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Understanding the Folk: Wedding Songs of Awadh and the Role of Mirasins

 

In eighteenth century Europe, a new cultural movement called Romanticism emerged in opposition to Enlightenment beliefs, which celebrated the natural and simple world and looked at the past with appreciation. In Germany, people such as Johann Gottfried Herder and the Grimm Brothers set out to record a large number of folktales. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell also tried to look at the customs of Scotland. By the 1850s, there was rising interest all over Europe in folk tales and folk music.

 

Similar ideas began making their way to the colonies as well. Colonial officials influenced by European folklorists began developing great interest in the customs and traditions of the 'exotic' land of India. These folk studies undertaken by enthusiastic European officials were also believed to be useful in advancing colonial interests. Folklore and traditions were beginning to be studied by colonial officials so as to better understand the ‘natives’. The revolt of 1857 in India, furthered the process as now the British officials began to rethink their existing laws based on Sanskritic Brahminical texts (Bhattacharya 1996). These were now regarded as elitist and out of touch with the reality of the ordinary people, whereas customs and tradition were now being studied to understand the 'true' nature of the Indian society.  Folklore was assumed to be 'unchanging', 'authentic', and fixed in time but in turn this focus on folk as real and 'truly indigenous' continued to support the idea of oriental stagnation (Bhattacharya1996).

 

Likewise, the Indian nationalists tried to reclaim the ‘national’ through folklore by again emphasising their ‘un-westernized Indian Identity’ (Narayan 1993). For instance, Rabindranath Tagore established Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (Literary Society of Bengal) in 1893 where he tried to bring together folklore from different regions of Bengal. To him these folklore represented the heart and soul of the Indian people, again emphasising the timelessness and unchanging spirit of the national culture.  

 

With the Indian National Movement gaining ground folklore was employed to evoke the national spirit. In ‘Harikatha: A Study in Communication’, Y.B. Damle has shown how in folklore confrontation between different mythological characters, the deities and the demons, were used to highlight the misdeeds of the British (Damle 1960). Similarly, Shahid Amin has shown how Gandhi was included in the folk narrative to further nationalist goals (Amin 1984).

 

These examples suggests how folk had been employed as a conscious political tool to further the politics of the day. Yet, in most post-Independence studies on folk there has been an attempt to denude it of any political meanings and connotations and to present it as 'authentic', timeless, and self-contained. Likewise, there has also been a tendency in post-Independence India to arrange folklore in easy categories based on states and languages, downplaying the cultural interactions of different regions. Kirin Narayan has argued that this was an attempt to employ folklore to justify and popularise the Nehruvian phrase ‘unity in diversity’. Narayan states 'the quest for a national identity has been transmuted into the assertion of authentic regional identities negotiated through the Indian government (Narayan 1993).'

 

 Recent scholarship on folklore has opened up newer areas of debate. At one level there is an attempt to problematise the idea of authenticity and invention within folk. But a more dramatic shift has been in the way in which we are using folk to study marginalised communities and their experiences. This shift has been made possible by moving beyond the conservationist exercise of merely collecting folklore in an attempt to celebrate antiquity and to see them instead as living traditions. For instance, scholars such as Kirin Narayan, Smita Tewari Jassal, and A.K. Ramanujan have attempted to study folklore in their everyday context. They have focused on a wide variety of areas such as love songs, wedding songs, jokes, conflicts between mother-in-laws and daughter in-laws, etc.

 

In my essay, I will try to focus on the wedding songs of the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh. My interest in this topic is a result of my own personal experiences. As a child I attended a number of weddings where grandmothers and aunts would sit together and sing songs to the beat of the dholak (drum). I would try to be part of the singing and the celebration by clapping along. Recently, having attended a family wedding after a long time, I still found myself merely clapping along. The mantle again fell on aunts and grandmothers.

