The Curious Case of Woman in Bandish

We always hear complains about the absurd lyrics that many film songs have. It would be considered alright if it’s just for comic entertainment, but if they (and they do) have a significant influence on half of the population-men-and make it harass the other half, then it’s a problematic situation. Richa chaddhaTwo videos from AIB- The Bollywood Diva Song and Harassment Through the Ages-correctly point it out that Bollywood songs (and movies) are not helping in uplifting the dignity and honor of women. While we have movies like Kahani, Pink, Queen, Margarita with a Straw, Highway, Mirch Masala, depicting independent  strong women, we also have embarrassing songs with lyrics like Saree ke fall sa, Achchi baatein kar li bahot…Ab karunga tere saath gandi baat, Hai tujhpe right mera, or hontho pe na dil me han hoinga, and many more.

Film music/songs are listened by almost everyone on phones or radio. Anyone can be seen dancing on them in a party. It is often stated that the products of Indian film Industry are responsible for the objectification of women and are causing men to have a sense of false male ego. It can be easily seen in the portrayal of a female protagonist in almost any movie-it’s either as Abla Naari or a slut-there is no in between. 

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Mirch Masala

It is not an exaggeration, one can refer to the detailed discussion on this in the famous Indian show Satyamev Jayate. In 2015, Sandesh Baliga, an Indian man residing in Australia was accused of stalking, harassing two women through disturbing messages, and self declaring himself as their boyfriend. In defense, his lawyer stated that Baliga’s behaviour is heavily influenced by the Bollywood movies according to which, it’s quite normal, and is a part of his culture. Tasmania court declared him ‘not guilty’.

It’s no secret that women’s value as a human being is still a big question-mark in India despite the bombardment of ‘salute to Indian women from ISRO’ messages, or posts showing women ‘progressing’ in various fields. Still, it’s a great shame that Indian culture still has the potential to be used in defending harassing women even on an international level. 

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Bombardment of sugarcoated posts about woman empowerment

Recently, Thomas Reuters Foundation carried a survey concluding that India is the most unsafe country for women. Government of India, on the other hand, declined the reliability of this-on the same page of the newspaper where another news of a Canadian tourist getting raped in Delhi was given in a small column, irony! Actually, in a country where the celebs are worshipped as deities (no matter how corrupt they are) and where people can go on the rampage and burn school-buses just because they don’t like the content of a movie, the film industry should be more careful about what it shows about women. Maybe it’s too busy in the fight for freedom of speech, to care about women’s upliftment(!).

One from an older generation would like to argue that our youth is badly influenced by western music and films. They would simply state, ‘The films and songs were so meaningful. The audience were elites and had a taste, so the songs were based on classical music,’ or sometimes argue, ‘the youngsters are ignoring the treasures of Swadesi Classical music, which is the root cause of poor level of film songs’. These ‘elites’ are one of the reasons behind making classical music non relatable to today’s youth. They divide and discriminate between ‘classical’ music and music, where actually art should have no boundaries-there can be genres, but none is better than others. But then someone occasionally makes movies like Balgandharva, Katyar Kaaljat ghusli etc, and the elites become happily satisfied, the main issue remaining unaddressed. Now, how is this relevant to the topic of film song lyrics that was being addressed? If we have a look at the current setup of a classical mehfil (concert), it’ll get cleared. 

Considering Hindustani classical music, the vital element of any Hindustani classical program is a Bandish, or cheez, a song having 4-6 lines divided into Sthayi and Antara. The singer beautifully elaborates the words inside the boundaries of a particular raaga, and at the same time, describes the raaga in the boundaries of the words. If usually the classical singer is singing the same lines for at least an hour or two, then it is really important to do some analysis on a typical bandish.classical There seems to be a traditional set of such bandish which were written at least 800 years ago, considering the era defining the revolutionary progression of Hindustani classical music-around 11th or 12th century or even earlier. Initially Indian classical music had more mechanical structure-Dhrupad–which contained purely deity-based verses, and music was just a means of worship. Afterwards, the north side of the country got under the influence of Muslim rulers-Sultans, Nawabs, Mughals, Nizam, etc. thereby influencing the art and culture.  Indian artists embraced this because it allowed the artists to, for the first time, express themselves through the Khyal (literally meaning ‘thought’) gaayki -this sounds similar to the inspiration behind the famous painting ‘Monalisa’. The bandish were now sung in the khyal and were structured accordingly. We absorbed more elements like Thumri, Dadra, etc. which, in spite of being of only semi-classical form, are now a relentless and inexorable piece of the Hindustani classical concert.

