The big fat Indian wedding has made its name on a global platform. We often refer to the scale of the phenomenon as ‘band baaja baarat.’ The band aspect of the whole deal is full of flair, fun, and fashion.
From brass buttons to big drums, Indian wedding bands are a class apart. However, how many of us have heard of women being a part of these bands? Female musicians are often not allowed entry into this hallowed patriarchal tradition of making music on special occasions.
If you’re despairing over this barrier in front of the women trying to enter the Indian band scene, fret not! A group of women in Bihar blazed a trail for the rest to follow as far back as 2012!
The Mahila Sargam Band from Danapur broke through the gender divide that keeps women away from dreaming about drums. This is a mere 20 kilometers away from the capital of Patna. A band of 10 women, all from an agrarian background, came into the scene as India’s first all-woman music band.
Starting With Self-Help
As part of a self-help group, the women were already thinking about raising funds and creating job opportunities. Most Mahila self-help groups in rural India veer towards the food industry or the clothing industry. These women from Danapur decided to choose something out-of-the-box!
With the help of the Patna-based NGO, Nari Gunjan, these drummers from Danapur put their plans into action! For a year and a half, they trained under Aditya Kumar Gunjan. Their teacher traveled from Patna to make sure that the women kept up their practice and never wavered. Nari Gunjan organized the music lessons every day of the week and set them on their path to becoming a ‘band’ of renegades!
The road was full of obstacles and pitfalls. The largest problem that the women faced came from their society and their families. From unsupportive husbands to downright nasty villagers, the women had to deal with a lot of pressure.
Set in their pastoral ways and patriarchal structures, many did not want the Mahila Sargam Band to reimagine traditions. Being part of the band, playing the drums, and generally being allowed to go out and perform was a man’s domain.
Talking about her husband’s annoyance at her leaving the house, one of the musicians, Chitrakhi Devi, marvels at how their Mahila Band has changed the once-misogynistic climate within their own homes.
“Do the household chores he would tell me. Sometimes he would make demands on a whim. Now when I have to go out, he is always hurrying me up, lest I get late. How things have changed,” she laughs.
The women also had to face a lot of harsh criticisms from society. They were dissuaded from taking the hard road by everyone around them. Some said it was because ‘they cared’ and others were full of taunts and jibes!
“They told us this is a man’s job. But we didn’t succumb to pressure,” said Chitrakhi Devi.
The courage to speak out and break barriers has only resulted in a more open-minded attitude from all those around them. This new ability to earn more money than they had ever earned before, has also probably played a big part in society’s acceptance of the female band members. As the women got popular in the area, the demand for their services rose exponentially. Financial freedom sure has a lot to do with popularity!
“The band charges anywhere between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 15,000 for a day’s work. They could get up to 10 gigs a month in the wedding season. And so earn up to Rs. 1.5 lakh a month in that season.”
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Overcoming Caste Divide
However, not only are these women breaking gender stereotypes, but they are also taking class and caste biases out the window. The members of the Mahila Sargam band are mahadalits, which refers to a small and highly marginalized society, especially within Bihar. The term is used for people who are marginalized and outcast even amongst the scheduled castes.
“Each member of the Mahila band has inherited stories of oppression and violence unleashed on their ancestors by the upper castes. They also have personal narratives of abuse by dominant caste landlords in the fields and by husbands at their homes.”
In the current political atmosphere, breaking out of the prison of social hierarchies and structures is especially difficult. These women from Dhibra village in Danapur have been through a lot just to be able to step into a field that is not often open to women.
“From abusive husbands to dowry seekers – they tackle them all and have emerged as counselors and arbitrators for Dhibra and surrounding villages.”
In a time when every news article about caste brings despair into our hearts, it is time to look back upon a time when hope could be found in the most unorthodox of places!
Even after the years, the Mahila Sargam Band is a beacon to all those who plan on stepping out of their comfort zones. These women need to be remembered for their perseverance and for living life to their own–unique–beat!
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