 

But this time listening to these songs was an altogether different experience. In them I now heard what seemed like an upturning of the patriarchal discipline, restraints and boundaries of my middle-class family which were carefully taught to me through the language and norms of those who constructed themselves as sharif (decent) people, which included the womenfolk. Was this momentary? Is it merely a safety valve device that helps to maintain status quo?   It was these questions that developed my interest in the need to study these songs.

 

But before I go on to discuss the need to study these songs and the many meanings and connotations they may entail, I will first describe my recent visit to Lucknow where I met  a  community of wedding singers and tried to understand the larger context in which these songs are sung. These songs are traditionally sung by women associated with a particular social group called mirasi. Mirasi is derived from an Arabic word ‘miras’ which means heritage and mirasi refers to the keepers of this heritage.

 

I interacted with eight mirasins. Of these I met six in Lucknow and two in Bara Gaon near Barabanki. I was told that most mirasins reside in the Barabanki district in areas such as Bara Gaon and Masauli. When I reached Lucknow, I discovered that most families were busy in the Urs (death anniversary of a Sufi saint, signifying the union of his soul with God) happening at Deva Sharif. I also interacted with at least seven women and several men belonging to the Taluqdar and other elite families of the Awadh region with whom the mirasins had old associations. This aided not just in cross-validating each of their narratives but more importantly helped me realise the diverse ways in which culture is understood and experienced by different groups of people.

 

For our first meeting, I went to the house of one of the mirasin’s situated in Lucknow. The other mirasins living close by also gathered there. An acquaintance who was the daughter-in-law of Taluqdars arranged the meeting and was kind enough to accompany me. During our five kilometer ride, there were several calls on her mobile asking her where she had reached.

 

A male member of the mirasin’s family received us on the main road leading to the mohalla (neighbourhood) and directed us towards the house situated in the midst of several narrow lanes. He gingerly carried her paandaan  (betel leaf box) walking two steps behind her and answering her queries politely by prefixing answers with ‘Ji sarkar (Yes madam). We were received at the door by the entire family and the mirasins who had come over. One of them  recited a couplet of Mirza Ghalib, Woh aaye ghar mein hamarey, Khuda ki qudrat hai, kabhi hum unko kabhi apney ghar ko dekhtey hein (It's god's miracle that she came to my house, sometimes I see her and sometimes my house). It was the first time that ‘sarkar’ was visiting their place. We sat on the chairs in the verandah of the single- roomed 50 square meter house with a small courtyard. It was remarked that the house runs on the inayats (grace) of sarkar. We were offered tea and snacks and asked what we would like to listen to.

 

The next day all the six mirasins visited the house of the lady who had accompanied me. They sat on the carpet in the drawing room with their dholak and sang for us. Their sitting on the carpet seemed an accepted practice. The big diwan (couch) in the room lay vacant. As they sang different songs, money in notes of Rs 500 and 100 were showered on them by the Taluqdar’s family members. They accepted these gifts with gestures of gratitude and happiness. One of them remarked for the patriarch, ‘Bas ab to chand raja sahib jaisey log hein jo ab bhi qadar kar letey hein’ (Now there are only a few people like his highness left who appreciate our art). They even sang sehra bandhai (a song when sehra –a headgear- is tied on the groom just before the barat leaves for the bride’s place) for the family’s young son. This pleased the Taluqdar’s family further and they showered more money on them.

 

The mirasins felt the need to constantly assert that they did not engage in obscene acts, that they were from ‘good’ families and were proud of their heritage as the carriers of this musical tradition. Whereas, there were instances which suggested that they may also be exploited and looked down upon as ‘gaane waali’ by the elite groups who construed themselves as being ‘sharif’ people. I did catch some cues pertaining to their mistreatment in this regard. A woman of the taluqdar’s family shared that sometimes during their performances people would put some money in the pockets of men and would ask the mirasin to take it out using their lips and mouths.

