‘When Women Sang in the Age of Steam'

‘When Women Sang in the Age of Steam'

[The following article first appeared on The Wire and has been republished with permission.]

Making use of popular Bhojpuri folksongs, we enter into the rich social and gendered world of women; a world that was woven around sexuality and migration.

From being purabiya peasants employed in both the Mughal and the English East India Company armies, male migrants from rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar became the predominant labouring pool in the expanding second capital of the British Empire by the 19th century. It was neither Delhi nor Bombay – where in recent years they have become the target of cultural and political vendetta – that they went to; they migrated instead to Kalkatwa (Calcutta then, Kolkata now) to work in jute mills, as domestic servants and as urban coolies. A large number also went to the Caribbean to work as indentured labour on sugar plantations.

Those who have read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies would remember the journey of Dheeti, the female character who escaped the hardships of rural life in the Bhojpuri belt of North India by boarding a girmitiya ship. But many other nameless Dheetis remained in their villages.

We know a good deal about male migration, both historically and otherwise, but less about how the relationships between mobile men and immobile women were structured. It is true that women were not mobile, but they were not insular or static. The mobility around them was reshaping their lives. Mills and plantations came up; steamships and railways shortened distances between their villages and big cities. As trains bewildered Apu and Durga in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, so too did they anonymous thousands of men and women.

The New Sawatiya

Words and actions of great men are bound to be repeated time and again: in spite of travelling the whole country on a third class railway carriage, Mahatma Gandhi bitterly opposed railways as a symbol of modern, imported technology. The men and women who made Gandhi the Mahatma nevertheless thought otherwise.

A crowd greets Gandhi as he alights at a station. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In their world of text and imagination, the dhuwan-gaadi (steam engine) was an object of wonder and marvel. Had the government head master, Ambika Vyas Dutt, managed to show his poem to Queen Victoria, he would have secured an invitation to her garden tea party.

रानी विक्टोरिया के राज बड़ा भारी रामा ।
फइल गईले सब सन्सरवा रे हरी ।।
जहाँ देखो तहाँ चले धुआँकस रामा ।
चाँरो ओर लागल बाटे तरवा रे हरी ।।

The rule of Queen Victoria is full of wonders,
It has extended all around the world;
Wherever you look the railways are running,
Everywhere there are telegraph wires.

The ordinary female subjects of the Victorian Indian empire, however, were not so pleased. Going purab (east) was as much an opportunity as a cause for separation. The new means of transport – steamships and railways – became the sawatiya (the second wife), while money was the real culprit. The black marvel had its dark side.

रेलिया हो गईले सवतिया हो ।
पिया के ले गईले ना ।।
उहि देसवा रगूँनवा पिया के ले गईले ना ।
उहि देसवा बँगलवा पिया के ले गईले ना ।।

रेलिया ना बैरी, जहजिया ना बैरी ।
पैसवा बैरी ना ।।
देसवा देसवा भरमावे ।
उहे पैसवा बैरी ना ।।

Railways have become a co-wife,
It has taken away my beloved;
It has taken my beloved to Rangoon,
It has taken my beloved to Bengal.

Neither the railways nor the steamships,
The real enemy is money;
It forces to wander from one to another country,
The real enemy is money.

The song ends on a touching note of affection and love. She is willing to suffer, to survive on very little, but not ready to let him go.

भूखिया ना लागे, पियसिया ना लागे ।
हमको मोहिया लागे ना ।।
तोहरि देख के सूरतिया ।
हमको मोहिया लागे ना ।।

सेर भर सगिया बरिस दिन खइबे ।
पिया के जाई देबो ना ।।

I don’t feel no hunger, no thirst,
I just feel a swelling affection;
When I see your face,
I just feel the deep affection.

This world of migration and separation, of mills and railways, paralleled the expanding world of print. The mofussil (countryside) literati who composed these songs were incorporating new elements to reflect the social realities of their times. The oral culture of folksongs overlapped with the printed song and chapbooks to create what Francesca Orsini, a leading scholar in this field, has called a “new hybrid taste”. Entertainment and pleasure came together to highlight the woes of migrant men and left-behind women.

The text of these songs is never fixed. Their flexibility allows them to incorporate newer elements. The relevance of this song is still maintained, as Malini Awasthi’s rendition of a slightly different version of the same song shows.

The Wife In Exile

बजी जब रेल की सीटी, सजन की याद आती है ।
When the train’s whistle sounds, I think of my beloved.

