In Bihar, songs by Bhojpuri women from Bahujan communities underline the sociopolitical cost of migration
Bhojpuri women, mostly from Bahujan communities, have been singing about their husbands in foreign lands for over two centuries now — songs that have fallen on deaf ears of not just people not speaking their tongue, but also of the Bhojpuri-speaking elite.
The viral image of Rampukar Pandit crying while speaking to someone on the phone has become the face of the migrant workers' tragedy in India. The photograph raises a nagging question in my mind — what is the person on the other end saying? His migration is not a one-way affair; he has a family that he has left behind, who may not have seen him in a long time. It is also perhaps at this very moment that his wife breaks the news of their one-year-old son's death over the phone, causing him to dissolve into tears.
Walking all the way from Delhi, Pandit has now finally reached home in Bihar's Begusarai. He, however, could not see his child one last time before his passing.
Like every other major humanitarian crisis, migration too has more aspects than one. There are people who left their homes for work, and are now walking back to where they came from, and then there are people who have been left behind. The sad reality, however, is that the other aspects of migration are barely ever looked at, mostly because they are related to women. In a male-centric world, female perspectives are often lost, especially with a problem like migration where the primarily affected individuals are male. Seldom do people look at how the women left behind have dealt with the problem.
The female victims of migration are often unheard of in the mainstream. Not many have turned an empathetic ear to these women in over two centuries, not because they have not spoken of their trauma, but because they have been ignored. This is especially true of Bhojpuri women with migrant husbands.
These women have been singing about their husbands in foreign lands for generations now — songs that have fallen on deaf ears of not just people not speaking their tongue, but also of the Bhojpuri-speaking elite. It is perhaps because these are songs sung by women, that too mostly Bahujan women. The brahmanical structure in the Bhojpuri belt systemically resists acknowledging the existence of these songs.
These folk songs help examine migration in the context of women's lives, and the way they have been affected by the phenomenon of the men travelling away from their homes to earn a livelihood.
Folk songs are a method of looking at a culture from the inside-out, instead of the outside-in. They are a product of a community’s collective creative efforts, enabling us to understand the reaction of a peoples to a sociopolitical event. In the case of the Bhojpuri-Bahujan women, it is even more important to examine these songs as they are the only available documentation of their condition. Despite growing female literacy rates in the belt, the region continues to show little to no development of a literary culture, especially among women.
These songs by the women of the province carry succinct economic and political commentary about their existing conditions.
As bastions of patriarchy, the husbands' families find no use for an extra mouth to be fed, if it is not inherently linked to a man who is present in the house. The respect a woman receives in this society is more often than not tied to the sexual and conjugal service she provides to a man. Her status is also affected by the number and gender of the children she births. Childless women, or women with only daughters, bear a lower status in society. A song goes:
"Toharo je maiya prabhu ho awari chhinariya ho
Tauli naapiye telwa dihalan ho ram
Toharo bahiniya prabhu ho awari chhinariya ho
Loiye ganiye hathwa ke dihalan ho raam"
"Oh husband, your mother is such a bitch,
She gives me only a few drops of oil
Oh husband, your sister is such a bitch
She gives me limited flour to cook"
[Translation by Prof Asha Singh in her paper, Folksongs as an Epistemic Resource: Understanding Bhojpuri Women’s Articulations of Migration]
Here, the woman laments not getting enough food to cook. Similar themes of not being able to buy salt, oil and flour are recurrent throughout folk culture. This particular song also highlights the aforementioned 'lower status' of the wife, in the absence of her husband. The things she desires is available to her, but their distribution is overseen by more powerful women in the family.
Bhojpuri folk music is brimming with songs of yearning, with one for every season in Bihar.
There is a song that goes:
“Sona leve piyu gaile pardes
Na sona milhe, na piyu milihe
Roopa ho gail kes”
“My beloved left for a foreign land
To get me gold
I neither have the gold, nor the beloved
My hair has turned silver”
— An excerpt from Bhikhari Thakur’s play Bidesiya, written in 1912.
Here, the protagonist bemoans being left behind for so long that her hair has turned grey. She reminisces being a young bride, while awaiting the return of her husband who has been away for years. Bidesiya went on to inspire a separate genre of plays that deal with the topic of migration, as well as the abuse and injustice faced by women left behind in villages.
Husbands taking up new wives far away from home and domestic violence were popular plots in plays inspired by Bhikhari Thakur. The stigma faced by married women whose husbands migrated before the gauna (the ritual of giving away one's daughter) was also a central theme.
These plays regularly borrowed songs from the local folk traditions of Kajri and Chaiti, among others.
Another song consistently heard before the season of spring is Basant Na Bhave.
"Padi bipati, yah jag anhiyari
Saasu nanad dihen gaari
Baanh pakdi dewra mohe nikarat
Kaha sakhi naihar chali jaain?"
"Great tragedies have befallen me
My mother and sister in law throw profanities at me
My brother in law drags me out by the arm
Do you think I should go back to my home?"
...To which the character of the friend responds:
"Naihar jaibu bhauji dukh manihe
Sakhiya hasihein naiharwa ke log
Basant na bhawe"
"If you leave, dear sister,
Your pains will only be amplified
People will laugh at you and your family"
This was and still is the condition of a lot of women in Bihar. Additionally, sexual violence towards wives of migrant labourers by male members of their families is also quite common. Bidesiya featured a village goon who took a fancy to Pyaari (wife of a migrant). He constantly made attempts to sleep with her, and eventually tried to rape her. In a society that only respects a married woman when she is associated with her husband, not having one leaves you vulnerable to a lot of violence.
Besides newly-married men, men with children would also migrate, leaving the household in shambles. The women would then be left alone to bring up their children all by themselves. In a song where a woman begs her husband to stay for a few more days, she says that their son has grown up without his father, and as a result, has become rowdy. She implores him to stay back for his sake. In another song, a woman talks about how her children do not remember their father’s face.
Apart from this, there is the trauma of separation itself, which is more often than not amplified by the men being inattentive and ignorant towards their wives and families. Several songs of separation also talk of not receiving any letters, and of mistresses the husbands have taken up in the cities.
Tones of loneliness and jealousy exist in all such pieces of folk music. The wives speak of their husbands' mistresses in hateful and vile terms. A song goes:
"Jaun savatiya se saiyan humre reejhe
dhatura khaaye saut bauraye re"
"The woman my beloved fancies
I hope she eats a poppy and loses her mind."
This, however, has a different side to it too. The women these migrant men took up as mistresses were subsequently outcast from society. They were perhaps the worst victims of migration. When the migrants returned home, these women would be left with nothing.
It is important now, more than ever, to explore Bhojpuri folk traditions that talk of the migration crisis. In the face of thousands of migrant labourers walking back home during a pandemic, we can no longer remain ignorant of one of the worst humanitarian crises plaguing the country. Bihari migrants have built this nation after leaving their homes. The least we could do in return is to listen to the pain of those they have left behind.
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