 

Along with fighting skewed perceptions and every day acts of violence of the larger society, mirasins also had to battle the male sense of entitlement within their homes in forms of constant surveillance as they were regarded as the keepers of their families’ false honour. For instance, the son of one of the mirasin’s, who was a qawwal himself, told us that he does not want his mother going from one house to another singing, he felt it was  not an  honorable profession (Achha nahi hai yeh sab). He almost had tears in his eyes while saying this.

 

In Bara Gaon, which is about 30 kilometers from Lucknow, the house of the mirasins seemed to be a part of the estate. It was, at one time, one of the outhouses meant for the workforce and mulaazims (servants) of the Kidwai family. Certain occupations have been long associated with particular caste groups here and in many other parts of the country. Some of the caste groups that were associated with them are nais (barbers), julahas (weavers), kumhars (potters), and mirasins among many others. The Mirasin families’ were associated with specific families on a hereditary basis. They were patronised by these rich benefactors to whom they remained ‘loyal’.

 

They would participate in and had songs for almost all life cycle rituals such as births, aqeeqa (newborn’s hair is shaved off), bismillah (a religious ceremony where a child is for the first time made to read the Quran) ceremony, weddings, farewells and even death rituals. The men of the mirasin families were qawwals. They too sang on special occasions, but enjoyed a higher status in comparison to the women. Many were much more skilled as compared to the women. Most of those involved in the occupation did not receive any special training from any ustad (master musician who also teaches). They learnt from their elders. Many songs were scripted by the mirasins themselves, but they also sang the kalaams of Amir Khusro, Ghalib and others. Some of the songs which they sang for us had Persian words which were difficult to understand. While the accompanying instrument for mirasins is just dholak, the qawwals use other instruments such as the harmonium and tabla as well.

 

The wedding rituals of the elite would often continue for over a month. For the bride’s family, it began with Milad or Quran khani (recitation of naats in praise of Allah) followed by shahana or mubarakbaad (congratulatory song), maayun/ maanjha (turmeric paste is put on the bride), sehra bandi (tying of head dress), reception of baraat, nikah, rukhsati (when the girl leaves her parent’s place) and chauthee. For groom’s family sehra bandi and surma lagai, dola rukai and waleema (reception) were especially important. Additionally, there were occasions such as joda takai during which gota (lace) was stitched on the bride’s dupatta which was to be worn during the nikah. Some would also invite guests and display the jewellery and jodas to be gifted to the bride or the groom by their respective in-laws’ families.

 

One thing that struck me on meeting them was their adab and adaab. All of them spoke beautiful   Persianized Urdu with typical Awadhi accents. During adaab (greeting) their head was bent and fingers lingered near their foreheads. Adaab was accompanied by a lot of flattery and sweet-talk. It was remarked that they do not say things directly. For example, even if they wanted to eat paan (betel leaf), some would say, 'Arrey hamar bitiya ka munh kaisa sookha hovat rahi, bitiya hum paandaan utha deti hein, khud bhi paan khavan lo aur hamaar bhi banaee deo' (Oh my child, your lips appear to be dry, let me bring you your betel leaf box, you have some betel leaf and also make some for us). All seven were between the ages of 45 to 65, dressed simply in salwar kameez with heads covered with dupattas. I was bitiya to them all. The lady who accompanied me was addressed as Sarkar, Begum Sahib and also bitiya. Bitiya for her seemed a little awkward as she was around their age. But she was the daughter of the family that patronised them.

 

Both the mirasins and the families’ who patronised them feel that it is a waning tradition and art form. Even a generation ago, that is until forty years back, they could still earn their living from their music. Now, the younger generation is not too interested in pursuing the art.  Some of the younger male members were still continuing as qawwals as they earn well during urs and other such occasions. But, as far as the women are concerned, this seems like the last generation engaged in this work. They are now being discouraged by their own children to go and perform in different households. They consider it lowly and demeaning. Furthermore, it does not have the same returns anymore.

