We always complain about the absurd lyrics that many Bollywood songs have. It would be considered all right if it’s just for comic entertainment, but if they have a significant influence (and they do) on half of the population- men- and encourages them to harass the other half, then it’s a problematic situation.
Two 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 women. While we have inspiring movies like “Kahaani”, “Neerja” and “Dangal” depicting strong women, we also have embarrassing songs with lyrics like Saree ke fall sa (“R…Rajkumar”), Hai tujhpe right mera, (“Phata Poster Nikla Hero”), or Hontho pe na dil me haan hoinga (“Josh”) and many more. It secretly follows the guidelines of Manusmriti, (since no other religion’s text has ‘officially’ promoted humiliation of women), but that will be a separate discussion.
One from an older generation would like to argue about the western influence on our music and ignorance about our own treasures of classical fine arts. It’s somehow true that not many Indian youth have the inclination to appreciate classical music and dance.
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. 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 was around 11th or 12th century or even earlier.
Initially, Indian classical music had a 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 change 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 Mona Lisa. The bandish were now sung in the khyal and were structured accordingly.
Currently, very few bandish are based on some common theme relatable to everyone, like nature, etc. A few are based on Hindu deities, which is again, religion-based. In the remaining whole kingdom of Hindustani classical music, the bandish is mostly based on either Radha and Krishna or the love of some unknown woman who is desperate to seek the attention of her intended. One such example is a famous bandish in raaga Hameer:
Sthayi – लंगरवा कैसे घर जाऊं, सुन पावे मोरी सास- ननंदिया, छांड दे मोहे ढीठ| [How can I go home now? My in-laws will admonish me if they hear about this (‘this’, is explained in the antara)]
Antara- हूँ जो चली पनघटवा ठाडो, कौन बहाने प्यारे बलमा छीन लयी मोरी सीस घगरिया, बरजोरी कर आवे सुंदरवा| (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 – पायलिया झनकारे मोरी, झनन झनन बाजे झनकार| (My anklets are so noisy, they make sound – jhanana jhanana)
Antara – पिया समझाऊ समझत नाही, सास-ननंद मोरी देगी गारी|| (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 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 a little bit of rearrangement, keeping the essence same – the woman stays in trouble. Many bandish lyrics show a poor sense of poetry. There are a number of bandish where the woman is facing atrocities like in this bandish in raaga Todi:
Sthayi – लंगर कंकरिया जी न मारो, मोरा अंगवा लागी जाए|(Please don’t throw stones at me, I’ll get hurt)
Antara- सुन पावे मोरी सास-ननंदिया, दौडे दौडे घर आवे| (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- मैं पिया संग लड पछतानी रे, भयी अकल की कानी रे| (I heavily regret arguing with my beloved. Oh I was such a brainless fool!-‘Akal ki Kaani’)
Antara- तडप तडप के गिरी से झुके, जैसे मीन बिन पानी रे|| (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, मान ले मोरी बात सैंया, बीत गयी जुग, न माने सैंया| बेगी बेगी आओ लेवो दरस तर सत जिया मोरा| (Here, the man is somehow unhappy and gone away, 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 a 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
 A male singer singing all this on behalf of that helpless woman, and
 A female singer singing these lyrics, not caring about the hidden insult in them.
We live in the 21st 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) are described by the singer. So if it is supposed to be the singer’s own Khyal, looking at these bandish lyrics, is it really their own thought? It’s a tragedy to have an entire regime of art, based on fake assumptions.
Also, they have a 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 depictions of so-called human emotions. 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 honoured – 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 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.
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 an 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 sex work.
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 of an 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. But even thumri doesn’t have very desirable lyrics. Some examples of the thumri that is sung today:
Raag Sindhura: बालम तेरे झगडे में रैन गयी|(Oh dearest, you have wasted the entire night in the fight). Sometimes it is only a single line.
Raag Tilak Kamod:
Sthayi- नीर भरन कैसे जाऊँ सजनी अब, डगर चलत मोसे करत रार में| 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- ऐसो चंचल चपल हठ नटखट, मानत न काहू की बात, बिनती करत मैैं गयी रे हार अब|(He is clever, fast, naughty, dramatic and very stubborn, doesn’t listen to anybody. I am tired of requesting him not to tease me).
And so on, all thumris have the same essence. It is a wonder how singers don’t have any problem while singing this while expressing emotions 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 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 this basic skeleton, the practice of humiliating women through lyrics has also passed on from classical to film music.
An update of some kind is extremely important in this sphere of art. The artists are considered to be crazy, and many times they tend to be in their own sphere and show irresponsible behaviour. Certain excuses are given, like ‘Music is a language in itself, once the singer enters the raaga he forgets everything, (even words)’. One would come up with an argument that these bandish preserve the old tradition and culture. But we have a rich kingdom of folk arts for the preservation of culture and tradition. Classical music should be regularly assessed, scrutinized, improvised and updated. It should embrace a ‘research and development’ culture.
Artists are an important part of a civilization, any form of art they perform should have a conscience and they should continuously improvise their art to encourage the progression of the society to a better condition.