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A wrestler by training, a poet at heart and a singer par excellence, his contribution to Bhojpuri folk singing is unparalleled – but no wonder it is undocumented and unrecognised. This is the story of the great unsung Bhojpuri singer, Jang Bahadur Singh, now 102.
Jang Bahadur Singh was born in Kausad village in Siwan district of Bihar on 10 December 1920 and early in his life he took to mud and singing. As he grazed cows, worked in the fields and wrestled, he often found himself singing in saptam sur (high octave) on the banks of the river Saryu, which flowed alongside the village. He has educated, inspired and motivated his audience through his ‘vyas style’ for almost two decades in Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand.
Early in his life, 22-year-old Jang Bahadur was inspired by the Quit India Movement started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. He started singing patriotic songs that energized the youth around him in Siwan and other nearby districts. The British government took note of his popularity and banned him after he refused to stop singing. He was also arrested in Ballia.
After independence, Jang Bahadur got a job at the then famous Sen-Raleigh Bicycle Factory in Asansol district of present day West Bengal. Within a few years he became a popular name in singing in areas like Jharia, Dhanbad, Durgapur, Sambhalpur and Ranchi. However, the man who sang it for “swantah sukhaay (for his own bliss)” is now a forgotten voice. His ability to sing without a microphone and still be easily heard at a distance added to his popularity.
From Wrestler to “Singing Warrior”
Jang Bahadur gained notoriety for his ability to knock down some of the truly heavyweights in his condition on the wrestling mat, one of which was the three-five-cent wrestler. The singing career, if you can use that term, has just taken off.
When Jang Bahadur attended one of the concerts, he saw that in a dugola (literally meaning two teams where there would be a musical question and answer between them and one would be declared the winner; like a musical shaastrarth) that one singer was attacked by three singers on the other side. The honest wrestler within him awoke and sided with the lone singer, leveling the battle. Since then, he decided to climb the ladders in singing. Virtually self-trained and not much educated, Jang Bahadur worked hard on himself and learned about the lives of various leaders of the independence movement – including Bhagat Singh, Maharana Pratap, Veer Kunwar Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi.
Jang Bahadur took up the Vyasov style of folk singing. Vyas’ style involves telling the life stories of a prominent personality through poems, mixed with narration while sitting on stage and ending with a profound message for people to follow. The wrestler’s passion spilled over into music and he often found himself visiting the dugout. And his admirers say that nothing beats his singing after midnight. “Vishesh kar jab wo bhor mein bhairavi ka aalaap lete the, tab maa Sarasvati unke gale mein utar jaateen theen (Especially when he started chanting Bhairavi in the early hours, Maa Saraswati entered his throat),” says Manoj Bhawuk, renowned Bhojpuri poet , film critic and Bhojpuri TV personality.
With the likes of Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi still fresh in his mind, Jang Bahadur sang their stories to packed audiences. That was in the sixties. At the time when Hindi film music entered its “golden age”, Jang Bahadur sang without any recordings and without a microphone – although the audience did not demand one. In the next few decades, even as Bhojpuri cinema saw a revival of sorts with films like Ganga Maiya Tohen Miyari Chadhaibo, Bidesia, Dharti Maiya and others, Jang Bahadur remained a forgotten name.
Munna Singh “Vyas”, himself a legendary Bhojpuri singer, has been working with Jang Bahadur for 23 years, says, “15-20 baris le unkar ek chhatra raaj rahe…unka saamne kehu na rahe (almost 15-20 years had There was no one who matched him.” Jang Bahadur would sing at concerts in Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. And, recalls Munna Singh, true to his wrestling spirit, “unhaa ke ek saath teen-teen gayak ke dugola mein (parast kar det raheen) [ He would kill three singers himself during the dugola].”
Bharat Sharma “Vyas”, another legendary Bhojpuri singer who sadly could be the last “vyas” singer in modern times says, “Khushi ke baat baa ki Babu Jang Bahadur ji abhi jinda baanee. Hum aavat raheen coal field (Jharia and nearby areas) mein Kolkata se, ta unke sunee jaa. Unka u kehu n rahe. (We must be glad he is alive. I came to the coalfield and we listened to him. There was no one like him).
Former Indian international hockey coach Harendra Singh says he is one of the lucky few who survived those times and was lucky enough to hear him live. “I was mesmerized by his ability and persistence to play the jhaal (solder). He played it for about half an hour and then started singing. And then there is no stopping him – chaitas, more songs and then Bhairavi,” he says.
The singer, who became so popular that the organizers put up his poster and banner to attract the audience even when Jang Bahadur was not performing, never worried about the financial aspects. “People would call him. And if they gave him travel fare and took care of him during his stay, that was enough,” says Bhawuk.
Inside, however, Jang Bahadur fought many battles. In the early 1970s, he lost two of his children in an accident. In 1975, his wife suffered very serious burns and he was left alone to care for her. He still takes care of her. In 1980, he lost another son to blood cancer. As the force of life waned, Jang Bahadur began to wonder whether he was wise enough not to worry about finances. Wouldn’t he be able to save his son if he had money? Concerned by these questions, he voluntarily retired from the bicycle factory and tried his hand at entrepreneurship.
Of the other two children, one suffers from a mental illness and the other works in a foreign country and supports the family. These setbacks gradually affected the spirit of Jang Bahadur and he softened his appearance, though he did not give up entirely.
At this time, Jang Bahadur turned to “Shiv Charcha”, Ramayana, Mahabharata and sang about their characters in Vyas style, besides singing nirguns and bhajans.
Battered and bruised by experience, having faced the ebb and flow with dignity and song on his lips, Jang Bahadur is still a man with a sense of purpose.
He gets up at 4 a.m. every day, takes care of his cows, goes for walks in the fields, his mustache is always erect. And a song or two always flowed from his lips. Be it lines for Rana Pratap (Ghaas ki roti khaai vatan ke liye/shaan se monchh tedhi ghumaate rahe…), or for Gandhi (Khaddar ke baanh ke pagariya Gandhi sasurariya chala le na…), Jang Bahadur continues to sing.
As the nation celebrates Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, Jang Bahadur Singh is a rarity. Not because he is 102 years old and can still sing for hours, but because it is people like him who, despite strong opposition, continue to maintain the patriotism and respect for our ancestors.
The nation must recognize him and his contribution. Munna Singh says, “Bhojpuri sanstha ta apne ke chamkaave mein laagal baadan sa, sarkaro ke dhyaan naikhe. ”
By recognizing this talent we would be essentially reiterating the spirit of the natives so beautifully depicted in these lines by Jang Bahadur:
Gaiyya charayee le, dahee doodh khaayee le
akhaada mein jaayee le, mehnat banayee le
kanhwan par mali-mali dhuria e bhaiji,
Humnee ka hai Bhojpuri e bhai ji
(I graze cows, have milk and curd, go to the akharaa (wrestling arena) and keep fit by rubbing mud on our shoulders; We are Bhojpuriyas, O brother!)
His ability to laugh at himself, laugh at the world, sing, and his upturned, well-manicured mustache—even at this age—testify to his resilience.
“Ideally, what he was doing was textbook work – telling stories about struggle. He was an entertainer par excellence. And through his patriotic and spiritual rendition, he inspired the youth. So he was an educator, an entertainer and a motivational speaker – all in one,” says Bhawuk. No wonder, Jang Bahadur Singh deserves this recognition. Or rather, the nation deserves recognition of talents and personalities like him.