Preferred Citation: Raheja, Gloria Goodwin, and Ann Grodzins Gold. Listen to the Heron's Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.

7 Conclusion: Some Reflections on Narrative Potency and the Politics of Women's Expressive Traditions

Conclusion: Some Reflections on Narrative Potency and the Politics of Women's Expressive Traditions

The Poetics of Resistance and the Power of Words

The women we know in Pahansu and Hathchoya and Ghatiyali reimagine their lives and their worlds in the songs they sing and the stories they tell. As anthropologists and linguists come more and more to regard texts as instruments and as products and as modes of social action (Hanks 1989), we find that the boundaries between words and lives are fluid and permeable, and they are sites of contestation and of struggle. The poetic genres that we have translated in these pages—dancing songs, songs of birth and marriage and festivity, ritual narratives and the narrative frames women use to tell of their own experiences—are South Asian discursive forms that have very long histories. Yet these "traditional" expressive genres bear witness not to a cultural consensus about gender and kinship but to a "dissensus," to reflexive cultural criticism embedded in many kinds of textual performance. In South Asia as elsewhere, protest and tradition, as Lakshmi Holmström reminds us (1991: xiii), slide together, instead of being at odds with each other.

But do these story worlds, the narratives sung and spoken by women in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, flow into lived worlds? Do these words interact with everyday realities and transform them, or does their power reside only in the imagination, only in the telling? While in hiding from the Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence, the Bombay-born novelist Salman Rushdie wrote a children's book dedicated to his son, called Haroun and the Sea of Stories . Toward the climax of this multiply-allegorical work filled with cross-language punning and polycultural meanings, Haroun,


the child-hero, confronts the evil Cultmaster, Khattam-Shud (in Hindi, meaning "Completely Finished"), who is busy concocting dreadful poisons designed to pollute the Ocean of Story. Haroun is naively appalled:

"But why do you hate stories so much?" Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. "Stories are fun. . . ."
"The world, however, is not for Fun," Khattam-Shud replied.
"The world is for Controlling."
"Which world?" Haroun made himself ask.
"Your world, my world, all worlds," came the reply. "They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why."
(Rushdie 1990: 161)

Khattam-Shud knows that stories contain unruly, multiple, moving worlds, alive worlds, and worlds capable of challenging the powers that be. And that is why he is "the Arch-Enemy of all stories and of Language itself." He is the "Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech" (39) because he wishes to silence all voices of protest. If he brings stories to an end, dreams and life itself will come to an end as well.

Haroun ponders one question over and over again: "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" And we have asked ourselves, What is the use of the songs and stories from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan that tell of women's power and agency when more authoritative and hegemonic voices speak only of women's submission to powerful males? But when Haroun asks his question, his father, a master storyteller, hides his face in his hands and weeps. Later in Rushdie's novel, when Rashid the storyteller is confronted by the power of Khattam-Shud, he too speaks of such a gulf between story worlds and "somewhere real." "And when Haroun heard his father say only a story , he understood that [he] was very depressed indeed, because only deep despair could have made him say such a terrible thing" (48). Perhaps he weeps because if he accepts that stories have no power, he accepts the inevitability of control and of domination.

Visions of the power of speech and of stories abound in contemporary Indian fiction. Sometimes it is the potency of hegemonic and authoritative words that is at issue. In the short story


"Raja Nirbansiya" the Hindi writer Kamleshwar juxtaposes a folk-tale of a childless king and his wife to the story of Jagpati, a poor village man, and his wife, Chanda. In the folktale, the king finds reason to doubt the wifely virtue (satitva ) of his queen, and he demands proof that the sons she finally bears are truly his own. The queen undertakes an ascetic regime to demonstrate that her satitva is unbroken, and the gods in turn provide miraculous proof of the queen's devotion to her husband. In the interwoven parallel story of an ordinary village man, Jagpati doubts the virtue of his wife when she becomes pregnant, and his doubts are fueled by village gossip and by proverbial comments about the unsteadiness of "women's nature" (tiriyacharittar , in the Hindi dialect that Kamleshwar recreates). The story ends tragically, because although "Chanda had no divine powers, and Jagpati was not a king," Jagpati falls victim both to his poverty and to the terms of a discourse that defines female nature as unruly and in need of male surveillance.

