Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India

Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India

by Smita Tewari Jassal


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ISBN-13: 9780822351306
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/28/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Smita Tewari Jassal is Associate Professor Anthropology, Graduate School of Social Sciences at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. She is the author of Daughters of the Earth: Women and Land in Uttar Pradesh and is coauthor of The Partition Motif In Contemporary Conflicts: Germany, India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine.

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Unearthing Gender

Folksongs of North India
By Smita Tewari Jassal


Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5130-6

Chapter One

The Daily Grind

People woke up to the sound of the jata as just before sunrise, one home after another seemed to come alive with the hum of this most basic of women's activities, the refrains of the jatsar along with the trundle of the stones against each other, being taken up as if in relay from one household to the next. FIELDNOTES, HARICHARAN MAURYA, CHACHAK VILLAGE, 2002

Haricharan Maurya's glowing account of the atmosphere in his village in eastern Uttar Pradesh when women were grinding grain and spices on millstones—a practice discontinued twenty or thirty years ago—captures the essence of women's productive labor in villages across rural north India and its ability to cut cross caste divides. Perhaps because the work of processing the food crucial for daily existence is so time-consuming and demanding, the most diverse of women's oral ballads have evolved to accompany these tasks. Maurya remembers waking up to jatsar songs every morning and to his ears "the rumble of the grinding stone combined with the words of the song, remains the sweetest and most comforting of sounds." During my fieldwork, Maurya could barely contain his enthusiasm as the women began a song, often joining in the chorus. While Maurya's pride in his wife's repertoire was not always shared by others, given that men's musical worlds are distinct from those of women, his observations are relevant to the questions this chapter raises, particularly those regarding women's consciousness in the genre of grinding songs.

This chapter, then, is concerned with the construction and reproduction of gender identity in the work songs known as jatsar, which traditionally accompanied women's daily grinding of grain and spices. The songs also serve a pedagogical purpose, transmitting societal values from older to younger women, serving to warn and prepare women for the hardships of married life, and spelling out the limits of transgression, the nature of punishments, and the rewards for compliance. By delineating family relationships that might be threatening and antagonistic, and by outlining codes of honor and conduct, the songs indicate the extent to which women internalize society's values and strictures. The chapter examines songs with diverse narratives and investigates their underlying messages for the women who sing them. A related question is the extent to which lessons learned through the jatsar inform female subordination, or the lack thereof, in the sphere of agricultural production, particularly in women's relations with their employers in the field.

As this genre represents only one of the region's many varieties of work songs, it overs only a partial picture of what women sing about when working. Sung within the confines of the household in the inner courtyards of homes, these songs are part of a much wider range of songs associated with women's work, both in homes and fields. Unlike the performance of male ballads, women's work songs match their rhythm to the rhythm of repetitive tasks. While the jatsar or ballads of the millstone are not caste-specific but are sung by women of all castes, they are most often heard in upper or middle-caste homes. This shared aspect of the songs tends in some instances to blur caste distinctions and hierarchy.

Grinding grains and spices requires considerable effort, and women sit on the courtyard floor with the jata (grinding stone) held between their legs. The physical act of grinding also resonates with the grind of daily life for village women. One may surmise that in cases where women sing the same kinds of song day after day, they indeed absorb the lessons imparted in the course of this activity. In short, the apparently benign and empowering practice of women singing the songs of the millstone enables wider social and gender-specific lessons, about both power and powerlessness, to be most effectively learned.

In south India, for instance, in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Sufi mystics used grindstone songs to disseminate ideas about Sufism. At least in Bijapur, a number of short poems in Dakani employed indigenous themes and imagery for the propagation of mystical doctrines. Preserved in the oral traditions of Dakani speaking villagers of the Deccan plateau, this folk poetry appears to have been sung by village women engaged in various household chores, especially while grinding grains and spices at the chakki (stone grinding mill) and while spinning thread at the charkha (the spinning wheel). For women the genre's appeal lay not only in the fact that it accompanied their household tasks but also "because it was permeated with imagery especially meaningful to them" (Eaton 2002, 192). Thus, "what the Sufis did was to adapt the simplest elements of Sufi doctrine to the already existing vehicles of folk poetry and to substitute vernacular Dakkani for vernacular Marathi or Kan36 nada" (192). The works of the mystic Burhan al-Din Janam are associated with the chakki-nama, a major development in the cultural history of the Deccan. These songs recognized that the power that turns the wheel is witness to the light and thereby to the essence of God (Eaton 2002, 194). The songs appear to have ontologically linked God, the Prophet, and the pir (mystic) with the woman at the grindstone.

Phule and other lower caste radicals also attempted to project a new identity for Maharashtra's lower castes by drawing on symbols from warrior and agricultural traditions and giving them powerful new meanings, revealing their sophisticated understanding of processes of identity formation (O'Hanlon 1985, 8). The dissemination of new ideologies and worldviews through women's work songs appears to have been an effective way of reaching people.

