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Women and folklore in rural North India

There is no solitary female perspective recorded in folklore, or in real-world praxis.

Art by Nishta Gupta

The tradition of the spoken word has existed across aeons with the retelling of stories of creation myths and talking animals, of great dynasties and god-killers, of star-crossed lovers and poisoned goblets. Indian folklore talks of the bards recounting epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, of the romantic verses of the ghazal. These stories and more have been immortalised in the verses by Sufi poets like Amīr Khusrau Dehlavī, who was a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, and classical Sanskrit author Kālidāsa. These stories have been told in Arabic, Brajbhasha, Persian, and Awadhi — and there are still echoes of these tales in local legends, printed on Kashmiri rugs, etched on the surfaces of battle shields and the hilts of swords.

But there is so much more to Indian folklore than simply recounting epic stories of gods and wars. At a time where the written word was not prevalent, or not as easily accessible, oral tradition was the primary means through which people passed on culture, values, experience. Women in North Indian rural areas spoke critically of their place in society, of the traditions enforced upon them because it was custom, of the oppression they endured at the hands of patrilineal kinship: all of which they still experience in the present. Kali ki riti yahi (translation: this custom of a degenerate age) is a song by North Indian women, written down and recorded by British orientalist William Crooke in 1910. The song speaks of the difficulties women experience as they move from their mayaka (parents’ home) to their sasural (husband’s home). A central aspect of a North Indian rural woman’s experience is the physical shift from her mayaka to her sasural —  this has been consistently capitalised on by male writers and directors — and the shift in the power dynamics from her role as a daughter and sister, to that of a wife and daughter-in-law. 

This experience, though important, is understood differently by women of separate castes and at varying stages of life. In Pahansu and Hathchhoya, unmarried women sing of the future burden of becoming estranged and othered from their family, of being known as a pariah, and of having to put their husband’s family above their own. This custom has also been critiqued by married women, challenging patrilineal ideals that dictate they are to be placed below their husband’s family no matter what. While women orating as sisters belittle the marital bond, women orating as wives place emphasis on the dominance of the conjugal bond above the familial one. These contradictory aims give rise to divergent voices that, at the same time, resist the authority placed on men and resist the conventions of the patriarchy. 

A Sangeet is a North Indian pre-wedding event. It consists of singing and dancing, and is a celebration of the couple’s upcoming life together. Baithne ke geet, or ‘sitting songs’ are sung during breaks in the performances. In a popular one, also recorded in Crooke’s anthology, the poetic persona of the wife  sings: suno suno he sakhī merā janam hī dukhī is ghar men / mujhe lar bhīr kheto bhejen / juān tutā hai batāve bail buddha hai batāve / mujhe kharī hai rulāve he dolon pe (translation: listen, listen, friend, my life itself is sorrowful in this house / they quarrel with me and send me to the fields / they tell me that the yoke is broken, they tell me that the oxen are old / they make me cry as I stand on the boundary of the fields). The song goes on for three more verses, wherein members of the wife’s sasural continue to belittle her efforts at integration: they insult her cooking, they quash her efforts at getting a tertiary education, they feed her lies about her mayaka by saying her mother is dead and her sister has run away. Multiple other songs in the genre are similar in nature, each one chronicling the story of a wife who is miserable and cannot exist in the circumstances she is in anymore. 

There is no solitary female perspective recorded in folklore, or in real-world praxis. The solidarities formed by women are negotiated and equivocal because of the unique circumstances they face. Women’s songs are constructed with careful emphases on gender and power, in voices that clash on themes like loyalty and autonomy.

But there is little academic discourse on the subject. American cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner has pointed out that academic researchers tend to focus on popular cultural forms like songs and proverbs, not going so far as  analysing these artefacts and simply relegate them to footnotes. Cultural traditions that come out of rural areas are ignored because of the false widespread notion of uniformity in these communities — and many times academics go as far as reducing them to the derogatory term ‘peasant.’ But as has been explored, the experiences of rural women and the way in which they communicate them are diverse. They challenge academic and cultural assumptions of them; but the only contexts in which they exist are produced by agents of British colonialism. 

British academics and anthropologists were selective in their recording, only tending to analyse and collect information about people living in cities and those who have higher standings in society. The songs and stories I speak of today are tainted because of the people who resigned them to text, and it is a possibility that many of their meanings were lost in translation or edited for the purposes of convenience. While going through William Crooke’s translations, I found multiple words and phrases that simply did not fit or were translated incorrectly. Due to the nature of oral tradition, and the colonisation of India by the British Empire, there is much of my cultural history that has been lost. A myriad of the sources I consulted for this article are attributed to men with British names whose occupations mean little more than ‘settler’ and ‘self-declared expert.’ There are countless rural women whose struggles I may mirror but will never know, women whose songs captured the spirit of their age with abundance. 

Stories have more value than what is assigned to them. They are specks of memory preserved in the spoken word, negotiations with the material world sung in lyrical verse, desperate wishes of communities expressing their truest parts. There are, in fact, demons in the wood — but these monsters are manifestations of injustices against people. Folklore passes on from generation to generation, and with it, as do the traumas we bear the burden of.