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Everyday CreativitySinging Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills$

Kirin Narayan

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226407425

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226407739.001.0001

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The Ground That Grows Songs

The Ground That Grows Songs

(p.34) Chapter 2 The Ground That Grows Songs
Everyday Creativity

Kirin Narayan

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks more closely at Kangra as a distinctive cultural region and offers an overview on songs. As a way to introduce ideal life stages and associated fears of what might go wrong, the author presents three genres that have most preoccupied her through the years. The first is Pahari songs, or “old women's songs” that encompass songs about women's experience in the historical past and songs retelling stories from the Sanskrit Puranas, the “old books” that are compendiums of Hindu mythology. The second is “Suhāg”, which refers to the auspicious happiness of a married woman. Songs of this genre are especially chorused around a bride at weddings, including the weddings of goddesses. The third is pakhaṛu or “songs that are long and tell a story,” “songs about suffering,” and even “our life stories”.

Keywords:   Kangra, India, women's songs, cultural region, Pahari songs, Suhāg, pakharu

Meena Rana was mightily amused when an English woman who had recently settled in her village invited Meena over to admire the refurbished old house’s magnificent northern view. “She took me upstairs to look out of the windows and see the ‘scenery,’” Meena recalled, using the English word. “I told her: I see these mountains all the time. I know them very well. I work under them all through the day. I don’t need to look at mountains through a window! What need do I have for ‘scenery’?”

Rearing up in a great series of peaks across the northeast horizon of the valley, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is a compelling presence in Kangra. In the early mornings, the mountains are illumined from behind, the valley often seeming hazy. High tips of peaks light up, and then brightness slides sideways over ice and granite. The sun emerges to flood warmth and angled shadows across the valley and outline smoke rising from fires. On clear days, the mountains bask, gathering wispy boas of clouds as the sun moves higher and glaciers release moisture. As evening falls, the mountains blush a dusky gold. The high peaks glow long after the valley floor recedes into dusk. Electricity lights up settlements on the ground, people turn into their homes, and the mountains mostly retreat as dark shapes. Yet, on clear moonlit nights after snow, the mountains can seem as close and present as a gathering of seated women with covered heads, facing the valley.

(p.35) To the south, the Sivalik range runs parallel to these high granite Himalayas. Wherever one travels in the Kangra Valley, then, one has the perpetual sense of peaks at some edge of the horizon and joined now by the sharp spires of telecommunication towers. Local people describe the area as “a mountain region (pahāṛī ilākā)” distinct from “that which is below (bannāha)” or “the others’ place,” which means the wide stretching subcontinent south of the mountains. This association with a mountainous identity is compounded by Kangra’s integration into the contemporary northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh: “Himachal” is translated as “the abode of snow” for the towering mountains in many districts of the state. The great goddess Parvati or Girija—locally known as Gauran (with a nasal ) or Gaurja—is a daughter of the mountains, and many powerful goddess shrines mark the region.

Just as Meena Rana didn’t think that gazing at mountains framed by windows made much sense, my own attempts to use songs as windows into the larger landscape of women’s changing lives was a source of amusement for her and others too. I now look more closely at Kangra as a distinctive cultural region and offer an overview on songs. As a way to introduce ideal life stages and associated fears of what might go wrong, I present three genres that have most preoccupied me through the years.

Kangra as a Region

“Kangra” may derive from kān-gaṛh, “fort of the ear.”1 This is the ear of Jalandhar, an enormous demon, whose fallen body is in some accounts said to partly lie under the earth of this region (and extending from these foothills into the rich Doab plains of Punjab between the Sutlej and Ravi tributaries of the Indus River). One of the ancient names of Kangra was in fact Jālandhar. As one of the many interlinked sites of goddess worship (pīṭh) spread across the continent, Kangra is also known as Jālandhar pīṭh.

Another ancient name for Kangra was Trigarta or “three valleys” because of the deep ravines cut by tributaries of the Beas River running through the valley. The Mahabharata epic, composed somewhere between 300 BCE and 300 CE, mentions a ruler from Trigarta serving as an ally to Kauravas2—a tradition that hints at cultural continuities with the Himalayan ranges east of Kangra, where local chieftainships also link themselves to Kaurava allies.3 William Barnes, a British official who presided over the (p.36) colonial settlement of Kangra in the mid-nineteenth century, suggested that this reference to the Mahabharata was a regional attempt to become part of a wider imaginative geography and history: “ingeniously assumed by the Pundits of Kangra, to give their country a resting-place in the Chronology of Hindoostan.”4

Yet another ancient name for Kangra was Nagarkoṭ—“town of the fort.”5 Strategically located between plains and hill kingdoms, rising atop cliffs at the juncture of two tributaries of the Beas River, the Kangra fort became the site for key battles and sieges involving the control of hill states. The Kangra fort was thought to draw power from the goddess Ambika temple located within its ramparts, as well as a location near other Kangra goddesses who have drawn pilgrims from across North India for many centuries: particularly Bajreshwari-devi and Jwalamukhi Mata.6

Kangra goddesses provide key nodes in a larger pan-Indian network of goddess shrines associated with the scattered body parts of the goddess Sati. Jālandhar pīṭh is celebrated as one of four key shrines in Tantric texts dating from around the eighth century onward,7 and is associated primarily with Jwalamukhi Mata, “the flame-faced Mother,” who manifests in the form of leaping, blue-tinged flames from natural gas. This temple is said to mark the site where Sati’s tongue fell to earth. The temple to Bajreshwaridevi, or “goddess of the Thunderbolt,” which honors the site where Sati’s left breast landed, is also within this domain. Here, the goddess takes the form of a pinḍ—a rounded stone smoothed over with orange paste and adorned with enamel eyes, a nose ring, earrings, glittering red scarves, and flowers offered by devotees. Both these shrines are included in later lists of goddess sites that grow from four to eight to eighteen to the most commonly recounted fifty-one to 108.8 The local Katoch dynasty of hill chiefs also tapped into this fierce goddess energy through their myth of origin that recounts how the goddess Ambika fought battles with demons and sweat from her brow fell to earth (bhūmi), creating the first Katoch ruler, Bhumi Chand.9

Sung praises to the Kangra goddess regularly emphasize that the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar honored her—whether in her form of Jwalamukhi Mata or as Bajreshwari-devi. Here is the event as sung in a deep, resonant voice by Sita-devi (who appears in the next chapter) as part of a much longer praise:

  • (p.37) With bare feet, Akbar came—
  • He offered a golden umbrella
  •    in your radiant place,
  •    your resplendent place.
  • Blaze, Jwala!

Akbar’s bare feet and offering of a golden umbrella signify his deference to the goddess as a more powerful ruler. As people often recalled, the golden umbrella immediately turned to lesser iron as a way to humble the emperor. Yet, as the historian Mahesh Sharma points out, there is no historical evidence for Akbar visiting the Kangra goddess: rather, Sharma argues, the repetition of this theme across songs is a reminder of how a subjugated people can retain imaginative control through their oral traditions.10 Indeed, Akbar came late in a series of powerful rulers who sought control of the Kangra fort and had plundered the wealth amassed at the goddess temples: Mahmud of Ghazni in 1009; Feroze Shah Tughluq in 1360; and Sher Shah Suri in 1540. In the 1570s, during Akbar’s reign, hill rulers came under plains-based Mughal administrative control, and in 1620, his son Jehangir occupied the fort.

Control of Kangra and its fort was returned to local hands in 1787. The reign of Raja Sansar Chand II, a man with a great interest in the arts, is considered a high point for Kangra. Sansar Chand extended patronage to artists who combined the delicacy of Mughal miniature-painting skills with Hindu themes, developing what came to be known as the Kangra style of miniature painting, or “Kangra kalam.” The association of this style with Kangra is so strong that similar paintings commissioned in the courts of nearby hill rulers (particularly in Guler and Nurpur) are also sometimes glossed as “Kangra Valley painting,” though for more inclusivity these can together be termed “Pahari painting.” The word kalam can variously refer to a brush, a pen, the style, or what these implements might inscribe, as well as a cutting from a plant. The association with cutting, grafting, and new growth is particularly resonant: many parallel themes from mythology and perceptions of emotion branch through the lovely miniatures now lodged in museums across the world and the songs carried within Kangra women’s oral repertoires.11

Sansar Chand honored Shiva and Parvati as preexisting deities to the region, and he also spread Vaishnava forms of Hinduism—that is, worship (p.38) associated with Vishnu and his incarnations like Ram and Krishna. In particular, Sansar Chand popularized Krishna devotion through building temples to Krishna, celebrating festivals like Janmashtami (Krishna’s birthday in the monsoon), and commissioning murals and paintings on a variety of Krishna-related stories. For me, and I suspect for many urban Indians of my generation, Krishna is visually embedded in an idyllic, rural Kangra landscape on account of the widespread reproductions of such miniatures in folders available from museums, in the months of calendars, and on greeting cards.

