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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Top 7 Padma Shri awardees recognized for their contributions at the grassroots level

There was a time when the common citizens of Bharat felt disconnected from the Padma awards ecosystem. The Padma Shri awards were often given to elite achievers from fields like literature, art, music, cinema, etc. We don’t mean to demean the achievements of these personalities but the point one is trying to make is that these elite recipients of Padma Shri were rich, influential, famous, and often hob knobbed with the politically powerful of their time.

That is, the governments often gave Padma Shri awards to the sycophantic lot who acted as their unofficial spokespersons in the civil society. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, that’s essentially how the Padma Awards ecosystem worked during the time of the Congress. That’s precisely how the Congress has created a devoted army of Lutyens’ elite who remain fiercely loyal to date, and use the media, academia, and cultural institutions of Bharat to spit venom against the BJP government at the center.

However, the BJP radically changed this ecosystem ever since it first came to power in 2014. All of a sudden, Padma Shri was being given to folks no one had ever heard about. Grassroots social workers, artists, musicians, and innovators from far-flung corners of the country started becoming the proud recipients of Padma Shri. For once, these awards truly reflected the democratic fabric of Bharat as deserving citizens without money and clout, without any avenues for self-promotion and marketing started getting the limelight they so well deserved for their relentless and tireless work at the grassroots level.

As Bharat is all geared for general elections, let’s take a look at the achievements of some of the most inspiring Padma Shri awardees since 2014.

  • Tulsi Gowda (Environmentalist)

The 72-year-old environmentalist Tulsi Gowda was awarded the Padma Shri in 2021. Gowda, hailing from Honnali village in Karnataka, has planted more than 30,000 saplings. She received the award barefoot, pictures and videos of which went viral online.

Belonging to the Halakki Tribe in Karnataka, Tulsi Gowda is also known as the “Encyclopedia of Forest” due to her vast knowledge of diverse species of herbs and plants.

Born to a poor family, Gowda had an incredibly difficult childhood. She lost her father when she was barely 2-year-old. Thus, Tulsi Gowda started working with her mother in the local nursery. Due to difficult financial circumstances, she never attended school and was married when she was barely in her teens.

Tulsi Gowda’s story is of immense inspiration, grit, and dedication. Determined to do her bit for ecological conservation, she joined the forest department as a temporary volunteer, where her dedication to the cause of nature was recognized. Gowda was also offered a permanent job at the department; she worked there for 15 years before retiring at the age of 70.

Tulsi Gowda is an expert in seed collection, and extraction of seeds from mother trees to regenerate and regrow entire plant species. During her time at the Karnataka Forest Department, she is estimated to have planted and cared for nearly 100,000 trees in Karnataka on her own.

Tulsi Gowda is a living example of how the lack of formal education is not necessarily an impediment to making a difference in society and contributing to a cause. As a nursery worker, Tulsi Gowda gained hands-on learning and expertise in matters of the forest. Thus, she is also lovingly referred to as the tree Goddess’ by her tribe.

  • Moa Subong (folk fusion artist)

Moa Subong, a folk fusion artist from the northeast of Bharat received the Padma Shri in 2023.

He leads the popular Naga band “Abiogenesis” along with his wife Arenala. Subong invented the bamboo wind musical instrument called “Bamhum” and also created a new genre of music called “Howey”.

Mao Subong’s band plays traditional Naga music along with snippets of modern rock music. His innovations in the field of folk music, as he created a new and easy way of playing the folk music instrument Bamhum made him bag the prestigious award.

Moa Subong is active on social media and his band also has a YouTube channel dedicated to it. Mainland Bharatiyas know pretty little about the indigenous culture and traditions of northeast Bharat. Recognizing a folk musician from the northeast for his innovation is indeed a step in the right direction.

  • Gopinath Swain (105-year-old Krishna Leela Performer from Odissa)

105-year-old Gopinath Swain has become the oldest recipient of the Padma Shri Awards in 2024.

Swain is a traditional performer of the folk form “Krishna Leela” which is a dramatic rendition of Krishna Bhagwan through singing accompanied by local music. Born in 1918, Gopinath Swain started performing Krishna Leela when he was barely 10 years of age under the guidance of his father’s brother. Slowly, as he gained expertise in the folk form, Swain set up a traditional dance school, Akhada in his village.

The Akhada became a dissemination spot for the unique folk-art form as he imparted song and dance training to many youngsters. Despite his advanced years, Gopinath Swain still participates in the activities of the Akhada, practicing traditional instrumental music and mentoring his students.

Krishna Leela is a rare folk-art form that’s on the verge of extinction. Thus, by recognizing Gopinath Swain’s efforts in preserving and disseminating the intangible knowledge base of Krishna Leela, the government has also paved the way for further recognition of this endangered art form. Hopefully, with the recognition of Swain’s efforts, the younger generation will be motivated to take up Krishna Leela.

  • Basanti Bisht (folk singer from Uttarakhand)

Basanati Devi Bisht, a folk singer from Uttarakhand received the Padma Shri in 2017.

She is credited as the first woman singer of the famous folk-form Jagar of the hill state. Jagar folk is a kind of devotional singing style traditionally practiced by men, but Basanti Devi set a new trend by becoming the first woman practitioner of Jagar.

