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Non-Brahmin Songs

A similar strategy of subverting authority while outwardly respecting it is found in the Ramayana songs sung by non-Brahmin women. These are not as long as the Brahmin women's songs, nor are they as prominent in the non-Brahmin women's repertoire as they are in Brahmin women's. Although the Ramayana is often alleged to be universally, popular in India, closer examination will, I believe, reveal that the epic's popularity increases with the status of the caste. At any rate the number of Ramayana songs sung by non-Brahmin women that are available in published collections is relatively small, though the songs are by no means less interesting. My information regarding these songs comes almost entirely from these published collections, and as such my use of the data is rather constrained.

The label "non-Brahmin" masks more than it reveals. Unfortunately, the published information about these songs does not record the precise caste of the singer. As Ganagappa informs us, the songs are sung by women when they are working in the fields, grinding flour, or playing kolatam (a play of music and dance in which the players move in circles as they hit wooden sticks held in each other's hands). Female agricultural labor in Andhra largely comes from Malas, a caste of Untouchables, and other castes of very low status. Women of these castes work in the fields with men, make their own money, and thus live relatively less sheltered and controlled lives. Separation of the sexes is not practiced to the same extent as among the upper castes, although women are seen as inferior to men, paid lower wages, and given work which is supposed to require less skill, like weeding and transplanting, as opposed to ploughing, seeding, and harvesting. Women also work in groups, which are often supervised by a man. The household chores that these women perform are also distinct from those of the men, but the separation is not as clear cut as it is among upper castes. Lower caste men, for example, do not consider it demeaning to feed children and take care of them.

Women of these low castes have the same kinds of family responsibilities as Brahmin women do: raising a family, bearing (male) children, being sex-


ually faithful to their husbands, and obeying their husbands and mothers-in-law. But the low-caste women are not as dependent on their husbands as are Brahmin women. Widows are not treated as inauspicious, nor are their heads shaved; and they are not removed from family ritual life. Among some non-Brahmin castes widows even remarry.[15]

The Ramayana songs sung by non-Brahmin women reflect this difference. These songs also concentrate on women's themes: Sita's life in the forest, Urmila's sleep, Sita's request that Rama capture the golden deer, Ravana's kidnapping of Sita, and the battle between Rama and his sons, Kusa and Lava. But there is little interest in descriptions of woman's role in ritual, in their wish for importance in family decisions, or in saris and ornaments, nor is there much allusion to the inner conflicts of a joint family. Also significantly absent are hidden sexuality, feminine modesty, and descriptions of games played by husband and wife.

Interestingly, there is a song describing how Rama grieves when Laksmana swoons in battle and how Hanuman brings the mountain with the life-giving herb samjivini . Another song describes how Vibhisana advises his brother Ravana in vain to surrender Sita and how he deserts Ravana to join Rama. Their mother advises Vibhisana to take half of Lanka and stay. Describing the glory of Lanka she says:

The god of wind sweeps the floor here in Lanka.
The rain god sprinkles cow-dung water to keep it clean.
The fire god himself cooks in our kitchen,
     cooks in our kitchen.
Three hundred thirty-three million gods take
shovels and crowbars and work for us as slaves,
     all the time, work for us as slaves.

It is fascinating to see how the song reverses the hierarchy and relishes the description of gods working as slaves, for in truth it is the low-caste women and men who must work as slaves for their masters, the "gods on earth." The chores of sprinkling cow-dung water in the front yards and cooking are women's work, while digging earth for the landed masters is the work of low-caste men. The song thus refers jointly to the tasks of both men and women of the low castes, opposing their situation to that of the upper castes.

Another short song in this collection describes the glory of houses in Lanka where Ravana and his brothers live.

Steel beams and steel pillars, whose palace is this?
Lovely Srirama [Sita], this is Kumbhakarna'spalace.
Teak beams and teak pillars, whose palace is this?
Lovely Srirama, this is Indrajit's palace.

Silver beams and silver pillars, whose palace is this?
Lovely Srirama, this is Ravana's palace.[16]


Sung during kolatam play, this group song, its lines repeated again and again, enchants the listeners with its play on words and sound, the increase in value of the house keeping pace with the increase in the tempo of singing. Here, it is Ravana, not Rama, who is described in glorious terms befitting a king. We hear of Rama more as a name in the devotional refrain than as the hero of the epic story.

Among the other male characters Laksmana again receives affectionate treatment as Sita's younger brother-in-law. As surrogate father he takes care of Sita's sons. He puts oil on their scalps, feeds them milk, and they urinate on his clothes. Laksmana loves it; his face glows like the full moon.

The joint family does merit a favorable description in a song depicting Sita's answer to the demon women guarding her in Lanka.

Cool lemon trees and fine ponna trees all around
have you seen, Sita, Ravana's Lanka.
Time and again you think of Rama,
who is this Rama, Sita of Ragavas
Rama is my man, Laksmana, my maridi .
Barta and Satrika are my younger maridis .
Kausalya is my real mother-in-law,
Kaika, the elder one and Saumitri, the younger.
Urmila and I are daughters-in-law.
All the world knows, Janaka is my father.
All the directions know, Dasaratha is my father-in-law.
All the earth knows, the earth goddess is my mother.[17]

So Sita is neither alone nor unprotected. When threatened by an alien power, she can count on all the members of her extended family to come to her support.

An incident that makes Sita look somewhat childish in the upper-caste Ramayanas is her demand for the golden deer, even though Rama tells her that the animal is a demon in magical disguise. In the Ramayana of the low-caste women, though, Sita does not insist on getting the animal like a spoiled child; she says instead:

You give me your bows and arrows
I will go right now and get the animal.

His ego hurt, Rama rushes forth to capture the golden deer.

These songs are sung in rice fields and play areas—not in the private backyards of houses as the Brahmin songs are. Interestingly, songs collected from the fields where women sing as they work begin with a straightforward narration but end almost abruptly; they seem rather unfinished. One wonders if the open structure of the work songs does not reflect the low-caste women's lack of interest in finishing what really does not belong to them. Rather than indicating an inability to produce a finished song, the songs' structure is thus an expression of rejection: like the open fields where they


work, the story of the Ramayana , with its regal settings and brahminical values, really belongs to others. The same women can, moreover, sing beautifully finished songs when the theme interests them, as, for example, the kolatam play song describing the glory of the houses Ravana and his brothers live in. And there is that devotional mention of Rama's name, perhaps a thin facade covering the actual lack of interest in Rama's stature as a hero.

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