 

Earlier in middle-class households, the women members of the family would also sing these songs that form the repertoire of the mirasins. The mirasins would visit their places on various festivities and sing songs related to those occasions. But few middle-class families would now know these songs, whereas earlier even in the absence of mirasins, they would sit together in groups and sing them.

 

In the following section, I will try to analyse some of the wedding songs that were sung by these women. I particularly want to focus on gali (abusive) songs which were and continue to be an integral part of most wedding celebrations. Here, the family of the groom and that of the bride engage in some playful teasing by abusing each other. These songs are humorous in nature and can also be read as subversive, as they challenge established hierarchies and reflect one’s social aspirations in this ever-changing society.

 

बनना मेरा साहब साहब

बन्नी मेरी मेम साहब 

आपस में my dear my dear बोले रे

जिया मोर जाले रे

 

Groom is sahib

Bride is mem sahib

They call each other, my dear

I feel jealous

 

This song is an aspirational one where people are trying to construct themselves as sahib and memsahib. Sahib was initially a term used for an Englishman but it was also used to take a dig at people who pretended to be one by wearing English attire and adopting their mannerisms. The sahib, in this song, is caricatured as somebody who could speak English and would call his wife ‘my dear’.

 

दुबई वाले बेटे पे सबको बड़ा नाज़ है

कहते हैं हंस हंस कर वेह तो मेरी जान है

पहले जो अब्बा से मांगता था पैसे

कहते थे अब्बा निक्खटा कहींके 

दुबई से जो आया तो अब्बा भी कुरबान हैं

दुबई वाले बेटे पे सबको बड़ा नाज़ है

कहते हैं हंस हंस कर वेह तो मेरी जान है

 

Everybody is proud of their son who is in Dubai

Everybody says, laughing, that he is their life

Earlier when he asked his father for money

His father would call him useless

Now when he has come back from Dubai

His father is also proud

Everybody is proud of their son who is in Dubai

Everybody says, laughing, that he is their life

 

Similarly, this song again reflects the aspirations of an upwardly mobile community where moving to Dubai is a matter of extreme pride. These songs reflect the hopes and desires of a community in a new and changing world. They are responding to various forms of social changes in society, be it educational opportunities or technological developments, which allow people to travel far and wide and, as in the earlier song, be able to speak in English.

 

बन्नो गाँव की गवार

बनना बोलता नहीं

मुखड़ा देखता नहीं

चप्पल छोडती नहीं

Sandal पहेनती नहीं

बन्नो गाँव की गवार

बनना बोलता नहीं

मुखड़ा देखता नहीं

 

Bride is a village illiterate

Groom doesn’t speak to her

Doesn’t look at her

She doesn’t leave her chappals,

Doesn’t wear sandals

Bride is a village illiterate

Groom doesn’t speak to her

Doesn’t look at her

 

This song is especially interesting as it throws light on two inter-related ideas –modernity and tradition –within the context of urbanisation. When men started moving out of their villages into towns and cities, their aspirations and desires changed and their perception of a ‘good life’ altered. There have been cases when on moving to cities, men abandoned their wives in the villages and established new relationships with women from towns. Singing such a song during weddings could also be a subtle way in which people are informed, and by poking fun at them, a discreet way of showing the community’s disapproval. Similarly, women are also being prodded to work towards mending their ways and adopting ‘modern’ lifestyles to keep the ‘traditional’ boundaries of their marriage intact.

 

All these songs are responding to the many social changes – urbanisation, technological developments, mechanisation, educational advancement – a society undergoes. These songs are not static in time and space, they are evolving and developing. These songs also reflect the dynamic nature of the folk traditions which surpasse easy language categories and counter the Orientalist view propagated by colonialist studies which depicted them as being fixed in time and hence stagnant.