Born in 1953 in the Luwani village of Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, Basanti Bisht grew up listening to jagar songs. She started singing these songs with her mother at various traditional fairs and festivals of Uttarakhand. She studied till class 5th but had to later discontinue her education because the senior school was far away from her home and village, and the village school had no class beyond 5th standard.

Thus, Basanti Devi Bisht had to leave her studies midway. She also got married at an early age. However, her professional career as a Jagar singer began only in her 40s when she moved to Jalandhar with her husband and started to learn music once again at the Pracheen Kala Kendra. In the beginning, she felt awkward in front of younger students; little did she know that this would be the beginning of a legendary career.

Slowly, Basanti Devi began to sing in public appearances like film songs, bhajans, festivals, etc. When her husband retired from his job and the family settled in Dehradun, Basanti Bisht joined All India Radio (AIR) station in Najibabad . Thus, she slowly became an “A” grade artist of Akashwani.

Eventually, Basanti Bisht realized that the musical gift she had inherited from her mother and other village elders during childhood was the folk form Jagar of Uttarakhand. She realized that ancient folk-art forms like Jagar singing were on the verge of extinction and thus she took it upon herself to revive the tradition.

Basanti Bisht’s story is of immense inspiration which shows us that a traditional way of life is not necessarily an impediment for women to fulfill their dreams. When one’s determination is strong and the inspiration right, then everything falls into place.

  • Bhuri Bai (Artist from Madhya Pradesh)

Belonging to the tribal community of Madhya Pradesh, Bhuri Bai in 2021 for her exemplary contributions to the field of art and culture.

Born in the Pitol village of Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh, Bhuri Bai was fond of painting and sketching since childhood. She started depicting the lives of tribal people through her canvas and gradually, her art started to get noticed.

Bhur Bai’s paintings garnered widespread publicity not just in Bharat but also abroad; her paintings were also displayed in a workshop in the US where her works received an overwhelmingly positive response. Bhuri Bai also conducts poetry workshops on the Pithora art form in different towns and cities of Bharat.

Bhuri Bai’s childhood was full of hardships. Coming from an extremely poor family, she spent a large part of her life in abysmally impoverished circumstances. She worked as a laborer in Bhopal, but eventually, her painting talent was noticed and the culture department of Bhopal commissioned her some painting work. Thus, she started working as an artist at the Bharat Bhavan of Bhopal.

Bhuri Bai’s life is that of extraordinary grit and determination, and by acknowledging the contributions of a folk artist at the grassroots level, the Modi government has indeed reinstated the faith of common Bharatiyas in the Padma Shri ecosystem.

  • Prem Singh (Social Worker)

71-year-old Prem Singh received the Padma Shri in 2022 for his selfless social service for the cause of leprosy patients of Bharat.

Prem Singh has devoted his whole life to ensuring the treatment and rehabilitation of Leprosy patients. He never sought any grant or incentive from the government for this initiative. Rather, Prem Singh spent Rs 25 lakhs from his Gratuity Provident Fund for the welfare of Leprosy patients.

He is so devoted to the welfare of leprosy patients that Prem Singh reportedly sold his wife’s ornaments too to get funds for the cause. The story behind his devotion to social work is rather unique and emotionally compelling. When Prem Singh’s grandfather was on death bed, he took a pledge from his grandson that he would spend his whole life caring for the sick and the downtrodden. Thus, Prem Singh kept his grandfather’s word and devoted his life to the cause of leprosy patients.

Prem Singh retired from a government job. He reportedly worked as an audit officer at the Indian Audit and Accounts Department. When he was working, he would spend time off from work caring for leprosy patients and providing for them. His family including his two sons gave him full support in this cause.

There is immense social stigma attached to leprosy. Most leprosy patients are discarded by their families, and thus they have nowhere to go. Many end up taking up begging to survive.

Thus, Prem Singh is indeed doing a commendable job by devoting his life to a cause very few care about.

  • Somanna (bonded labor turned tribal activist)

Somanna, a bonded laborer turned tribal activist from Mysuru in Karnataka has been awarded the Padma Shri in 2024.

Belonging to the Jenu Kuruba community, which is considered the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, Somanna, 66, worked as a bonded laborer during his childhood. Having gone through a difficult childhood, Somanna dedicated his life to the upliftment of his tribe. He reportedly played a significant role in acquiring title deeds to ensure legal recognition and protection of more than 500 tribal communities residing in forest areas.

When he received the award, Somanna repeatedly said that hunger was the biggest challenge faced by the poor and that he never expected to get this award and was overwhelmed that the government had recognized his work.

Somanna has been working for the rights of tribal communities and their welfare, and for the conservation of the environment and forests since 1978.

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Rati Agnihotri
Rati Agnihotri
Rati Agnihotri is an independent journalist and writer currently based in Dehradun (Uttarakhand). Rati has extensive experience in broadcast journalism having worked as a Correspondent for Xinhua Media for 8 years. She was based at their New Delhi bureau. She has also worked across radio and digital media and was a Fellow with Radio Deutsche Welle in Bonn. She is now based in Dehradun and pursuing independent work regularly contributing news analysis videos to a nationalist news portal (India Speaks Daily) with a considerable youtube presence. Rati regularly contributes articles and opinion pieces to various esteemed newspapers, journals, and magazines. Her articles have been recently published in "The Sunday Guardian", "Organizer", "Opindia", and "Garhwal Post". She has completed a MA (International Journalism) from the University of Leeds, U.K., and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Miranda House, Delhi University.


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