The Punjabi cultural influence that has marked Kangra emerges from events during Sansar Chand’s reign. Gurkhas had invaded Kangra from the east in 1805, crossing what is now a border between India and Nepal. Resenting Sansar Chand’s regional dominance, hill rulers in adjoining states joined the Gurkhas to wage war against him. The Gurkhas laid siege to the Kangra fort and the countryside over four devastating years. Sansar Chand asked for help from the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. Ranjit Singh routed the Gurkhas but took control of the fort in 1809, making Kangra a tributary state to the Sikhs, and so part of Punjab.

After British occupation in 1846, Kangra remained an administrative part of Punjab and the area became known as “the Punjab hills.” Colonial administrators introduced tea cultivation to Kangra in 1849, and tea became a local industry. When the Kangra earthquake of 1905 wiped out a third of the valley’s population, most of the British tea planters departed and Indians took their place. “Kangra tea” remains a local product, and dark green swathes of tea bushes with scant tree cover can still be encountered in some stretches of the valley. In an occasional backyard, a stand of tea bushes still provides tea—plucked by hand and dried in the sun—for household consumption.

At the time of Indian independence in 1947, Kangra was still part of Jullunder district in Punjab. However, in 1966—after much debate and political maneuvering—Kangra was shifted from Punjab to became a district in its own right in the union territory of Himachal Pradesh that had been formed mostly through a conglomeration of previous hill states. Himachal Pradesh was formally recognized as a full-fledged state in the Republic of India in 1971. In the census of 1971, a few years before Maw and I first visited, Kangra’s population stood at 800,863; in the 2011 census, it nearly doubled (p.39) to 1,510,075 and was the most populated district in Himachal Pradesh. Currently, Kangra serves as the winter site for the legislative assembly of the state. The district is further subdivided into administrative tehsils or subdistricts, whose topography and way of life can vary widely. My own work has mostly been located in villages in the northeastern subdistrict of Palampur. However, following women back to their homes of birth or tagging along to marriages of relatives, my research also spread to the adjoining subdistricts of Baijnath, Nagrota Bagwan, and Dharamshala.

Throughout recorded history, migrants have become part of the local scene and integrated into Kangra hierarchies of caste and class. At the same time, many groups maintain imaginative or social connections to other places. People from dominant Rajput castes sometimes reflected on ancestors from Rajasthan who might have once arrived to serve in the king’s army; those from the Sood trader community spoke of relatives in trading networks scattered across other former hill states; Brahmans who were high-ranking local Kashmiri Pandits still held the original papers of the land grants received in Mughal times. In 1994, when my mother moved closer to Dharamshala, the village that she joined included settled Gaddi pastoralists who perceive themselves as closely associated to the district of Chamba across mountain passes, and Nepalis settled for several generations and often still connected to relatives in Nepal.

Since the early 1960s, the valley has also incorporated a growing Tibetan presence. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile are based in Dharamshala, along with a substantial Tibetan community. Temples, monasteries, and nunneries associated with other Tibetan Buddhist teachers make large and distinctive architectural statements in several other parts of the valley, too. As a result, Kangra increasingly draws Buddhists from all corners of the world, joining Hindu pilgrims visiting sacred sites across the valley and tourists enjoying the mountain air and cultural mix. In addition to the flows of pilgrims and tourists to particular sites, across the valley, well-off Indians from the plains increasingly build second homes to escape summer heat and to retire amid “scenery.”

Kangra is also marked by a long history of men migrating out in search for work. When subsistence farming was more central to people’s lives, a crucial part of each family’s income involved remittances sent by men working in bigger mountain towns, in the plains, or moving with the army. (p.40) This out-migration for employment continues. (Though men of Rajput martial castes were especially enlisted into the British colonial army, the Indian army draws men from a cross-section of Kangra castes and tribes, and “ex-servicemen” are located in every village.) In women’s songs, husbands are often addressed as the “employed man” (naukar, chākar), “traveler” (musāphar), or “soldier” (sipāhi) on account of a regional association with army employment. The places mentioned in women’s songs of separation mark a historical network of migration spreading across North India and beyond today’s borders: not just Chamba, Jullunder, or Delhi, but also Lahore (for which Kangra was a hill station before Partition), and even Kabul. Many men working outside the valley were not able to take along their wives or families, yet returned for crucial agricultural seasons or family events; a jaunty dance song from the perspective of a soldier’s wife begins, “He lives two months at home, he spends ten months outside (do mahīne ghare rahende das mahīne bāhar).” Women often emphasized that in any account of Kangra, I should mention that because of this absence of a household’s men for many months of the year, women’s work is especially needed and valued. Songs, they emphasized, are also a form of work: songs please the gods.

Pahari Songs

Just as people in Kangra view themselves as living in a mountain region, they also refer to the local dialect as a mountain language (pahāṛī bhāshā). Using the term “Pahari” for their own language (apnī bhāshā) spoken in homes and in informal contexts, they are emphasizing an affinity with surrounding mountain dialects that might also be glossed as Pahari. The Pahari dialect is given more regional specificity in linguistic terms as “Kangri” or “Kangari.” George Grierson, the colonial administrator who set out to codify Indian languages and dialects, identified Kangri as “intermediate between standard Punjabi and the Pahari of the lower Himalaya.”12 At the time of Grierson’s monumental study, Kangra had been part of Punjab for over a century. The linguist Shyamlal Sharma has argued for the many peculiarities of the Kangra dialect that merit its status as a dialect in its own right, distinctive from other closely related—and often mutually comprehensible—forms of Pahari like those spoken in the adjoining districts of Chamba (Chambeali) and Mandi (Mandiyali).13 Sharma mentions (p.41) some distinctive markers, including the diminutive u sound ending words, which he calls “the darling of all speakers” (so, for example, a little cup for a child might be called a kappu); the b sound merging b and v (making “weddings” regularly sound like “beddings”); and an s merging s and sh (so the great god Shiva, who is also known by names like Shankar or Shambu, regularly became Siva, Senkar, or Sambu). I also noticed the ubiquity of a retroflex for many words that in Hindi would be a regular n.

People delighted in telling me words that they identified as peculiar to the region, especially those with an ending u sound that Shyamlal Sharma mentions: for example: khandolu, a rug from rags, chuḍu muḍu, twigs for the fire, goṭu, cow-dung cakes, and drāṭu, sickle. In addition, they mentioned words like pīṇ—whole grains given for grinding.14 And they took great laughing pleasure in hearing me read such lists of words back to them. Older songs also often carried words distinctive to the region, evoking a vanishing, more agriculturally based way of life that didn’t include the conveniences of commercially woven rugs, gas stoves, and electric flourmills.

When I first started writing down songs, I thought I was hearing Pahari songs distinctive to the region. Words that I recognized from Hindi I assumed to be on account of common roots. Yet, as soon as I showed my transcriptions of the songs to multilingual friends, they pointed out how these were heavily inflected with other languages: especially Punjabi, on account of the long historical association with this adjacent plains area, but also standard Hindi, Hindi dialects (like Braj, spoken in the area south of Delhi and associated with Krishna), Urdu, and Sanskrit. I observed how when women were multilingual, they might unthinkingly shift the vocabulary in songs away from Pahari toward these more prestigious languages.

Within this context, what does a Pahari song mean, particularly as a counterpoint to the ever-increasing and pervasive influence of Bollywood music that can be heard from radios, televisions, the selections of disc jockeys at celebratory “functions,” the ring tones on cell phones, and more? Songs that were more recognizably in dialect, sung to slow melodies and without instrumentation, were sometimes termed “Pahari gīt” or “old women’s songs” (jhabrīyāṅ de gīt) or even old songs (purāne gīt) that encompassed songs about women’s experience in the historical past and songs retelling stories from the Sanskrit Puranas, the “old books” that are compendiums of Hindu mythology. A woman could present herself as a repository of cultural (p.42) knowledge by knowing such songs; she might also run the risk of appearing old-fashioned and uneducated if she sang only such songs.

