Gatherings under the giant Mahogany tree in the evenings, the jubilant stream meandering modestly and maybe also a talkative Koel’s parleys encouraged the wanderer… and the love stories, happy and incomplete ones, beaded in a melody and sung by folks for generations… it touched his soul.
Time failed to bind him as he travelled back and forth in the past and present to collect these melodies for posterity.
Nicknamed as Ghumakkad (wanderer) and Darvesh (saintly), Devendra Satyarthi (1908-2003) was a folklorist, poet, essayist, novelist and translator who wrote in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English; he is famously known for his pioneering work, Giddha, an anthology of folk songs.
Travelling during the British Raj in an undivided India he met farmers, traders, tribals, mendicants and learnt from them their stories, listened to their songs and sang along.
Accumulating a treasure of around three thousand folk songs in fifty different languages, a beautiful feat in itself, he gifted it to the public for free; when All India Radio decided to pay him royalties for the folk songs, he refused it saying that the copyrights were vested in the motherland.
Rabindranath Tagore, who shared Devendra Satyarthi’s passion for folklores and folk songs, urged him to explore the world of folk literature throughout the country and also suggested him to write predominantly in his mother tongue i.e. Punjabi. Satyarthi obeyed him like a true disciple.
Folklores – the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth – certainly are a repository of knowledge that has an answer for the one who is astounded by life and its candour.
No doubt Devendra Satyarthi lived like a gipsy, he had to astound the norms so as to grasp our folklore heritage in a single lifetime.
‘मेरी प्रेयसी हीर नहीं है
न ही मैं रांझा
मैं पथिक पैर में चक्कर
मेरी प्रेयसी पथ की अभ्यस्त
चल पड़ती है उधर
जिधर मैं हो लेता हूं
न हंसकर, रोकर
नयनों में प्रिय नयन पिरोकर.’
(Translation – Neither is my beloved Heer*/ Nor am I Ranjha*/ I am a traveller/ And my beloved is habitual of the travelling life/ She walks along with me/ Wherever I leave for/ without a smile or tear/ with just love in her eyes.)
Living a life of a roamer, on the mercy of the others, travelling on almost no budget, this became impossible for Devendra Satyarthi’s wife after they had their first child.
Taking the responsibility of running the house, his wife started sewing work; for a while he too stayed back, working as an editor of a Hindi newspaper, but not for long.
His free-spirited folklorist’s soul made him embark on his next journey to different cities and villages.
“I confess that it was the sewing machine which saved the family, I just scribbled on paper,” Satyarthi said so as an old man. His poems, novels, short stories, essays, folk song anthologies, his contemporaries and the readers speak differently though; he continues to be a wanderer sage for them.
Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, the famous Hindi novelist, historian, critic and scholar, wrote a poem praising Devandra Satyarthi in which he compared Satyarthi’s loner lifestyle with that of the sun and the moon in the sky, as he too walked alone, spreading brightness through his words.
Devindra Satyarthi fought for independence with songs of freedom, love, devotion, brotherhood and unity.
He gathered this harmonious spirit and shared it with the countrymen; leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru appreciated his work and so did the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.
“Many were foresighted in those times of the Raj and talked about the importance of recording the country’s cultural diversity, but few had the courage to step out of the cushioned life and do it. It required a lifetime, and Satyarthi dedicated his.”Nahar Singh, a folklore expert
Awarded with accolades like the Padma Shri, the fourth highest Indian civilian award, Devindra Satyarthi continued working in his late eighties and passed away at ninety four.
In his rigorous journey, it was his passion for folk songs and folk tales and the unflinching support of his wife that made him a jovial philosopher-poet.
A khadi kurta-pyjama, long white beard and hair, thick spectacles, a rough jhola-bag and a few notebooks clenched close to the chest, one might have called Devindra Satyarthi a strange, poor old man, unaware about his legacy and treasures.
[Footnote* – Heer Ranjha is a tragic romantic folk story from Punjab.]
Short Documentaries – Punjabi Academy Delhi; Sahitya Academy
Hindi article – A tribute to Devendra Satyarthi
English article – Footloose sage Satyarthi, the man who walked, talked, gathered, wrote our stories