Kamleshwar's short story traces the potency of a hegemonic narrative about wifely virtue and "women's nature."[1] In the very act of descrying a final difference between a story world and the real world of Jagpati and Chanda, the author tells of the power of a dominant discourse, lodged in a simple folktale, to frame people's lives and expectations, and he speaks of the enormous burdens it forces them to bear.[2]

Beyond such literary depictions of the power of discourse to perpetuate hierarchical relations in India, there are also depictions of the subversive projection of story as rhetorical force into a world of listeners and readers. The incorporation of political messages into a traditional form of oral storytelling is vividly fictionalized in the opening scenes of Raja Rao's compelling novel Kanthapura —a portrayal of how Gandhian ideology, introduced in

[1] Tales of husbands demanding proof of their wives' virtue, followed by divine vindication of their claims to be pativrata (faithful to one's husband), are legion in Indian oral traditions such as the sang drama The Legend of Sila Dai , examined in chapter 4, and in written texts such as the Ramayana .

[2] Kamleshwar's perspective, however, is by no means a completely feminist one. When Jagpati, for example, speaks of the danger that follows the wiping out of "Lakshman's line," which is drawn by men to protect women, one does not sense that the author has totally abandoned the notion that women are in constant need of protection by powerful males. This is a theme that surfaces in several of his short stories. Yet the stories do cast a critical eye on the unthinking internalization of ideas about "female nature" and female duplicity.


the performance of harikatha , brings awareness of the struggle for independence from colonial rule to a South Indian village.[3]

The Bengali short stories translated by Kalpana Bardhan in Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants, and Rebels (1990) portray the complex struggles of marginalized and oppressed peoples as they variously resist, transcend, or submit to the ideologies and social arrangements that constrain and dehumanize them. As Bardhan points out, such struggles sometimes take the form of overt rebellion, but more often they are struggles in the realm of consciousness, struggles in which women, untouchables, and impoverished tribal people gradually come to recognize that their oppression is neither inevitable nor unquestionable. Some of the most powerful fictional representations of resistance in these stories are richly permeated by styles and motifs from oral traditions. In Mahasweta Devi's story "Paddy Seeds," for example, a landless laborer gives voice, in a Holi song, to the suffering he has witnessed as a result of the avarice of powerful landowners, and those who hear his song are moved to revolt by his words. And in Rabindranath Thakur's "Letter from a Wife," a woman who finally flees the confines of an oppressive conjugal home ends her introspective and critical narrative with an invocation of the songs of Mirabai, the sixteenth-century poet-saint who rejected conventional definitions of the ideal wife in favor of a life spent in the pursuit of her own religious aims. In these fictional worlds, social contexts determine, reflect, interpret, and are changed by the meanings and voices produced in expressive forms.

Such expressive forms are not of course always or regularly successful in permanently altering the structures of dominance or deprivation they critique. Nonetheless, the existence of subversive poetic genres—as Khattam-Shud's project dramatizes— remains an affront to any enterprise of domination or suppression.[4]

[3] Anticolonial discourse in Uttar Pradesh folklore has been documented by Vatuk (1969).

[4] We write these concluding words in December 1992, just days after the tragic destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by militant Hindu fundamentalists and as hundreds of Muslim lives and Hindu lives are being lost in the violent aftermath. We are thus made more aware than ever of the political uses of stories, of the potential for narrative texts—in this case, the Ramayana —to be used for political ends of many different kinds. The human creative capacity exemplified in narrative performance is as likely to foster hatred, bigotry, violence, and death as to promote awareness of oppression, resistance, and liberation.