These ballads of the millstone as a way of "speaking bitterness" that is gender-specific are by no means unique to India, and a similar process is found in Africa, where women's working songs serve as a way of expressing grievances. The absence of colonial government documentation about the impact of the Malawi famine of 1949 on rural communities, for example, led Megan Vaughan (1987) to utilize women's pounding songs—sung by rural women pounding maize in the central courtyard area, where the songs' content would have had the maximum social impact—as a rich source of gender-specific oral testimony concerning events that occurred forty years before. Unlike these songs, however, whose principal function appears to have been forcing appropriate kin and caste norms on young women, those in Malawi were designed to upbraid male kin for not adhering to kinship obligations, for example, providing food for the women of the household in times of scarcity.


A striking aspect of the jatsar is their duration; they can be very long, lasting the time it takes a woman to grind the 5 kilos of grain or flour necessary to prepare a meal for an extended family. Another is their distinctive rhythm, which not only accompanies but also mimics the trundling of the two millstones (one on top of the other) that completes a full circle. Yet another is their social context; because the singing makes the task of grinding easier, usually two women—one old, one young—sing the jatsr together. This arrangement facilitates the process of ideological transmission, in that the social values (anxieties, concerns, negative/ positive behaviors) familiar to the older woman are conveyed to the younger. In such circumstances, it is the voice not just of experience but also of female authority (i.e., one's mother-in-law) that instructs the subordinate female (i.e., the daughter-in-law).

The punishments accorded for transgression and resistance is an important theme of these songs, the narratives of which fall into three broad categories. First are songs that describe women's daily lives in their conjugal homes, along with the bleakness of their situation. Second are songs about conflict within families and close kin and how this conflict is (or is not) to be resolved. Family relationships in these narratives are characterized as potentially, in many cases actually, antagonistic, reflecting the turbulence experienced by inmarrying daughters-in-law. Third are songs that narrate, in some detail, the consequences for women who transgress a variety of behavioral norms, such as breaking caste boundaries, violating codes of honor, and so on.


How the women who remember and sing these ballads relate to them became an important question for me, one unearthed through the wide-ranging conversations I had with the singers during recording sessions. Here I follow Narayan's insights from an article published in 1995 about Dundes's suggestion back in 1966 that while a focus on context is important to ascertaining the meaning of folksongs, in order to reflect on how the genres are indigenously conceived the researcher must also actively elicit the meaning of the folklore from the folk themselves (Narayan 1993, 178). The diverences between versions of the same song may serve to highlight minor distinctions between the song repertoires of the upper and lower castes.

Meena Devi, a young Brahmin woman from village Misraulia, Chhapra district, in Bihar, who has memorized hundreds of songs, says that senior female members of her family sang jatsars every day, so she was raised on a rich diet of songs in her natal home. In her marital home the tradition of morning singing to the accompaniment of the jata has continued and enriched her repertoire. Due to her vast and varied repertoire, Meena Devi could often sing for hours at a stretch without pause. Once when a group of Dalit singers in the same village sang a lewd version of a song to embarrass the upper caste males, an incident I describe in the fieldwork section of the introduction to this volume, Meena Devi was quick to distance herself from the Dalit version, emphasizing that her songs were "not like that," that is, as outspoken, challenging, or subversive as those sung by the lower castes.

Shanti Tewari, another Brahmin woman of village Atara in Jaunpur, says that whenever there is a wedding in the family the food preparations stretch out over several months, and the grain and spices required for the feasts must be prepared in advance. Shanti says, "Only intense concentrated activity and collaboration between several close and distant kin in the village makes it possible to get these tasks completed in time. Kinswomen must lend a hand." When kinswomen come together in these task teams, assisted by the village women of other castes, they also get to hear and learn new songs.

In Atara village, a Rajput (Thakur) woman confided to me that she regretted forgetting whole stanzas of many of the jata songs she had once known as she now no longer engages in grinding activity. However, by mimicking the semi-circular motion of the hands across the grinding stone (jata), the woman was able to remember the words of some of these songs from her youth. Often during recording sessions, when groups of women sang jatsars as a team, the genre's ponderous narrative style generated plenty of discussion among the singers about their own lives and struggles. During one of these recording sessions in Sadiapur, Sitara Devi remarked: "You're hearing us laugh so much and we're having so much fun now, but Didi, these songs are the saddest songs ever! You know, sometimes we have tears streaming down our eyes, as we sing. Tears will be streaming down your face too, when you really think about the tragedy in the song." Regarding the air of tragedy in these narratives and the desperation that leads the protagonists of the songs to commit suicide, Malti Devi explained, "In the songs, women always protect their honor, that's because they are great satis [formidably chaste women]."

