In Maharashtra's Kurundvad village, the women of the Sonamata Mahila Bhajni Mandal oppose oppression through music
From patriarchy to casteism and gender inequality, the women of the Sonamata Mahila Bhajni Mandal have been unafraid of tackling societal issues through their songs, for the past 46 years of the group’s existence.
The Sonamata Mahila Bhajni Mandal is an all-women musical group in Kurundvad, Maharashtra. The youngest of the 13-member group is 45, the oldest is 81.
They have all been brought together by their love of music, and by the way they’ve faced up to social oppression.
From patriarchy to casteism and gender inequality, the women of the SMBM have been unafraid of tackling societal issues through their songs, for the past 46 years of the group’s existence.
This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
In August 2019, Sunita Nikam lived through the worst deluge of her life. She was stranded on a neighbour’s roof for 12 days as rains ravaged the village of Kurundvad in the Shirol taluka of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district.
“For the first nine days, no help reached us,” says Sunita. “I hope no one ever faces something like this.”
As the floodwaters rose around her, Sunita’s rage and distress took the form of the following verses —
There is no justice in the entirety of this world, O Lord
There is no right to live in this world for the poor
We are the poor, listen to our pleadings
Our country, a farmers' nation, is lacking food
The monster of inflation is all set to swallow us whole
There's nothing to fill the stomach, nothing to cover the body
Some aren't even getting shelter to stay in
The eyes are tearing up with hunger
Dying hungry, how much will the soul withstand?
The mother has tied her children to the back, and the gods to her stomach
(Translated from the Marathi by Vishakha Ghadi)
Sunita had worked as an agricultural labourer for three decades; she had been married at the age of nine. “My in-laws troubled me a lot,” she says. “I started using music to forget it all.”
Sunita is a member of the Sonamata Mahila Bhajni Mandal — an all-women musical group in Kurundvad. The youngest of the 13-member group is 45, the oldest is 81. They have all been brought together by their love of music, and by the way they’ve faced up to social oppression. From patriarchy to casteism and gender inequality, the women of the SMBM have been unafraid of tackling societal issues through their songs, for the past 46 years of the group’s existence.
The SMBM’s story begins in the early 1970s, when Annapurna Potdar decided she wanted to learn music.
The renowned kirtankars (performers of devotional music who also exchange commentary and dialogue with the audience) Narayan and Sumati Kane were then visiting Kurundvad. Annapurna went to Kanebuwa (as Narayan Kane was known) without informing her family, and asked him to teach her music.
“Women weren’t even allowed to step out of the house at the time,” says Kamal Potdar, 63, who is the sole surviving member from the original/founding line-up of the SMBM.
Initially hesitant, Kanebuwa later agreed to teach Annapurna. Those around her thought Annapurna’s musical inclinations would fade in a few week. On the contrary, her passion inspired other women in the village, seven of whom joined her in an informal group which would become known as the SMBM in 1974-75.
Kanebuwa was a tough teacher, telling the women they couldn’t perform in public until they had mastered the basics. “Over the first six months, he only taught us how to play a taal (cymbal) for three hours daily,” remembers Kamal, and laughs. He mentored the group for over 12 years.
The women performed abhang, gavlan, bharood (folk art that is a combination of elocution, drama and music, for creating social awareness) as well as bhaavgeet (lyric poems).
The women of SMBM had quite a few adventures along their journey. While performing bharood in the 1980s and ‘90s, for instance, none of the women wanted to dress up as men. “Tyana vichitra vataycha (they felt it was weird),” says Kamal. So she took it on herself to perform the male parts and began dressing as a man — even sporting a moustache! It was a small act, yet significant in how it challenged the conservative fabric of society. Spurred on by Kamal, the senior members of the troupe also became more experimental in taking on male parts.
The SMBM have performed approximately 500 bharood in several villages of Maharashtra. But the form also required props, and with barely any funds, this became an impediment to performing. So the women started crafting accessories and props from waste material.
The group also began participating in singing competitions across Maharashtra. Since most of these events would begin at 9.30 in the evening and go on for at least four hours, the women hired a tempo to travel in. Their competitors were usually all-male groups, or groups dominated by men. But “it never became an issue,” says Kamal. “People would be surprised to see an all-women group. We sang devotional songs. How could someone trouble us?”
The SMBM clocked about 2,000 performances across the state, in 46 years, winning several prestigious prizes. “We never counted the number of prizes because we never sang with that intent,” the group members chime in. Perhaps that is why the group has also stopped taking part in competitions from last year onwards. “We don’t want to compete anymore. Music brings us together,” they say. About six times a month, the SMBM perform in the temples in all the neighbouring villages.
The SMBM is a place where the women — all from different castes and communities — find solace. The group members currently include Sunita Nikam, 50, Sunita Gade, 73, Sharayu Joshi, 68, Manali Kolekar, 45, Kamal Potdar, 63, Vimal Kagalkar, 67, Malti Bhope, 69, Vimal Patil, 64, Prabha Kulkarni, 65, Prathiba Phatak, 81, Shubhangi Phalle, 73, Vatsala Mangaonkar, 73, and Shobha Mane, 60.
“We are all sisters. Music is our identity. We share our plight and stories with each other,” says Vimal Kagalkar. Vimal belongs to the Shimpi caste, listed as an ‘Other Backward Class’ in Maharashtra. She also teaches classical music to the students of her community.
“Ekatra yene aaughad aahe (it’s difficult for all the members to practise together),” says Kamal. “Everyone is dealing with some problem, be it in their home or in the larger society, so we never expect all the women to be present for the rehearsals.” So the women practise whenever they can.
Each of the women faced their own battls in convincing their families to allow them to pursue music. Kamal told her parents that singing helped heal sore throats. Manali Kolekar, who joined SMBM five years ago and plays the tabla, took her older brother’s place under a master after he didn’t take to the instrument.
While older women keep joining the group, Kamal says the bigger challenge is in taking the same revolutionary spirit to the younger generation. “Take advantage of the resources you have,” she advises them. “Find your mentors. Learn new skills.”