“Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo janam safal ho jaaye, hriday ki peeda, dehe ki agni, sab sheetal ho jaaye”
(Today, beloved, hold me in your arms, my life will be fulfilled, ease the ache in my heart, cool the fire in my body)
Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo - Geeta Dutt (1957)
Sexuality is central to the idea of being human and encompasses not just reproduction and gender roles but also sexual orientation, eroticism and pleasure. Mainstream media has historically struggled with putting women in positions of being able to voice their own sexual desires while having no issues commodifying the same through the male gaze with ‘item songs’. I’m sure even if Indian society suffers from amnesia, the lyrics of Fevicol Se from the film Dabangg 2 will remain a permanent scar.
Thumri from the North Indian Hindustani musical genre is where a lot of the discussion around female voice and perspective pertaining to female desire and sexuality in music roots. The texts are traditionally narrated in first-person by a female narrator and stand out for being emotionally expressive and for their romantic nature. The verses transcend barriers and convey stories of women — some full of sensuality and unabashed eroticism.
Historically, the courtesan, tawaifs, are to be credited for the origination and popularisation of the genre. The genre’s association with tawaifs enhances the femininity and sensuality attached to the genre but also marginalizes it in accordance with the whims of a disapproving and conservative Indian society. In the late 19th century, Thumri got an honorary place after elites associated with Hindustani classical music ‘evolved’ the genre independent of dance — something courtesans were once known for popularising.
Since yearning and desires are often synonymous with the rain. Let’s look at how the female desire has evolved within the windows of yearning for lovers during the monsoon.
I. Ab Ke Sawan Ghar Aaja - A Thumri in Begum Akhtar’s Voice (1948)
In the thumri, Ab Ke Sawan Ghar Aaja (This Monsoon Come Home), the narrator takes on a melancholic tone to accuse her lover of having become a foreigner and expresses her emotional longing for him. She turns in misery to the Kaaga bird asking it to pass on her message asking her lover to come home at least this monsoon.
II. Ab Ke Sajan Saawan Mein - Lata Mangeshkar (1975)
The singer forsakes being subtle about her desires and teases her lover by asking him how they’ll find a way to make love this monsoon with so many people constantly watching their moves.
“Ab ke sajan saawan me
Aag lagegee badan me
Ghataa barasegee, magar tarasegee najar
Mil naa sakenge, do man yek hee aangan me”
III. Ab Ke Sawan - Shubha Mudgal (1999)
In Ab Ke Sawan (This Monsoon), Mudgal takes on a celebratory tone in the anticipation of her lover by merging the raga with rock. She subtly expresses her arising desires while witnessing the rain as she experiences falling in love for the first time.
“Pehle pyar ki pehali barkha
Kaisi aas jagaye
Baarish pine do mujhko
Mann hara ho jaye
Pyasi dharati pyase arman
Pyasa hai aasman
Bhigane do har gali ko
Bhigane do jahan”
Even in folk music, the female narrators have found a portal through music to voice all kinds of desires and experiences. Traditional folk music that’s performed by the women from the family of the bridegroom, during or after the wedding, generally in absence of men, is known for being full of sexual innuendo — expressing sexual desires and educating the bride on her sexuality. Bhojpuri folk songs are known for the gaali genre which is filled with overt sexual references by women.
The tradition has been incorporated into popular cinema as well with songs like ‘Rukmani Rukmani’ from the film Roja, which is full of sexual innuendo with the wedding party asking the bride how her wedding night went.
In the song, Mann Kyoon Behka Re Behka Aadhi Raat Ko (Why is my mind so uneasy at midnight?), two women bond over their amorous desires as both women embrace roles opposite to their real life; the ones they truly desire — switching between roles of a simple wife and a decorated seductress.
In songs, ‘Aaiye Meherbaan’ from Howrah Bridge (1958) and ‘Raat Akeli Hai’ from Jewel Thief (1967) the women are in control of their sexual desires as they make advances toward their lovers in attempts to seduce them.
“Raat akeli hai, bujh gaye diye.”
(The night is lonely, and the lights have gone out.)
“Aake mere paas, kaanon mein mere, jo bhi chaahe kahiye, jo bhi chaahe kahiye.”
(Come close to me, and in my ears, tell me whatever you desire.)
“Tum aaj mere liye ruk jaao, rut bhi hai fursat bhi hai”
(Today, stop a while for me, the atmosphere is right and we are at leisure.)
“Tumhi na ho na sahi, mujhe tumse mohabbat hai
(You may not feel the same, but I love you.)
“Mohabbat ki ijaazat hai, to chhup kyu na rahiye”
(I have permitted you to love me, so why are you quiet?)
“Jo bhi chaahe kahiye...”
(Tell me whatever it is that you desire)
Female desires have always been surrounded by the idea that women do not want or need sexual gratification however, for centuries, in Indian musical texts reflecting on sexuality, beauty, societal norms and stigmas, there is a discernible presence of women who are given the space to not just express but also exercise and own their complex multi-dimensional desires.
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