says, closed down. Just when he was to have got a gold disc to honour his record sales. "All I had got was around Rs. 10,000."
Rangabati, Rangabati... You are like a full moon in a damaged house...
"I don't know when the cassette came out. All I know is I was told the company had closed down and all my royalties stopped." Meanwhile, companies changed hands. Owners came and went.
Since Haripal was not aware that a newly released edition of his cassette existed, we went to the bazaar. There we found one of the many versions of the cassette that have made the rounds for two decades. The cover does say INDRECO. And "Manufactured and Marketed by the Gramophone Company of India." Packed in July 1999. All of which could still mean nothing. Many pirated versions use the names of big companies. Unless, of course, a revived company was putting out the cassette again.
"Who knows? I certainly do not. Maybe somebody there does not know the history. And what can I do anyway?"
However, the recording quality is quite good. And there is one strange feature to the tape. The voices on it are unmistakable. So is the music, advertised as "Sambalpuree Folk Songs". But nowhere do the names of Jitendria Haripal and Krishna Patel appear on it. That hurts the musician more than anything else. "I cannot get into these fights, you know, I would just be grateful if whoever did this made a just settlement with me. We too, are entitled to a fair deal, no?"
The discovery leaves him dejected but not bitter. "All I want is a fair amount. That which is due to us should come to us.
"We are not cut out to do business, I think. I tried the Cuttack companies, but they finished us. Western Orissa artistes can never get a good deal in coastal Orissa. I once tried financing my other music on my own cassette. The company I went to in Cuttack used sub-standard tape. So that venture collapsed. I lost all my money."
As "Rangabati" rankles, he shifts ground. "I consider myself a student to this day, when I am 50. Maybe because I never got to learn formally. The intolerance we faced as Doms was humiliating. We shrank from the contempt of others. This was, and is, our culture. What you call Sambalpuri culture. But being dalits, that is how we were treated."
The school drop out is a music scholar. "Sambalpuri geet is as old as society. One thing, always remember. Everywhere in the world, folk songs are older than classical tradition. Not just older, but much, much older. I believe all folk music in the world is related. There is some common content, some kinship. In India, those links are deep.
"Sambalpuri has three kinds of geet (song). Of these, prem (love) and mausam (season) geet are deeply related. Mausam geet is 'seasonal' in a wide sense. It includes natural seasons, weddings, harvest, sowing, and the like. After all, when we go to the fields and out into nature, we sing of our lovers. Prem and mausam geet are far more prolific in Sambalpuri than the third type, bhajan.
"I am not just a Sambalpuri singer. My hobby is to listen to folk music from everywhere. Listen..." And he demonstrates the tradition he is talking about. The slum comes alive with Haripal's vibrant voice. With snatches from the songs of the Bauls of Bengal. Of Chattisgarhi love songs. Effortlessly, he makes us see what he is talking about. The common elements of Sambalpuri, Bhojpuri and Oriya. Then of Baul, Chattisgarhi and Dhakia Bengali music. He explores the links of some elements of these to Nepali folk as well. It is impossible to see "Rangabati" as an accident now. This is a versatile musician with a deep understanding of his art.
But it was that song which made him famous. His greatest memory is of the day a crowd that recognised him at Batapur railway station. It refused to let the train move. Not unless Haripal sang "Rangabati". "Finally, the train driver told me that I had better sing a few lines if we wanted the train to move!"
But that day is past. Haripal's family troupe still tours but makes little money. And disaster still strikes. "The rains here two years ago destroyed us," says Chandrika, Haripal's daughter. "We lost all our instruments. Ever since, we have had to hire instruments or borrow them." The troupe gets engagements, but does not make much. "There are all the accompanying artistes to be paid," she says. By the time that is done, Haripal might not be left with Rs. 3,000 from a performance.
Haripal also feels he has been sidelined by the culture establishment. "I was to represent the country at the Festival of India in Moscow. At the last minute I was dropped. This has happened to me many times. Even at the Independence Day Golden Jubilee celebrations in Delhi. They take my song, they do not take me."
Some, though, are sympathetic. "He's a very good artiste, with mass appeal," says AIR's Syantanu Rath. He plays down - as does Haripal himself - the singer's alcohol problems. Those were brought on after the series of reverses and losses he faced. "Haripal is moody and temperamental. Hardly a new thing in a recording artiste."
Rangabati, Rangabati... My heart is full with jasmine fragrance...
Of my heart is throbbing for you...
Later, all the way down the road to Malkangiri, we found the tea shops still had the song. "Rangabati" is not forgotten. Haripal is, though.
"Do you think if we find out who is in charge, they might show some respect?" he asks about the tape. Life has seldom shown him much of that commodity. So he is not sure. "I do not want to fight anybody. There should be some justice. This is my art. This is my life and love..."
Rangabati, Rangabati... dear, please don't harass me...