Music

From ‘Naihar’ to ‘Sasural’, How Folk Songs Map a Woman’s View of Marriage and Migration

Bhojpuri folksongs have evocatively captured how the lives of women are unevenly spread across two homes – naihar (natal) and sasural (that of the in-laws).

Bhojpuri folksongs encapsulate the pangs of separation a young girl feels at the time of her wedding as she departs from her natal house and village to that of her husband’s. Credit:Nishanth Jois/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

एक त छूटेला मोरा नाक के नथुनिया,
दोसर छूटेली महतारी ए रघुबर । धीरे धीरे…।
एक त छूटेला मोर गर के हँसुलिया,
दोसर छूटेला झीन-सारी ए रघुबर । धीरे धीरे…।
एक त छूटेला मोर गाँव-नगरिया,
दोसर छूटेला घर-बारि ए रघुबर । धीरे धीरे…।
एक त छूटेला मोर वीरन-भईयवा,
दोसर छूटेली सखि सारी ए रघुबर । धीरे धीरे…।
एक त छूटेला बाग-बगईचा,
दोसर छूटेली गईया प्यारी ए रघुबर । धीरे धीरे…।

Move steadily, O! my Lord, I am lost and defeated…
On the one hand, I part with my nose-ring,
On the other, O! Lord, I leave behind my mother. Move steadily…
On the one hand, I part with my necklace,
On the other, O! Lord, I leave behind my transparent saree. Move steadily…
On the one hand, I move away from my village and my habitat,
On the other, O! Lord, I leave behind my home and hearth. Move steadily…
On the one hand, I part from my brave brother,
On the other, O! Lord, I leave behind my (female) friends. Move steadily…
On the one hand, I part with my garden and my fields,
On the other, O! Lord, I leave behind my beloved cow. Move steadily…

This folksong is among the many that encapsulate the pangs of separation a young girl feels at the time of her wedding as she departs (गौना) from her natal house and village to that of her husband’s, which is new, unknown and unseen.

Not only will the girl miss her habitat – from her home to the fields – which bears the marks of her childhood and adolescence, but she will also miss her relationships with friends, families and animals. Even the ornaments she wears are filled with the emotion of home. New ornaments are given to her or are worn by her at the time of the wedding, so she laments taking off her old nose ring and necklace that are soaked with memories of her parents and her natal habitat.

The motif of separation from naihar – the natal house – and the lament of that departure, has a long and powerful literary standing in northern India. It is no wonder that on his exile from Lucknow to Calcutta in 1856, the Awadh Nawab Wajid Ali Shah captured his political trauma and emotional uprootedness in unforgettable words – babul mora naihar chuto hi jaaye – a song sung by a generation of singers.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, this literary world of expression got a historical context in increased male migration from the ‘Bhojpuri belt’ of North India. This migration, in search of work and money, still continues.

How were the lives of the women who stayed at home while their men went away in search of work? Folksongs have evocatively captured the lives of women that are unevenly spread across two homes – naihar or natal and sasural or that of in-laws. When the world around was changing due to railways and steamships and mills and karkhanas, the home(s) also underwent changes – some quotidian, some exemplary.

The architecture of emotion: Duwari and angnaa

कहँवा से आवेले राम लछुमन, कहँवा से आवे सईंया मोर ए हरि ।
अजोधा से आवे राम लछुमन, मोरंग से आवे सईंया मोर ए हरि ।।

कहँवा बईठाएब राम लछुमन, कहँवा बईठाएब सईंया मोर ए हरि ।
दुअरा बईठाएब राम लछुमन, घर में बईठाएब सईंया मोर ए हरि ।।

कथिए जेवइबो में राम लछुमन, कथिए जेवइबो सईंया मोर ए हरि ।
पुड़िये जेवइबो में राम लछुमन, पुअवा जेवइबो सईंया मोर ए हरि ।।

कहँवा सुतइबो में राम लछुमन, कहँवा सुतइबो सईंया मोर ए हरि ।
दुअरा सुतइबो में राम लछुमन, सेजिया सुतइबो सईंया मोर ए हरि ।।

Where do Ram and Lakshman come from, where does my beloved come from, O! Lord;
From Ayodhya come Ram and Lakshman, from Morang comes my beloved, O! Lord.