It is not only in fictional worlds that expressive traditions are deployed as modes of political resistance. In Rajasthan in 1992, village women trained as sathins (voluntary workers in a program aimed at educating and organizing rural women) sing folk songs in which themes of resistance and equality have been interwoven (Baweja 1992). Here "tradition" is consciously reformulated to serve in struggles to end gender inequities. In many other feminist groups throughout India, puppet shows, songs, and traditional forms of street theater convey messages of social transformation to groups of urban and rural women alike. In the film No Longer Silent , which documents the work of activists for women's rights in Delhi, Bina Agarwal, Kamala Bhasin, and other prominent Indian feminists compose and sing lyrics, patterned like women's folk songs, to use in rallying women to protest gender inequities in India. Yet even in the far less overtly political genres that we have examined in these chapters, resistance is inextricably embedded in women's expressive traditions.

That there is a continuity between ordinary expressive forms heard throughout India and these versions specifically adapted as tools of political struggle is evidenced by instances in which "traditional" forms are used spontaneously in moments of crisis, to communicate desperation and protest to those in positions of power. In the aftermath of the violent and murderous riots in Delhi that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, a group of bereaved Sikh women, slum dwellers, were able to meet with the Chief Secretary of Delhi to protest the lack of protection afforded them by municipal authorities. As their grievances were presented, one woman began to sing a lament in the traditional style, expressing her view that if the government is to be thought of as mother and father, then it should not fail to protect those whose security is in jeopardy (Das 1990b: 373-74).[5] Here again, tradition slides into protest, since women's competence in such

[5] Yet it is the case that suffering can be so extreme and so incomprehensible as to render the performance of such traditional expressive forms impossible. Das also describes how some women who had lost husbands, sons, and brothers in the riots were unable to mourn their dead in the traditional manner, by singing laments. But they did use certain practices connected with the observance of death pollution to resist publicly the silence about the tragedy that Das says was imposed upon them (Das 1990b:362-65).


expressive genres may confer the ability, in times of tragedy, to give voice to their discontent in wider political arenas. As Das writes, "The division of labour in the roles played by men and women in the work of mourning during normal deaths stretches into the field of political deaths and makes women the special interlocutors between the worlds of kinship and politics" (1990a: 29). Ordinary women know the power of words, and they know well the experience of speaking of their grief and their resistance in sung and spoken narrative, and thus, as Davis (1975) and Scott (1990) have argued, poetic and ritual forms of protest can enable women to articulate a resistant stance and then to raise their voices when more practical forms of protest become possible.

Changing Songs and Changing Worlds

As the nineteenth century drew to a close and the twentieth century began, women in northern India sang, as they do now, of the sometimes conflicting loyalties a man owes to sister and to wife (Luard n.d.) and the enmity that may exist between a wife and her husband's sister (Grierson 1886: 249-50); they sang of the pain of seeing daughters leave their natal homes, "this custom of the degenerate times" (kalikiritiyahi ) (Crooke 1910: 338); women in Saharanpur district sang lamentations at the deaths of their husbands, mourning the loss of their suhag and the bangles and the earrings that betoken it (Crooke 1910: 336-37); in Sirsawa, a few miles from Pahansu, women sang of the labor of grinding grain and the labor of childbirth (Cunningham 1882: 84-85); and women sang, as they do now, of the pain of separation from husbands and from lovers (Grierson 1884; Tharu and Lalita 1991: 187-91). In some ways, women's critical assessments of these elements of their experience in kinship relations have undoubtedly remained constant over the years since colonial administrators like Luard, William Crooke, and Alexander Cunningham had such songs recorded by Indians in their employ. Songs we recorded in Pahansu, Hathchoya, and Ghatiyali speak profoundly of these continuities.