Sita accompanied Ram in exile for 14 years. The metaphor of 14 years of separation is strikingly similar in Bhojpuri songs, but unlike Sita the Bhojpuriya women did not accompany their men. The men migrated to the city, but it was their wives who, ironically, experienced an ‘exile’ in the villages.

In these songs, women adopt three strategies to hold back their men and convince them to stay. They cook food (जेवना), offer Ganga water and promise physical intimacy (सेजिया). Some of these songs are conversational; the wife uses all three of the above but the man keeps repeating: “All this is very sweet, my love; please wake me up at four in the morning/I have to leave by a freight train”. The whistle inevitably meant the end of intimacy and the beginning of longing.

There are hardly any songs in which the men agreed not to go. The inevitability of migration for men was clearly spelled out. The onus of pleading was unambiguously fixed on the women.

She is insecure; she is sad. She displays unflinching dedication and love for her migrating husband. She conjures up excuses: the purab is venomous, it will kill her beloved. She is scared that a beautiful Bengali woman (सुन्नरी बँगलिनिया) will seduce her man. He will stop sending her money. He will forget to ask about her well-being.

It is not only the emotional outpour that these songs depict; they also create and portray the image of an ideal, loyal wife. For male poets, authors and composers it was important to depict her physical and sexual vulnerability. Her sexuality is both an element of entertainment and an aspect to control.

जेकर जबान झूठ, ओकर करार का?
जेकर पिया परदेस, ओकर श्रृंगार का?

What worth is promise to those who lie?
What worth is adoration to those whose men are in foreign lands?

Sexual Transgressions

Emotion is strongly attached to ideas about the body. The denial of shringaar is essentially the denial of a playful indulgent life. In exile, renunciation is the way to live.

However, there is always a lurking possibility of woman sexual transgressing in the absence of their husbands. Ideas of loyalty are tied to physical beauty. This comes out clearly in a song in which a woman is willing to let her man bring a sawatiya home, but only if she is barren, ugly and dark. Normatively, procreation is an important function of Hindu marriages and hence the wife’s approval on the grounds of infertility is not a big surprise. The continuing strange fascination of Indian society in skin colour as a marker of beauty, reflected now in whitening creams, helps us understand the presence of dark skin in this list.

The reference to the body, however, is rather bold. Being jealous of the Bengali women, she questions her husband: why did he bring her a sawatiya in spite of her having an attractive body (सोटा अईसन देह ).

The invocation of an attractive body is expressive of how conjugal intimacy was at stake for migrating families. But it also shows how the onus to save the conjugality largely rested upon women. A flight of imagination does raise a question: do so called Bhojpuri B grade films that cater to the male gaze represent refracted historical continuity of how sexuality and the body have been depicted in these folksongs?

बलिया टिसनिया पर जेवना बनावत रहिली ।
कि रही रही के जीयरा घबराला बलमवा ।।
एक ता हम गोरी रहिली, दूसरे जवान रहिली ।
तेसरे जोवनवा के जारी, बलमवा तेरे बिना ।।

I was preparing food on the Balia railway station,
And I was feeling restless in between;
First of all, I am fair, and second, young,
Third was the thrust of my youthfulness in your absence, my beloved

In these folksongs, moral and sexual slips appear as a reality and not just poetic imagination. But it is the wife who has to prove her innocence. When the husband returns, his mother and sisters complain about his wife’s conduct. Similar to Sita, these exiled women are also asked to give an agni pariksha.

The migrant male, on the other hand, is naive, even innocent. Even in his pardesi sexual liaisons, it is the Bengali woman who is scheming to trap the paatar balamwa (thin husband). He is not portrayed as an active agent of his own sexual desire.

Modernity And Desire

Pangs of separation are not the only mood that is captured in these folksongs. It is blended with a sense of curiosity. The purab is venomous but it does invoke desire. Mobility is slowly churning the world of immobile women.

पूरब पूरब हम ढ़ेर दिन से सुनतनी ।
पूरब के लोग कईसन होला रे बलमवा ।।

I have been hearing about Purab since ages,
My beloved, tell me how the people over there are.

The seasonality of migration meant that at some point men did return to their homes. The journey back home was a moment of joy and union. People moved with ideas and imagination, with goods and commodities. The metropolitan culture rode back the same wheels that took the men away.

The ‘imagined city’ sparked delight and desire; it helped women visualise the potential for transforming their men. One very beautiful song tells us what women expected their men to be on their return.

