A folk song for every occasion in colourful north India (IANS BOOKS)

June 15th, 2012 - 12:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Book: Unearthing Gender: Folk Songs of North India; Author: Smita Tiwari Jassal;

Publisher: Duke University Press (2012); Pages 328; Price: $26.61

“Gold melts at the goldsmith’s.
Sister burns away at her in-laws.
Iron smelts at the ironsmith’s.
Sister wastes away at her in-laws.

Brother, don’t speak of this grief to father.
In the assembly, he’ll be filled with remorse.
Brother, don’t speak of this to mother.
Beating her breast, she’ll die of grief.”

- Sings Urmila Maurya and friends from Chachakpur in Jaunpur

In cultures that do not openly discuss inner emotional states, songs are the shared tradition through which emotions are expressed, providing a medium for the expression of what might be taboo in everyday conversation.

For instance, in an emotionally charged fragment above about a visiting brother’s dismay at his sister’s unhappiness (mentioned above), women are prone to conceal details about ill-treatment in their marital homes, says scholar Smita Tiwari Jassal in her new book, “Unearthing Gender: Folk Songs of North India”.

Folk India has a ditty for every occasion - whether it is a wedding, harvest, invocation of a deity, festival, child birth, war, victory, grief and death. The songs, handed down generations - and altered over the years to suit the demands of time -, are usually sung by the women of the villages.

Some of the songs are sung by men too.

In the rural and urban areas of northern India, the family of the bride - or the wife givers - during weddings sing playfully abusive songs to offend the groom for taking away the daughter.

Such songs are called the “Gari” songs.

The dominant and recurring themes of the folk songs are humour and subversion - especially those sung at the spring festival of Holi.

Easily recognised through their rhythms and melodies, the genres of women’s songs are different in styles of performance from men. Folk songs, some of which are linked to traditional performing arts in northern India, are much more than mood and events.

They are identifications of rural life. Just as urban Indians often relate to Bollywood characters, heroes and songs as markers in life, rural Indians have long articulated the human condition by aligning “with the messages and mood of the folk songs as points of reference”.

The book explores the way in which songs - as people’s oral traditions - throw light on the gender structure in the north Indian society through which “overarching caste and gender ideologies are transmitted and reproduced”.

The songs make it possible to understand the “organisation of maleness and femaleness in relation to a particular society because all relationships between men and women are not merely determined by biological determinants but by social and cultural processes”, the writer says.

The songs comment on caste, kinship, families, patriarchy and all other forms of agency that go into the anthropological mosaic of north Indian communities.

A song sung by street musicians at the “Buxar Fair” - an old village carnival in Buxar - opens door to the concerns of Dalit and subaltern India. Recorded by the writer in 2000, the songs reads in translation:

“Why did you get me married? Dumped me here in Buxar.
Handed me like a cow, to be tied up, why did you, O Father?

First, a groom so aged. Then, a home impoverished.
Third, a magician you found for me, why did you, O Father?”

The concerns of Dalit women in India have remained obscure not only because of the distance of the upper castes from the Dalit struggle but also because of the communities’ inaccessibility to mainstream education and lifestyles as well. Their songs hint at the life of the Dalit women and their difficult worlds.

Lucid, engaging and anecdotal, the book - kind of an academic treatise - brings unknown folk singing traditions to light.

It is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 is concerned with songs of the millstone - the long ballads that women sing while grinding grain and spices. Chapter 2 goes to the fields exploring songs of harvest while third chapter documents wedding rites.

A separate chapter investigates the songs around chaste Sita - one of northern India’s favourite heroine - while the last two chapters are about masculine songs and the impact of technology on folk songs.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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