For my recordings of this and other genres, I relied on Munraji of village Barsara, a woman in possession of a rich and varied repertoire. A Mallah by caste, Munraji is marginalized by virtue of belonging to one of the so-called backward castes in the region, situated on the lowest rungs of agrarian and caste hierarchies. Munraji became blind as a result of an attack of chickenpox when she was barely seven years old. As she explains it, it was the year of the great flood when mata (the chickenpox deity) took away her eyes ("jis sal bara bura aya raha"). Perhaps to compensate for her lack of this critical faculty, Munraji developed a sharp memory and a keen sense of touch that enables her to live independently. She was married very young and, despite the handicap, has raised four children, all of them now adults. Two of her sons are married and live in separate household units in the village.

Munraji clearly appreciates her neighbors' helpful gestures, though I have always marveled at her remarkable self-sufficiency, cultivating greens and arhar pulse in the land adjoining her backyard. She also has a couple of goats that she grazes in the tall grasses along the river at the edge of village Barsara. She cooks simple meals efficiently, and often I have seen her borrow one of her neighbors' fires, once they have lighted their hearths for the evening meal. It could be said that she is the memory-keeper of this village. Munraji is much respected, both because of her age but also because of her self-sufficiency, her fair and clear thinking, and her integrative approach in dealing with village and caste matters. As she remembers hundreds of songs from a range of genres, she is the natural lead singer at collective gatherings.

Subhavati of the Kahar (water-carriers) caste, also of Barsara village and Munraji's friend, is in her forties and, unlike other women in her community, has only one teenage daughter. She and her husband are both vegetable vendors. Her skills lead to her recent unanimous nomination by the village women as leader of the newly formed group-lending society. Subhavati starts her day by going to the wholesale market where she purchases the basket of vegetables she will sell that day. She then sits at a busy intersection at the edge of Khutahan town, close to Jaunpur. She usually manages by the end of the day to sell everything, but if some vegetables remain unsold, she walks through the village calling out her wares. Subhavati is a successful vendor and although her husband sells his vegetables by bicycle over a wider distance, Subhavati manages to make more profits. She explains her strategy as follows: "I have a number of permanent clients who only buy vegetables from me because I am willing to give loans and often advance them goods even if they may not have the amount to make the purchases. My clients know that they can always pay me later if they are short of cash. I also try to add (cungi) a small token free gift for an accompanying child, such as a tomato or radish. It makes mothers and children happy and then they always come back to me. I am good at calculation and remember to make a mental note of all the loans."

Owing to her highly practical and enthusiastic approach, Subhavati is recognized as a keen businesswoman. Her hard work is admired, and she is a role model for many, partly because of her ability to hold her own in the male world. She is keen to give her daughter a good education. Yet, despite her obvious pragmatism and solid common sense, our exchange revealed another side to her personality:

"I intend to expand my business once I am free of the demons that visit me," said Subhavati.

"What demons?" I asked.

"You know, the ones that possess you and will not leave. My entire body is getting very weak because of this. I think my bones are turning watery. That's why I go every Thursday to Ghaus Pir to exorcise them."

Ghaus Pir, located in Khutahan near Jaunpur, is the revered shrine of a medieval Sufi saint and is visited by both Hindus and Muslims. Munraji and Subhavati of Barsara often sing together and are familiar with each

other's repertoires, encouraging, prompting, and completing each other's songs. Bhagirathi Devi and Urmila Maurya of Chachakpur village form another such pair, whose repertoires and tonal qualities complement each other, making the recording of songs a scintillating experience. In their explanations of the songs' lyrics, women often compare these narratives with their own lives, remarking, for instance, "see my husband left me when I was so young," or "I too had such a problem when I was married."


Excerpted from Unearthing Gender by Smita Tewari Jassal Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Note on Transliteration and Pronunciation....................xvii
Introduction THE UNSUNG SING....................1
Chapter One THE DAILY GRIND....................33
Chapter Two SINGING BARGAINS....................71
Chapter Three BIYAH/BIRAHA Emotions in a Rite of Passage....................115
Chapter Four SITA'S TRIALS....................155
Chapter Five WHEN MARRIAGE IS WAR....................189
Chapter Six TAKING LIBERTIES....................219
Conclusion COMMUNITY HARMONIES....................251

What People are Saying About This

In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan - Ann Grodzins Gold

"Smita Tewari Jassal has accomplished meticulous and groundbreaking original scholarship based on many years of fieldwork. The most admirable feature of this book is its ritually contextualized presentation of rural women's songs (full texts and translations) with their nuanced poetics—all framed by the author's acute insights into the complexities of gender and power in the world from which these songs emerge."

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity - Chandra Talpade Mohanty

"Smita Tewari Jassal's incisive ethnographic analysis of folksongs maps a complex, multivocal genealogy of agrarian structures, patriarchal practices, and the nuanced gendered worlds of peasant women in north India. This rich exploration of emotions embodied in women's collective singing practices offers an unusual, often delightfully irreverent window into caste, gender, and the workings of power in the agrarian political economies of north India. An engaging and beautifully written book—a 'must read' for scholars and teachers interested in questions of subaltern consciousness and women’s agency."

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