Yet, in other venues, “Pahari gīt” sung to rousing tunes and instrumentation more matched to Bollywood aesthetics signify self-conscious pride in a regional identity. Schools regularly hold “functions”—that is, cultural programs—with Pahari songs and dance performances. These are sung at a higher pitch, with a livelier beat, and with instrumentation, and are also sometimes classified as “dance songs” (nāch gīt) since they often involve dances and bright costumes. Mahila Mandals (village-wide women’s groups), SHGs (Self-Help Groups), and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) involving women also draw on songs as a way to build community when women gather together from a range of backgrounds. For such events that do not have a clear ritual prescription, long narrative songs are not widely enough shared to allow everyone to participate, and so the default genres are “Pahari” dance songs or else general devotional songs (bhajan) and songs to the goddess (bhent) with repeating refrains. In addition, the Publicity Division (Lok Sampark Vibhag) brings out dancers in costume to perform Pahari songs for visiting dignitaries.

Pahari songs have been broadcast on regional and local radio programs since at least the 1950s. Between the 1980s and the close of the century, adapted folk songs with added instrumentation became available in cassette versions across India.15 Since the 1990s, Pahari song and dance sequences—often involving costumes invoking an idealized past—have been regularly shown on the local television channels and have circulated through CDs, DVDs, and a form of recording called VCDs; in the new millennium, some of these Pahari song performances may be found on YouTube.16 For example, a nostalgic and rousing song that idealizes life in the district, “Jeena Kāngre da” [To Live in Kangra], performed by two smiling, gesticulating young men in jeans as they encounter villagers going about life in a range of more traditional outfits, had as of November 2015 received 62,246 hits and many warmly appreciative comments.17

I first encountered some of the tensions over just what constituted Pahari songs at a wedding in 1991, when one of the guests took me aside to tape what she said was key to my knowing about Kangra. With her pronounced make-up, she seemed to be declaring her difference from other village women. I learned that she lived in the plains, though she had roots (p.43) in Kangra. The song she sang, celebrating the region, is not unlike the song about living in Kangra that now circulates on YouTube. Following the local practice of identifying songs by their ḍhak or opening words, I transcribe just the first line here and throughout most of this book:

merā kangṛā nī sāreyā desānjo pyārā …

  • My Kangra is the most beloved of all places,
  • my Kangra is the most unique of all places.
  • My Kangra, lovely Kangra, beautiful Kangra,
  • my Kangra is the most beloved of all places.
  • Of all places, we love Kangra the most.
  • Brave soldiers from here join the army.
  • In the army they kill and route enemies.
  • Victorious over the enemy’s army,
  • they save their mothers’ honor.
  • My Kangra is the most beloved of all places.
  • One gets everything to eat and drink here,
  • the place is beautiful to see.
  • For rice to eat, plenty of fields,
  • for tea to drink, plenty of gardens,
  • for walking, high, open places.
  • Deep stream beds, high mountains,
  • beautiful to behold.
  • With head sleeping near Mandi, feet at Pathankot,
  • beautiful to behold.

This nostalgic song celebrates the area’s natural beauty, open fields, streams, and mountains. It also describes the locally dominant Kangra Rajputs’ long association with army employment, with an emphasis on honor, and evokes (p.44) the sleeping titan Jalandar thought to stretch out under the undulating landscape (who will reappear in Chapter 5). Yet, as I rejoined the other women singing through the sequence of rituals for a groom’s wedding, someone asked in a dubious way what I had taped from that singer. “Oh, she just learned that from the radio,” I was told. The older women then proceeded to redirect me to the sort of “old songs” or “old women’s songs” that they transmitted between themselves in ritual settings.

Such “old women’s songs” are on the one hand very localized and community based—so localized that encountering the words and images contained in a song I’ve transcribed can sometimes alert other singers about the part of the valley where the absent singer lived, and her caste identity too. On the other hand, these songs stretch beyond any conception of a demarcated local identity. Deeply linguistically and culturally hybrid in language and in themes, many of the songs connect with themes and with deities who appear in written and oral traditions from other regions of India and are also carried around the world with the Indian diaspora.

Women’s Songs and Life Stages

Using the English word “time” that has been incorporated into the local dialect, Urmilaji explained that each stage or time of life brings its own desires and longing—ṭāime-ṭāime dā chāh. Such yearning could also bring sorrow through delay or disappointment, and so Urmilaji also said, “Through songs, you learn about all the sorrows that can come at different times of life.” According to one’s own destiny or karma, a person was forced to endure stretches of hard times (ṭāime kaṭe pauṇā), and songs that located suffering amid larger shared experience could grant the wisdom to calmly make one’s way forward. In her patient way, Urmilaji explained why songs describing the problems faced by gods—which includes goddesses—could be especially helpful:

Sometime or the other, we all have to endure hard times. The mind gets perturbed. Through songs you learn how gods had difficulties too, that they too have endured hard times. We are just humans and when even gods have problems we know that we can make our way through such times! So songs give us peacefulness. They are a way to gain support (sahārā) from Bhagavan. If you understand songs, you see the wisdom in them.

(p.45) During the course of our many conversations for a book about her folktales, Urmilaji also said, “When you sing songs and tell stories, you understand different kinds of pain. Then a little peace comes to you. Yes, peace arises. Whatever happens in your life, you can remember these things.”

Singers recognized a wide variety of local genres of song, including those tied to the very particular steps of different rituals. If I brought out my notebook and asked women to name genres of song, upper-caste Kangra women would usually begin reciting the songs tied to life-cycle events, including haṅsṇu khelṇu, “laughing and playing” birth songs for a boy’s birth or birthday; janeu gīt, “sacred thread” ceremony songs for an upper-caste boy’s initiation; sahere, “crown,” and ghoṛi, “mare,” songs for the groom; suhāg, “auspicious married life,” and badhoā, “congratulatory” songs for the bride. Moving to more playful genres, they might smile as they mentioned gāliyaṅ and satātar, genres of inventive ritual abuse around kinship roles that inspired joking relations (for example, the nānu or maternal grandfather). They also spoke of nāch gīt, dance songs set to the lively beat of a drum and often with a joking tone. Sometimes songs tied to seasons were mentioned, not just the barsātī monsoon songs sung in rice fields but also a range of bārahmāsī songs about changing emotions and experiences through the lunar months. Women also spoke about songs that could be sung anytime, such as pakhaṛu for difficulties in married life, devotional bhajan, and bhenṭ songs offered to the goddess.

I taped examples of all these genres through the years. Returning to Kangra at different stages of my own life, I became preoccupied with three genres that relate most clearly to different stages of a local woman’s life. I began in my early twenties, working with suhāg wedding songs that describe the big transition in women’s lives from their māpe (parents’ home) to sauhre (in-laws’ home). In my early thirties, when I returned thinking I would do more research on suhāg, singers redirected me to other genres, and especially pakhaṛu ballads recounting the difficulties faced by married women. At that time, and then increasingly since, I was introduced to bhajan that praised divinity and songs telling stories about the lives of deities and also devotees that women categorized as both bhajan and other genres (particularly pakhaṛu).

I now introduce a small sample of suhāg, pakhaṛu, and bhajan along with the situations in which I encountered them. This section summarizes the (p.46) span of my fieldwork in diverse locales and also introduces Kangra kinship relations, and the expected goals linked to different stages of life for women and especially upper-caste women of the singers’ generation. While oral genres map indigenously conceived categories of social differentiation,18 changing concerns in the genres considered appropriate to different stages of life open out ways to think of how a woman’s life is remade and her preoccupations shift through time.19 Different sorts of songs offer a space to reflect on, to make sense of, and even to suggest possible alternatives to the cultural expectations and social arrangements at these different life stages.

So that readers might gain a sense of the poetry in the original, I include the entire transcribed text for this sample of three genres, though I bypass this long labor through the rest of the book. As Asha-devi says, “Songs are beautified by their melodies,” and my focus here on words needs supplementation with music for the full aesthetic effect.20

Becoming a Bride: Suhāg

Suhāg” refers to the auspicious happiness of a married woman. Songs of this genre are especially chorused around a bride at weddings, including the weddings of goddesses. Though women of all ages sing these songs, the genre is especially associated with groups of unmarried girls. As a teenager first visiting Kangra, this was the genre I was exposed to most intensively through friends my age, and this was the genre to which I first applied the analytic tools I had picked up during my first year of graduate school.

Suhāg can be endlessly expanded by adding different male or female relatives, round after round, to fill up the time at a wedding. For example, if the authority of male relatives is being described, the first rendition might invoke a father in relation to his bride-daughter. Then the song can be repeated with the father’s older brother (tāyā), the father’s younger brother (chāchā), the mother’s brother (māmā)—the girl remaining addressed as “daughter” (dhiyā) to all these inquiring elders. If the singers aren’t bored by then, or if they want to tease a male relative who happens to be moving past, they can go further, for example adding a brother (bhāi) talking to his sister (bahaṇā).