 

In the next part I will attempt to analyse some songs particularly through the lens of gender.  They are sung by groups of women sitting together for mostly a female audience and at times a mixed audience, which in itself can be an empowering act. Some interesting songs from the gali genre are as follows:

 

मैं तो करुँगी अपनी ही मनमानी

सांस कहेगी पास तो आ

आके मेरे पैर दबा

मैं कहूँगी चल बुढिया

मैं तो नहीं तेरी नौकरानी

मैं तो करुँगी अपनी ही मनमानी

 

I’ll do what I feel like

Mother in-law will ask me to press her legs

I’ll tell her to go away

I am not your servant

I’ll do what I feel like

 

This song is written in the voice of a bride, where she says she will only do things that please her. If her mother-in-law will ask her to do some work, she will not do it and will instead tell her that she is not her servant. This song inverts what is expected of her and imagines a space where she is able to say and do things she wants.

 

 सांस अगर आई तो मैं घर से चली जओंगी

 मियां जी ये सुन लो मैं  वापस नहीं आऊँगी

 जेठ अगर आया तो चप्पल से भागओंगी

 मियां जी ये सुन लो मैं  चप्पल से भागओंगी

 जेठानी जो आई तो सौ सौ ससुनाऊगी

 मियां जी ये सुन लो मैं  सौ सौ ससुनाऊगी

  

If the mother-in law comes, I’ll go away from our house

Husband, you listen, I will not come back

If the brother in-law comes, I’ll go away from our house

Husband, you listen, I’ll throw him out with chappals

If the sister in-law comes, I’ll go away from our house

Husband, you listen, I’ll taunt her the entire time

 

The song deals with the theme of conflict between the bride and her in-laws. At one level this song can be seen as depicting the fears, the anxieties, and the preparations that are done when the in-laws visit the couple.  At the same time, this song, along with many others from this genre, playfully disturb the settled image of a ‘good’ bride or what she is expected to do when being visited by the extended family of the groom. This bride throws shoes at her in-laws and taunts them when they visit rather than playing the submissive act, as expected of her.

 

पहला बुलावा मारे ससुर जी का आया

बुढे के संग मैं न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो  

भरी दो पहरी में न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो

 

दूसरा बुलावा मारे जेठ जी का आया

मुछछड़ के संग मैं न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो  

भरी दो पहरी में न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो

 

तीसरा बुलावा मारी जेठानी जी का आया

नागन के संग मैं न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो  

भरी दो पहरी में न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो

 

चौथा बुलावा मारे देवर जी का आया

लुच्छे के संग मैं न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो  

भरी दो पहरी में न जओंगी

के डोला पिछवाड़े रख दो

 

पांचवा बुलावा सैय्याँ जी का आया

सैय्याँ के संग चली जओंगी

के डोला अगवाड़े रख दो

भरी दोपहरी चली जओंगी

के डोला अगवाड़े रख दो

 

The first invite comes from the father in-law

I will not go along with this old man

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

I will not go in the day in this hot weather

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

 

The second invite came from my elder brother in-law

I will not go along with this person with huge mustache

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

I will not go in the day in this hot weather

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

 

The third invite came from my elder sister-in-law

I will not go along with this snake like person

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

I will not go in the day in this hot weather

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

 

The fourth invite came from my younger brother-in-law

I will not go along with this useless person

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

I will not go in the day in this hot weather

Keep the palanquin in the backyard

 

The fifth invite came from my dear husband

I will go along with my husband

Keep the palanquin in the front yard

I will go in the day in this hot weather

Keep the palanquin in the front yard

 

This song through humour tries to focus on the feelings the bride is going through. After marriage she will find herself in a web of new relationships all of which are marked by a certain amount of responsibility which evokes fear and anxieties in the mind of the bride. Yet she is seeking love and is longing to be with her groom. The bride in this song has desires and is able to express them.

 

All the three songs discussed above are in the voice of a bride. These songs are trying to capture the myriad emotions a woman goes through during her wedding and then through her marriage. These emotions are generally masqueraded through humour. They allow people to express ideas and feelings that are usually considered taboo and unacceptable. Here, through songs the bride is able to abuse her in-laws, call them names, and do whatever she pleases, things which she could never have been able to do otherwise.

