It was nearly two decades ago that a few young people dreamt up the idea of an arts' and heritage festival at the gateway to the Himalayas, the valley we all know as Dehra Dun. Few believed in the ability of an arts' and heritage festival to lure audiences away from the daily dose of soap operas and Bollywood. The skeptics immediately unsheathed their daggers at the presumption that folk arts, classical music and dance could attract urban audiences even as the winter nip filled the air post Dussehra in this Himalayan Valley.
However, once the festival was mounted, overcoming all odds, especially those of raising enough resources to sustain events spanning several days in a town far away from any metro, the response silenced the skeptics as the entire city came together in this one fortnight of exuberant celebration, a celebration named Virasat.
Virasat is a step towards this revitalization process.
Reminscing the days the festival was first mounted, R.K. Singh, the festival's co-founder says, "That the festival has sustained for close to twenty years is in itself a miracle. Nothing short of unbridled passion and sheer madness has kept it afloat."
The driving force behind the event were the hundreds of young people, some fresh out of the reputed educational institutions that this valley is known for, volunteering to make the festival a success, rediscovering their own roots in the process. These young people felt agitated that folk art forms and heritage, especially among the communities of the Himalayan mountain chain where they themselves were physically located, were depleting in the absence of any patronage. They felt that the least they could do to stem the rot was to present the myriad art forms from the mountain communities, along with those of the rest of the world, in an urban setting in the small town they called home.
They began with the premise that rural communities had always been the spring-wells of culture and that cultural norms and intrinsic values had always flowed from the rural to the urban. But post independence, owing to the hegemony of industrial modernity, it was the city that was increasingly setting the agenda, even for art and culture, in village India. To think of it, this social conflict is more starkly visible today in this mismatch leading to a spate of farmer's suicides as village India aspires for chimerical urban lifestyles.
This argument ran parallel with the one causing unrest in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where activists and the media were gradually joining forces to protest against development policies skewed towards the plains as a part of the largest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The festival was as much a protest against the government's complete lack of sensitivity towards tradition bearers, the folk artistes and the culture of the region, as it was an attempt to reverse and restore the flow of cultural ideas. And the first logical step seemed to be to make folk arts economically viable for the practitioners and to ensure they were given place of pride with popular mainstream artists.
Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb and an all-embracing culture in the Nehruvian sense were the visions that the founders of the festival started with. The festival took a rather romanticised, integrative view of culture, as opposed to the undercurrent of regionalist identity politics that was gradually sweeping the region. The festival was short on regionalism but had its fair share of idealism – no liquor or tobacco sponsors were taken on board despite lucrative offers (considering the festival was targeting youth as the main audience and this would be a bad influence), no tickets were sold for the concerts, no assets from festival grants were created and despite allurements from sponsors, the organisers resisted requests to shift the festival venue to Delhi or Mumbai. This financial naiveté ensured that the festival was left to the mercy of government grants and sponsorship support.
There were other features that positioned the festival as a distinctly rural event in an urban setting. The festival organisers consciously tried to bridge the distance between participant performers and participant audience. To this were added self-appointed codes like generally inviting artistes who lived by their art through generations, commencing each day's proceedings with the traditional naubat or drum beats from Garhwal and invocations to the Himalayan goddess, Nanda Devi, in order to ensure authenticity of experience for the audiences. “Catch 'em young!” was the operational phrase and the emphasis in general was on sensitising youth and exposing them to all aspects of arts and heritage. The festival was mounted with the efforts of young students, many of them as volunteers and several as part of the audience.
As mentioned earlier, the success of the festival took everyone including the organisers, by surprise. It seemed that the whole town had found a reason to celebrate. The idea of a city based folk festival caught on and spawned several such festivals. At least seven such events happen in India with similar sounding names. A visiting theatre group, after performing at the festival, started their own Virasat festival in Pakistan.
Once the festival began in 1995 it became quite popular, even though amid apprehensions that folk arts and heritage had no takers anymore in the city. It managed to generate wider audiences for several forgotten tradition bearers. It recognised local talents like the traditional drummers, bards, and even carpenter craftsmen. More than a million people visit the festival every year. More than 1600 families of artisans in the Himalayas associated with the festival and today the festival sends out their produce to twenty other national festivals just as it invites more than 350 master artisans from all over India, ever year, to participate.