Currently, very few bandish are based on some common theme relatable to everyone, like nature, etc. Hindustani classical bandish is mostly based on either Radha & Krishna or the love of some unknown woman who is desperate to seek attention of her intended. One such example is a famous bandish in raaga Hameer:

Sthayi- Langarawaa kaise ghar jaaon, Sun paave mori saas nanadiya, Chhad de mohe dheeth | (How can I go home now? My in-laws will admonish me if they hear about this-‘this’, is explained in the antara)

Antara- Hoon jo chali panaghatava thaado, Kaun bahaane pyaare balama, Cheen lai mori sees gagariya, Barajori tihaare (sundaravaa) || (I had gone to fill water near the river, and my beloved, being naughty, snatched the pot from my head and was aggressing me-barajori could mean harassment, but it sounds welcome since it’s by husband)

One more famous bandish in a similar mood, which is quite famous, is from the raaga Puriya Dhanashree,

Sthayi- Paayaliya jhanakaar more, Jhanana jhanana baaje jhanakaar | (my anklets are so noisy, they make sound -jhanana jhanana)

Antara- Piya samajhaaun samajhat naahin, Saas nanad mori degi gaari || (My beloved is not being patient no matter how much I explain that if I move out of the house, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law (saas-nanad) will listen and they will curse me.)

Both of these lyrics portray a woman who is immensely frightened of her in-laws. And there is an overeager or over demanding husband who likes to keep her in trouble. This woman can’t even go anywhere without getting scolded. Many bandish from many ragas have the same words with little bit of rearrangement. Many bandish lyrics show poor sense of poetry. There are a number of bandish where the woman is facing atrocities like in this bandish in raaga Todi:

Sthayi- Langar kaankariyaa ji naa maaro, mora angavaa laagi jaaye| (Please don’t throw stones-kankariya-at me, I’ll get hurt)

Antara- Sun paave mori saas nanadiyaa, daure daure ghar aave  (if my in-laws hear about this, I’ll have to run from here to go home)

Also, some bandish also portray a woman who has extremely low self esteem, for example, in raaga Malkans:

Sthayi- Main piya sang lad pachtaayi re, bhayi akal ki kaani re| (I heavily regret arguing with my beloved. Oh I was such a brainless fool!-‘Akal ki Kaani’)

Antara- Tadap tadap ke giri se zuke, jaise meen bin paani re|| (I am suffering badly, like a fish without water.)-Arguments happen all the time, why does this lady feel terrible enough to curse her intelligence? It might be because it was against the rules meant for women to speak their mind and have a different opinion.

A similar bandish says,

Sthayi- Maan le mori baat saiyyan, beet gayi jug, naa maane saiyyan|(Here, the man is somehow unhappy and gone away, it’s been ages)

Antara- Begi begi aao levo daras, Tarasat jiya mora|(she is desperately convincing him to come again, and her soul is suffering without seeing him.)

She is portrayed to be having nothing else sensible enough to do. And it is not very surprising in India that woman is not supposed to do anything other than pleasing the man in her life and always depend on a man in the first place. So in almost all the bandish lyrics, a woman is depicted as someone desperate to please her man. The man, however, is highly notorious and is extremely ignorant of this woman. She has nothing interesting to do. Looking at the ratio of male and female classical singers (males being dominant), it is highly ironic to see

  1. Male singers singing all this on behalf of that helpless woman, and
  2. Female singers singing these lyrics, not caring about the hidden insult in them.

We live in the twenty-first century and sing a bandish written a thousand years back. In the theory of classical music, Khyal is defined as the thoughts (of the singer) described by the singer. So if it is supposed to be the singer’s own Khyal, looking at these bandish lyrics, is it really his/her own thought? It’s a tragedy to have an entire regime of art, based on fake assumptions. Also, they have huge influence of a single community and their deities, so it’s not really relatable to every group of people in the country (apart from it not being relatable to half of the population-women).

