I saw it 23 years ago, but the incident is as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday. I was seven years old then and staying with my grandmother in Shahjahanpur, a sleepy little town in western Uttar Pradesh. The nearest big city, Bareilly, known for its glass bangles industry, was one hour away.
It was the month of July and most people found it difficult to do anything beyond wiping the sweat off their brows. But one day, the whole town was buzzing with excitement, especially in and around the railway station. The reason was pretty clear: the Jawabi Keertan was round the corner!
Though the keertan is used to refer to a group singing devotional songs, here it meant a musical debate – a night-long session of fun-filled competition between parties of singers who came from places as far away as Allahabad, to take part in the event.
It excited the same amount of anticipation and excitement as the Oscar awards ceremony or a rock concert by a well known band does today.
The funny thing is everyone knew about it, though there was no publicity over television and in newspapers as is done today. The message was passed through the simplest and most effective method: by word of mouth.
Be it the panditji at the temple, the man who sold sandeele ke laddoo (a sweet specialty of the town) at the station, the railway staff or the coolies, everyone felt it was their bounden duty to spread the message about the Jawabi Keertan.
On the day of the keertan everyone finished their work well in time to be part of the audience.
The keertan was organised near the temple. In fact, the idea of the musical debate was the brainchild of Khadesri Baba, a sadhu or a sage, who lived in the temple premises. He was called Khadesri because he spent 20 years literally on his feet, without sitting even for a moment (the word ‘khade’ means standing; ‘sri’ is a respectful address).
The rules of the competition were simple. Each group would get 45-60 minutes to sing on a subject of their choice. The theme could be a social issue such as the pitiable condition of farmers, excerpts from the Ramayan, or a folktale. But it had to be on something that everyone could relate to or was familiar with.
The opposite team would get only 30 minutes or so to prepare a reply on the spot, and it had to be in the form of a song. Even the facts had to be accurate. For example, if the first team wanted to sing about Rama’s younger brother Laxman chopping off the nose of the Surpanakha, sister of Ravana, it had to quote from some text to prove that the action was approved by Rama.
Then the other team would have to dig into a different source (may be another version of the Ramayana and written by somebody else) to counter that point of view.
At the end of the night-long effort, the winning team would be given a trophy and several cherished but inexpensive gifts.
It may sound simple, but it was far from being so. For it required the teams to be well versed about the social issues of the times as well as in mythology.
For children, the fun used to start at least a week in advance and would end only a day or two after the event. The stage that was erected for the Keertan would become our playground.
And on the day of the keertan, my nani (maternal grandmother) and I would go there well in advance and spend the entire night listening to the quickwitted exchanges. There was just one condition though. Nani asked me to complete my homework in advance so that we could watch the debate to our heart’s content.
There were many such Jawabi Keertans after that but they gradually came to an end. And after Khadesri Baba’s demise, they stopped.
Today you have the noisy jagarans or night-long prayers which have become very commercialised and where people sing devotional songs in the tunes of the latest film song hits. What a shame!
Is anything like the Jawabi Keertan happening anywhere in the country today?