But women's spoken and sung narratives have not remained untouched by time. Songs sung by Gujar women in Saharanpur district at the end of the nineteenth century speak of their percep-


tions of the revolt against the British in 1857 (Crooke 1911: 123),[6] and a women's song from Central India recalls a brother's visit to a British imperial darbar in Delhi (Luard n.d.: 106). Songs from Pahansu and Hathchoya, recorded in 1988 and 1990, acknowledge the arrival of many consumer goods in these villages: they tell of grooms enjoying breezes from electric fans,[7] of a husband who's a "radio fiend" (raidiyobaj ), of a groom appearing at his wedding on a green motorcycle, and of wives demanding watches from admiring husbands. In one song from Hathchoya, a brother sets out with bhat gifts in an airplane, his landing hampered only when his plane runs out of fuel. And in a song from Ghatiyali, the god Dev Narayan is described as walking in the bazaar and listening to his transistor radio, only to find that his batteries have gone dead. Songs recorded in Ghatiyali in 1980 included many references to modern transportation—buses and cars—and to household items like electric light bulbs. Some commented on current political events, such as Sanjay Gandhi's ill-fated family planning campaign of the late 1970s. Several songs lamented the loneliness of a young bride left in the village at her in-laws' house while her husband works in the city. The very first song Ann heard in Ghatiyali when she returned there in 1993 reflected perhaps a change in attitude: in it a young girl wishes for a husband with a job and contrasts the easy life she would have with such a spouse to the hard daily toils of a farmer's wife.

Women's songs acknowledge changing educational expectations as well. In a dancing song from Hathchoya, a wife's voice lists her complaints about her sasural , and she implores her friend to listen to how she has been told to go to college, only to find that "my book bag is torn, and the teacher's too old." In a wedding song from Pahansu, the voice of a twelve-year-old bride protests that she's too young to be married, that she'd rather join the Congress party and become a goddess of learning. In another wonderful wedding song from Pahansu, women of the bride's side sing, "There are ever so many B.A. pass grooms, our girl wants a groom who's an M.A. pass."

[6] For a brief discussion of Gujar participation in this revolt, see Raheja 1988b: 255 n.3.

[7] Pahansu was electrified only in late 1987, several months before I returned for my second visit.


When I returned to Pahansu in 1988, after an absence of nine years, I saw a number of hand-painted signs in towns in the vicinity proclaiming that "an educated woman is the light of the home" (parhilikhinarighar ki ujari ). It was my impression that girls in Pahansu were attending school for a few years longer than they had in the late seventies. And in between Ann's first and second visits to Ghatiyali, a girls' school had been established in the village. Certainly in 1988 there were more young women in Pahansu who could read and write than there had been in 1979. But some of this inclination to allow girls to remain in school has to do with the idea that dowry expectations would be lower for girls with a little education, a domestication of female learning that seems to be echoed in the phrase "light of the house." Could it be that the dancing song that complains about the incongruity between conjugal expectations and the college as the young bride finds it in fact represents a nascent critique of the limitations and the uses of such female education? Though women value education and literacy, for themselves and for their daughters, they also see that it is sometimes used only to enhance male honor or as one more "qualification" for an acceptable bride.

We have not focused in this book on historical transformations in women's performance traditions. The historical record of women's voices appears now to be too scanty and too heavily edited by powerful males writing in pencil so that the forthright-ness of women's songs and narratives "should be struck out if considered befitting" (Luard n.d.: 160) for a completely satisfactory analysis to be feasible. Yet it is possible to discern that women's songs have never stood outside of history. And it is just this historicity and transformability of tradition that provides us with additional grounds for suggesting that women's expressive genres might possibly serve as catalysts in more highly charged and more widely ranging demands for change on the part of rural women.

