The Message Within an Indian Folksong

Ian Woolford's research uncovers how north Indian folksongs have meaning beyond the ritual.

This article appeared in Asia Rising #1, published by La Trobe Asia.
By Matt Smith.

A group of women congregate in a field as dusk approaches in Banpurwa Village, south of Varanasi in India. They are performing a maţţikor ritual during a family wedding. They use a hoe to dig up a piece of earth key to their rituals. As the sun sets, they dance, and sing verbally abusive gālī—a song genre in which women berate their family men with a mix of affectionate joking and explicit language.

Adult men rarely accompany women for this ritual, but those that are allowed—such as percussionists and videographers—will find themselves targets of this light-hearted type of song. Indeed, many consider it auspicious to be targeted. This was the case in the Banpurwa field, where Dr Ian Woolford was allowed to watch and record as part of his research. For the past decade he's been travelling through northern India, documenting rituals, songs and poems of small villages.

"This type of song can convey the most deep and important cultural sentiments of communities and of individual performers," says Woolford. "What performance accomplishes can rarely be expressed by words alone. A few minutes of a performance is so packed with meaning, it can open up years of interpretation."

Woolford is the director of the Hindi program at La Trobe University. His recent study has focused on how village song texts have appeared in the work of Indian novelists, and how these songs have a power over the reader beyond their literal intentions.

Many examples can be found in the pages of Sea of Poppies, a novel by best- selling Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. Within the pages Woolford recognised many of the songs he had recorded in North India. He even recognised a Hindi devotional song he had learnt as a child, whilst sitting in the classroom of a Hindi school in Trinidad, where he had been sent to live by his musicologist mother. As he read the passages it evoked a vivid memory of his youth.

"Every performance in Trinidad was a teaching tool, in which we learned through constant repeat and refrain. The performance style was predicated on language loss," says Woolford. "In a Trinidad Indian community that was fast losing knowledge of Hindi and Bhojpuri, this structure allowed groups of young children, including myself, a British boy with limited knowledge of Hindi, to sing entire Hindi songs on philosophical topics."

Ghosh isn't the only author using village songs, and Woolford is completing a study of song in Hindi fiction. He has matched literary examples to those in his recording collection made while travelling through northern India for the past decade. Woolford believes that by using traditional songs in this fashion the authors intend to encode experiences into their works rather than just repeat them directly. The fictional works become an important part of the performance tradition.

An example of this is a bidāī gīt, a 'departure song', in Ramdarash Mishra's novel Pānī ke prāchir, in which a bride and her family members weep as she leaves her birth home. Woolford was familiar with the song, and had recorded many examples of it during his fieldwork.

He recently had the opportunity to interview Hindi poet and professor Ramdarash Mishra, and asked him about how he used the departure song in his novel. Mishra has childhood memories of women singing this song in his village in Gorakhpur district, Uttar Pradesh.

"Professor Mishra first started to explain the song from an academic standpoint, but what really struck me was that after a moment he choked up about it – it started to have a visible emotional impact on him," Woolford says. "It is amazing that, after so many years a song can have such a hold over a person. It was a very powerful moment."

The songs in Mishra's writings are associated with ritual activity, specific festivals, and specific domestic and agricultural tasks. By writing these women's songs into a Hindi novel, Mishra has taken them from one performance and linguistic context and refashioned them within another.

"The north Indian village song tradition, of which repetition is the most prominent element, encodes emotions that are at times impossible to discuss," says Woolford. "It takes an entire novel, written by one of Hindi literature's finest, to explain why memory of a village song brings tears to the eyes of a ninety-four-year-old Hindi professor sitting at his home in Delhi."

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