The Arts

As Lakhs of Workers Trudge Back Home, a Look at Songs About Migration

Musical forms in different parts of the country deal with themes such as separation, dispossession and hostile working conditions.

Sootal rehlin sapan ek dekhlin
Sapan manbhavan ho sakhiya
Phootali kiriniya purab asmanva
Ujar ghar angan ho sakhiya
Ankhiya ke nirwa bhail khet sonwa
Ta khet bhail aapan ho sakhiya

(While sleeping I had a wonderful dream, my friend
As sunrays light up in eastern sky
And fill up my dwelling and courtyard with light
My tears turn into a golden harvest
And the farm becomes mine, my friend).

So goes a poem written by the late poet Gorakh Pande in Bhojpuri, in the Bidesiya style, narrating a wife’s dreams of owning land in the context of distress and deprivation, where her husband has migrated to a distant land for survival. It is said that the Bidesiya got crystallised formally as a music form following the popularity of the play Bidesiya by poet, writer and playwright Bhikhari Thakur in the 19th century in Bihar. The play contained six songs on migration, with the best known one being ‘Bhave naahin bhavanan, ho ram, videsh gavanvan,’ (I don’t care for palaces, Oh Ram, my beloved has gone to a foreign land).

This genre of migration songs expresses lament – of separation and uncertainty – and the woman’s fear that the ‘foreign’ land might subsume her husband. The eager anticipation of his arrival back home is encompassed by the ultimate anxiety of losing him. They also lament their desperate conditions, particularly their landlessness and hope against hope for a brighter future, is perhaps never to be.

Migrant workers cycle to their native places. Photo: PTI

Lament, separation, dispossession from land and village, hostile conditions and the drudgery of labour in an alien land are all familiar themes expressed through numerous poetic and musical forms in different parts of the country in the context of migration.

Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh have long been major sources for migrant workers going far away from home, as indentured labour to plantations in the Caribbean, Fiji and South Africa, as industrial labour to the mills of Calcutta and Bombay in the colonial period. Such migrations have in fact intensified to different states of India in the present times. Bhojpuri migration songs, in forms like the Bidesiya as well as the Viraha or Jatsari, represent the woman’s voice and are a rich expression of the socio-cultural conditions in the villages. In Gorakh Pande’s Bidesiya, for example, the woman dreams of the time when the mahajan (moneylender) will be chased away and the fields that they work in can become their own.

One song that comes to mind is from Telangana, a description of his situation as a roadworker by a migrant worker.

He says in the song:

Tug away, my brother, at the roadroller
Push it forward
The hot sun dances above my head
More than half the road is yet to be laid
The stones that I am laying are being flattened by cars
I have to work hard, I have to work fast
They say the Governor’s car will soon have to pass from here
I have a huge loan to pay to the Marwari
How can I say the boulders that I carry
Are heavier than that!
I will not survive without this hard work
I have become a slave to my existence
I have to exist like a slave
For I am the peasant who has sold his land
Moved to the city with my belly in my hands
I have to exist like a slave 

Migration from Kerala to the Gulf countries is well researched and much has been written about the socio-economic impact of such migration, by men as workers in a variety of occupations and of women mostly as domestic workers and nurses. What is less known is a category of songs called Kathu Pattu (Letter songs) that have become symbolic of the emotions of mostly the wives who have been left behind. Two types of songs constitute the genre, one of the woman singing about her situation in the Kathu (letter) and the man responding to her letter in the Marupati Kathu. These songs draw on a tradition that has been in existence from the 19th century, with Moyinkutty Vaidyar, who was considered one of the greatest poets of the Mappilapattu (songs of the Mappila Muslims in Kerala) wrote the first one, and a rich corpus came into existence thereafter. The present corpus of songs is mostly from the late 1970s, following the large scale migration to the Gulf.

After the coronavirus lockdown was implemented, lakhs of migrants have been walking, cycling or travelling in various precarious ways to cross hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres to get home. One of these workers wrote a song, appealing to the government to send them home. What the massive exodus shows is that despite the pull of the city or a job far away from home and its promise of a better life, the rootlessness and vulnerability in the places they migrate to remains. What is expressed poignantly in the song, most importantly, is the desire to be back at home amongst loved ones in the midst of calamity.

Sumangala Damodaran is professor of economics, School of Development Studies at Dr B.R. Ambedkar University.