As a young woman, just starting working life, I remember going to my first ever Women’s Day rally about 19 years ago. A motley group of women and a few good men marching down a central Bombay street yelling: meri behna maange: Aazadi! Arre Jaativaad se: Aazadi – that’s still the most infectious chant I’ve heard – one heard it at different sorts of rallies in which people maange different things (not more Pepsi though).
The rally culminated in a meeting took place in a school in central Bombay. The hall was full. Some young women came up and read poetry they had written. Then some older Gandhians came up and sang older narivadi songs. More such singing followed. Some of it was hysterically bad. Some of it was wonderful. My favourite song was one sung in a Marathi folk tune (same as the tim tim kara song) in which a woman dictates to a letter writer a missive for her husband in the Gulf. It was a droll song in which you could just see the woman rolling her eyes.
The song’s refrain was: Main acchi hoon ghabrao nako – aisa khat mein likho. Each verse then detailed her problems in various parts of her life and ended with a question that asked, don’t you think it’s ok to change this then? – followed by instruction to letter writer: aisa khat mein likho. The last verse was about how she’d like to join a women’s group but her mother-in-law felt she had no problems that justified this – the last line went – main meeting ko jaaon kya nako? – aisa khat mein likho. The entire hall went into peals of laughter.
There were all sorts of songs – not all of them were wry and dry in this lovely idiomatic way. Some were more sweetly poetic – beti hoon mein beti, main tara banoongi; most were rousing, especially those anthem – saare bandhan todke, dekho behnen aati hain/haan dekho logon, dekho behnen aati hain/ Aayegi, zulm mitaayegi, vo tho naya zamana layegi; Ai ji re – hum dharmon ke bhed bhav, oonch neech ke bandhan (something..) aur phandon ko tod kar aaye/ hum apni behnon ke saath morche mein aaye/ hum kheton khaganon se, band karkhanon se, gaon aur shehron se ek saath aaye/hum apni behnon ke saath morche mein aaye (I’m quoting a bit freely).
All along I felt on the one hand, like a middle class kid who hadn’t really done much of this before, a bit bemused and self-conscious – but on the other hand I too wanted to be part of this group – the girls with the shiny hair in doubled up plaits, the activists, the college girls and others in the full room who were clapping along and having a pretty good time listening to these catchy songs. But I felt a bit inhibited – and I could see a few more like myself on the edges of this group.
At the end of the meeting someone sang Is liye rah sangharsh ki hum chunen – a song that sounds a bit clichéd and sentimental when sung in a group – but that takes on a strangely melancholy, reflective note when sung solo, as it was that day. Everyone was quiet then, as if communing with themselves about why they had personally chosen the way of resistance – not just for the meeting, but for their lives.
The Indian women’s movement is famous for using songs as part of their organizing and mobilizing and Kamla Bhasin is perhaps the most famous of the song writers of this movement. Sonal Shukla, from Vacha produced a cassette of songs too as did Jagori and Saheli, women’s groups in Delhi. Peter Manuel has a good discussion of it in his famous book Cassette Culture, in fact. I remember each of the cassettes had a little booklet with the lyrics inside it in Hindi. I remember buying all those tapes – the Jagori one with the brown cover, the Vacha one with the green cover. It was easier to remember them by colour because they all had the same type of drawings – warli painting or some sort of tribal art and similar titles – sangharsh ki awaz, hamari awaz. I remember learning the songs and singing them loudly in the bathroom, feeling revolutionary and eliciting irriation and amusement at home.
I never went to another women’s day celebration like this one – though I went to many in the following years. Bombay always had a rally on women’s day until a few years ago. In retrospect it’s hard for me to say if that’s because I had a certain innocence – or whether those times were still innocent, times in which people believed that this mobilizing had meaning, that sangharsh would indeed usher in a naya zamana.
Some years ago, I was very excited because there was a women’s day party at a pub. My friend J and I got dressed up and went off to dance with a whole bunch of other unstoppable ladies. What I remember most about that evening was some overgrown adolsescent guy who was the DJ – and you know how DJs have this control freak, infantile ego of only their idea of perfect music should be played (oops, sounds a bit like us directors, but let’s gloss over that)? So we kept asking him to change the music and he’d nod as if we were his mother asking him to clean his room and just go on playing the same cut-rate trance. I mean I understand some of his artistic ego thing – but hey, it was women’s day, he could have played songs we wanted to dance to, no? Besides we were paying him for this! It was an exhausting battle of wills, and we sort of won, except we were exhausted at the end of it and went home soon enough.
To me it seems like that last experience applies to so much of the struggle to put feminist ideas into practice in personal life and occasionally public life.
I woke up this morning, looked at the papers in an enervated way – although there was the occasional good piece most of it was disconnected from a strong set of ideas or history and could just as well have been about Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. So I looked for my cassettes in a dust encrusted box. I found only one of the tapes – Hum Aavaz Uthate Hain from Saheli (white and purple cover). I then looked for the (also dust encrusted) power cable of my tape recorder and all set up, pressed Play. White Noise. My tape recorder of course, does not work anymore. The medium and the message had been allowed to hibernate too long.
I looked on the internet and I found THIS.
I listened to it laughing because it’s been digitized from an older, wobblier cassette than mine was. For those of you who never heard these songs as I had the chance to, I hate that this would be an introduction. The studio seemed to have introduced a pious decorum into these singers, they sing slowly as if speaking to people who do not understand their language, as if leaving nothing to chance – none of the mischief and energy and ebullience I heard in those songs is audible.
I wish someone, somewhere – a sound recordist or archivist – on this day is thinking of a project that involves finding these women and recording their songs as they sang them live – and putting them on a CD or online archive.
I want to have songs in the movies like Lara Lappa Lara Lappa Laya Rakhda – a proto feminist song from a 1940s movie that was a very big hit- about which more HERE. I want these cool new people who do such cool music in all those cool new movies to make a song or two like that. I want to be able to go to a party and dance to a song like that.
I want to be able to clap along as someone sings – badly maybe, but hopefully well! :
Yeh waqt ki aawaz hai milke chalo
Yeh zindagi ka raaz hai milke chalo
At which point I want to hear someone sing loudly over the singers as Sonal Shukla who founded Vacha always used to do at every rally – Chalo BEHEN milke chalo milke chalo – even though it used to totally roger the meter and rhythm.
Aaj dil ki ranjishen mitake aao
Aaj bhed bhav sab bhulake aao
Aazadi se hai pyaar, jinhen desh se hai prem
Kadam kadam se aur dil se dil milake aao
Milke chalo, milke chalo, milke chalo
Chalo bhai milke chalo
I want to be able to grin when I hear that and look in her direction and while doing so, see scattered faces of young girls, looking a bit timid and a bit tempted; girl like the one I was who see that there are many other women, so different from them, who have a somewhat milta jhulta desire in their hearts. And that will make the harder path seem a little more possible for them, help them keep taking it.
In the meantime, Happy Women’s Day to y’all all.
To read more about the history fo Women’s Day – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Women’s_Day