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Punjab notes: Folk songs: loss of women’s creative expression – Newspaper

Our folk songs are marked by certain distinct features. One, they are simple. Not that they lack depth. The depth whenever they have it, is expressed in a manner that makes them easily understandable and thus shareable at individual and collective levels.

Two, they are invariably meant for singing. They carry inbuilt poetic structures with rhythmic patterns which can be set to music. Thirdly, they deal with common experience, the experience that people experience in real life situations. The experience being concrete is devoid of sterile abstraction which we usually encounter in apparently serious poetry composed in highfalutin language. But there are some popular misconceptions about folk songs that need to be dispelled. It is generally believed that a folk song has no individual authorship. It is somehow mysteriously born, something that grows out of soil or falls from heaven as if it is manna. It’s far from reality. Every folk song is created by an individual – or a group of individuals – gifted with creative power. But the author is not a typical poet and does not insist on being recognized as such and is least pushed about his/her intellectual property rights.

Since no intellectual property rights are claimed, it is assumed that a folk song has no individual ownership. Same applies to the tune of a folk song which is enjoyed best when sung. The tunes are produced by professional musicians or immensely talented individuals who have a deep sense of music. They are deceptively simple as they employ only three or notes but are repeated in such a manner that it keeps the listeners spellbound. Such a simplicity is the height of creativity as it conceals within it the complexity of superb craftsmanship. That’s perhaps why that music directors and music composers of films have an undying fascination for folk tunes which they get inspired from while making their music in the subcontinent.

Let’s not forget that in Punjab like other places in the region we have what we call ‘musicians’ families’, the traditional custodians of our music tasked with preserving and promoting our folk music. But unfortunately they have perennially been at the lower rung of socio-cultural ladder in caste-ridden society that values ​​one’s family origins more than individual talent. Thus their creative contribution largely goes unacknowledged. So is the case with anonymous individuals especially women whose role in creating folk songs and music is ignored.

Till the recent past one would hear women singing. They would sing when a child was born. Members of older generation still have vague memories of lullabies their mothers and aunts sung them to lull them to sleep. Women would sing marriage songs – ‘Tappay, Mahiye and love songs’- weeks before the day of marriage. ‘Menhdi’ was a delightful ceremony in when henna was ritually applied on the hands of would-be bride and groom together or separately with joyful songs producing mirth among the audience. Women would sing celebratory verses (Sehray) to the health and happiness of the groom before he departed for the bride’s place.

Women welcoming the groom at the bride’s place would mercilessly lampoon him, his family, clan and the wedding party with their typical ‘Sithni’. The verses at times would be bawdy out of sheer enthusiasm. At the time of departure of the bride, they would sing heart-wrenching songs of separation from the family that made people teary-eyed.

When someone died women would sing dirges (Vaen/ Keernay) with their faces covered making mourners sob. They would recreate the life of the dead person evoking precious memories to the concerned family and community. Women had a large repertoire to suit different occasions. But their stock-in-trade would keep growing as on each occasion they would add by improvising on the melodies and verses corresponding to the mood and ambiance. And they would do it impromptu. The expression could be so powerfully biting and challenging that men, always on the lookout for women, would avoid being seen around. Women’s creative power was their shield that protected them from the treacherous and the lecherous. Their expression had both cathartic and aesthetic aspects. It bestowed them with agency, however short-lived it might be. It put them floatingly at least on a pair with men if not higher. It was a display of their cultural refinement to the chagrin of patriarchy loving male chauvinists. Without having the advantage of level-playing field, women could still surprise men with the occasional display of their hidden potential. But women weren’t allowed to own their literary and cultural products because of patriarchal norms. Their creative expression if owned was taken as a sign of their immodesty.

The advent of modern capitalist market accompanied by consumerism has changed the cultural scene beyond recognition. The age of consumables is being touted as a dawn of individual glory. You are what you consume. And you are not required to produce what you are exhorted to consume. It’s offered as something finished and packaged.

Material and cultural products are treated in a similar fashion. It is supposed that you don’t need to create anything as an individual, not even songs and music. They will be produced somewhere else and supplied you through outlets. The end result is that you are literally debarred from using your creative skills. You are deceived into false comfort zone through the shortcuts.

Our contemporary women are the real losers in this web of deceit. They have almost lost their power of creative expression that signifies their cultural existence. They can’t compose verses or sing songs like their mothers and grandmothers. They get things ready-made. Creative effort is thought to be a waste of breath. Play canned music. Dance to the tune made for a standard consumer. Sing a fast number to spice up a passive looking gathering or if you are ambitious, prepare a medley of commercial hits for the occasion.

To gauge the power of songs, just look at how a woman from 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 lost your head / You memorized just one chapter/ That too full of errors”.

Women have to retrieve their creative past if they desire to build a freer future for themselves. Such a future will herald freedom for all. —

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2022

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