The Barefoot Balladeer

A day in the life of a minstrel

Bejawada Peddi Raju walks down a street in Rajahmundry. COURTESY GBSNP VARMA
01 February, 2012

AROUND 5 AM between 15 December and 17 January of every year, Bejawada Peddi Raju steps out of his house into a thick fog, singing the Lord’s name. On 10 January of this year, it is biting cold outside.  Street dogs moan in the chill. Crickets buzz. Cattle low. An occasional vehicle’s headlights pierce the gloom.

“It is my dharma, singing the Lord’s name,” says Raju, 60, a Haridasu in the town of Rajahmundry in East Godavari   district of Andhra Pradesh. Haridasu is a community of minstrels indigenous to the state who wander the streets during the Sankranti season singing devotional songs as part of an old tradition. “We wake up the Lord, and wake up the people.”

Dawn is slowly breaking as Raju, tall and dark with rugged features, strolls in brisk, rhythmic steps, past big apartments, tiny houses, shacks, shanties, and down the lanes where men get up to spit, retch and brush their teeth, and women lie awake in their dreams.

“The tradition has been going on for ages. I learnt it from my father, tailing him and putting talam with cymbals while he sang songs,” Raju says. Singing the Lord’s name is his calling—it is who he has been and who he always will be.

Dressed in a bright-red veshti and a thin cloth around his torso, balancing an akshaya patra on his head, the barefoot balladeer wanders streets littered with dog poop, goat turds, bottles, cans and heaps of rubbish, summoning an ancient past with his renditions.

Raju works the tambura with his right forefinger, strums chidatalu (wooden disks attached with cymbals) with his left hand and jingles gajjelu (a bracelet of small bells) on his ankles as he marches on, his voice resonating as it drifts through the lanes. People peek out of their windows and, occasionally, offer him alms. He stoops down to receive the alms a little girl is pouring into his vessel. “Some days are good,” he says. “But on many days I don’t have sufficient alms.”

Sankranti, a harvest festival regarded as the beginning of an auspicious period, has lost its relevance over the years. Traditionally it signifies the end of the farming season, offering farmers a break from their monotonous routine, which they welcome with great ceremony. The run-up to the festival used to be a time full of hectic excitement. People celebrated the bountiful harvests and gift giving was a sacred ritual. “You felt it in the air everywhere,” he says. “But that has gone,” he says with wistfulness. “The gifts, paddy and sweets, and clothes people gave would then last for six to seven months, but now they don’t last even one month.”

After the end of a Sankranti season and before the next one, Raju makes do by selling steel utensils and readymade clothes on his bicycle.

The glory days of his vocation are gone. As towns and cities pulsate with urban aspirations and anxieties, he is consigned to the periphery as a cultural artifact. “In villages, people they still respect us, but in towns and cities the sampradayam has gone,” he says. “People’s everyday duties, jobs, children, schools keep them busy.”

“Times have been hard, especially since 2005-06,” he says. “Earlier people would talk about their joys and sorrows when we went around, but now they think we go for alms.”

He is not sure his sons would continue in his path, although they are trained for it.

As morning bleeds into afternoon, Raju tires. With all the walking and stooping over the years, his knees have become wobbly and throb with pain. “I am not able to stoop and do sit-ups to receive alms like before.”

Slowly he dissolves into the distance. His songs linger like perfume in the air.