‘Folk music is eternal’: The young gun who is empowering folk artistes

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Abhinav Agrawal of Anahad Foundation talks about documenting India’s rich folk music heritage with the power of technology and the importance of balancing history with innovation.
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For centuries, folk music has been an inseparable part of India’s traditional heritage. The rich cultural diversity of the country has played an instrumental role in shaping up the folk music traditions that have spanned over millennia. Whether it’s the raw, storytelling charm of Rajasthan’s Manganiyar community or the trance-inducing devotion of West Bengal’s Bauls, folk music is a language that ties communities together.

Folk music is not just a mere form of entertainment. It’s the reflection of the cultures, their stories, and their hopes and aspirations. Without folk music, India would be akin to a body without a soul. For this reason, protecting and preserving this cultural treasure is imperative for future generations.

Folk musicians must be empowered, especially amid the pandemic. Several artistes earn their living by performing at weddings and other live events. But the pandemic hasn’t made this easy for them. What folk artistes need is the power of technology and social media to make their voices heard.

This is where Abhinav Agrawal comes into the picture. A graduate from the Berklee College of Music, Agrawal started Anahad Foundation in 2016 with an aim to uplift folk artistes by helping them record music without having the need to travel to big cities.

“If an artiste can’t come to the studio, why can’t the studio go the artiste?” Agrawal tells Soulveda in an exclusive interview. He pondered on the possibilities of extending the idea of a studio beyond a four-walled space. He collaborated with Grammy and Latin Grammy-winning producer and engineer Gael Hedding from Mexico, who helped the foundation create a battery-operated portable recording system.

“After that, in 2017, I started travelling all across the country and recorded music videos for artistes at their doorsteps. We have worked with 6,000 folk artistes across 11 states of the country. Most of them have seen a seven-time increase in their monthly income,” Agrawal says.

Agrawal is a trained classical musician in tabla and Hindustani vocals. Hailing from Bulandshahr city of Uttar Pradesh, he was introduced to folk music at an early age. The tradition of folk music was inextricably linked with the change in seasons, especially during the onset of the monsoon. “A majority of the folk music of our country celebrates the changes in nature. Whenever mangoes or new crops start ripening, whenever the peacock starts dancing or a koel is cooing, we celebrate these things in folk music. This is not just in our town but everywhere,” says Agrawal.

On the connection of folk music and nature, Agrawal says: “When I was a child, I didn’t see a difference between nature and music. I was fascinated by music mainly because I felt that it was the same thing as nature. Gradually, when nature started disappearing, I realised that it has a deep connection with music and it is also impacting music. The first thing I wanted to do was to conserve nature.”

However, the rapid urbanisation in the city where he grew up “changed the entire culture,” he rues. “A lot of trees were cut down. This conversion of my small town into an urban city changed the entire culture. There were no more mango trees. So, the tradition of welcoming these components of nature stopped. We were not singing these folk songs anymore due to that. It all happened in front of my eyes as I was growing up,” he remembers.

Agrawal envisioned supporting folk musicians to document their songs that could be passed on to future generations.

“Most of my music teachers had a dream that someday someone will come and record them. But recording was a very luxurious thing. I wanted to create a studio where folk musicians can come and record for free,” Agrawal says. He started learning audio production DIY and experimented with recording folk musicians performing in trains when he was studying architecture in Bhopal.

“Every weekend I used to catch trains that were crossing through Bhopal. With the help of my laptop and mic, I used to record musicians whom I used to meet during my journeys. After recording, I used to do a quick mix, burn a CD and give it to them,” he says. Agrawal later found out that his experiment had made a positive impact on the folk musicians’ subsistence.

“These folk musicians started calling me back, asking for more copies of the CDs because they were able to sell it for around 25 rupees. So, this way, they were able to get some livelihood,” he adds. Agrawal registered Anahad as an NGO during his college days and later pursued an MBA in Music Business at Berklee to deepen his knowledge of running such an organisation.

Over the years, Anahad has worked with several folk artistes and groups from across different states like Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Punjab and Karnataka. He says that their efforts have made an impact even in the rural areas, where they receive a majority of listenership. The NGO has also helped artistes during the pandemic by launching initiatives where they were encouraged to record music from the comfort of their homes.

“When the pandemic started last year, we started a programme called Chaukhat Ki Goonj and we told the artistes to record one song from their house and send it to us. We did this with 6,000 artistes to teach them how to connect with the audiences digitally. We also started another programme called Vaccination Ki Goonj, where artistes were asked to write songs on vaccination. They were rewarded and helped with ration. The artistes realised that they can make music from their homes and share them with the world,” he says.

As far as the future of folk music is concerned, Agrawal believes that it is “eternal” and “can’t be destroyed.” However, he feels that while documentation of traditional folk music is imperative, it shouldn’t be “confined in boundaries.”

“Folk music is anything that conveys the happiness and problems of our society. It becomes a part of our tradition and culture. But change is inevitable. Folk music will become contemporary and we have to accept this,” he says. “What we call traditional or rural forms of music will change over time and we shouldn’t try to stop that,” he adds.

At Anahad, artistes are encouraged to write “new songs based on the issues and happiness of our times,” says Agrawal. “We encourage them to sing their traditional songs, but at the same time, ask them to think new and record new songs too,” he says.

While the documentation of India’s folk music heritage is crucial, it should also adapt and evolve with time to reflect on the changing times.

  • Abhinav Agrawal is an ethnomusicologist, musician, social entrepreneur, and the founder-director of the non-profit organisation, Anahad Foundation. He has been working towards creating and reviving the diminishing folk music industry in India, by creating self-reliant models that generate livelihoods, pride and dignity for stakeholders connected to this art form.

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