Love, marriage and rebellion: Exploring feminist themes in India's Angika folk songs

Illustration by the author. Translation of the text in the image: "I won't leave Mohna's company".

English translation of the text in the image: ‘I won't leave Mohna's company.’ Illustration by the author, used with permission.

When I was around four years old, my family moved from our village in Bihar to a town in Jharkhand in eastern India. Growing up, whenever I struggled with my studies, my parents would mention the possibility of returning to the village. This prospect, while meant to motivate me, also opened my eyes to the limitations faced by women there. I witnessed underage marriages, restricted mobility for women, and irregular access to basic resources like electricity and water. It left me wondering how the women who live there permanently, without the opportunity to move elsewhere, find ways to navigate such a challenging environment.

Personally, my journey to documenting my culture has also been a journey to understanding it better, especially regarding my curiosity about women's responses to their conditions. To contribute to preserving Angika culture and language, my mother tongue, I record its oral folk literature and upload it on open knowledge platforms like Wikimedia Commons (media repository) and Wikisource (free digital library and transcription platform). After recording the folk singers and uploading the videos, I also transcribe the material so it can potentially be used in research and to increase the digital presence of Angika online. After all, cultural heritage like folk songs, tales, oral history, and sayings encapsulates the unique lifestyle, preferences, struggles, and values of its practitioners.

In 2023–2024, I received support from the Language Revitalization Accelerator-Wikitongues and was able to document 75 additional pieces of folk literature. In this article, I discuss some of the Angika folk songs practiced by the women of Banka district in Bihar, India. As I have documented more of my culture, I noticed some recurring themes that give a glimpse into the everyday life of its practitioners — especially how songs and tales are used as a medium to express discontent with the status quo and to assert their individuality.

Screenshot from the Angika Folklore Wikitongues Accelerator. Fair use.

Screenshot from the Angika Folklore Wikitongues Accelerator. Fair use.

Lack of choice in marriage arrangement

Papa Jeth Besakh Sadiya Mat Kariho” is a conversational song between a daughter and her father where the daughter gives excuses to not marry. She’s requesting her father not to marry her off during Jeth Besakh (the hottest months in Bihar) as the weather is unbearable during these months. He replies that he will plant a sandalwood tree and will arrange a table fan for her madap (temporary canopy for the wedding). She is aware that she has to get married but tries her best to postpone it by appealing to the caring side of her father. Another example of a song from the perspective of an unwilling bride is “Nadiya Kinare Ge Beti Kekar Baja Baje Che” in which a father informs his daughter that the baraat, i.e. groom’s procession, has arrived. She asks him to make a golden cage for her where she can remain hidden. Usually, a woman is married to avoid the strain of her security over the family, so she is offering to lose her freedom within her house rather than marry a stranger. The lyrics are as follows:

नदिया किनारे गे बेटी तोहर बाजा बाजे छे
हमरा सें मांगे छे बियाह
बनाबो बनाबो हो पापा सोने के पिंजरा
वेहे पिंजरा रहबे छपाय

For you the music band play near the river my daughter
They ask me for your hand in marriage
Father make me a golden cage
I will remain hidden in it

These songs depict the everyday reality of the women and practitioners of folk art who have little say in the decision to marry and the matchmaking process.

Apart from marriage songs, there is a bevy of songs sung during festivals and agricultural cycles as well.

Songs about the subordinate position of women after marriage

After a woman is married, she has even less authority within her in-laws’ house. For example, the song “losing soap in canal and impending beating by husband” is a monologue intended for a sister-in-law. The singer (wife) tells the sister-in-law that she lost her soap in the water and fears her husband will beat her for it; she might need her parents to intervene. This song highlights the lack of agency a married woman has in her husband’s home and the looming threat of violence.

Demands for dowry, though unlawful, are still made during marriage negotiations, and often the bride is harassed even after marriage. The song “Rijhi rijhi maange che daheja” begins by setting the visual background, describing heavy rains during a wedding. Rain can disturb wedding plans, dampening tents, seating arrangements, and mood. The song then metaphorically uses rain to describe how the demand for dahej (dowry—goods, money, property, etc., given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family as a condition for marriage) has rained like a thunderstorm upon the lives of the bride’s parents. Since most Indian women were only recently granted an equal share in inheritance but are still socially expected to give up their share in their paternal property after marriage, their dowry in the form of “gifts” or jewelry remains their only possession. In this cycle of dependence — first in her natal home and then at her in-laws’ — the woman is usually subordinate.

Abuse songs for materialistic in-laws

Gaari songs are sung for the new in-laws, usually by women during the marriage feast at the bride’s home. As the elderly, presumably respectable men begin to rise from their dinner table, the women sing songs with mildly insulting terms like “thief” and “deserter,” calling on others to beat them up:

जों जों समधी होलो पराय
हांथ गोड़ बांधी दिहो डेंगाय
पकड़िहो लोगो चोरवा भागल जाय

As the co-parent-in-law gets distant,
Tie his hands and beat him up,
Catch him, the thief runs away.

Here, the timing of the song is important, sung exclusively when the men are rising from their dining table. Eating can be interpreted as symbolic of the consumption of other forms of life sustenance or resources like the dowry received from the bride’s family, therefore inviting ridicule.

Several other songs include verbal abuse aimed at the husband-to-be seeking dowry. “Ghara Pichuwariya” contains explicit abuse for the groom who has taken a hefty dowry but isn’t respectful to the mother-in-law, perhaps hoping for more dowry. “Pahiroon Pahiroon” features a mother who has nothing valuable left after giving the dowry, yet the mother-in-law still seeks a gold platter.

Right to rebellion

The idea that one can rebel forcefully by fighting for the right to choose whom to love is articulated in the godna song. As the singers grow comfortable, clapping and laughing, their tone becomes celebratory while mocking authority. The song narrates a young woman’s resistance against the curtailment of her right to choose her lover. It is a conversation between an advisor (perhaps the mother or a friend) and Liliya, the girl in love. Liliya is admired for her beauty, enhanced by the traditional tattoo form, godna. I have been able to document two versions of this song, the first version was sung by a folk artist who used to perform on the radio. The second version was sung by women, the regular practitioners of the song, which has additional lyrics about Liliya’s vehement resistance. She opposes the subtle warning to give up Mohna, the boy she loves, declaring that she is ready to face anyone who challenges them, be it the village chief or the local court’s lawyer.

जान नाहिर छोढ़बे मोहना तोरा संगतियो रे जान
किए करते मुखिया, सरपंचा
किए करते दरोगा पुलिसवा रे जान

I won't leave Mohna
Let's see what the village chief and Panchayat head will do
Let's see what the constable and the police can do

This song falls under the category of songs sung during jhumta or jhumar, a folk dance in which women dance together while singing. These songs are performed during happy occasions like marriages, where women dance enthusiastically in groups, clapping and singing rhythmically. Angika-speaking women embracing this song reflect their rebellion against the curtailment of their freedom.

Even outside of these specific occasions, such as when being recorded for documentation purposes, they prefer to raag uthawo (an Angika term for “beginning a song”) and sing together, rarely alone. As a group, women sing these songs as an act of sharing their experiences and anticipations. These folk songs demonstrate the creative force that feminism takes in this particular part of rural India.

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