Notes from Punjab: Folk songs: Loss of women’s creative expression – Newspaper
Our folk songs are marked by certain distinct characteristics. One, they are simple. Not that they lack depth. Depth, whenever they have it, is expressed in a way that makes them easily understandable and therefore shareable at individual and collective levels.
Two, they are invariably meant for singing. They carry poetic structures embedded with rhythmic patterns that can be set to music. Third, they deal with common experience, the lived experience of people in real life situations. Concrete experience is devoid of the sterile abstraction we usually encounter in seemingly serious poetry composed in high-end language. But there are popular misconceptions about folk songs that need to be dispelled. It is generally believed that a folk song has no individual authorship. He was somehow mysteriously born, something that grows out of the ground or falls from the sky as if it were manna. It is far from reality. Each folk song is created by an individual – or a group of individuals – endowed with creative power. But the author is not a typical poet and does not insist on being recognized as such and is less pushed on his intellectual property rights.
Since no intellectual property rights are claimed, it is assumed that a folk song does not have individual ownership. The same applies to the tune of a folk song which is best enjoyed when sung. The tunes are produced by professional musicians or extremely talented people who have a deep sense of music. They are deceptively simple as they employ only three or three notes but are repeated in such a way that they keep listeners spellbound. Such simplicity is the pinnacle of creativity because it hides within itself the complexity of exceptional craftsmanship. This is perhaps why musical directors and composers of film scores have an undying fascination with the folk tunes that inspire them when making their music in the subcontinent.
Let’s not forget that in Punjab, as in other places in the region, we have what we call ‘musician families’, the traditional custodians of our music responsible for preserving and promoting our folk music. But unfortunately, they have always been at the bottom of the socio-cultural ladder in a caste-dominated society that values family origins more than individual talent. Thus, their creative contribution is largely unrecognized. The same goes for anonymous individuals, especially women whose role in creating folk songs and music is ignored.
Until recently, women were heard singing. They sang when a child was born. Members of the older generation still have vague memories of lullabies their mothers and aunts used to sing to them to sleep. Women would sing wedding songs – “Tappay, Mahiye and love songs” – weeks before the wedding day. ‘Menhdi’ was a delightful ceremony in which henna was ritually applied to the hands of the bride and groom, together or separately, with joyful songs producing joy among the audience. Women would sing celebratory verses (Sehray) to the groom’s health and happiness before he departed for the bride’s place.
The women welcoming the groom to the bride’s house ridiculed him mercilessly, as well as his family, his clan and the wedding party with their typical “Sithni”. The verses would sometimes be bawdy out of sheer enthusiasm. As the bride left, they sang heartbreaking songs of separation from family that made people cry.
When someone died, women would sing dirges (Vaen/Keernay) with their faces covered, causing the mourners to sob. They recreated the life of the deceased by evoking precious memories for the family and the community concerned. Women had a great repertoire to suit different occasions. But their business will not stop growing since each time they will add by improvising on the melodies and the verses corresponding to the mood and the atmosphere. And they would do it out of the blue. The expression could be so powerfully biting and defiant that men, always on the lookout for women, would avoid being seen. The creative power of women was their shield which protected them from the perfidious and the lustful. Their expression had both cathartic and aesthetic aspects. It gave them free will, however fleeting. She momentarily placed them at least on the same level as the men, if not above. It was a display of their cultural sophistication to the chagrin of patriarchy-loving male chauvinists. Without having the advantage of being on an equal footing, women could still surprise men by occasionally displaying their hidden potential. But women were not allowed to own their literary and cultural products due to patriarchal norms. Their creative expression, if possessed, was seen as a sign of their shamelessness.
The advent of the modern capitalist market accompanied by consumerism has changed the cultural scene beyond recognition. The era of consumables is presented as the dawn of individual glory. You are what you consume. And you don’t have to produce what you are told to consume. It is offered as something finished and packaged.
Material and cultural products are treated in the same way. It is assumed that you don’t need to create anything as an individual, not even songs and music. They will be produced elsewhere and will be supplied to you by points of sale. The end result is that you are literally banned from using your creative skills. You are tricked into a false comfort zone through shortcuts.
Our contemporary women are the real losers in this web of deception. They almost lost their power of creative expression which meant their cultural existence. They cannot compose verses or sing songs like their mothers and grandmothers. They prepare things. Creative effort is considered a waste of breath. Play canned music. Dance to the tune made for a standard consumer. Sing a speed number to spice up a passive gathering or if you’re ambitious, whip up a mix of commercial hits for the occasion.
To gauge the power of the songs, just look at how a woman from the Soon Sakesar valley dares to ridicule her lover with her wit: “Dhola vay sirr sariya / Toon ta hikka sipara parhia / Nirrian ghaltaan (My love, you have lost your head / You memorized only one chapter / It’s too full of mistakes”.
Women must reclaim their creative past if they wish to build a freer future. Such a future will herald freedom for all. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted in Dawn, June 20, 2022