But the direction of change in women's oral traditions is as yet far from clear. Commercial influences are legion, and the danger is that the voices and the styles in women's expressive genres may be further marginalized by such influences. Some of these influences seem relatively benign. The melodies of some songs, for example, are taken from film music. When I was translating


the "Song of the Mother's Brothers' Gifts" in chapter 3, for example, I spent an enormous amount of time asking women for the meaning of the first line, "a little pebble over a big one." Expecting to discover at last that it had some profound symbolic meaning in relation to the bhat gifts, I must admit that I was a bit chagrined to find that this was simply the first line of a film song, inserted into what appears to be a very old set of lyrics, to introduce a philmi melody.[8] Edward Henry (1988: 111-12) reports that in eastern Uttar Pradesh song booklets are sold in the bazaars, with film song melodies suggested for the commercially composed songs. Such commercial booklets have not yet made their way to Pahansu. But in 1988, I came upon two printed collections of folk songs from Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar districts, compiled by a teacher of Hindi at a local college (Sharma 1983, 1984). I had copies of these with me in Pahansu, and when a few literate young women discovered them in my room, they read them avidly, pointing out to me which songs they had heard in Pahansu, performing some of them for me, and adopting others, selectively, into their own repertoires.[9]

These kinds of influences do not seem to marginalize women's expressive genres, and they may even foster some kinds of creativity; but others may go much farther in diluting women's distinctive perspectives. This is not a simple issue of "authenticity." As Arjun Appadurai (1991: 473) points out, this notion is suspect if it involves an assumption of a past simplicity and fixity of folk traditions, or if we counterpose a notion of "authentic" tradi-

[8] Three months after the electrification of the village in November 1987, there were already thirty television sets in Pahansu, and televisions had become important dowry items. The sets were most avidly watched on Sunday evenings, when Hindi films were aired, and the film songs were always particularly appreciated. The women in our house would cook the evening bread and lentils before the film began, and set them aside until the intermission, when everyone would eat a hurried meal before the film resumed. I had never before seen people willingly consume cold rotis , but even the men seemed unconcerned, in their haste to return to the television set. For most women, this was the first opportunity to see Hindi movies, since expeditions to the town for such a purpose would have called forth cries of besaram , "No modesty!" On one occasion in 1988, a television and videocassette recorder were rented from a nearby town so that a Hindi film could be shown to guests following a fire sacrifice ritual for the opening of a new men's sitting place built by a Gujar landholder.

[9] Though there are no sexually explicit songs in these collections, many of the songs collected and reported by Sharma and his students are every bit as subversive as the ones I tape-recorded in Pahansu and Hathchoya.


tions to ones that are mechanically reproduced. Yet there are forces of change that may specifically threaten women's ability to give voice to cultural criticism in their sung and spoken expressive traditions. Henry, for example, points out that women's participatory music is imperiled by several recent developments in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Electric amplification of taped music at weddings and other events may sometimes discourage women from singing themselves, and in urban areas, professional singers may be hired to lead the ritual songs (1988: 112, citing Tewari 1977). In the Chhattisgarh region of Central India, many women's traditions are being supplanted by music from All-India Radio and films shown in "video halls" (Flueckiger 1992: 192-96). In Pahansu, loud and raucous bands of male musicians playing Western instruments are invariably hired at weddings nowadays, and their music always seemed to me to grow more insistent as women's singing commenced; women's voices are drowned out entirely on a few of my tapes.

Changing educational expectations may also have a profound impact on the performance of oral traditions. Flueckiger, for example, reports that in Chhattisgarh songs that celebrate female sexuality are viewed by men as "bad songs" (bura git ). Male village leaders argue that "our educated girls shouldn't be singing these kinds of songs" (Flueckiger 1991: 192-93). As they define the kinds of behavior compatible with literacy, males once again threaten the continuation of female expressive genres and the voicing of women's particular perceptions of gender and kinship.