Where should I sit Ram and Lakshman, where should I sit my beloved, O! Lord;
At the gate will sit Ram and Lakshman, in the home my beloved, O! Lord.

What food will I offer to Ram and Lakshman, what will I offer to my beloved, O! Lord;
Pudi I will offer to Ram and Lakshman, [and] puwa to my beloved, O! Lord.

Where would I put Ram and Lakshman to sleep, where would my beloved sleep, O! Lord;
At the gate will sleep Ram and Lakshman; on my bed my beloved, O! Lord.

Home is a graded space, both architecturally and emotionally. Yet in each of the actions and decisions taken by the wife, the husband scores over the brothers. The intimate migrant was preferable over the distant divinities.

To be at home, therefore, meant marking the boundaries of intimacy and familiarity along the lines of architecture and access. The meanings of access and intimacy ironically become clear in the presence of a visitor or stranger. The familiar and the intimate relies upon the distant and unknown.

Broadly speaking, खेत (khet) and खलिहान (khalihaan) – together meaning the farm and the field – lying outside the house came under the domain of the male. खलिहान (khalihaan) also referred to the outer courtyard of the house where grain and hay was stored. Married women seldom went while doing their everyday chores. Unmarried girls, as noticed in the opening song, had greater access to these spaces.

दुवारी (duwari) and दुवरिया (duwariya) – both meaning the gate/threshold – separated the outer and inner courtyards. In houses with one courtyard, it was the boundary between the outer public space and the inner quarters of the home.

However, beyond its physical value, duwari very strongly marked the passage of intimacy. In spite of being a god, Ram was not allowed to cross this boundary to come into the inner courtyard called अंगना (angnaa) or अंगनवा (anganwaa). He had to sit and sleep at the दुवारी (duwari). In certain situations, crossing the duwari was a matter of shame and embarrassment, which is shown in a part of a song.

एही ठइयाँ झुमका हेरा गइले, दइया रे …
सेजिअहि खोजनी, अँगनवाहि खोजनी,
दुआराहि खोजत लजा गइनी दइया रे, एही …

Oh! Lord, I lost my earring at this place…
I searched the bed, I searched in the anganwaa…
I blushed while searching at the duwari…

For Wajid Ali Shah, crossing the duwari and leaving his angnaa behind meant dislocation of an unknown degree – अंगना तो परबत भयो, और देहरी भयी बिदेस. The duwari itself became the unfamiliar point of no return.

These Bhojpuri folksongs have different genres that are set to different rhythms of singing. The purpose for which they are sung also vary. In jhumars – playful marriage songs – we find the inversion of the emotional architecture, which actually confirms the normative meaning attached to अंगना (angnaa) and दुवारी (duwari).

Based on the same narrative structure as the Ram song, the woman asks a series of questions on how to treat the younger brother-in-law and her lover who have both arrived at the same time.

Since it’s a playful song, the lover gets to sit in the angnaa (inner courtyard) while the brother-in-law remains at the duwari (threshold of the courtyards). The former gets sweets and milk, the latter, plain boiled rice and water. Finally, the lover gets to sleep in the angnaa while the younger claimant of the house sleeps at the duwari.

Homes of lifecycle

While men travelled to big cities in search of job and money, young girls went through mundane but powerful transformations in their lifecycle through marriage. Angnaa, duwari and khalihaan – they all more or less retained the same gendered and emotional meanings, but once we think of home from the perspective of a marriageable young girl, we can see subtle changes in ways they were accessed in different homes.

Naihar – the natal home of the girl – is a place of carefree and careless freedom where thresholds of courtyards mattered, but not so much. In the opening song, the girl misses the whole habitat of her home signifying a rather unrestricted access to these places.

In contrast is sasural, the groom’s house, where boundaries of access and freedom of movement are more ritualised and disciplined. Even angnaa, which is largely a female space, becomes inaccessible due to male presence. When it rains, goes one song, the girl complains that angnaa has become the homestay of the father-in-law and the elder brother-in-law. The whole day is gone in touching their feet and maintaining the veil. How could, she asks, I go and sweep the floor?

