The Making of Bahu-beti-biwi
THE BREADTH OF A WOMAN'S EXPERIENCE
both of her outer world and her inner world are embedded within a genre of songs that women sing in the desert regions of North India.
Bahu-Beti-Biwi is partially based on my research and interpretations of these songs: life-cycle songs, gali (insult) and giddha (satire) songs, lullabies, songs of separation and ritual laments. During July and August of 2007, I lived with two women from two different hereditary musician castes in the desert regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. By immersing myself in these communities, I had the opportunity to learn and record their songs as well as better understand what the songs mean for them.
There were a few people who were instrumental in assisting me in my research of North Indian women's folk songs. In Los Angeles, Professor Amy Catlin Jairazbhoy from UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology, was a constant source of information and was responsible for putting me in touch with Akbar Khan and his sons, Imamddin and Kamruddin Khan of the Ustad Arba Music Institute in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. These three men generously gave their time, knowledge and talent to the project by teaching me songs and connecting me to other artists in far-off villages. Visit Ustad Arba Music and Rajasthani Gypsy Caravan for more information and to support the traditional arts and rich cultural heritage of Jaisalmer!
My particular experience with restrictions on women's lives comes from my various visits to India,
living with my new bhabis (sister-in-laws) in my cousin brothers’ homes. I am usually the only one that they can talk to, and it has broken my heart to hear and feel their deep disappointments: the five years of "adjustment" before acceptance, the wings that are clipped, the sacrifices that are made. I am not marching around saying what is right or wrong, but I am moved immediately to wonder how I would feel, as a young woman, if this were the situation that I found myself in.
The Women's songs - "Lok git"
My interest in ‘women’s songs’ further led me to such scholarly works as Rustom Bharucha’s Rajasthan an Oral History and the corresponding CD, Rajasthan, A Musical Journey. Edward O. Henry’s research on women’s songs in Uttar Pradesh was extremely useful, and his insight into the significance of these songs is especially provoking. He says,
“In its effect on people’s lives, there is no more important music in North India: these songs convey religious knowledge and social sentiments at the heart of everyday life, and the people who sing and hear them number in the hundreds of millions” (Henry 2000: 659).
Yet, although the songs are expressive of a woman’s experience, men regard public singing by women as a low-caste activity that ultimately degrades the social status of the community (Bharucha 2003: 157). Instead, the songs are appropriated by men and often comprise the majority of a male folk musician’s repertoire (Catlin 2002: 210). The songs are often further exploited by the popular Hindi film industry, with little or no credit given back to the women themselves. As a researcher, it is important to me to document the source of these songs, and to honor these women folk singers as upholders of tradition and composers in their own right. Artists and scholars and of course, the media, are vital in not only preserving these traditions but also in continuing a dynamic conversation around these practices. The determinant of a tradition’s longevity often lies in its ability to adapt and innovate.
Read more on this important topic in Sheetal's paper, "Freedom versus Stability: Fantasies of Intimacy in North Indian Women's Songs"
The development of Bahu-Beti-Biwi was supported in part by a UCLA HotHouse Choreography Residency, by the UCLA department of World Arts and Cultures, and by my dear faculty and cohort who are with me every time I perform this piece. Special thanks to Dan Froot, David Roussève, Vic Marks, Cheng-Chieh Yu and Cynthia Ling Lee.