The festival, over the years, has provided several memorable moments that have not just warmed the cockles of the hearts of connoiseurs that flock to it, but have also created history. One that immediately comes to mind is the unique collaboration between Pt. Birju Maharaj, Rajan and Sajan Mishra and Pt. Kishen Maharaj. Or, the unique cinematic confluence of the talents of Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, in a memorable screening and panel discusssion on parallel cinema and its future, or for that matter Habib Tanvir's improptu appearance in an all-night Mushaira (Urdu poetry session) where he matched the likes of Nida Fazli, Shahrayar and Wasim Barelvi, couplet for couplet.
What really sets the festival apart from several other events is its endeavour to educate young Indians about Bharat, the rural India that seems to have disappeared completely from the mainstream media discourse. It seeks to bring the village and its unique ways of life back into focus for the young. It has chosen fertile ground, since Dehra Dun is an education hub with several schools and military institutions in the Valley churning out India's decision makers. On any given day during the festival, one can come across children painting scrolls, flying kites, soiling their hands while toiling over a potter's wheel or simply learning how to cook Dal-Bati-Churma. Says, Vijayshree Joshi, one of the organizers who herself joined the festival as a wide eyed schoolgirl, "We believe that the young can teach a thing or two to the elders. The felicity and wholeheartednes with which they adopt village ways, and appreciate working with hands and their bodies, give us a lesson in respecting our past even as we look towards a technological future."
REACH (Rural Entrepreneurship for Art and Cultural Heritage), the parent body that painstakingly puts together the event with all its myriad hues including craft, music, dance, theatre, cinema, talks, workshops, street dancing and cuisine, firmly believes in the ability of the arts to regenerate the rural economy. By presenting rural folk traditions to people who have left them behind and yet identify with them, the festival seeks to give a new lease of life to these forms of expression. Many forms of music and dance, such as the Jagar songs of the Garhwal Himalayas, have experienced a strong revival after their presentation at the Viràsat Festival. Today the festival is a coveted stage where performers from across the world converge to display their art.
In the almost two decades of the continued existence of the festival, it has stuck to its philosophy of ferreting out unknown art forms and granting them parity with the most popular. This has strengthened the hither-to-fore unknown art forms at the grassroots, engendering "local pride" in village culture, the precursor of our great classical tradition. Virasat regularly schedules performances like the Jaunsari tribe's Tàndi dance with star artistes like Kailash Kher or Hariharan, generating huge exposure dividends for lesser known forms.
In its own way, through grassroots outreach, the festival has rescued several folk art forms like Chakravyuh that were on the brink in the Himalayan Villages. REACH is currently working on rescuing the art forms Radhakhandi Raas and Nautanki. Sponsorship support to traditional performers coupled with participation in this popular festival empowers tradition bearers while acting as a force multiplier in the revival of tradition.
To the naysayers who constantly lament Bollywood sapping our folk culture of its vitality, the popularity of the festival is a reaffirmation that subaltern arts presented with due respect, their repertoire bolstered with rigorous research and documentation still have audiences craving for more. The work of the festival continues yearlong as it prospects for talent, unearths the inherent wealth of traditional artistry buried in the sands of time and brings it to the fore. For instance, one of the success stories of the festival has been Basanti Devi Bisht, who first presented the night vigil songs of the Goddess Nanda Devi of Garhwal at the festival, and is now widely recognized as an icon of the culture of this Himalayan region.
As festivals like Virasat embark on their evolutionary journeys, from initiatives and visions of a select few, transforming into public events, their trajectories become difficult to predict. They begin to represent different realities to different individuals and groups. While they are arenas where identities are projected, they also become sites where identities could be contested. In this sense, the festival, that has witnessed the creation of the new state of Uttarakhand and survived several attempts towards political approporiation, has now come of age.
The success of the festival indicates that folk or village arts such as music and craft, usually considered an insignificant aspect of public life with their ever dwindling footprint in the landscapes due to the often overbearing presence of the new media, often emerge as powerful micro-narratives that articulate concerns of the common man. Festivals that have evolved organically from the soil of folk culture, through grass-root activism, mirror these concerns of the man on the street. They truly represent aspirations of village India and help bridge the divide between the rural and the urban. They need to be supported for they invent a new idiom of mass entertainment, a divine pleasure in seeking the roots so that the mighty tree of modern society can stand up to the winds of change.
Evolved on the lines of the Theban Celebrations of Ancient Greece, the international festival aims at creating a perfect ambience for the flow of knowledge and the application of the ennobling effect of true art. The effort is to develop a genuine concern in the inquisitive minds of the precarious materialism our society finds itself in the midst of. It encapsulates the vital arts & crafts of India with their attendant legends, rituals, myths and philosophy.
Virāsat attracts participation from more than eight Lac people who come to enjoy the rhythm of folk life. 50,000 impressionable students get acquainted with their roots over 15 days.