 

For some scholars, these songs need to be celebrated for their subversive nature where established hierarchies are completely overturned. The image of an ideal woman as modest, submissive, and silent is challenged. Here, we see examples of women being able to speak their mind, have desires, seek love, and feel hate. Yet, it has been pointed out by other scholars such as Henri Bergson  that these reversals were only temporary and were merely a safety-valve technique which would in actuality help in the maintenance of the status-quo rather than challenge it in any significant way. Bergson employed the term ‘safety-valve’ to mean a process by which pressure gets released in non-threatening ways. (Bergson 1956) Moreover, these inversions of socially established hierarchies were happening in a precise, ritualistic, and prescriptive way, so to imagine them as a challenge to the establishment would be far from true. Especially when these songs were sung by the mirasins who were patronised by caste and class superiors. It is difficult to imagine that they would pose any serious threat to them and would rather provide a stabilising impact to the prevalent social structures.

 

While,  it is true that these songs merely allowed for a temporary reversal of the social hierarchy, that too in  prescribed settings,  but to dismiss  them as merely reinforcing the status quo is also  too sweeping a dismissal. Saba Mahmood in her work cautions against falling into the trap of easy binaries such as those of ‘resistance’ and ‘subordination’. She notes that Western feminist discourse has its limitations and cannot be applied as is to non-Western settings. There is a heterogeneity in the experiences of people belonging to different societies which needs to be appreciated and understood on their own accord (Mahmood 2005). 

 

Lila Abu-Lughod has also argued along similar lines that we need to be careful against over-romanticising resistance or be overly critical of anything which is not ‘resistance’ and therefore lacking  in any kind of agency. Agency should be understood in the socio-cultural settings of people. Complete overturning of establishment is not the only form of resistance through which one can understand agency. Agency should be studied in the everyday struggles and negotiations especially when we are trying to understand the agency of women (Abu-Lughod 1998).

 

To better comprehend these songs we need to understand the context in which these are sung. We need to be aware of the multiple forms of power that constantly operate over and above the mirasins or other women who sing these songs. For instance, the mirasins are placed low on the caste and class hierarchies. As noted above their main source of income continues to be patronage.  The same applies to women of middle-class homes, whose contribution to the household economy more often than not goes unrecognised and uncompensated, and who have the ever-powerful notion of morality ‘controlling’ and ‘disciplining’ all  of their acts. For these women to come together, reclaim a space for themselves, and sing songs that transgress well established boundaries of gender and patriarchy are important moments where women get to experience empowerment and freedom.

 

References

 

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1998. “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing transformation of Power through Bedouin Women” American Ethnologist 17, no. 1, 41-45.

 

Amin, Shahid. 1984.  “Gandhi as Mahatama: Gorakhpur District Eastern U.P 1921-2.” In Ranajit Guha (ed.) Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asians History and Society Vol III. Delhi: Oxford University Press

 

Bergson, H. 1956. 'Laughter'. In Comedy, edited by Wylie Sypher, 61-190. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

 

Bhattacharya, Neeladri. 1996 'Remaking Custom: The Discourse and Practice of Colonial Codification'. In Tradition, Dissent and Ideology: Essays in Honour of Romila Thapar, edited by R. Champalakshmi, S. Gopal, 20-51. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

Blackburn, Stuart, and A.K. Ramanujan, ed. 1986. Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

Damle, Y.B. 1960. 'Harikatha: A Study in Communication' Bulletin, Deccan College Research Institute 20: 63-107.

 

Jassal, Smita Tewari. 2012. Unearthing Gender: Folk Songs of North India. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

 

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. The Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 

Narayan, Kirin. 1995. 'Banana Republics and V.I Degrees: Rethinking Indian Folklore in a Post-Colonial World'. Asian Folklore Studies 52, no.1, 177-204.