रेलगाड़ी से उतरा बलमवा बदल लेते ।
यदि काला होता बदल लेते ।
गोरा छैला ना बदला जाए ।।

I would have exchanged my man, who has alighted from the train,
Had he been dark, I would have exchanged,
The fair dandy is too tempting to replace.

धोती वाला होता बदल लेते ।
सूट वाला ना बदला जाए ।।

Had he been dhoti wearing, I would have exchanged,
The suit wearing is too tempting to replace.

छड़ी वाला होता बदल लेते ।
घड़ी वाला ना बदला जाए ।।

Had he been with walking stick, I would have exchanged,
The watch wearing is too tempting to replace.

चप्पल वाला होता बदल लेते ।
बूट वाला ना बदला जाए ।।

Had he been in floaters, I would have exchanged,
The one in boots is too tempting to replace.

Rahul Gandhi, with his jibe of suit boot ki sarkar, accused the current government of being anti-poor. Almost a hundred years ago, for these people, suit, boot and watch symbolised the acquisition of new forms of modernity. The above jhumar (songs sung at weddings) celebrated the ‘new man’ as much as it adoringly mocked him. A nice contemporary parallel for imagining the setting is the famous song of ‘Taar Bijli Se Patle Hamare Piya‘ sung by the famous Bhojpuri singer Sharda Sinha from the movie Gangs of Wasseypore 2.

Women also desired objects for themselves. They asked their men what they would bring on their return. There was a world beyond the fear of sawatiya.

पूरब जाईब सईयाँ का हो ले आईब?
सासुजी के नथिया, ननदजी गुंजेसरी ।
तोहरा के ले आइबो धनिया, लिलरा के टिकुली ।।

When you go east, what will you bring for me?
For mother-in-law a nose ring, for sister-in-law gunjesri (a kind of an ornament)
For you my wife, I will get tikulee (bindi worn on the forehead)

Very proudly, the wife claims,

टूटी जईहे नथिया, चटकी जईहे गुंजेसरी ।
गजब , गजब करे मोरे लिलरा के टिकुली ।।

The nose ring will break and the gunjesri will crack,
But the tikulee does wonders on my forehead.

Saris, jewellery and other objects related to the body and beauty once again show how central conjugality was in conceptualising the migrant family. The family at times also became the centre of feud. Gifts became a reason for jealousy. In another folksong, the man returns to his home with food, sweets and paan for his wife. Out of jealousy, she is abused by her mother- and sister-in-law. The song ends with the husband consoling his wife in bed.

Subject And Author

The question of agency and representation is tricky. The authors of these songs were usually male, most probably not those who migrated but those who were part of the growing neo-literate mofussil class. With the commercial expansion of printing, they saw a new possibility in writing and entertaining the public.

From this perspective, the depiction of a loyal, idealised wife reveals the anxiety of the migrant male community. These songs can be read against the grain suggesting that the male authorship created a hidden subjecthood of the migrant male, who was anxious and suspicious of his wife.

But in such fluid mediums as folksongs, which borrow on established genres and tweak words and phrases to reflect contemporary reality, the issues of authenticity and intention become difficult to establish. Do these songs represent women’s feelings or male projections? Do they tell us about how women saw their lives spent in separation or how men imagined and desired their women to lead their lives? Who is in ‘exile’ here; the one serving in the karkhanas of Calcutta or the one waiting for her man to return? And who breaches the line of loyal conjugality? The men who were “lured” by Bengali women or the women in the villages whose joban threatened to betray the loyalty?

Perhaps looking at folksongs alone cannot give us any clear answers to these questions. But they do provide an alternative way to look into the rich and complex social world of migration. A world that is not frozen in the past but is constantly relived by hundreds and thousands even now. A world in which capital, technology and the state are ever present, but whose pulsating reality is made up of relationships based on love, agony, separation, jealousy and desire – strong personal and social ties.

In the telling reality of migration that is nationally and internationally either described as a ‘crisis’ or an ‘opportunity’, this narrative presents a historical look at one group – Bhojpuri women – who remained immobile in the world that moved along the swirls and jolts of the dhuwan-gaadi.

Note: These songs have been personally collected by the author and also taken from different volumes of Bhojpuri songs edited by Krishnadev Upadhayaya and Ravishankar Upadhayaya. English translations are by the author.

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin.

Representational feature image via Outlook Traveller

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