Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhojuram Gujar (Courtesy: Vishes Kothari)

In Conversation with Ann Gold and Bhojuram Gujar: Women Who Sing to the Gods in Rajasthan

in Interview
Published on: 30 December 2019

Vishes Kothari

Vishes Kothari has a keen interest in the oral and musical traditions of Rajasthan. He currently works as a financial consultant. Before this, he taught at Ashoka University. He completed his education from St. Stephen's College, Delhi, King's College and the University of Cambridge, UK. He is also author of a book titled 'Timeless Tales from Marwar', a collection of Rajasthani to English translations of Vijaydan Detha's stories.

In this interview the many themes and questions of orality, gender, caste, ecology, identity and history that the study of women’s music traditions throw up are explored.


Ann Grodzins Gold has spent many years living and researching in Ghatiyali, a town in Tonk district, Rajasthan. Her fieldwork and writings concern diverse topics— pilgrimage, women’s rituals and expressive traditions, environmental history, and most recently landscape and identity in a small market town. She is the recipient of two book prizes and many research awards. She has written and published extensively on the oral traditions of Rajasthan, especially women’s music traditions.

Bhojuram Gujar is a longtime associate of Prof. Gold and several other scholars. He has done extensive fieldwork and has assisted scholars as a translator. In the course of his work, he has amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge and understanding of Rajasthan’s oral traditions and folklore.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Vishes Kothari on January 6, 2018, at Deoli, Tonk district, Rajasthan, 

Vishes Kothari (VK): A group of upper-caste women that I interviewed said that the songs dedicated to folk deities that they sang were God’s own compositions, while a group of lower-caste Meghwal women said that they had composed many of the songs. Where did these songs originate from? Also, what variations did you observe between, say, the gods worshipped by the ‘upper castes’ and those worshipped by the ‘lower castes’?

Ann Grodzins Gold (AG): I think both things are true. Women certainly do compose many of these songs and they talk about it. Certainly with the khayal there would be new songs that they would make. On the other hand, the old traditional songs, like the ones sung to the traditional deities and those sung at a ratijoga (literally, awake all night), do not change. I have seen them remain the same over 40 years. Similarly, I have not witnessed changes in bhajans.

Bhojuram Gujar (BG): The nirgun bhajans [songs in praise of the unmanifest god] tend to stay more constant, while the sagun bhajans [praise of the god with attributes] tend to have variations across time and space. 

AG: Yes. These nirgun bhajans have the chaap [influence] of Kabir, Gorakhnath and Meera.

One of the things I found was that the rituals to keep your husband alive were more important among the women who are Brahmins, Rajputs and Baniyas, who were not allowed to remarry. The castes where women who got divorced or widowed and were able to remarry, they did not care so much for those rituals. Gangaur, for example, is very much a Rajput ritual.

But then there are rituals that everyone follows, such as the Sitala Mata puja which is also performed by the Muslims! These rituals are for the benefit of the whole village.

BG: But one thing we did notice during Sitala Mata puja: The Rajput and Brahmin women went first to do their puja, the farmers’ wives and the ‘lower castes’ went last.

VK: The folk gods appear very accessible, particularly about the problems of day-to-day life. It seems women approach these folk gods as confidantes, confiding in them their deepest fears as, for example, childlessness. What are your observations about this intimate relationship?

AG: Women who cannot conceive definitely go to these gods. During our fieldwork, we recorded a whole set of songs where the women prayed to these gods to not let them be called a banjhdi [childless women, often used as a pejorative]. They would pray that for this name to be taken away from them.

Women with all kinds of problems go to these deities, especially to the ones near their homes. It is not too hard to bring a sack of rice, some ghee and an agarbatti [incense stick] and go to the shrine near your house. It is hard for their in-laws to forbid them from going to the shrines; so, this is their little freedom which cannot be taken away from them.

