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We Blame Bollywood For Offensive Lyrics When Even Classical Art Suppresses Women

More from Mudita Sonawane

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

[1] A male singer singing all this on behalf of that helpless woman, and

[2] 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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Ajay Lilrain

    Well researched and enlightening article Mudita…
    Since ages practicing manusmriti, this has become the consciousness of the major to degrade women by any means. Take a look, no chance of revival is seen. Same ugliness- But keep it up.

    1. Mudita Sonawane

      Thank you, I appreciate your compliment!

  2. abhiram khekale

    I doubt whether Mudita has even understood the crux of what the performance system in Indian Classical Music is. You’re viewing an Indian Classical musical performance through the lens of Bollywood Music. Let me be the bearer of the fortunate disclosure for you that ‘Indian Classical Bandishe ARE NOT NORMAL SONG PERFORMANCES’.
    Firstly, the lyrics aren’t a major part of the performance. It’s spontaneity. You will never see an Indian classical singer/musician sing/play whilst reading it from a notebook. That’s because words in these bandishes hold a secondary level in the hierarchy of importance as compared to the notes. I will not go into the technicalities of the pedagogy and the actual established system of performance in Indian classical music but i, as an informed listener and budding musicologist, vouch for the fact that your red-flag radar is broken, when you point out sexism in lyrics of bandishes because they aren’t even something anyone is supposed to pay attention to, unlike what we see in Bollywood music where lyrics and the literal meaning they convey have been given major emphasis. Because half the bandishes ever created were Taranas that are just a collection of phonetically soothing syllables that don’t mean anything in any human language. A great chunk of bandishes also included praises of Allah, and peer babas and Indian deities, and what not, sung by Hindu and Muslim singers, both genders, with equal devotion. Rather ‘forward’ for their times don’t you think?

    If Indian Classical Music Fraternity and the minds spear-heading it were at all sexist in nature, we wouldn’t have had globally revered musicians and singers like Kishori Amonkar, Mogubai Kurdikar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Dhondutai Kulkarni, Prabha Atre, Kaushiki Chakraborty, Gangubai Hangal, Jyoti Hegde. Even Carl Sagan’s Voyager Mission celebrated Kesarbai Kerkar’s ‘Jaat Kahaa Ho’ thumri by getting it on its cosmic record that would proudly represent the music of all of humanity alongside global musical biggies.

    So what you’re complaining about is the fraction of a huge vessel that contains the core of classical music. You’re feeling bad about the wrapper, forgetting that the content is not what the wrapper is about.

  3. abhiram khekale

    Mudita you seem to have a limited comprehension about the grand affair that classical music really is. As I write here, I am open to standing corrected if you make a counterpoint with logic.

    Firstly, yes, music, literature, and media have a lasting influence on societies, and yes, the examples of Bollywood songs you mention initially are disgustingly misogynistic pieces of work and they do have a major negative influence on the populous. However, sexism exists in all the major religions across the globe, and the credit of swaying the content of a particular artform does not belong single-handedly to the Manusmriti or any other scripts in Hinduism. Your statement that “no other religion’s text has ‘officially’ promoted humiliation of women” comes from ignorant selective secularism and you need to rectify that.

    Secondly, your statement ‘then it is really important to do some analysis on a typical bandish’ falls prey to the misinformation that you possess about the hierarchy of elements in an Indian Classical Musical performance. Lyrics lack in importance in a classical musical performance and that too by a great margin, losing against other aesthetical elements like the shrutis (notes), taal (rhythm) and the balance in the composition. You may even do a quick informal survey within the connoisseur fraternities about their perception of the lyrics or lack thereof. Most listeners don’t even bother to know the lyrics, and even if they were they wouldn’t even understand them since the majority of the words are mumbled/not even finished, not to mention the fact that they’re mostly in ‘Braj’ language, which the majority of the listeners don’t understand much. So, No. It’s NOT AT ALL IMPORTANT to do any TOPICAL analysis of a typical bandish.

    Thirdly your statement “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” blatantly skews up the topical segregations of the bandishes. Only a fraction of the bandishes are based on the ‘supposedly misogynistic’ topics that ‘demean women’. You have conveniently overlooked the great number of bandishes based on nature, Allah or Sufi saints, and taranas (no words. just syllables that are phonetically pleasing.)