July 1982

Learning of my project to study wedding songs, the teashop owner who sits in an open stall near the railway tracks tells me of a wedding. His teenage (p.47) daughter will take me, he says. At dusk I walk between villages to find her, and she leads me through pouring rain to a Brahman settlement amid groves of bamboo.

At the home where a wedding is underway, a ceremonial fire indoors sends up eye-stinging smoke. The bride sits huddled with a red sari pulled down over her face, looking like a tent. Brown kernels of coconut and strands of white cowry shells dangle from her wrists. I guess she is younger than I am; at twenty-two, I am already considered an old maid who is getting dangerously too much education.

Beside the fire, the Pandit overseeing the sequence of rituals for the wedding chants in Sanskrit, and assembled women sing Pahari songs. They also entertain themselves by making fun of the Pandit. They mock him when he lights up and sucks on a leaf-rolled bīṛī, filling the room with yet another kind of acrid smoke; they laugh when he needs a break to relieve himself outdoors. I crouch among the women, clutching my microphone, uncomfortably aware that the lower rim of my white salwar is drenched in rain and spattered with mud.

As the evening wears on, the groom’s party arrives, announced by the trumpets and drums of a wedding band. The men wear starched pink turbans and the groom’s face is covered with glittering gold tinsel that hangs from his crown. He wears a locally stitched, Western-style suit. Laughing and teasing, the bride’s girlfriends sing out colorful ritual abuses of the groom, his family, and his friends. The bride and groom view each other for the first time under the screen of a wide cloth lowered over their heads. Different steps of the wedding unfold through the night. Stainless-steel glasses of intensely sweet yet bitter tea from locally dried leaves are passed around to keep us awake. During long breaks of waiting for an astrologically propitious moment, people snatch naps.

Morning sunshine is flooding from behind the mountains as I walk back. When I have revived, I work on my transcriptions. Here is one of the songs I copied out:

  • Mātā dīyā godiyāṅ do jane utare ika bahaṇā dūjā bhāī
  • bhāī dīyā seh ghar dā manīmā
  • bahaṇā deī chhaḍī dūr
  • (p.48) mātā kahende dhīye nitnit oṇā
  • bhāī kahende bahaṇe byāh panjāpe
  • pitā kahende dhīye bariyā chhamāiae
  • bhābho kahendī kajo oṇā

  • From Mother’s womb, two people emerged: first a sister, second a brother.
  • Brother inherits the home,
  • Sister is given far away.
  • Mother says, “Daughter, come visit often.”
  • Father says, “Daughter, come once or twice a year.”
  • Brother says, “Sister, come celebrate weddings
  • and sons’ births.”
  • Brother’s wife says, “Why come?”

Boys and girls born into the same family have different fates, this song so bluntly states. The brother conventionally continues the family line and inherits the house and farm; the sister is married away to a different village. “Gender inequality, patrilineality, village exogamy …” in songs like this, I better understand terms I have been learning in anthropology classes and in Jonathan Parry’s ethnography, Caste and Kinship in Kangra, which I discovered with its resplendent red cover in a Bombay bookstore the previous year.21 Wedding songs in particular affirm customary social arrangements, kinship roles, and expected emotions. As I continued listening, I learned how wedding songs can elaborate fantasies too.

August 1982

Vidya, the friend I made on the day of the broken bed, has by this time moved with marriage, luckily to a village nearby. We have been keeping in touch by letters and through regular meetings during my visits home from college. As she jokes, I have earned a BA off in America, and as a mother of two sons, she has become an “MA” twice over. She considers singing Pahari songs an old-fashioned practice: as an educated woman, she prefers to read stories in Hindi rather than hear them sung in local dialect. She tolerates my enthusiasm with some amusement, and as I gather songs from scores of other girls and women, she helps me with transcriptions and translations. Also, she stays alert to situations where I might gather more songs, taking me across the valley for the goddess Gauran’s wedding being celebrated in the village of her birth.

Vidya’s lanky, courtly father, Shastriji, has now retired and moved back to his ancestral home from the rented quarters with a rickety cot where we first met. Vidya and I travel with her two young sons in crowded buses across the valley. When the tarred road ends, we walk along an unpaved (p.49) road beside terraced rice fields. Nearing the village, we face groups squatting out on an embankment, awaiting a glimpse of the new moon.

Hariyali (or Haritalika), the annual wedding of Parvati to Shiva—known here as Gauran and Senkar—is underway. On the third day of this lunar cycle, Vidya’s great-aunt Sandhi-devi shapes clay images of the divine couple. Sitting out in the courtyard, Vidya’s father puts on his glasses and brings out a ritual pamphlet for reading aloud the story of how Parvati gained Shiva as her groom. Then the wedding songs begin. The core family group of Brahman singers—Vidya’s great-aunt and her mother—are joined by Gyano-devi, of the barber caste, who was widowed young and is often sought out in upper-caste gatherings for her sweet voice and tremendous knowledge of songs. Two girls closer to our age join in.

Outside, a light drizzle alternates with rain spattering on the courtyard’s packed earth. Indoors, we sit on cotton durries spread on the ground and I take notes amid the duskiness of natural light on mud walls. Here is one of the songs that Gyano-devi leads the others through in a stunningly lovely, certain voice:

  • Boyāṅ pucchadīyā dhīyā apaṇīyā
  • rājvar kudī ṭoleā
  • gai thī boyāṅ
  • saiyāṅ de nāl
  • bāeṅ de chuṛā
  • kalīyar boleṅ
  • mathe de bindīyā
  • chham chham lagī
  • nakh de besar
  • ḍulkhaṇ lagī
  • sāṭh sahelīyāṅ
  • ne mangal gāyā
  • chaurī jo lendā
  • so bar āeā

  • Father asks his daughter:
  • “Where did you find this prince?”
  • “I had gone, father,
  • in the company of my girlfriends:
  • The bangles on my arms spoke in tinkles,
  • the dot on my forehead
  • began to sparkle,
  • “The ring in my nose began to swing.
  • My sixty girlfriends
  • sang auspicious songs:
  • Being fanned with yak whisks,
  • this groom appeared.”

As Gyano-devi explains, this was a princess moving about with her retinue of sixty girlfriends—a set number that recurred in mythological songs (p.50) featuring girlfriends. Only a royal person or a god would be fanned with whisks of this sort. (In a version that Urmilaji sings across the valley, the daughter further elaborates that on seeing her future groom, her anklets began jingling, her head cover fluttered, and her nose ring started to sparkle—reminders of the forceful stirring of attraction. This, the daughter suggestively explains, is how she “gained the groom who plays ball games” (khinnu khelendā var pāiyā).)

Returning to Berkeley, I found I had a folder of 118 suhāg texts, though many more songs remained untranscribed on my cassette tapes. Looking through this folder, trying to discern larger patterns, I noticed how brides were often described as birds who, after eating the seeds set out for them in their parental homes, must inevitably fly away to alien lands: this recurring metaphor emphasized that patrilocal social arrangements were as natural as birds’ migrations. I ended up writing my first published essay on women’s friendship in Kangra songs, focusing on friendships in the cohort of girls raised together who, like “birds on a branch,” were expected to scatter, flying away to in-laws’ homes.22 I wondered: should I undertake a formal and extended stretch of fieldwork for a doctoral dissertation on these Kangra songs? But these were the days before digital forms had eased the sharing of music, and Professor Dundes insisted that if I intended to work with songs, I would need to do musical transcriptions. Transcribing for one essay was enough! Also, I frankly wasn’t brave enough to face the ceaseless questions about why I wasn’t yet married and concerned speculation that my ongoing education was making me unmarriageable. For my dissertation, I instead went to an entirely different part of India, where I wrote about a holy man who couldn’t care less about when or whether I might be headed toward becoming a wife and mother.

Yet, I kept returning each year to Kangra, and everyone remembered my interest in songs. Eight years later, I hoped that the ballast of a tenure-track job would give me more courage to live for a stretch in Kangra, even if I still wasn’t married. Returning for a year’s research in the fall of 1990, I intended to continue with wedding songs. But as I spent more time in women’s informal company across a range of occasions, I learned that singers actually weren’t that interested in suhāg outside of weddings. Rather, when they had the choice of what to sing, they preferred other kinds of song: particularly pakhaṛu and bhajan.

