One of the most versatile marriage performance rituals in a Haryanvi wedding is called khoriya. It is best described as a role play that the women from the groom’s side of the family traditionally perform when all the men from that household have gone to attend the wedding (to the bride’s house) as part of the baraat procession. But, in all these years, because this tradition is so enjoyable and full of rare possibilities that might be hard to come by in the everyday life of women, khoriya is neither restricted to the groom’s family nor to the specific day of marriage. This play is now enjoyed by women from both sides of the family in their respective houses on any of the days before the wedding.
The khoriya night is when women gather wearing costumes like the heavy Haryanvi skirt, damann, paired with a white shirt, and shiny choondadi, a full-length scarf. Some of them dress in the way that traditionally men would dress up: long shirt, dhoti, a khandwa (turban) on the head accompanied with a dogga (a walking stick used by old people; used in the performance to signify the old age of the role that performers are mimicking). Once the cross-dressing is revealed to the group of fellow women—their audience—everyone gets a fair idea (from the caricatured mannerisms or catchphrases) about the people who are being mimicked.
Just from the first glance at the cross-dressers, the performance begins: the audience goes wild with laughter, the performers get overwhelmed with having generated so much laughter. Everyone waits for the atmosphere to settle down a bit to actually start the play’s impromptu dialogues, songs and dance. As a rule, men are not allowed to watch or attend, but it is all the more exciting for everyone to spot their voyeuristic eyes so that they can be dragged in the circle of the performance and—to use a fairly recent terminology—roasted for their partly unwelcome presence.
Mostly shimmery drapes in red are worn to signify a newly-wed bride. It is also a direct reference to the bride who is on her way to a new household. Or, to a daughter who is about to be somebody’s wife, and daughter-in-law. The point of the performance is to draw inspiration from real-life people, caricature them using stereotypes from scenes of a lived or gossiped family life, to put up a loud performance of jibes, slapstick humour, choking uproars of laughter. The performance begins without a proper beginning. Someone in the audience passes a comment, which gets picked up by the cross-dressers, they reply to it, they build on it, and the performance begins. Sometimes one performer might play a trick on the other performer (a wink here, a pinch there, a stolen hug, an erotic caress, so on) and the play begins. Gestures snowball into actions, into movements, into play of song and dance. Things that would otherwise not happen in real life happen because in such gatherings the movement of taboo is largely unhindered.
Using exaggerated role-play as a device, women are free to express the oft-unspoken side of domesticity with all its ups and downs. It is ironic, of course, because the incestuous, tumultuous shades in a household, however unspoken, have never been suppressed in whisper networks. The public display of such unbridled emotions in a private space is at a deep contrast with how women are perceived to be inside a household. There is no hint of docility and submissiveness in these women when they perform khoriya. To preserve their supposed public image is nobody’s concern on the night of khoriya.
Unlike any other marriage ritual, khoriya does not follow any rules as such. The participants of the ritual are all women, mostly married. The isolated women’s space makes it easy for both the participants and the audience to open up to each other without any hesitations. No one is judged on the basis of one’s poor jokes, untimely laughter, sloppy dancing or bad mimicry of one’s old father-in-law. The hype around this party, if one may call it that, is so high that men can be often seen huddling together to peep inside, laughing in their nervous excitement. Women can feel their roving eyes; they are sometimes invited to join at their own risk because the jibes will be hard and mostly below the belt. For once, in this patriarchal culture, the male gaze does not stun women into inaction. It rather jolts them to drag the men to the middle of their performance, which mostly leaves the men stunned and mildly intimidated.
The play that is put up might follow the basic formulaic wedding rituals (the baraat procession, parodying the seven circles around fire, and so on), but what exactly will happen can never be predicted. Women dress as men; they dress as the newly wedded wife; they play their mother-in-law, and so on. The role-play and cross-dressing is more like a parody than an honest imitation of the familial space. Moreover, the starkest point of contrast between this parody and the family set-up in real life is that there is nothing sacred about the family as a structure or the familial roles during khoriya. The transgression of roles, not only in words but also in actions, is such that mostly young girls and boys are not allowed to participate in khoriya, even as spectators. It might be too inappropriate for them to watch, but that does not stop them from attending khoriya secretly.