Cared much by her father and brother at her natal home, the new home means new discipline and new rituals of everyday life. It is, therefore obvious why in many of the folksongs, the girl, who is now a wife in her new home, threatens to go back to naihar when confronted with arguments and displeasure by her husband and in-laws.

The life spanned across two homes – naihar and sasural – points towards the complexity of home and homemaking, which has ironical duality. Marriage makes the girl instantly parayaa – stranger/kinless – whereas a stranger’s family (sasural) becomes her new home with an adage that she has come from a stranger’s home. Familiar becomes strange and the strange struggles in becoming completely familiar.

Many folksongs, therefore, have a didactic tone of the mother instructing her daughter on how to behave in her sasural, since being adored and pampered in the naihar she has not learnt any sahur – proper way of self-conduct. The lack of sahur also reflects in the lack of observing the boundaries and thresholds and hence the mother instructs on ways of conduct.

Even after marriage, therefore, naihar retains the value of being an intimate space for many reasons. Particularly, when the husband insists on migrating.

जो तू सईया परदेसवा जाइब ना, हो परदेसवा जाइब ना,
हमरा भईया के बोला द हम नइहरवा जाइब ना ।

जो तू धनिया नइहरवा जाइबू ना, हो नइहरवा जाइबू ना,
जेतना लागल बा रुपईया, ओतना देके जईह ना ।

जो तू सईया रुपईया लेब ना, हो रुपईया लेब ना,
जइसन बाबा घरवा रहनी ओइसन कके दीह ना ।

If you, my beloved, migrate, if you migrate;
Call my brother, I will go to naihar.

If you, my love, go to naihar, if you go to naihar;
First pay the money I have incurred on you.

If you, my beloved, ask for money, if you ask for it;
First provide me the home as was my father’s.

Transgressions within homes

While the husband leaves to earn money to build an extra room or to make the roof of the house pucca, marking a passage to prosperity, the domestic world of the wife revolves around her homes. None of these, however, are static. Marriage and migration have changed them.

One simple reason of this change is the addition of new members. The wife’s brother has got married and so her naihar has its own daughter-in-law. When she gets frustrated in sasural, she thinks of going to her naihar but..

एक मनवा करेला नइहर चलि जइतीं, कुँअवा पोखरवा डुबी जइतीं हो राम ।
नइहर गइले भउजी लुलुअइहें से, बुड़ला से सखिया सब छूटिहें हो राम ।।

Sometimes I think I should have gone to naihar, [and] oh god, drown myself in a well or pond,
But on going there my sister-in-law will humiliate me, and oh god, I also have lost all my friends.

At her sasural, the biggest change, which in a way was and is rather quotidian and widespread in this region, is the long absence of her husband. In the backdrop of this absence, the predominant form of relationship which is forged between the wife and other female members at her in-laws’ house is of feud and enmity. The flavour of speech is of special reckoning.

एजी सासु के बोलिया कइसन लागेला, जइसन लाल मिरचईया के तितइया लागेला ।
एजी गोतिन के बोलिया कइसन लागेला, जइसन काली मरिच के तितइया लागेला ।
एजी ननद के बोलिया कइसन लागेला, जइसन तलफत अंगिठी लहरिया मारेला ।

Tell me, how do the words of mother-in-law (saas) sound, they sound like the piquant of red chillies,
Tell me, how do the words of sister-in-law (gotin) sound, they sound like the burn of black peppers,
Tell me, how do the words of sister-in-law (nanad) sound, they sound like the blaze of a glowing stove.

The saas and nanad are in particular described as जनमवाँ के बइरी (born/sworn enemies). The reasons for tussles are varied. The husband has returned with gifts for the wife which have made other family members jealous, the household chores have not been done properly, the wife remains childless (not a surprise, given the fact that the husband is away yet she is the object of sarcasm) and since she threatens to transgress the boundary of sexual conduct when her husband is away, she is flirtatious and she lacks decency.