(p.51) Difficulties in Married Life: Pakhaṛu

Women variously describe pakhaṛu as “songs that are long and tell a story,” “songs about suffering,” and even “our life stories.” In a locally published collection of Kangra songs, the folklorist Dr. Gautam Vyathit links the word pakhaṛu to pakhṛi ḍāi, the daily worship of the doorstep, courtyard, and pathway that village women—particularly brides—perform with cow dung, marigold petals, and sprinkled leaves. “In this context,” he writes (and I translate from Hindi), “pakhaṛu as accusatory songs are like leaves which before giving birth to flowers have experienced sorrow and pain.”23 Many pakhaṛu are associated with the threshold times of morning and evening (only one I recorded, where the protagonist wistfully wishes she could share the garden’s ripe fruit with her faraway husband, was said to be an afternoon song). “Morning songs” (bhyāgah de gīt) always feature morning tasks, both indoors and outdoors: unlocking the doors, filling water from the spring, sweeping, bathing, dressing for the day. “Evening songs” (sanjā de gīt) carry images of the setting sun, retiring birds, returning cows, and especially the lighting of oil lamps. With their poetic evocation of past lifeways, such songs make no mention of contemporary developments like water taps, buses, or electric lights.

Unlike suhāg, pakhaṛu are not tied to any particular ritual occasion. Women might sing these at birthdays, weddings, and any other ceremony when they have already sung all the necessary sorts of songs. A singer once explained to an educated younger cousin, “You sing two or four songs that you’re supposed to, and then you move on to pakhaṛu.” Pakhaṛu could also be sung just to pass the time amid routine work. Several women recalled childhood memories of hot summer afternoons in large extended families when groups of women gathered to pat out yeasted bhaṭurus, singing pakhaṛu. Dropping in at a household where neighbors had gathered to help prepare for a village-wide feast in 1991, I recorded women singing pakhaṛu as they cleaned and ground spices.

Like suhāg, pakhaṛu idealize a woman’s relationships with her family of birth, while a husband’s home is fraught with uncertainty: cruel mothers-in-law, tyrannical fathers-in-law, hostile sisters-in-law, dangerously seductive younger brothers-in-law, and husbands who may be absent, inattentive, or abusive. These songs tend to be set in a past era of difficult travel over long distances and strict codes of gender segregation. “There was sorrow like this in the past!” women would often say after singing (p.52) pakhaṛu, usually adding the awful detail of how mothers-in-law were so cruelly exacting that they were even known to press a daughter-in-law’s hand on the griddle if she didn’t cook properly. “They used to dole out such suffering to the daughter-in-law!” they said.

My friend Urmilaji emphasized how pakhaṛu enhanced sympathy between women across stereotypically hostile kinship roles and so were beneficial to everyone. “It’s because of this suffering that these songs were made so poignant,” she said. “When a lot of people are sitting together and hear this, then they see, ‘Oh ho, look at the kind of things that came to pass in the old times, the kinds of things that mothers-in-law did. Listening to such songs, the times began to improve …’”

Many pakhaṛu describe the lonely ache of separation: from adored family members left behind in one’s home of birth, and also from the husband. A husband is often working elsewhere, returning only after a formulaic twelve long years; sometimes he is missing because of the charms of another woman; sometimes he has died. This pain of separation (virāha) is also associated with songs about Krishna, evoking the soul’s longing for Bhagavan.

November 1990

Golden heaps of rice stalks bask along the terraced fields. News reports have been following the storming and destruction of the sixteenth-century mosque by Hindu nationalists in Ayodhya, but here in the mountains all appears calm as the goddess Saili’s marriage is celebrated. Jagadamba Mataji has taken me to a gathering of Brahman women assembled to worship Saili (or Tulsi), the sacred basil plant goddess, who has been brought indoors and wrapped in spangled red cloth like a bride. Around the plant, five oil lamps are to be kept burning for five continuous days of the festival. Perhaps the little clay lamps, with the petal of flame blooming from one side, suggest a song about lamps. For in the long afternoon, as the women begin to sing the following song, Jagadamba Mataji gestures toward the burning lamps, asking if they have enough oil, and her older daughter-in-law Subhashini bemusedly quips, “What’s the point of singing about lamps if we let the lamps go out?” Jagadamba Mataji’s sister Asha-devi cautions, “If you sing that song, I will cry.” I write her words at the margin of my transcription, not yet knowing her well enough to understand why.

(p.53) Voices joined with measured slowness, the group recreates the perspective of a bride whose hands and feet are stained with an orange-red lattice of henna:

  • sanj pai din ho gayā barī
  • dīpak mangdā tel mahendīye ronglīe
  • sasu te mangīyā dīvaṛā barī
  • naṇadā te mangīyā tel mahendīye ronglīe
  • sasu nī ditā dīvaṛā barī
  • naṇadā nī ditā tel mahendīye ronglīe
  • pahelīyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • ambar bijlī lasāke mahendīye ronglīe
  • dūjiyā pauṛīyā
  • chaṛhadīyā barī chibde bhari hai pair mahendīye ronglīe
  • tijiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • ner andherī rāt mahendīye ronglīe
  • chauthiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • buji gai hathe dā masāl mahendīye ronglīe
  • panjiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • pai gai pair dī panjep mahendīye ronglīe
  • chhaṭiyā pauṛīyā charhadīya barī
  • āi gai palange de pās mahendīye ronglīe
  • (p.54) kī tusāṅ sute kī tusāṅ jāgde barī
  • āī gaī prathamedī nār
  • nā asāṅ sute nā asāṅ jāgde
  • haṭī jā pichhle pair

  • The evening is here, the day is done,
  • oil lamps ask for oil—red henna.
  • I ask my mother-in-law for a lamp,
  • I ask my sister-in-law for the oil—red henna.
  • Mother-in-law won’t give me a lamp,
  • Sister-in-law refuses me oil—red henna.
  • I climb the first step,
  • the sky flashes lightning—red henna.
  • I climb the second step,
  • mud weighs down my feet—red henna.
  • I climb the third step,
  • the night is pitch black—red henna.
  • I climb the fourth step,
  • my torch blows out—red henna.
  • I climb the fifth step,
  • I lose my anklet—red henna.
  • I climb the sixth step,
  • I’m beside the bed—red henna.
  • “Are you sleeping? Are you awake?
  • Your first wife is here.”
  • “I’m not sleeping, I’m not awake—
  • Go away, turn back.”

The women burst into giggles as they sing. “They are going to make love the first time,” Jagadamba Pandit announces when the wife arrives by the bedside. When the husband sends the wife away the first time, she assures the group, “Everything will happen later.”

The song starts again. This time, the mother-in-law and sister-in-law supply the bride with light for her scary path up the stairs.

  • sanj pai din ho gayā barī
  • dīpak mangdā tel mahendīye ronglīe
  • sasu bhī ditā dīvaṛā barī
  • naṇanā pāyā tel mahendīye ronglīe
  • pahelīyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • tāreyā bhariyā rain mahendīye ronglīe
  • dūjiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • jagmag niklī rāt mahendīye ronglīe
  • tijiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • ambar chāndni rāt mahendīye ronglīe
  • chauthiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • laslas baldi masāl mahendīye ronglīe
  • panjiyā pauṛīyā chaṛhadīyā barī
  • milī gaī paire dī panjep mahendīye ronglīe
  • (p.55) chhatiyā pauṛīyā charhadīya barī
  • āī gaī palange de pās mahendīye ronglīe
  • kī tusāṅ sute kī tusāṅ jāgde barī
  • āī duhājūdī nār
  • nā asāṅ sute nā asāṅ jāgde
  • āi bāeṅ de pās

  • The evening has come, the day is done,
  • oil lamps ask for oil—red henna.
  • Mother-in-law gives me a lamp,
  • Sister-in-law pours in oil—red henna.
  • I climb the first step,
  • stars fill the night—red henna.
  • I climb the second step,
  • the night glitters—red henna.
  • I climb the third step,
  • the sky is bright with moonlight—red henna.
  • I climb the fourth step,
  • my torch leaps bright—red henna.
  • I climb the sixth step,
  • I’m beside the bed—red henna.
  • I climb the fifth step,
  • I find my anklet—red henna.
  • “Are you sleeping? Are you awake?
  • Your second wife is here.”
  • “I’m not sleeping, I’m not awake—
  • Come into my arms.”

“She got wet!” cries out one of the women present when the wife sets foot on the first step the second time; from rain, others elaborate later, with smiles. The torch (masāl) is explained as a piece of wood held aloft and wrapped in rags for fire; the possible phallic associations help me understand why someone laughingly calls, “It blew out!” with the first round of ascent, making others laugh too. In the second round, the announcement of the torch burning brightly invites fresh laughter and innuendo. Another outburst of laughs follows the husband’s open arms.

“In the past, the women were small when they were married,” Jagadamba Pandit solicitously explains to me when the song is finished. “They weren’t sent to their husbands. Then they came of age, and the mother-in-law got everything ready, got the room ready. The wife was sent to the husband.”

