New Delhi: Wearing black-rimmed spectacles and a t-shirt, without a hint of make-up on her face, Bhojpuri singer and YouTube sensation Neha Singh Rathore looked straight at the camera and spoke matter-of-factly in Hindi. The video, uploaded Tuesday, was hard-hitting, but this time it did not feature rhymes, a catchy beat, or her usual folksy sari-clad persona.
With Uttar Pradesh going to polls from 10 February, Rathore, who is currently based in Varanasi, had a direct message for viewers: “Election time is crucial. This is when sarkaron ki poonch dabi hoti hai (governments are on the backfoot) and people have the most power. This is when you can complain to the government and try to bring about an improvement…”
Within a few hours, the video garnered more than 171K views, even though it had none of the elements of the Bhojpuri rap songs that shot Rathore to national fame with their scathing yet entertaining critiques of the UP government.
Since their release last month, ‘UP Mein Ka Ba (What’s There in UP?)’, parts 1 and 2, have garnered 5.3 million and 2.6 million views, respectively. Part 3 is due soon too, Rathore has said, but clearly, the 24-year-old’s voice and message now resonate with people even when music and theatrical performance are absent.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rathore said she was a concerned citizen before she became a folk artist, and it is this that led her to start her YouTube channel in the first place. “Maine kabhi socha hi nahin ki main kya hun lekin main khud ko jankavi maanti hun (I’ve never thought much about how to label myself, but I think of myself as a people’s poet),” Rathore chuckled.
Today, she barely has time to breathe between media interviews and engaging with a social media following that also includes top journalists and other public figures. Opposition leaders in UP are also courting her and gleefully using her songs to take a dig at the BJP government in UP. “I got a call from the offices of Priyanka Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav,” she said.
It’s been quite a leap for the “not-so-confident” BSc graduate who said she truly found her voice due to her anger at the plight of migrants during the 2020 lockdown.
‘I am a one-woman army’
Neha Singh Rathore, the youngest of three siblings, was brought up in a typical middle-class family in Bihar. Her father is an employee in a private company and her mother is a housewife. Until a couple of years ago, Rathore followed a well-beaten path to conventional success, earning a BSc degree from Kanpur University in 2018.
“I was never a shy person but I was not that confident either. So, I will not say that I wanted to become a folk singer since childhood,” she said in a telephone interview with ThePrint.
According to her, she first felt compelled to speak up when she saw visuals of migrant workers trudging home from cities in the wake of the March 2020 lockdown. She recalled that she was then living in her parental village in Bihar’s Kaimur district, and this was when she first turned to social media as a platform.
“When I saw pictures of the labourers walking home, hungry and without even slippers on their feet, I started crying,” Rathore said.
In May 2020, she launched her YouTube channel and decided to use the medium of folk singing to raise awareness about social issues.
Her father had grave reservations because of the “vulgarity” that Bhojpuri music is associated with, but Rathore was convinced she could change this image and set to work.
“I am a one-woman army. From writing the songs to recording to shooting, I learned everything on my own,” she explained.
Part of this effort was to develop a persona that would resonate with the masses. Rathore, who in her day-to-day life usually wears spectacles and salwar-suits, styled herself in music videos after the women who till the fields and work in factories, with a bindi and head covered with a sari pallu. The combination of this unthreatening visage and excoriating lyrics challenging the highest echelons of power soon had people paying attention.
Early success — and controversy
Neha Singh Rathore’s YouTube channel first caused a stir during the Bihar assembly polls in October-November 2020, when her song ‘Bihar Mein Ka Ba?’ gained instant traction. The song riffed off of Manoj Bajpayee’s ‘Bambai Mein Ka Ba’ to highlight the plight of Bihar’s working class and was widely shared on social media.
“Even Manoj Bajpayee appreciated my song, and many Bihari stars reached out to me,” Rathore told ThePrint.
However, around this time, Rathore also got her first taste of controversy. In November 2020, after she uploaded a song on Allahabad University student politics, several students demanded an apology because she characterised campus politics as lawless and described some students as “bombers”.
While Rathore has earned praise for taking on complex themes such as poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism, her detractors, in social media comment sections, have accused her of being “publicity-hungry” or driven by political ambitions.
Rathore denies this and says she is driven not by power but by speaking truth to power. This, she said, has sometimes caused hardships.
“I am sometimes called to perform at various places but, at the last moment, the programme will get cancelled. There is a price you pay for being vocal. Khud ka Facebook page chalate chalate hi beet jayega to bhi chalega (I don’t mind just sharing things on my own Facebook page),” she said.
Trolls, Rathore added, don’t bother her much. “I have learned to deal with all this. I don’t even open my messenger,” she said. Her mission now, other than highlighting social and political issues, is to uplift Bhojpuri music.
“There is so much vulgarity that is spread around in the name of Bhojpuri music. Kisi ko kuch toh karna tha (someone had to do something),” she said. According to Rathore, she is spearheading a “Bhojpuri bachao andolan (Save Bhojpuri revolution)” and often hosts live sessions to educate people about folk music and authentic Bhojpuri songs.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)