VK: Singing to folk deities in a ratijoga can be thought of as a ritual perhaps? There is no other special puja or yajna organised to these folk deities. The singing is the primary mode of worship. In your work ‘Outspoken Women: Representations of Female Voices in a Rajasthani Folklore Community’, you have talked about how women feel they enjoy a privileged position because of their religiosity and their knowledge. Are women then the guardians of, and the doorways to, this folk religion?

AG: I think for certain aspects—domestic aspects—definitely. In Ghatiyali, on a holiday, I had asked the men, ‘What will you do?’ And they had said, ‘We eat pua [a type of pancake]’ or ‘We eat kheer [a type of pudding].’ And the women would say we do this puja, we tell this story. It was clear to me that women are definitely in charge.

VK: Did you see any differences between folk gods and folk goddesses—in terms of their origin myths and in terms of the kind of problems people approach them with?

AG: It is hard for me to say because I never set up a comparative study of this sort. But there really are all sorts of patterns. During our fieldwork, we observed a shrine with a male deity and a male priest where women would go with their purde ki bimaari [gynecological ailments]. The priest would be possessed and women would tell them their ailments. I do not know if that still happens.

BG: Yes, it still does. Women come to talk about issues with menstruation or some or the other gynaecological issues. And the possessed priest tells them the solutions—usually involving hygiene or something similar.

AG: And that is a male god, and a male priest! 

BG: In fact, I have even observed that it is mostly women of the family that are possessed by jhujharjis [ancestor deities].

VK: I think it was Wendy Doniger who used the phrases ‘goddesses of the tooth’ and ‘goddesses of the breast’. Did you find both types of goddesses or just one?

AG: In Listen to the Heron’s Words we argued against that division. All of these things—just like folk gods and classical gods—they are just ways of trying to understand something that is very difficult to grasp. There are a lot of goddesses!

But take, as an example, Sundar Mata—she is Durga and Parvati, a mother and the goddess who receives sacrifice. Both at once. So, the conclusion I came to is that those kinds of divisions are useful, heuristically, to those people who are trying to make ‘systems’. But my interest was always in what it meant to the people. And what people in Ghatiyali would say to me is ‘ek hi maaya hai’ [it all dissolves].

‘Illiterate’ villagers told me that. Not that I don not love Wendy, but I trust them more!

VK: I want to quote from your piece of work Of Gods, Trees and Boundaries: Divine Conservation in Rajasthan: ‘But Western ecologists’ envy of Eastern attitudes toward nature is not unfounded. In Rajasthan, the gods have not departed; the landscape is alive with spirits and powers. Although their dominion seems circumscribed at present, the values on which that dominion is based are basic and limitless in their implications.’ Do you still stand by what you said?

AG: Oh! I wrote that! It is somewhat romanticised. I wrote that when ecology was about deforestation, today it is about global climate change. Things are more drastic in the world. I wrote that with a lot of hope. Now I wonder…I do think the values have not left the people. 

That is very nice prose I wrote then. But the world is in a much worse state now. This is 20 years later. The whole planet is in a dire condition. I do not think people have let go of the values. But people do despair.

I came here during my PhD research. And I was overwhelmed. That time there was no TV, there was nothing but performance. And it went on all the time. I would have been exhausted if I attended everything. There were jagrans [Hindu rituals where people stay up all night and sing praises to the God] all the time. The drums were beating all night long. The Ram Leela, Tejaji, women’s stories—I was just overwhelmed by the diversity and richness of knowledge in Rajasthan’s culture. It took me years to even think ‘their literacy is so low’. It didn’t occur to me. It didn’t occur to me that these people were unschooled—because they knew so much. They had so much energy. They would stay up all night singing, and then in the day go to work in the fields or in the kitchen. There was so much passion for it.

Everyone thinks it is waning. Maybe it is. But it is not totally gone. But I feel I was lucky to have been there then and to learn as much as I was able to, which is only a fraction of what exists.