Even when a bride was older, female in-laws could control her access to her husband. So, when the mother-in-law and sister-in-law refuse the protagonist oil to fuel a lamp for the journey upstairs to her husband’s bed, she goes forth as though through a dark storm, and is turned back. The second time, the bride’s path is lit by her female in-laws’ affirmation, and her ascent occurs as though under the brightness of a clear moonlit sky into his welcoming arms. The contrast between these two experiences uncannily echoes a theme in Kangra miniature paintings: the journey at night for a tryst undertaken by the Abhisārikā Nāyikā—the “heroine who goes forth.” Like the dark (krishṇa) and bright (shukla) phases of the lunar calendar, this heroine also has two guises. The Krishṇābhisārikā sets out on a dark and stormy night, with lightning streaking the sky and ghoulish women threatening her; the Shuklābhisārikā moves through an illumined landscape on a clear moonlit night with a supportive female companion.24

(p.56) The two episodes in the song allowed multiple readings—not just of changing experience with age and family politics, but also of two distinct roles. On the afternoon that this song was sung, the woman sponsoring the worship of Saili teased some singers present that the song is about a second wife (duhāju)—which could mean that she was either married to a widower (like Jagadamba Mataji) or brought in while the first wife was still alive (like Asha-devi). Being a second wife was considered a less preferable form of marriage, arranged for girls who were poor, orphaned, disabled, or compromised in some other way. Yet, this song asserted that this seemingly less desirable and prestigious alliance might also bring happiness. When I later mentioned the song to Asha-devi, she bypassed the role of the husband’s mother and sister to emphasize that this was a song of a first wife and a second wife: it was her attachment to and sympathetic identification with her older co-wife that had made her want to cry. A few daughters-in-law assured me that really, this song was about how, after a widower’s loss, he might especially cherish a wife. They said, “With the first wife, the husband didn’t know how to treat her, he didn’t know how to look after a woman with love. With the second wife, he had learned all this.”

December 1990

I am trailing along across the valley with Meena Rana to attend a Rajput wedding from the groom’s side. The mountain peaks are resplendently white, and we are bundled in sweaters and shawls. The long day of ritual preparations for the groom’s departure to fetch the bride involves many songs tied to different steps of the rituals. At various points through the day, I lose track of my recorder as different women have made off with it, taping what they choose.

The groom sets off, escorted by all his male relatives and friends in bright pink turbans. Women chorus beside them all the way to the edge of the road, where a bus waits. When the groom’s party is borne out of sight, leaving only the women of the settlement, an antic atmosphere breaks out. “Now we can say whatever we like!” declares one woman giddily, allowing her chādru to slip off her head and around her shoulders. There will be the Gidda ahead—a women’s evening of impromptu bawdy skits, songs, and dances. Some women unpack costumes, others joke about rifling through their husbands’ clothes. Men’s trousers, shirts, and caps come out for cross-dressing; big (p.57) checked blankets emerge for costumes pointing to the nearby district of Kulu; full skirts and thick ropes appear for roles as nomadic Gaddi shepherds. I am taken around to different households, women joking all the while, sometimes demanding my recorder for a recollected song.

As dusk falls, we sit cutting vegetables for the evening meal and Sarla Patial leads others through a melancholy song. Most lines end with , a term of respect that serves to address an unnamed presence.

  • Sanjh kīyāṅ velā jī ḍhal bo ḍhalevā jī
  • dil bo udāsī kīyāṅ hoiyāṅ jī
  • putar pardesāṅ jī jisāṅ jo maiyā jī
  • dil udāsī ud hoiyāṅ jī, sanjh kīyāṅ velā..
  • bhāī pardesāṅ jī jisāṅ vo bheṇā jī
  • dil udāsī ud hoiyāṅ jī, sanjh kīyāṅ velā …
  • kandh pardesāṅ jī jisāṅ vo nārā jī
  • dil udāsī ud hoiyāṅ jī, sanjh kīyāṅ velā …
  • ik van hanḍeyā jī gorie
  • due van hanḍeyā jī
  • trie vane chaupaṛ vājī lāi e
  • sanjh kīyāṅ velā
  • kholī tā ditiyā jī gorie
  • sire dīyāṅ minḍiyāṅ jī
  • kholī tā dite solāh singār
  • sanjh kīyāṅ velā
  • kajo tā khoṛie gorie
  • sire dīyāṅ minḍiyān jī
  • (p.58) kajo tā khoṛie solāh singār
  • sanjh kīyāṅ velā
  • kajo tā likhiyā nī kandh
  • eho jehīyāṅ gallāṅ
  • kajo tā likhe mande bol
  • sanjh kīyāṅ velā jī

  • At twilight, the time of setting,
  • why is there sadness in the heart?
  • For a mother whose son is far away,
  • sadness fills her heart, at twilight …
  • For a sister whose brother is far away,
  • sadness fills her heart, at twilight …
  • For a woman whose husband is far away,
  • sadness fills her heart, at twilight …
  • The pretty woman walked through one forest and a second forest too.
  • In the third forest a dice game’s board is out,
  • at twilight …
  • The pretty woman
  • opened out her many tight braids of hair
  • She took off the sixteen adornments of a bride, at twilight …
  • Why did the pretty woman
  • open out the braids in her hair?
  • Why did she take off the sixteen
  • adornments of a bride, at twilight …?
  • Why were these written, husband
  • —these sorts of matters—
  • Why were these wretched words written, at twilight, the time of setting?

Sarla indicated that the song was still unfinished. “I don’t remember,” she said. “With all the work at home, with the children, I don’t remember songs.” She went on to explain, “Women weep. Even Sita, she wept her whole life. She went into the forest exile with Ram. A woman’s life is all tears.”

Sarla related this song to Sita taking off her bridal ornaments to live an ascetic’s life in the forest when she accompanied her husband into exile where she would soon be separated from him through her kidnapping. The stripping of ornaments is an expression of ascetic practice and also mourning. A few months later, I was reminded of how the same song can carry different meanings depending on a singer or listener’s own life experience when Janaki-devi, who had been a child widow, explained: “This woman’s man has died, she has to take off her ornaments. She is upset by what karma writes.” Karma was often spoken of as “written”—inscribed on a person’s forehead or even on their skull by Vidhimata, Mother Fate.

March 1991

The wheat crop is growing taller in the terraced fields. We’ve gathered for the first-birthday celebrations of Urmilaji’s younger brother’s son. For the baby’s long life, Urmilaji draws likhṇu images on the wall with a matchstick dipped in red ink: the sun, the moon, and the eternal sage Markandeya doing ascetic practices under a tree; seven cosmic Vasus featured as pots from which lines of ghee will be dribbled. A basket filled with sprouting chickpeas is positioned near the door for each singer to receive the gift of a handful as she leaves. When relatives and neighbors gather, they sing many short haṅsṇu-khelṇu or “laughing and playing” songs congratulating the Queen Mother and often featuring baby Krishna or baby Ram. Everyone (p.59) is working with their hands, particularly knitting and unraveling children’s old sweaters back into balls to be knit afresh. Even my pen chases across the lined notebook, trying to keep up with the words of songs.

As dusk settles, Urmilaji switches from songs of a son’s birth to a pakhaṛu appropriate to this time of day. Until the last verse, this song is in the voice of Radha, who is waiting for Krishna, described here in his cowherd form, Govind. In literary and folk versions from other regions, Radha is often known as Krishna’s illicit lover, but in Kangra songs she is always married to him, placed squarely within the relationships of a joint family. When Krishna doesn’t return at dusk, Radha addresses her mother-in-law:

  • Sanjā je hoī, sanjelā je hoī
  • chiṛiyā jo chug bhaterī
  • gāi bhī āyā bhainsā bhī āyā
  • chāranvālā nī āyā sasujī,
  • chāranvālā nī āyā
  • gāi bhī dutiyā bhainsā bhī dutiyā
  • pīvane vālā nī āyā sasujī
  • pīvane vālā nī āyā
  • hath danḍkhoṛu sire chhatroṛu
  • govind topaṇ jāṇā sasujī
  • govind topaṇ jāṇā
  • ik van hanḍeyā dujā van hanḍeyā
  • trithe van kūbjā dā ḍerā sasujī
  • trithe van kūbjā dā ḍerā
  • (p.60) jamunā kinnāre chhoṭī ṭaprī
  • jittu mere govind rahendā sasujī
  • jittu mere govind rahandā
  • kūbjā maleṭī sai āṭe je guṇadī
  • govind phulkā pakāndā sasujī
  • govind phulkā pakāndā
  • kūbjā maleṭīyā charkhe je katadī
  • govind pūniyā baṭāndā sasujī
  • govind pūniyā baṭāndā
  • kūbjā maleṭī yā phulāṅ je chungī
  • govind hār paraundā sasujī
  • govind hār paraundā
  • sadgī maiṅ chelā
  • pāungī maiṅ khelā
  • kūbjā jo dingī bhaterī sasujī
  • kūbjā jo dingī bhaterī
  • sadgā main bāman
  • kargā main chāman
  • kūbjā jo lengā banerī e rādhājī
  • kūbjā jo lengā banerī