A recent development in western Uttar Pradesh over the last five to ten years has been the commercial videotaping of wedding events. These tapes are then made available to relatives who attended the marriage. This was just beginning to be fashionable in some of the small towns and villages in the area in 1990, and I was able to see only a few of these wedding tapes. They appeared to be records primarily of the activities presided over by men: the Sanskritic wedding rites of course, but most footage was given over to shots of the important male guests and their socializing, eating, and drinking. I did not see any footage of women's rites or women's singing. There is every indication that videotaping will become more and more a marker of a properly managed wedding in rural Uttar Pradesh. If this happens, will the tapes in


fact further deemphasize the significance of women's voices, as the videotaped male presences come more and more to be remembered as "the wedding" while the women's presence and women's words go unrecorded? Will women too view these videotapes and come to see their own absence as somehow natural and inevitable, or will they, as we suspect they might, begin to compose songs that are themselves critical responses to this video devaluation of women's ritual and social roles?

Far more ominous than the mere replacing of women's voices by cassette music or the omission of women's images from wedding tapes is the blatant exploitation of women's songs for the titillation of male audiences. As we have seen in these chapters, women's songs frequently use erotic imagery to challenge male-authored characterizations of female nature and female sexuality. Cassette producers in northern India have recently begun to record and market renditions of what they term masala ("spicy") songs, women's erotic folk songs ordinarily sung in courtyards from which males have been barred. The market for cassette tapes in general is overwhelmingly male in India, and Peter Manuel draws attention to the way in which these particular songs are marketed: "The male orientation of such cassettes is particularly evident in their covers, which generally depict a scantily clad seductively posed woman, archetypically offering herself to the male gaze. Such covers naturally suggest a certain interpretation to listeners" (1993: 175). I have not seen these tapes in Pahansu or Hathchoya, and so I cannot yet comment on their possible impact on women's expressive traditions. But as women's songs of protest are transformed into pornography by the Indian recording industry we see yet another way that female voices are manipulated and exploited by powerful males. And therefore we may question Appadurai's argument that electronic recordings of "folk music" merely extend the plasticity and diversity of indigenous traditions (1991: 473). In this case, at least, what is at issue is less the abstract notion of "authenticity" than the invention of novel means by which women's speech is drawn into the orbit of male control.

Thus the vexed issue of "authenticity" itself may involve considerations of gender, if in fact it is specifically female voices that tend to be silenced, transformed, marginalized, or exploited by professionalization, by electronic media, or by the definitions


of the proper uses of literacy posed by powerful males. These developments that may compromise the resistance exhibited in women's expressive genres are of some significance, since in India, as elsewhere, the performance of song and story provides, as we have tried to demonstrate, a privileged arena for women's subversive speech. But for every attempt to silence women's songs, there have also been attempts, like those of the sathins in Rajasthan, to heighten the power of their resistance and to bring them into increasingly politicized and public arenas.

We do not know the answers to these questions about the future of women's spoken and sung resistance, about the future of women's distinctive expressive genres. We have witnessed, though, the complexity and the power of these words, and some of the instances in which such words have flowed into the lived worlds of women in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Though women's discourse may both sustain and undermine hegemonic gender representations, and though women speak from diverse kinship, class, and caste positionings, we believe that women's oral traditions will continue to speak creatively and provocatively to the changing circumstances of women's lives and to the steps being taken by Indian feminists, both rural and urban, to ensure that their voices will be heard.

A critical task in social science and humanities disciplines over the last fifteen to twenty years has been to formulate an understanding of cultural difference while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of essentializing those cultural differences and of reproducing the tacit assumption that cultures are timelessly fixed or singly voiced and homogeneous. One possible step in the resolution of this issue of representation is to recognize, first, that tradition and resistance are seldom antithetical, that each culture harbors within itself critiques of its most authoritative pronouncements; and second, that while such critiques frequently take the form of such ostensibly "traditional" forms of speech as proverbs, songs, and folktales, they enter at the same time into the realm of the political, as they are deployed in the construction and reconstruction of identities and social worlds in which relations of power are deeply implicated.


7 Conclusion: Some Reflections on Narrative Potency and the Politics of Women's Expressive Traditions

Preferred Citation: Raheja, Gloria Goodwin, and Ann Grodzins Gold. Listen to the Heron's Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.