She was the oldest of five children to underprivileged parents, Chunuk Lal Pardhi and Sukhwati in the remote village of Ganiyari, 15 kilometres from the city of Bhilai. Like other girls in the village, she was expected to stay home, take care of the household chores and babysit her siblings.
But Teejan wanted to sing, so much so that she referred to her passion as ‘pagalpana’ or madness.
In an interview with The Hindu, the now 61-year-old folk artist recalls how her mother reacted each time she caught her singing.
She shares, “I was locked up and not given any food. Sometimes she (mother) would put her hands around my throat to try and choke the music out of it. But I didn’t stop. What to do? I was meant to sing. I had no choice.”
If you are wondering why the Chhattisgarh artist is making headlines today, let us tell you that she has received one of Japan’s greatest honours, the Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize.
This is the first time, her art – Pandavani – has been given its due formally on the international front.
What is Pandavani?
It is a traditional performing art from Chhattisgarh, in which she enacts tales from the Mahabharata with musical accompaniments. A form of rustic entertainment, it is widely popular in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh and neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
“Ever since I found out about this award, I’ve been so happy, I haven’t been able to sleep at night,” she told The Hindu.
For those who don’t know much about the Pandavani exponent, she was also bestowed the prestigious Padma Shri in 1987, and Padma Bhushan in 2003 by Government of India. In 1995, she was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award by India’s National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama.
When asked about how her interest in Pandavani began, she recalls how she learned the art from her maternal grandfather, Brijlal Pradhi even though the old man would get a lot of flak from the rest of the family for encouraging Teejan. He would recite the Mahabharata written by Chhattisgarhi writer, Sabal Singh Chauhan to Teejan, who picked it up quickly. She moved on to being informally trained under Umed Singh Deshmukh.
She was married at the age of 12 but expelled from the community for singing Pandavani, being a woman. She built herself a small hut and started living on her own, borrowing utensils and food from neighbours, yet never stopped singing, which eventually paid off for her. She never returned to her first husband’s home either.
At 13, she gave her first public performance in the neighbouring village of Chandrakhuri for Rs 10. She sang Pandavani in the Kapalik shaili (the standing style), which was the first for a woman, as traditionally women artists sang it in Vedamati (the sitting style).
She also reveals how girls who performed on stage were ridiculed and abused. “I’ve faced enough of both for many lifetimes,” she tells the publication.
And while the folk artists came alive on the stage as she transformed from Bhima to Krishna, her body would often give up towards the end of the performance. She would use a wheelchair offstage.
In Japan, Teejan was always introduced with the title ‘Doctor’ as she had received honorary doctorates from a host of Indian universities. With no access to education, the only thing she ever learned to write was her name in the Devanagari script. She has it inked on her arm alongside other traditional godna tattoos.
“I used this tattoo to copy my name on to the payment receipts every month,” she told the publication.
Her journey through Japan was packed with lectures and performances in Fukuoka. She was joined by a group of academics and experts. While someone spoke about the geography and history of Teejan’s Pardhi nomadic tribal group, another explained the intricacies of the Mahabharata. With reservations to the show made a month in advance, the audience listened to her in rapt attention and jotted down notes.
She added how the Fukuoka Prize trumps every other award that she received in her long career.
Here’s congratulating her on the recognition!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)