  • It’s evening, it’s dusk,
  • the birds have eaten their fill.
  • Cows have come home, buffaloes have come home—
  • He who grazes them hasn’t returned, mother-in-law,
  • the one who grazes them hasn’t returned.
  • I’ve milked the cows, I’ve milked the buffaloes—
  • He who drinks milk hasn’t returned, mother-in-law,
  • he who drinks milk hasn’t returned.
  • Staff in hand, umbrella over my head—
  • I’ll go in search of Govind, mother-in-law,
  • I’ll go in search of Govind.
  • I walked through one forest and a second forest too—
  • In the third forest is Kubja’s camp, mother-in-law,
  • in the third forest is Kubja’s camp.
  • On the banks of the Yamuna there’s a small hut—
  • Where my Govind stays, mother-in-law,
  • where my Govind stays.
  • Kubja the gardener woman kneads dough,
  • Govind cooks puffed rotis, mother-in-law,
  • Govind cooks puffed rotis.
  • Kubja the gardener woman spins on her wheel,
  • Govind gathers the yarn, mother-in-law,
  • Govind collects the yarn.
  • Kubja the gardener woman plucks flowers,
  • Govind threads garlands, mother-in-law,
  • Govind threads garlands.
  • I’ll call a shaman,
  • I’ll cast spells on her,
  • I’ll give Kubja all she’s due, mother-in-law,
  • I’ll give Kubja all she’s due.
  • [Govind’s male voice responds]
  • “I’ll call a Brahman,
  • I’ll make her sip holy water—
  • Kubja will be completely cured, Radha,
  • Kubja will be completely cured.”

Kubja is known as the woman who had been a hunchback until Krishna pulled her straight. I had heard this song before, from Vidya’s great-aunt, who characterized Kubja as “the one who has entranced Govind.” Setting out to find Krishna, Radha painfully observes her husband’s closeness to his lover Kubja. There is an erotic tone to his loving participation in the intimate (p.61) shared focus of cooking, spinning, and making garlands. Yet, when jealous Radha threatens to place a spell on Kubja, the all-knowing Krishna insists that he’ll protect her. Urmilaji said, “It could have been Kubja, it could be anyone else, he had so many wives!” This isn’t the simple case of a roving husband: as Bhagavan, Krishna loves everyone equally. A spurned wife and a Krishna devotee might both relate, from different perspectives, to the feelings in this song.

Setting Problems in a Religious Perspective: Pakhaṛu/Bhajan

Even as I was learning about pakhaṛu, I noticed how women identified certain songs as both pakhaṛu and bhajan. Bhajan—from the Sanskrit root bhaj, or worship—refers especially to songs that are divine praises. Bhajan that invoked gods in various forms are sung across the lines of gender and caste: sometimes they address a generalized god as “Bhagavan” or “Parameshwar,” and sometimes they are oriented around particular gods and goddesses (though praises to the mother goddess were more often called bhenṭ). Many bhajan praise gods and goddesses but don’t necessarily retell their stories. The songs about gods and goddesses that retell stories about female protagonists’ difficulties (like pakhaṛu) while making reference to a framework of divine will or addressing deities (like bhajan) might be grouped as pakhaṛu, as bhajan, or as both pakhaṛu and bhajan (though in the case of the song of Krishna’s birth, this was seen as both a haṅsṇu khelṇu birth song as well as a bhajan, and when retelling the story of a goddess’s marriage, the bhajan might also be a wedding song). The female protagonist in these sung stories might be an ordinary woman for whom painful events could be transmuted into a spiritual teaching, a saintly woman whose devotion is being tested, or a goddess going about the challenges of domestic life in an extended family and a village-like setting.

June 1991

In the shimmering heat, people are busy in the fields. The terraces are crowded with people working on the rice and corn crops: breaking sod, plowing, sowing, manuring, weeding around new shoots. Men ride the plow and women follow behind, tossing out seeds with measured steps. Groups rest in patches of shade at the edge of the fields, then resume. (p.62) Simultaneously planets have aligned into a propitious conjunction and the roads and paths are busy with people on foot, moving about for ritual celebrations. I observe all this while I walk between villages to attend the feast for a Rajput boy Minoo’s janeu, the ceremony that will initiate him as “twice born” with a sacred thread across his torso. In the course of the long afternoon, I write these notes:

In the cool dark interiors at these events, women sit clustered close on cotton durries. Between singing, a soft burble of conversation, the tinkle of bangles in many registers like swift trickles of icy water in the summer heat. Sharp rising cry of a child now and then. Light filtering in from the door and windows softly illumines the planes and angles of faces. When people cluster by the door on their way in or out, a darkness falls through the room as though we had all entered a tunnel. There is the sweet fragrance of lingering dhoop, a starchy scent of new cloth, and from the courtyard freshly cooked rice. Women are wearing shiny fabrics that one would expect to be stinky in the heat, but no. They arrive carrying plastic bags filled with pieces of cloth etc. for presentation. When the anthropologist pulls out her notebook dozens of eyes converge: what is she up to?

Among this settlement’s singers, Mati-devi is especially dominant. She is ninety-one years old with a foghorn voice and a hooked nose. People speak of her with awe and fear: her obliviousness to convention, her forceful way with abuse. When younger and already a widow, she is remembered to have walked unabashedly alone across fields at night, lantern in hand—who knew where? While the younger women look on, she dances about with abandoned gestures. When she settles down, she leads others through this song:

  • rām tā jatiyā doyo bhāī
  • doyo haṇ sake bhāīo mere rām
  • ik van hanḍeyā
  • doā van hanḍeyā
  • trīyā van goā guāyā mere rām
  • (p.63) sapaṛe de loye goā samāe
  • sapaṛe de heṭh rambhāiyo mere rām
  • munḍu ta tunḍu sādho jholīyā pāe
  • ghar ghar alakh jagāyo mere rām
  • sab sab māīyāṅ bhichhiyā leī āiyāṅ
  • ik khaṛi baṛaṛe dalgīro mere rām
  • autarāṅ dī bhicchīyā maiṅ nī lendā
  • autar paramesareyo banāyā mere rām
  • tusāṅ ta honde pūre pūre sādho
  • autar jo putar phal dinīyo mere rām
  • ik hathāṅ sādhu jholiyā pāyā
  • due hathe putar var ditīyo mere rām
  • putar gumān mat kardī merīyo māte
  • putar parmesare de māyā mere rām

  • Ram and Lakshman, two brothers—
  • were true brothers, my Ram.
  • They wandered through one forest,
  • and a second forest too—
  • In the third forest a cow was lost, my Ram.
  • The cow died beneath a boulder,
  • bellowing below the boulder, my Ram.
  • A sadhu put the cow’s head and feet in his sack.
  • He went from house to house calling for alms.
  • All the mothers brought alms.
  • One woman stood shaking with sobs, my Ram.
  • “I won’t take alms from childless women.
  • A childless woman is made by God, my Ram.”
  • “You are a perfected being, sadhu,
  • grant this childless women a son, my Ram.”
  • The sadhu put one hand into his bag,
  • with his other hand he gave the boon of a son, my Ram.
  • “Don’t be proud of your sons, my mothers,
  • sons are god’s illusion, my Ram.”

“I’m finished with singing,” said Mati-devi after vigorously intoning the last words. “I get tired.”

“The one without a son in her home is the person who sang this,” women around me explained. This song elaborates on a childless woman’s sorrow and also the cultural stigma around childlessness. She is set apart from other women, viewed as so inauspicious that a holy man won’t accept her alms. (p.64) Like the boulder that crushed the bellowing cow, her sadness is overwhelming. But the movements of gods and saints can bring miraculous grace: Ram and Lakshman wandering through the forest (a common formula that adds a dimension of mythological timelessness) set the stage for a holy man to later come through the same forest. The sadhu, one woman assured me, is a Mahatma, a great soul; Mati-devi corrected that he is “Bhagavan himself, taking the form of a sadhu.” As Bhagavan, he is omniscient and can transform destiny. Gathering up the bones of the dead cow as if to do funeral rites on the cow’s behalf, he transforms these bones into a desired son.