Some transgressions are, in fact, potentially happening within the home in the intimate and familiar precincts of the angnaa. In some folksongs, the returning husband finds a child borne out of his wife and his brother. In fact, as the following jhumar shows, the male gaze is widespread both inside and outside the house.

मोरा जोबना पर चोलिया गजब चमके । मोरा…
हाटवा त जाईं राहगीरवा बोलावे,
बगिया में मलिया दउरी लपके; मोरा…
सेजिया डसावत सईया बोलावे,
जेवना करत ननदोईया लपके, मोरा…
आँगन बहारी त देवरा बोलावे,
पानवा देखाई बलुमवा झपटे; मोरा…

Wonder does the blouse spell on my youth. Wonder…
While going to the market the passerby hoots,
In the garden the gardener pounces. Wonder…
My beloved calls me to prepare the bed,
While cooking, the brother-in-law scoots. Wonder…
While sweeping the angnaa my brother-in-law calls,
Showing betel leaf my beloved darts. Wonder…

Social reality and poetic imagination

Reading folksongs as fixed textual source can become highly problematic. They are performed on a variety of occasions and within different social classes. How literal should be our comprehension of these songs is a complex and difficult question.

It would be simplistic and erroneous if this poetic imagination is taken at its face value to form a uniform opinion about gender, home and the intervening social reality. A majority of these songs, particularly of the jhumar variety, are full of tease, mock, taunt and flirt. Is their performance a mere ritual or a telling reality of social lives of these men and women?

Additionally, there are songs that do not conform to a single pattern. For instance, the figure of dewar (younger brother-in-law) could be villainous and lecherous on the one hand and obedient and confidante on the other. The figure of Lakshman from the epic Ramayana serves the ideal template. Similarly, the younger sister-in-law could be the best intimate friend as well as the most spiteful person.

The typologies of relationships are complex. Therefore, the poetic imagination, which is predominantly a male imagination as these songs were usually written or composed by men, need not be the exact mirror image of social reality. They could possibly represent a historical reality but do not necessarily clone or mirror it.

What indeed can be said with some certainty is that in all its playfulness and subversion, women are the central subject in these folksongs. Either in her idealised form or in her sexualised transgressive avatar, she comes across as the main subject in representing love and jealousy, feud and affection, separation and curiosity. It is through her lens that we see this world of marriage, dowry, migration and graded forms of homes and relationships. Her woes as a young girl, her sorrows of separation as a wife, her profanity and her licentiousness are subjects of description, control, discipline, ridicule and entertainment.

Women occupy a central part but in totality these songs do not reflect their agency unless negatively couched. A popular saying of the region regards money, land and women as key elements of feud and enmity within families.

These songs are therefore not the celebration of a women’s agency. It rather appears that she is the carrier of a variety of male projections, idealisations, anxieties, fantasies and desires.

This, however, in itself is a generalisation. The sensitivity towards historical minutiae cannot ignore asking if the patriarchy practiced in naihar was/is the same as that of sasural? Is the one practiced by father-in-law the same as that of the father and brother? And, is the patriarchy practiced by the mother same as that that by the mother-in-law?

Are there ways of reading and performing these songs that challenge the male projection? Are wives simply the victims or do these folksongs also allow us to reconstruct their world of subversion and resistance? Does performance of these songs change the meaning? When sung in a group of women, do these songs impart empowerment, even momentarily? Does subversion based on laughter and tease question the male projection?

Or once again, do these songs actually reflect a social reality that privileges accommodation? In a similar kind of song coming from Chhattisgarh, the woman does complain of being abused by her saas but she also loves being placated by her dewar. She laments leaving the angnaa of her parents but starts liking her sasural. After ‘naihar chuto hi jaaye’ does sasural become ‘genda phool – marigold flowers, for which one gradually but eventually develops a fondness?

Songs taken from Akhileshwar Sinha, ‘Bhojpuri Lokgeeton Mein Sanskaar’, Janaki Prakashan, Patna, 2008. All translations are by the author. The author would like to express thanks to Pankaj Kumar Jha for his help in translating the first song.

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