Dr. Teejan Bai is a leading performing artist and a contemporary exponent of the traditional artistic form of Pandavani, a sung recitation based on the Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic. Although she has suffered doubly in Indian society from prejudice, both as a woman and as a member of a tribal society, with her rare artistic gift and powerful determination she has kept singing. Her success has given courage and encouragement to women and those suffering from repression.
The Mahabharata, is a story of a war fiercely fought in the northern Indian plain around 1000 BC between two groups of princes who were cousins. Different local versions of sung narratives based on this story evolved and spread, but Pandavani did not follow the classical form strictly, and won popularity among ordinary people through the use of the local language of Chhattisgarhi.
In ancient India, bards had the role of passing on local folklore and traditions from one generation to the next with their rich oral skills. Forming a pair with the popular favorite, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, is much grander in its volume and contents, and no other ancient or modern epic from East or West can compare with it. Even one episode takes several nights to recite, and to understand the philosophical background to the story is not easy.
These ancient epics are said to have originated in the time before Christ, and their contents are profound and esoteric. On the other hand, they were transformed into the much more easily understandable media of music and dance, and these were further developed with narrations in local languages and improvised dialogues. The narrated songs which are current today have not preserved all the features from 2000 years ago, but the simplified sung narrative and the expressiveness of mime can penetrate more deeply into people's hearts, across centuries and borders. Dr. Bai's performance, especially, conveys a truly sincere voice which does not necessarily follow Hindu religious precept or academic authority, but is the voice of a woman from a tribal society who lives in an isolated village in central India. No other person can reproduce the powerful depth of her voice and the enchanting short dialogues, distinctive of Pandavani, which she exchanges with her accompanists, as if ensuring communication with them.
Dr. Teejan Bai has received many honors including the Padma Shri conferred by the President of India, and the even more prestigious award given by the government, the Padma Bhushan, and honorary degrees from several local universities. She is often invited to give performances abroad. However, all these honors have not changed her way of living; she devotes herself to her beloved Pandavani, but continues to work at the local ironworks when she is free.
But her early life was far from ordinary. Her tribal society, which survives through its ancient lifestyle of hunting and gathering, is particularly hard for women. Dr. Bai was forced to marry at the age of 12, and her family and community all objected to her doing her favorite activity which was singing in front of others. She was eventually reduced to living alone in a shabby hut, and moreover experienced several divorces and the loss of her children. But her powerful determination to perform Pandavani and to lead her own life has made her an inspiration for women living in Indian society, and she has passed on her great courage to help them go on with their lives.
Her life has thus provided a contribution that goes beyond the world of musical art. Her influence has extended to cover social aspects and much else besides, and she is therefore a worthy recipient of the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Prize.