While women—rather than men—are invariably blamed for childlessness in Kangra villages, this song takes the responsibility off the woman, pointing instead to Bhagavan, who has caused her childlessness and who can also grant the boon for motherhood. A son is presented not as a personal accomplishment, but rather as a divine boon, part of a divine illusion spun from attachment. Women who have gained the culturally celebrated status of becoming the mother of a son are reminded not to be smug.

March 2002

Eleven years and many informal trips later, I am back for more months of fieldwork. This time I want to focus on life stories, but my mentors and friends insist on continuing to give me songs and offer me their reflections on singing. “But our songs are so loveable!” I’m reminded. Older singers now see their songs as endangered. The practice of singing in groups for celebrations increasingly competes with other kinds of music, especially rollicking Bollywood or Punjabi songs played over loudspeakers and sometimes selected by a hired disc jockey.

Jagadamba Mataji has recalled a song about a red and blue scarf (lāl nīlā sosanī) that she had once pressed an elderly relative to sing before my microphone. That singer has died in the intervening years. When I locate a tape of that recording session and hook Jagadamba Mataji up to my headphones, she settles down in a chair outdoors, listening intensely, nodding her head, eyes filling with tears or brightening with pleasure, sometimes singing along.

Her daughters-in-law emerge from other wings of the house and are curious. Subhashini brings out her son’s red boom box and sets this up on a table in the veranda. Like this son, all the other men of the family are away at work. We slip in the cassette, and the elderly woman’s voice (p.65) sings forcefully toward the courtyard. Hearing music, women from nearby households start assembling. They settle on the plastic chairs that have just begun appearing everywhere in the valley, listening, sometimes weeping, making me play and rewind again and again. Responding to the songs and also the singer’s absence, the women start an informal singing session. One of these songs speaks directly to death. (As women recreated the song in relation to the tape they were listening to, the second verse came in too soon. “Stand up, old woman,” which here forms the second verse, usually appears as the messenger’s words after he has arrived from Dharmraj or Yam Raj, Lord of Death.)

  • unche tā koṭheṅ būṛhī katnā baiṭhī
  • ḍeṛh pūnie rahī
  • o rām mere ḍeṛh puniye rahi …
  • Uṭh o būṛhīe tijo rām bulāye jī
  • ḍeṛh pūnie rahī
  • unche tā koṭheṅ būṛhī katnā baiṭhī
  • āi gīyā dharme dā dūt
  • ondā hai tā onā de
  • minjo ḍeṛh puniye rahi
  • bāī te pakaṛī būṛhī bāhar je kitiji
  • leī gīyā dharme dā dūt.
  • age tā jāī dharmrāje lekh tā mange
  • kyā kucch kittā hai dān
  • (p.66) sārā dhiyāṛā jī maiṅ charkhā katāyā
  • mūhe ne bolā rām
  • nī kittā hai dān
  • hathāṅ tā joṛī būṛhī arjā kardī
  • kar dinyo merā bhī udār
  • ghare tā terīyāṅ nuā sambhāḷiyā
  • putrā lagāye ne jandare
  • bholīe būṛhīe taiṅ bhol kamāyā jī
  • inhe batte haṭadā nā koī
  • o rām mere
  • inhe batte haṭadā nā koī

  • In a high room, an old woman sat spinning—
  • She still had a reel and a half left to go.
  • Oh my Ram, she had a reel and a half left to go.
  • “Stand up, old woman, Ram is summoning you—
  • Even if you have a reel and a half left to go.”
  • In a high room, an old woman sat spinning—
  • When the Lord of Death’s messenger arrived.
  • “If you’re on your way, then come along—
  • But I have a reel and a half left to go.”
  • Grabbed by her arm, the old woman was dragged outside—
  • Carried off by that messenger of Dharmaraj, Lord of Death.
  • Going before the God of Death, he demanded her records—
  • “What alms and gifts did you give?”
  • “All my days were spent at my spinning wheel—
  • I didn’t recite God’s name,
  • and I didn’t give alms and gifts.”
  • Joining her palms, the old woman pleads,
  • “Please loan me extra time.”
  • “Your house is being looked after by your daughters-in-law—
  • Your sons have put on new locks.
  • “Simple old woman, you’ve acted innocently—
  • But no one who walks this path ever returns,
  • Oh my Ram, no one who walks this path ever returns.”

So deluded is this old woman by her worry about domestic work that she barely notices Death’s messenger, and even asks Death to send her home so she might finish up her tasks. In various versions I taped at different times, the song sympathizes with the woman’s unrelenting toil and how she never had her own means to enjoy special foods, give meritorious gifts, or sponsor ceremonies and feasts. In a version sung by Gyano-devi of the barber caste, the old woman’s refrain is “I didn’t eat anything special, I didn’t drink anything good either/My life passed in backbreaking work.” Accounting for herself before Dharmaraj, she continues, “All my days, King, were spent taking cows to graze far away/Or filling fresh water.”

After the impromptu singing session evoked by the cassette tape, I inquired how women learned songs. Subhashini said, laughing a little as she often did when asked such strangely earnest questions: “It’s like a wave that goes ahead. One sings, another sings; it goes on. When you know songs, you can sing whenever you want.”

She seemed quite sure that having experienced the pleasure of these songs in groups, I wouldn’t be able to help myself from singing too. “Like (p.67) you in America: you must sometimes be doing something, and keep humming. Don’t you?” Before I could respond, Subhashini had already moved on to provide my answer. “Of course you do,” she said.

Even as this project became my window into the lives of singers, they too were looking back at me through their own frames, certain that having been swept up in the pleasurable momentum of sharing songs, I too would be transformed. I now move on to some of the ways that songs are seen to potentially bring happiness into the lives of singers. (p.68)


(1.) The details in this breathless summary are drawn from J. Hutchinson and J. Vogel’s classic History of the Panjab Hill States, vol. 1 (Lahore: Government Printing Press, 1933), pp. 99–198, supplemented by S. S. Charak’s History and Culture of Himalayan States, vol. 1, Himachal Pradesh (New Delhi: Light and Life Publishers, 1978), pp. 115–217.

(3.) William Sax, Dancing the Self: Personhood and Performance in the Pandav Lila of Garhwal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(4.) Barnes, George Carnac, Report of the Settlement in the District of Kangra in the Trans-Sutlej States. Lahore: Chronicle Press, 1855), p. 20.

(6.) Kathleen M. Erndl, Victory to the Mother: The Hindu Goddess of Northwest India in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 48–50.

(7.) D. C. Sircar, The Śākta Pīṭhas (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1973), pp. 12–14.

(10.) Mahesh Sharma, “Shaktism in Himachal,” in J. S. Grewal, ed., Religious Movements and Institutions in Medieval India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 103.

(11.) See Kirin Narayan, “Pahari Paintings and Kangra Women’s Songs,” in Mahesh Sharma and Padma Kaimal, eds., Indian Painting: Themes, Histories, Interpretations (Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2013), pp. 296–307.

(12.) George A. Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India, vol. 9, part 4 (Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1916), p. 608.

(13.) Shyamlal Sharma, Kāngaṛī: A Descriptive Study of the Kangra Valley Dialect of Himachal Pradesh. Hoshiarpur: Panjab University, 1974), pp. 18–19.

(14.) Thanks to Devinder Rana for listing this particular set of words.

(15.) Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

(16.) These costumed songs frequently depict “traditional” attire and highlight Gaddi shepherds. See Anya Wagner, The Gaddi Beyond Pastoralism: Making Place in the Indian Himalayas (New York: Berghahn, 2013).

(17.) “Himachali Kangri Song: Jeena Kangre da,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEcPATE9hvs, retrieved November 14, 2015.

(p.237) (18.) Joyce Flueckiger, Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); also Arjun Appadurai, Frank Korom, and Margaret Mills, eds., Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

(19.) On changing gendered expectations and kinship roles across an Indian woman’s life course, see especially Sarah Lamb, White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and the Body in North India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

(20.) For a few of these recordings, see www.KangraSongs.com.

(21.) Jonathan Parry, Caste and Kinship in Kangra (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979). While this remains a classic work on Kangra social structure among village Hindus, the research of Mark Baker, Kim Berry, Kathleen Erndl, Brian Greenberg, Mahesh Sharma, and Ursula Sharma has enriched my understanding across the years.

(22.) Kirin Narayan, “Birds on a Branch: Girlfriends and Wedding Songs in Kangra,” Ethos 14(1986):47–75.

(23.) Vyathit, Dr. Gautam Sharma, Kangri Lok Gīt [Kangra Folk Songs] (Palampur: Sheela Prakashan, 1973), p. 129.

(24.) For discussions of the Abhisarika figure in poetry and painting, see A. K. Coomaraswamy, The Eight Nāyikās (New Delhi: Munshilal Manoharlal, 2000), pp. 25–32, 37–38.