    You further say ‘So in almost all the bandish lyrics, a woman is depicted as someone desperate to please her man.’. No. NOT in almost all the bandishes. A tiny portion at max. My informed guestimate (as a connoisseur actively following classical music since over a decade) would be 20% of the total bandishes. Max.
    Furthermore, you say “Looking at the ratio of male and female classical singers (males being dominant), it is highly ironic to see…” a statement about the demographics of the fraternity that is so misinformed, it talks about your ignorance about the topic more than it does about your liberal feminism.

    Your statement “In the theory of classical music, Khyal is defined as the thoughts (of the singer) are described by the singer” is true to some extent, but again doesn’t sidestep the landmine of the counterpoint that ‘yes it’s the thought of the person, but they are NOT thinking about the lyrical content. They’re thinking about the musical content.”

    Thumris may have content that appeals to masses in general and thus it follows the same principles of appeal that are followed by today’s Bollywood. Bollywood is today’s folk music with prominence to the literal on the face lyrical content , and so are thumris because if you haven’t noticed thumris also give prominance to words and their enunciation unlike classical music.

    Without getting into details, I would like to sum it up by suggesting you to understand classical music on a deeper level and not write a misinformed article as you have written here..

  4. Devratan Chauhan

    half knowledge is dangerous

  5. Shambhavi Tripathi

    When I read the title of your article, I was drawn towards it to read exactly what could be written as arguments to support such a ( I don’t know what to call it, but the closest should be misinformed + misinterpreted) statement.
    Firstly, your statement “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.” seems to suggest that background music seems to be the most important in the performance since it occurs for the longest part of the performance.
    Abhiram has already aptly emphasised on the importance of lyrics in Hindustani Classical music. However, if someone (anyone, not only you) has nothing better to do than to analyse the lyrics of the bandish, they should atleast learn to analyse. So here’s a crash course.

    Step 1:- Gain knowledge about the field
    Based on the level of misinformation you have displayed in your article, I assume (and stand to be corrected, if I am wrong) that you still need to know quite a lot to be able to analyse anything pertaining to the field of Hindustani classical music. Gaining this knowledge should not take you a lot of time, just about 10-12 years ( I know the first thing to cross your mind is that even I don’t have that much knowledge and that is completely true, but then I did not go ahead and write an article about it.)

    Step 2:- Get rid of your biases
    I completely agreed with Abhiram when he said “Your statement that “no other religion’s text has ‘officially’ promoted humiliation of women” comes from ignorant selective secularism and you need to rectify that.”

    This is extremely important as, with your bias, what you have written would seem to be obvious. As I have already mentioned, I do not consider myself a worthy of analysing this. This is also because I myself am so biased that I couldn’t understand how it was at all possible to interpret the bandish the way you have done. Please consider the following meanings that are very obvious to me:

    Sthayi – लंगर कंकरि आज न मारो रे, अंगवा लगजाएगी|
    (O Krishna, please don’t throw stones today, they might hit my body)

    Antara- सुन पावे मोरी सास-ननंदिया, दौडे दौडे घर आवेगी|
    (If my mother in-law and sister in-law hear about this, they will come running here)
    It simply shows a gopi carrying a pot home and requesting Krishna to not pelt stones and try to break her pot because they will hurt her and if her in-laws learn about it, they will come to rescue her and teach him a lesson (all in a good-natured way)

    What you have written:
    “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.)”

    In the anatara, nothing seems to suggest that the in-laws will curse her for moving out of the house. It instead implies that she wants her husband to be patient and wait for her to finish her part of the household chores so that her mother in-law and sister in-law do not accuse her of trying to not work.

    Sthayi- नीर भरन कैसे जाऊँ सजनी अब, डगर चलत मोसे करत रार में
    (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 chanchal= playful, chapal = agile, hath= stubborn, natkhat= naughty, doesn’t listen to anybody. I am tired of requesting him not to tease me).
    But then this tease is not supposed to be equated to eve-teasing. It is instead playful teasing and she is requesting him to not tease her because unlike him, who is a small kid of seven or eight years, she is a little older and has got work to do.

    Step 3:- Conclude based on evidence that is actually conclusive

    Whatyou have written:-
    “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.”

    I think you are right again here, because after all “it might be….” is the best conclusion (sarcasm intended again). Is it really so difficult to understand that this is merely an example of a hyperbole to express her sadness.

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A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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