Almost two-three generations in Odisha in the 80s and early 90s have grown up swaying to the tune of this beautiful Sambalpuri song. There was a time when no marriage or bisarjan ( idol immersion) processions were imaginable without Rangabati Rangabati. There have been reports of violence by the audience if some orchestra programs (popularly called Melody in Odisha) failed to sing Rangabati. Such was the popularity of this song!
I doubt if there is any other song in Odia or any other language that has such a sway over people for generations. Yes, there have been super hits but they rule for a while and then fade off. In contrast, this song ruled for almost one and half decade.
The story of this song is fascinating. The original mukhda apparently was taken from a local folk song. But the actual lyrics of the song was written by Mitrabhanu Gauntia, a local teacher. My sister had interviewed him on record a few years back and I will try to post the video if and when I can lay my hands on the tape. It was set to tune by Prabhudutta Pradhan and was sung by Jitendra Haripal and Krishna Patel. The major instrumentalist was Chaitanya Paik.
The song was first recorded and broadcast by All India Radio in the mid-70s. After its popularity, a record company from Kolkata (then Calcutta) saw the opportunity and Haripal, who is from the local Dom community and was never trained as a singer, went to Kolkata and recorded the song in 1976. But there was some disputes about the ownership and after some legal battles, the disc was released in 1978-79.
The rest is history.
Unlike most Odia songs released by the popular singers of those days like Akshaya Mohanty or Prafulla Kar, this record did not become an instant hit. Rather, it took almost two years to be known. And another interesting fact about this song is that apart from Sambalpur, the song became a hit in other tribal areas such as Koraput and Kalahand before the popularity spread to other parts of Odisha, through south Odisha to Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. This was an exception, as most Odia artistes that time were in Cuttack.
But even at the peak of its popularity, few knew the artiste’s name. I was in school at that time and we used to hear all sort of stories. The one that was most believed was that the male artiste was murdered by someone. Thankfully, all that was nonsense.
While the onslaught of Hindi film music did dilute its popularity a bit in the late 90s, it was still a must for a place where you were supposed to dance. College picnics were incomplete without the song.
But it was ironic that the artiste of the state’s most popular song ever was living in penury. A report by noted journalist P Sainath in The Hindu in 2001 about his conditions drew attention of the music lovers and finally the officialdom. In 2007, he was felicitated by Odisha chief minister Naveen Pattnaik.
In recent years, Rangabati has received the respect that is due to it. If the state government’s decision to choose this as the music to be played for Odisha’s Republic Day Tableau a couple of years back was the ultimate official recognition, the most respectful popular recognition came when the Odisha Cricket Association chose the song to be played during the third One Day International match played between India and Sri Lanka in December last year. It just shows there is no more popular song than Rangabati in Odisha–after 36 years of its first recording.
There are few songs that can be labelled as legends. In Odia, Rangabati stands No 1 on that list.
(Update on 17 Jan 2014: Odia director Nilamadhab Panda, famous for his films such as I am Kalam is using Rangabati in a dance sequence in his forthcoming film Kaun Hai Kitney Paani Mein)
(Update on 5 July 2015: A remix version of Rangabati is presented by musician Ram Sampath, singers Sona Mohapatra and Rituraj Mohanty, which also include the state song of Odisha, Bande Utkala Janani, in a mash-up)