NARENDRA SINGH NEGI is widely dubbed as a living legend of Uttarakhandi folk music. There is a saying in the hill state that if you want to know about Uttarakhand, you hear Negi’s songs. In a remarkable career spanning nearly five decades, the iconic folk singer, writer and musician has composed hundreds of songs.
He drew fire from the Congress in 2005 for composing a sarcastic song against the then N D Tiwari government and from the BJP in 2011 for his trenchant musical composition against the then Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank government. With over three dozen musical albums under his belt and by singing and writing lyrics for 15 Garhwali films, Negi continues to rule the hearts of highlanders.
His songs capture the narratives and vignettes of life in the hills. He is the first-ever Uttarakhand folk singer to have won the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi award, which he did in 2018. Born into a modest family in Pauri Garhwal district in 1949, Negi went on to become a district information officer and has many interesting stories to share about his dual roles as a folk singer and a government employee.
In a freewheeling interview with RAJU GUSAIN, Negi shared his thoughts on the themes of music, culture and the journey of life.
Q. How do you look at your fivedecade- long journey in the world of Uttarakhand folk music?
A. Amazing! The affection of the public made it memorable. I am thankful to my fans, who continue to hear my songs and motivate me to write and sing new compositions. Those highlanders, who have spent a part of their life in the hills, love my songs the most.
Q. What about the younger generation?
A. The new generation does not have much idea about language and culture. My style of writing is connecting with the village and folk life. The younger generation loves high beat songs. There is hardly any content in many of the songs that are making waves on YouTube. The new generation loves songs to which they can dance. They are not concerned about the subject and content of the songs.
Q. Don’t you think folk artists too have a key role to play in such a scenario?
A. Folk singing has become a profession now. With this trend many good and bad things have come. Unfortunately, nobody is giving any attention to content and good songs and the entire focus is to create rhythm-based compositions.
Q. How will the situation change?
A. I don’t know how things will change. But, I continue to stand in the market despite my advanced age due to the prevailing condition as there is a vacuum for good content.
Q. How do you view your Youtube experience?
A. I am new to YouTube. The good thing is that you get instant response — views received, comments etc. for any song — which was not possible earlier.
Q. With online music, the pressure of yesteryears to sing eight songs for a cassette does not exist, isn’t it?
A. Now the pressure is of different kind. Earlier the music companies used to spend money on the product and do business. Now, you have to bear the cost of recording and shooting. Though I consider it a starting hurdle.
Q. What needs to be done to preserve the folk music of Uttarakhand?
A. Changes take place always. But the folk spirit of our songs should remain intact. We have different folk singing forms in Garhwal like Thariya, Chancheri, Chaufala, Jhumego, Jagar and Mangal. The subjects of the songs can change with time, but the traditional singing style must endure.
Q. How do you feel about winning the Sangeet Natak Akademi award?
A. You are thrilled when you get an award without applying for it. Its value is more. It also proves that people are tracking my work.
Q. Has not the end of the CD/DVD and cassette era affected the folk music industry in a big way?
A. The format has merely changed. The listeners and viewers have increased many times after the mobile revolution. Technology has played a key role in popularising culture. Otherwise we could never have imagined a situation that the population of Uttarakhand is about one crore and many of our folk songs have received two-three crore views.
Q. What role should the government play in preserving folk music and culture?
A. My idea is that more than government it is the responsibility of society to ensure preservation of folk music and culture. The public should be more concerned about it. The people approach the government for construction of roads, schools, hospitals, etc.
They create pressure for such works. Nobody approaches the government for conservation of folk music and culture. If there is any pressure from the public, the government and political leaders will be forced to work for folk music and culture preservation. We need to remain watchful for the cause of culture. So, only we can save it.
Q. After ‘Nauchami Narayan’ and ‘Aab Kathga Khailo’, the people seem to be waiting for your new satirical compositions…
A. After two experiments, I realised that political parties take advantage of my songs. So, now I have become more alert.
Q. You must have faced challenging situations in your roles as a folk singer and a government official. Can you share some of them?
A. Once I toured with a political leader as an information officer to a remote village in Pauri. The leader was delivering his speech on the stage and I was standing in a corner. Some villagers recognised me and suddenly I saw the crowd abandoning the leader and surrounding me.
More than the leader, my situation became tricky. I handled it by moving towards the stage and urging the people to take their seats. In 1994, I was posted in Uttarkashi and that was the time when the Uttarakhand statehood movement was at its peak.
To support the movement, I released a set of two audio cassettes from a music company. The agitation was going on in the hills and on Republic Day, the Uttarkashi district magistrate was to hoist the flag. But, the agitators were creating hurdles and they were singing my songs of the statehood movement during the protest.
A local intelligence unit officer told the DM that Negi had composed these songs. Later in the day, the DM called me and said being a government servant I should avoid such activities. I tried to convince him that both the Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati governments have promised to create a separate hill state and my songs create awareness about the issue.
The DM just looked flummoxed!