The kingdom of Thumri, has slightly more frank depiction of so-called human emotions-mainly love. It takes all the freedom to break the boundaries of raaga and explore further, just like the courtesans-Tawaifs-who left the boundaries (as well as their right to be honored-whether they left those boundaries, or they were made to leave them, is a question yet to be answered). It is superficially stated that the rulers of the medieval period encouraged thumri and took it to the mainstream art-both dance and music. Earlier, thumri was being performed by the courtesans-who were kathak dancers as well-along with dance (bol-baant). It evolved mostly in Lucknow in the court of Nawab Waajid Ali Shah. 

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Gauhar Jaan, apparently the first Indian to have been recorded

Soon, the sophisticated elites of classical music realised the elegance of this genre, and a new version of thumri arose and evolved in Varanasi in the late 19th century, which was independent of dance, and much more slow-paced (bol-banav). Thumri got honorary place in the Hindustani classical music, at the cost of the decline in the grace of tawaifs-who actually originated the art-causing their fall into consequences as bad as prostitution. Curious species would notice that in the old era, women dominated in thumri, but classical music was dominated by men. And women performing thumri didn’t have much honorary life-as we’ll get to see in the upcoming biopic of Gauhar Jaan-and women weren’t encouraged in the genre of classical music (one could conclude from this that women performing any kind of music were looked down upon anyway). Now the picture has changed with time. Now we have both male and female thumri singers in almost same ratio. Some examples of the thumri that is sung today:

Raag Sindhura: Baalam tere jhagde mein rain gayi (oh dearest, you have wasted the entire night in the fight(argument)).  Sometimes it is only a single line.

And the famous one in raag Tilak Kamod,

Sthayi- Neer bharan kaise jaoon sakhi ab, Dagar chalat mo seh karat raar mein (O my friend, how do I go to fill water? On the way he (Krishna) teases me).

Antara- Eiso chanchal chapal hat nat khat maan, Tana kahu ki baat, Vinati karat mein gayi re haar ab (He is clever naughty, dramatic and very stubborn, doesn’t listen to anybody. I am tired of requesting him not to tease me).

And so on.. So basically, all the thumris have the same essence-woman stays in trouble. It is a wonder how singers don’t have any problem while singing this, while expressing the khyal-emotions and thoughts-which completely cut all the hopes for the upliftment of women. Yet we blame Bollywood for writing offensive lyrics, while even the original, ‘classical’ art doesn’t allow a woman to grow out of her old under-confident, suppressed form. It is often stated that the skeleton of Indian film music is classical music. Everyone who wants to be associated with Indian film music, is advised to learn the basics of classical music, which of course includes the same bandish, though in its basic form. It would not be absurd to say that along with the basic skeleton, the practice of humiliating women through lyrics has also passed on from classical to film music.

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Prisoners of culture preserving culture

All this clearly indicates that an update of some kind is extremely important in this sphere of art. One would come with an argument that these bandish’ preserve the old tradition and culture. But we already have a rich kingdom of folk arts for the preservation of culture and tradition. Folk artists from different caste and crews have already been assigned this task by the customs, and they are struggling to keep up with it while wondering about staying alive (but thanks to the bits of support and encouragement from AIR, reality TV shows and Cultural Ministry). Some make a (reasonably valid) point that in classical music, the notes (sur) and vocals (gaayki) are dominant over lyrics. Sure, words are not as dominant here as they are in gazal-where poetry is at its peak. This would have made ‘Tarana’s more popular. But khyal-gaayki is still intact, so we still need proper words to elaborate the raga-so it can be vaguely said that words in classical music are like salt in food, their presence doesn’t count but absence makes it tasteless.

Classical music should be regularly assessed, scrutinized, improvised and updated. It should embrace a systematic ‘research and development’ culture. Those who look at music just for entertaining audience and earning money, or those who make excuses like, ‘Music is a language in itself, once the singer enters the raaga he forgets everything, even words! Then does it really matter?’ cannot make a change. Public often considers artists to be crazy or self centered and many times they actually are, and show irresponsible behavior towards the society. Artists are an important part of a civilization, they hold the capacity to start great revolution just through their art. Any form of art they perform or present, should have a conscience and they should continuously improvise their art to encourage the progression of the society to a better condition.