Across histories, folk songs have allowed insights into the cultures and experiences of a society. These songs depict the script of individualised common experiences of certain communities and are usually predicated on the specific contexts of performances for their meaning-making. Bhojpuri folk songs are often seen as the context and text for women to articulate their expressions.
Folk songs reveal an emotional expanse and are part of oral traditions which largely survive on memory and repetition, adding to the layers of meaning with each performance. In the Bhojpuri-speaking region, women put on irreverent stances, bolster their performances with dance and music, and produce a collective site for solidarity through the expression of their marginalised status, encapsulating both the performers and the audience.
Bhojpuri folk songs thus give rise to a sisterhood wherein the body expands and becomes a collective–an acknowledgement of woes and desires, the mere expression of which holds within itself a strain of resistance. These songs are laced with inter-textual references, engendering a play of meaning and inferences.
In Bhojpuri folk songs, the household and its economy is revealed as a site of contestation where women have to negotiate power relations; they are observant, compromising, critical and derisive at turns, holding parleys with forces of caste patriarchies with the shrewd agency of one who is acutely aware of one’s milieu.
These are ritualistic performances which mark death, birth, marriage, migration, seasonal changes and depict the rural agrarian economy of the region through women.
The private informs the communal and public presence of a speaking woman in Bhojpuri folk songs. The cadences of these songs are tuned to the rhythm of daily chores like grinding of the grains and the striking of the pestle, revealing how inextricably women’s labour is linked to any form of cultural production.
This site of abundance enables women to be the curators of narratives concerning female desire. Kajari and Domkach are two such genres in Bhojpuri folk songs, serving as vehicles to express these sentiments. The songs are anonymous, allowing women to express a commonality of experience; yet, it isn’t uncommon for women to tweak parts of the songs with each fluid performance, addressing the current setting and members. Meanings have settled as sediments over time, yet have been prevented from being ossified into didactic protocols.
Take Kajari, songs which mark the onset of monsoon. They usher in changes in the sowing/reaping patterns as showers of rain provide a salve from the scorching heat and colour each imagination with fertile possibilities. The references in these Bhojpuri folk songs are gleaned from the everydays and often employ the trope of Radha-Krishna- lovers playing truant and disregarding caste/class hierarchies as they engage in coquetry.
Even though there are tropes which must not be reified as ‘culture’, this abandon serves as an important stepping stone towards curating a subversive space which trespasses the regularised rules of conduct in a mode of festive merry-making. These Bhojpuri folk songs are sometimes addressed to a nanadi (sister-in-law) or sakhi (female companion), enfolding women in an intimacy of shared desires as sisterhoods are forged. These are entrenched in lived experiences and daily negotiations which women have to conduct.
Kaise khele jaibu saawan mein kajaria
Badariya gheri aayi nanadi
(How will you go play kajari in the rainy season when clouds are closing in?)
Tu toh jaat baatu akeli, saath sanghi na saheli
Chela chek lai hai tohari dagariya, badariya gheri aayi nanadi
(You are venturing out alone, with no companion or friends; what if some rowdy boy comes and obstructs your path?)
The collective singing and articulation of everyday harassments in the Bhojpuri folk songs validates the debilitating effect of constant check, as the listeners are forced into acknowledgment. Yet, the nanad keeps asserting her desire to get drenched in the rain and play.
Kajari songs are littered with references of Duirangi (two-timing/of two shades) husbands and elaborate plans of revenge hatched by their wives. Of mother-in-laws who give Eik chammach bhar cavar, daal, atta (one spoonful of rice, pulses and wheat flour) and demand the entire household, including the cat and dogs, to be fed. Women have to mediate and contest their position on the lower rungs of resource allocation within households, as they juggle housework with extensive labouring in agricultural fields.
Domkach Bhojpuri folk songs are traditionally performed by the women from the family of the bridegroom after the barāt (wedding procession) has left the house and are replete with symbolism. Women are not allowed to participate in the barāt, giving rise to the need to stay up all night and guard the house while the men are away. This exclusively female space promises a release from surveillance or ventriloquism by men resulting in the rise of the latent.
Women cross-dress, sing songs which are often lewd and replete with sexual innuendoes. This ritualistic celebration allows for the borders of the socially sanctioned behaviour to blur; there is an excess and abundance which spills over, allowing for a momentarily lapse of regressive strictures, stealing peeps into a world which is violently hushed or declared unspeaking.
In these Bhojpuri folk songs, men and their worldly ways are ridiculed and critiqued. Men who are smitten by other women as they fail to fulfil their conjugal responsibilities are a recurring figure of ridicule. “Balama surate pe are are mori jan, so mori jan meherina manja rahi bartan”- a woman recounts how her husband lecherously stares at the female househelp washing utensils.
The narration ends with the husband earning his due and getting beaten up by the househelp’s husband. In another Bhojpuri folk song, a wife derides her husband, laments her youth being spent on an old man- “Mati hui gai mora jawaniya piya puraniya payo na, Bar paki gai danta tapak gai, akhiya se bahai paniya, Thare thare burhau kanpain manau dhare nimonia” (My youth has been wasted; I have been married to an old man. His hair has gone grey, his teeth have fallen, and he stands there shivering like he has pneumonia).
The outcomes which women fail to achieve in their lived experiences is imagined and articulated in these Bhojpuri folk songs. The figure of gaali (abuse, slang) becomes a carrier of anger, frustration and desire, all tinged with light-heartedness and humour.
In her book, Unearthing Gender- Folksongs of North India, Smita Tewari Jassal elaborates on how the social reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were embarrassed by the overt sexual references which made up the Bhojpuri folk songs in the gaali genre.
They deemed it unfit for ‘chaste’ Hindu women–the still point of outmoded morality in a rapidly changing world. Under the patronage of the upper caste elites, there was an attempt to sanitise these Bhojpuri folk songs and remodel their aesthetics. Yet, this systemic violation of codes of conduct is entrenched as deeply in the social fabric as the very strictures of morality.
Rural women have refused to be passive victims of regressive social structures and have responded to these oppressions, engendering their own vocabulary of resistance. The epistemic violence of the binary between oppressed vs. emancipated disregards the many ways in which women have calibrated their sense of self and their worlds in the most oppressive of situations–oral literature such as Bhojpuri folk songs testifies to women’s agency and willingness to define their own ideas of emancipation.
The undertow of teeming desires is acutely felt in the act of singing these songs and has acted as reminders to listen more acutely to the diverse voices of women.
Dipanjali Singh is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in English from University of Delhi. She can be found on Instagram.
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