A wrestler by training, a poet at heart, and a singer par excellence, whose contribution to Bhojpuri folk singing is unmatched—but, not surprisingly, undocumented and unrecognised. This is the story of the brilliant unsung singer of Bhojpuri, Jang Bahadur Singh, now 102.
Born in Kausad village in Siwan district of Bihar on 10 December 1920, Jang Bahadur Singh took to mud and singing early on in his life. Grazing the cows, working in the fields and wrestling, he would often find himself singing in the saptam sur (high octave) on the banks of River Saryu, flowing along the village. For nearly two decades, he educated, inspired, and motivated his audience through his “Vyas style” for nearly two decades in Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand.
Early on in his life, 22-year-old Jang Bahadur was inspired by the Quit India Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. He began singing patriotic songs that energised the youngsters 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.
Post-independence, Jang Bahadur, got a job in the then famous Sen-Raleigh bicycle factory in Asansol district of present 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 sung it for “swantah sukhaay (for one’s own bliss)” is now a forgotten voice. His ability to sing without the mike and still easily heard from a distance added to his popularity.
Journey from Being a Wrestler to a ‘fighter in singing’
Jang Bahadur gained fame with his ability to down some of the real heavy weights in his state on the wrestling mat, one of them being a three-quintal wrestler. Singing career, if one can use the term, was yet to take-off.
Attending one of the concerts, Jang Bahadur saw that, in a dugola (literally meaning two teams, wherein there would be musical question-answer between them, and one would be declared a winner; like a musical shaastrarth) that one singer was being attacked by three singers on the other side. The honest wrestler bloke in him woke up and he sided with the lone singer, making the battle even. Since then, he decided to climb the ladders in singing. Virtually self-trained and not having studied too much, Jang Bahadur worked hard on himself and learnt about the lives of various independence movement leaders—including Bhagat Singh, Maharana Pratap, Veer Kunwar Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi.
Jang Bahadur took to the Vyas style of folk singing. Vyas style entails telling the life stories of a prominent personality through poems, mixed with narration, while sitting on stage and ending it with a profound message for the people to follow. The passion of a wrestler spilt into music also and he often found himself attending dugola. And his admirers say that, past midnight, there was no match for his singing. “Vishesh kar jab wo bhor mein bhairavi ka aalaap lete the, tab maa Sarasvati unke gale mein utar jaateen theen (Especially, when he started singing Bhairavi in the early hours, Maa Saraswati would enter his throat),” says Manoj Bhawuk, renowned Bhojpuri poet, cinema critic and Bhojpuri TV personality.
With the likes of Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi still fresh in the memories of people, Jang Bahadur used to sing their stories to packed audiences. This was in the decade of 1960s. A time when Hindi film music was entering its ‘golden age’, Jang Bahadur sang without any recordings, and without mike—although the audience did not require one. In the next couple of decades, even when 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 worked with Jang Bahadur for 23 years, says, “15-20 baris le unkar ek chhatra raaj rahe…unka saamne kehu na rahe (For nearly 15-20 years, he had an uncontested run. There was nobody who could match him.” Jang Bahadur would sing in 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 put to mat three singers single-handedly during dugola].”
Bharat Sharma “Vyas”, another legendary Bhojpuri singer, who could regrettably well be the last ‘vyas’ singer in modern times, says, “Khushi ke baat baa ki Babu Jang Bahadur ji abhi jinda baanee. Hum aavat raheen coalfield (Jharia and nearby areas) mein Kolkata se, ta unke sunee jaa. Unka near kehu n rahe. (We must be happy that he is alive. I used to come to coalfield and we used to listen to him. Nobody was like him).”
India’s former international hockey coach, Harendra Singh, says he is among the lucky few survivors in these times to have had the fortune of hearing him live. “I was mesmerised with his ability and stamina to play the jhaal (solder). He would play it for about half-an-hour and then begin singing. And then there would be no stopping him—chaitas, other songs and then Bhairavi,” he says.
The singer, who had become so popular that organisers would put his poster and banner to attract audience, even when Jang Bahadur was not performing, never worried for the financial aspects. “People would invite him. And if they gave him the travel fare and took care of him during his stay, that was enough,” says Bhawuk.
Internally though, Jang Bahadur was fighting many battles. In the early 1970s, he lost two of his children in an accident. In 1975, his wife sustained very serious burns and he was left alone to take care of her. He still takes care of her. He lost another son to blood cancer in 1980. As the force of life ebbed, Jang Bahadur began thinking of whether he was wise enough not to care about finance. Would he not have been able to save his son, if he had money? Troubled by these questions, he took voluntary retirement from the bicycle factory and tried his hand at business.
Of the two other children, one suffers from mental ailment and the other works in a foreign country, sustaining the family. These setbacks, gradually, impacted on Jang Bahadur’s spirit and he lessened his appearances, though not completely giving up.
Around this time, Jang Bahadur turned towards “Shiv Charcha”, Ramayana, Mahabharata and would sing about their characters in Vyas style, besides singing nirguns and bhajans.
Battered and bruised by the experiences, having faced the flow and the ebb with dignity and a song on his lips, Jang Bahadur still is a man with a sense of purpose.
Waking up at 4 am daily, he tends to his cows, goes for a walk in his fields, his moustache always turned upright. And a song or two always wafting from his lips. Be it the 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 lives on at 102 years and can still sing for hours on end, but because it is people like him that the fervour of patriotism and respect for our ancestors continues to sustain, despite strong resistance.
The nation needs to recognise him and his contribution. Says Munna Singh, “Bhojpuri sanstha ta apne ke chamkaave mein laagal baadan sa, sarkaro ke dhyaan naikhe. Hum sarkaar se ee kahab ki aisan pratibha ke Padma Shri se sammanit kare ke chaaheen (Bhojpuri institutions are busy with their own image-making. Government’s attention too is lacking. I would say to government that such rare talent should be honoured with Padma Shri.”
By recognising this talent, we would be essentially reiterating the spirit of the natives, which is so beautifully brought out in these lines of 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 Bhojpuria e bhai ji
(I graze the cows, I have milk and curd, I go to the akharaa [Wrestling arena] and keep myself fit, by rubbing mud on our shoulders; We are the Bhojpuriyas, O brother!)
His ability to laugh at himself, laugh at the world, sing and his upturned, well curated moustache—even at this age—is a testimony to his ability for resilience.
“Ideally, what he did was the job of the textbooks—telling the stories of struggle. He was an entertainer, par excellence. And through his patriotic and spiritual renditions, he inspired the youngsters. So, he was an educator, entertainer and a motivational speaker—all rolled into one,” says Bhawuk. No wonder, Jang Bahadur Singh deserves this recognition. Or, rather, the nation deserves to recognise talents and personalities like him.