The women move in a circle as they sing, swaying, facing each other. Now and then one will reach up to adjust the pallu of her sari covering her head. The light of a single bulb, filtered through the foliage of the neem tree above, washes the figures in the circle. The bulb hangs outside the house that belongs to Shanti, the woman hosting the Teej festival party.
I am in the neighbourhood of Nagwa in Varanasi, a five-minute walk from my house. It is a densely built-up area along the Ganga at its southernmost point in the city. The residents here are domestic workers, mechanics, labourers and owners of food stalls and small shops.
The women sing in the genre called Kajri special to the season of sawan. Kajri songs are all about different ways of regarding and responding to this monsoon month of the Hindu calendar – they are about the clouds gathering, about putting mehndi on one’s hands, about going to one’s sasural or in-laws’ house.
There are no men present in this gathering. They know it is a women’s affair, so they keep away for the evening, out of respect, or perhaps for many of them, it’s the opposite – they don’t take it seriously.
A line of women of all ages sits on a low wall opposite the singing women, watching appreciatively. Children, both boys and girls, have made their way to Shanti’s rooftop and watch from there.
The women’s voices form a loud, sure chorus. But their individual voices can also be heard clearly. Sometimes one will pause and another will take over, raising her voice over the others. As one song ends, there are loud jokes about who should begin the next song, which song she should sing and why.
Jhula dal debe nebula ke dar pe sawan ke bahar me
Joiwan bhabhi se lagvaiba
Apne hath se javainge…
Bhirwa bhabhi se lagvaiba…
Sejawa bhabhi se lagvaiba…
Hang the swing from the branch of the neem, in the splendour of sawan
I’ll get my sister-in-law to serve the food
And I’ll feed (my husband) with my own hands…
I’ll get my sister-in-law to make the pan…
I’ll get my sister-in-law to make the bed…
The songs the women of Nagwa sing are not formally written down and largely unrecorded in the historical archive. Yet here they are to be heard, loud and clear, rich and full of complexity.
Anthropologists Gloria Raheja and Ann Gold write: “Women’s songs and stories consistently compose ironic and subversive commentaries on the representations of gender and kinship roles found in the epic texts, in male folklore genres, and in a good deal of everyday talk.” Raheja and Gold respond here to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous conclusion that ‘the subaltern cannot speak,’ one echoed in many scholarly and lay interpretations of Indian women as passive assimilators of cultural practices and perceptions. But through their ethnographic work, Raheja and Gold assert that women do indeed speak: their songs and stories are the transcripts, often veiled but sometimes overt, through which they communicate their resistance to dominant narratives.
Moreover, the women’s bodies, their voices weaving in and out of each other and their comments framing their songs are living demonstration of how dominance and resistance are not distinct and monologic, but part of systems of culture, power and subjectivity that are discursive and multi-dimensional.
Such celebrations are harder to witness today than a decade or two ago. But they still take place in neighbourhoods such as this one all over Varanasi, and all over the other towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These songs are still alive, often just down the street, and in many of our own families, still known by aunts, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.
In how many ways can you sing about the rain?
Kajri is sung all over Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in Awadhi, Mithila, Braj and Banarasi. There is variation in style and content as well. The Gaya style, for instance, is characterised by khuli gayaki, or an ‘open’ aesthetic, as well as an incorporation of elements of tappa (an intricate, rhythmic type of composition originating in the Punjab region). In Lucknow and Ayodhya, the songs are all about Rama and Sita, while in Banaras they are about Krishna.
The famous ‘Mirzapuri Kajri’ is characterised by an upbeat rhythm and witty lyrics.
One common Mirzapuri kajri goes like this:
Gheri gheri ayi sawan ki badariya na
Badariya na re badariya na!
The Sawan rainclouds are gathering round
The clouds, the clouds!
Another goes like this:
Mirjapur gaile guljar ho kachouri gali sun kaile balmu
Ehi Mirjapurwa se urale jahajiya
Piya chali gaili Rangoon hau kachouri gali sun kaile balmu
Mirzapur is festive but Kachouri Gali has fallen silent
A plane has taken off from Mirzapur
My beloved’s gone to Rangoon…
Whatever the variation in content or style, what makes these songs so special is how they are simply about capturing the moment – the clouds gathering, a breeze, a fleeting feeling of bliss or longing – and how, in so doing, they bridge the ‘natural’ world with one’s inner world. What a rare thing in the modern world!
The ‘semi-classical’ Banarasi Kajri
In Varanasi, Kajri has been given a classical, raga-based form. Songs are often composed in Ragas Desh or Khamaj and performed in formal concerts following the classical khayal section. What’s striking is that male performers sing and explain these ‘women’s songs’ with as much sensitivity and intimate understanding as one might imagine a woman doing.
And these same ‘semi-classical’ songs are also known, loved and trilled by just any Banarasi, regardless of gender or class – a rickshaw wala, a weaver, a teacher. This blurring of genre, between ‘folk’ and ‘classical,’ and easiness with ideas of authenticity and authority, in terms of who can compose and perform, is characteristic of the Banarasi ethos.
Classical singers usually give the genre a more elevated-sounding explanation. They explain that Kajri songs are characterised by shringar rasa: they are about the nayika pining for her nayak, welcoming the rain as she waits for him and dressing and decorating herself in preparation for his arrival.
One famous Banarasi Kajri, composed by the late singer Bade Ramdas, goes like this:
Humari sawariya nahi aye
Sajani, chhayi ghata ghan ghor
Dadur mor papiha bole
Koyal kar rahi sor…
My sweetheart doesn’t come
Rainclouds gather round
The frog and the peacock call
The cuckoo calls…
This one, although commonly known, is unusual for its chhand pradan gayaki, or for being set in two different rhythmic patterns, the first section in Kaharwa and the second in Dadra.
Finally, here is an uncommon and more self-consciously ‘literary’ composition by the late Maharana Pratap, a rais (member of the elite) of Banaras:
Jabse shyam pardes sidhare, rovat hai din rat
Ankhiyan bhayi ghati barsati
Let hu sans, manahu ghan khare
Bibhuti bhank dhanush anuvare
Jhapkat palak putali bich bich janu damani barsati
Since my beloved went away, I have cried day and night
Clouds gather in my eyes
As I breathe, my mind grows restless
My eyebrows arrow-like,
As I blink my eyes, the tears fall like rain from my pupils
Kajri is most easily found in this ‘classical’ form today. Listening to these songs within the rigid structures of the formal concert, it’s easy to forget where they came from – from villages and towns, as a medium through which women found space and their voices expression.
All videos by Nandini Majumdar. The singer in the second and third videos is Ashish Mishra, a young classical vocalist from Varanasi.