As mentioned above, the knee-jerk beginning to any khoriya is by mimicking the wedding rituals. Logically, it was a means of imagining the ways in which the baraat, which women were debarred from, may have been received by the bride’s side of the family. Since the women cannot attend and see the baraat rituals for themselves, they found a way to make up for it by having a mock wedding of their own. But this is just a conventional beginning of play with no beginning as such. The shapes and scenarios khoriya can take from there are innumerable. This makes it difficult for anyone to describe what goes on in a khoriya. Many women who were informally interviewed for khoriya were thrilled at the prospect of speaking about the tradition and some were tongue-tied. Khoriya is like an on-the-spot performance. There is no script that is to be followed. But there are a few things that are more or less bound to happen—mimicking marriage rituals, cross-dressing, mimicking the familial roles are just some of them.
Another feature of khoriya is to allude to, not so subtly, the wedding night. This act gives khoriya humour its ‘non-veg’ reputation. ‘Non veg’ is the term used for adult humour. Women come prepared with props that are phallic. Women act like men would act on a wedding night. Women discuss sex in a way that is shameless yet bashful, building up an erotic tension in the crowds. In other words, sometimes women would say something outspokenly sexual, but with her face turned to the other side, or covered using her dupatta to show the erotic hesitation. Her being bashful does not in any way stop her from saying what is to be said. If she feels too scandalised to say it, other women’s encouragement become more insistent. But if the words do not come out at all, there are plenty of other women who will happily and unabashedly finish her sentences. The room goes up in laughter—some cannot believe that a person they thought was so tame could say such a thing, they are proud of her. Sometimes the howls of laughter are so high that words become only sounds. Women do not hold back when they are in their adopted roles. They are wild and carefree.
What else could be more entertaining to a parody than taking jibes at one another and at the audience too. Khoriya is the right time to let someone in your family know of your grudges in a funny manner. Your witticism is responded back to you just as sharply. This volley of jibes is not for the faint-hearted or for the easily offended. This is not to say that people do not get offended at all. But the aim of khoriya is unobstructed banter, which runs its course one way or other. The edges of what was said or heard are the fresh raw material for many future gossip sessions.
Since the parody of these roles requires one to be quick to respond to jibes of not just one’s fellow role-players but also of the audience, what follows is a dialogue that is incomparable to any other khoriya performed previously. No two khoriya performances can be compared because every time a khoriya happens it is bound to be different from the last time it was performed. If a participant changes, the khoriya changes.
Even if the men are not there to hear the women complain about them or critique their masculine ways, the women who are related to these men are. They accept the testimonies with a respect that is not to be mistaken as being invisible amidst the laughter. They offer support by bringing in their own stories. Not just the men, any khoriya will show you how a daughter-in-law would be willing to make fun of her mother-in-law, even if she is present right in front of her. Subtlety is an art that khoriya does not know, and does not adhere to, by choice. Being offensive is the aesthetic intention of any khoriya performance.
The performances are an attack on the ways in which power within a household is manipulated by everyone who is a part of it. Just because it seems or is supposed to be a man’s household, it does not mean that it is completely so. The power flowing in a household does not emerge from the patriarch alone, nor does it end with him. He is a part of its circulation. He is, just as the woman, the carrier of his agency, both liberating and oppressive towards the other. The circuit of power runs because of the sacred place given to family as a structure. It is this structure that khoriya attacks the most by robbing the family of its sanctity. These are complex observations that are difficult to voice on a day-to-day basis, but are so effortlessly brought to notice under the banner of mostly harmless banter.
In can be argued that when khoriya happens in an urban space, it opens up the platform even more. In an urban location where your neighbour might not be your blood relative, as is often the case in villages, the attendees of khoriya will be from different classes, castes and regions. This has only diversified an already diverse language. Haryanvi is not a single tongue. It changes from village to village so much so that even seasoned speakers of this tongue might face difficulty in understanding it from a different village. It is a great way for neighbours to get to know each other better. Working women can get a chance to socialise with other women (also laboring, but in houses) from the neighbourhood.
But marriages do not happen everyday. This means that khoriya becomes a once-in-a-blue moon affair. The possibilities of khoriya would truly become endless if the event of marriage ceased to be the sole reason for its existence. If that happens, this may even eliminate the need for khoriya to be hidden away from unmarried women or men, and this change will only enrich khoriya’s inventive, subversive nature.