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Posted by Malvika Vazalwar

I got introduced to the art of whistling when I was a child. Back then, it was a cool skill I had picked up from my dad. To me, whistling was a spontaneous expression of joy and anybody found indulging in it was a ‘happy-go-lucky person’. I was content with that.

Today, having performed at the Kala Ghoda Cultural Festival in Mumbai, on radio for ‘World Music Day’ and at few colleges and open mics, I still come across people who are unaware about this unique talent. There are also others who confess their love for whistling but they had to give up on their passion and surrender to phrases like—”Girls don’t whistle” or “Good girls don’t whistle.”

“I used to whistle, and could whistle real loud but I was scolded for behaving badly and so I stopped.

These confessions, although few, are not alien to me and they have even led me to take a quick poll on my social media. “Have you ever heard people say that Girls don’t whistle?” While the results were 50-50, even that 50 percent of ‘Yes’ showed us how orthodox mindsets can overpower the appreciation for creativity.

There are also others who confess their love for whistling but they had to give up on their passion and surrender to phrases like—“Girls don’t whistle” or “Good girls don’t whistle”.

Some nine years back, I heard this remark from an educated relative who either did not enjoy the melody, or could not single-handedly decide if my joyous outburst for the same was normal. They perhaps needed my conformity to a tradition—a tried and tested safety nod of many united minds as collective permission to approve this spontaneous act. My joy wasn’t permission enough. I remember my disbelief when I heard, “Girls Don’t Whistle“, hinting that whistling was not a graceful thing to do. I had never considered this possibility before.

While stopping what I enjoyed never occurred to me, I think I might have thoroughly enjoyed cheekily quipping a piece of general knowledge—”Do you know the ‘whistled language’ from the ‘whistling village’ Kongthong, in Meghalaya, is a customary communication created by our women for their new borns!” A tradition for a tradition, not as an “allowance”, but as the only way I could perhaps combat a dependent mindset at the time.

Yes, a whistled identity unique to each person is used by the residents! As reported by The Better India, every mother in this village composes a lullaby for her new born. This whistled tune is then used as a unique identity/name their entire life! When the person dies, the tune dies with them and is never used or repeated for anybody else. Whistling is a unique art-form which needs practice like any talent or skill does. It is fuelled by breath regulation and backed by breath control (breath work is proven healthy if one ever needs a scientific validation when one can’t question loosely thrown around societal do’s & don’ts independently). Yet, it’s not a surprise that women have faced moral policing even for their breath and how they’d like to use it beyond the respiratory function! Birth, bodies, breath, what’s even left!

Also read: Hindustani Classical Music Reflects The Same Old Sexism Of Film Songs Today

It’s unfortunate how we humans just need to hear the word tradition or custom to approve a practice and its continuation, without thinking twice of its origin, intent and repercussions, including the actually concerned individual’s emotional health. Sometimes we hit jackpot with customs that spring with equality, autonomy, justice or joy. So, I believe traditions and customs that do spring from joyful creative expressions such as the whistled language, must be recognized and supported, lest we would unknowingly make space for orthodoxies like ‘Good girls don’t whistle’, to creep upon us and stifle our breath.

Whistling is a unique art-form and needs practice like any talent or skill does. It is fueled by breath regulation and backed by breath control

I wonder that if this unique tradition of our own country was known to us, how many girls would continue expressing their joy through a spontaneous whistling melody. I wonder if my Instagram poll would reflect a 100% ‘No’ to my question, “Have you heard anybody say, Girls Don’t Whistle?” I wonder how many women would break into a cheerful whistle just because they were bursting with joy and they loved how they could create a melody without relying on an instrument and not have it associated with seeking attention, with bad behaviour, or even being a rebel. 

But unfortunately, I have an experience where I was taken aback by somebody’s confidence to use my gender to silence my joy. Could the recognition of the language of whistling change my experience with my relative and perhaps instead, have them inform me with a matched joy, “I’m sure you know about Meghalaya’s whistled language. Would you want to visit Kongthong? Let’s plan a family get-together! You could whistle as much your lungs let you!

The Sangeet Natak Academy has been appointed by the Ministry of Culture (MoC) to prepare nomination dossiers. This is the first step to nominate the ‘whistled language’ for UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage. Your signature will safeguard a unique identity and expression enjoyed by about 700 inhabitants of Meghalaya, and not stop there: here is the link. Please sign and share, if this resonates with you.

A whistled thank you!

Also read: The Feminist Journey Of Popular And Counter-Culture Music In India


Malavika is a whistling artist who has performed at the Kala Ghoda festival and on Radio, Malvika Vazalwar loves to create awareness on breath work and to conduct Meditation. Her words on ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘meditation’ have been published in The Elephant Journal and Thrive Global, among others. A lifelong learner, she is an alumnus of CELTA, Change.org and IIM’s Women Start-up programme. You can follow her on Instagram.

Featured Image Source: istock

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