Folk songs fuel anti-Rhea storm

- August 17, 2020
| By : Anand Vardhan |

The depiction of Bengali women as evil temptresses goes back to colonial times, when migrant workers from what is now Bihar went to work in Calcutta. This is the subtext of the attacks on Rhea Chakraborty and her role in late Sushant Singh Rajput’s life The online abuse of women of any region or community […]

The depiction of Bengali women as evil temptresses goes back to colonial times, when migrant workers from what is now Bihar went to work in Calcutta. This is the subtext of the attacks on Rhea Chakraborty and her role in late Sushant Singh Rajput’s life

The online abuse of women of any region or community — Bengali women in the case of the Sushant Singh Rajput case — is a condemnable act. Is being countered online by stories about the ‘toxic’ Bihari family structure. Moreover, there is the argument that the specific targeting of Bengali women as the greedy enchantress could be seen in how they are portrayed in the forms of cultural expression in Bihar.

To begin with, let us consider the point about the negative portrayal of Bengali women in Bihar’s cultural psyche, as seen in local music. It can be better understood in the light of certain historical anxieties in modern Bihar, far more recent than the ancient history with which the state’s glory is usually associated.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, the anti-Bengali sentiment in Bihar got a more immediate cause for articulation. Interestingly, in the colonial period, Bihari men and women had found different reasons to resent Bengali men and women.

We will come to the men later but first, it’s important to see how a major part of the anxieties of Bihari women about their migrant husbands was centred around their possible vulnerability to Bengali women.

Ranging from Bideshiya to the Kajri genres of folk songs in Bhojpuri, there is historical reasoning for the evocation of Calcutta (as Kolkata was known then) and Bengal. The reason is relevant to understand the lyrical apprehensions of wives waiting for their migrant husbands in the Bhojpuri-speaking region of western and north-western Bihar as well as a few districts in eastern UP bordering Bihar.

However, it should be noted here that besides Bhojpuri, Bihar is home to other dialects and languages like Maithili, Magahi, Bajjika, and Angika. As a transit point for indentured labour, Calcutta and Bengal were seen as metaphors in Bideshiya songs, a folk theatre genre replete with themes of migration.

This aspect is what Professor Badri Narayan, social scientist and a well-known expert on the folk culture of the region, has also emphasised as he says, “The Bideshiya folk tradition evolved during colonial times. Kolkata is a metaphor for migration in the songs. The indenture migrants were taken through Kolkata port and it is mentioned in many of the songs sung by the women who were left behind.’’

Moreover, the metaphorical use of Calcutta can be extended to the anxieties expressed by the wife about the ‘Bengalin’and the ‘Jadu’. Even if all migrant workers from Bihar weren’t indentured labour, the geographical proximity and being a part of Bengal presidency till March 22, 1912, had ensured that Bihari workers, professionals and students had been flocking to Bengal and its capital in good numbers in a major part of the colonial period.

Nonetheless, Calcutta-themed songs shouldn’t distract from the fact that the itinerant workers from the region could be found in different parts of the country, and this was reflected in the different gifts that the waiting wives had in mind from different places like Punjab and Rajasthan but also including the neighbouring Bengal, and even the native Bihar. So in a folk number, rendered famously by Sharda Sinha, the woman says  Paniya ke jahaj se paltaniya bani aiyah piya, lele aiya ho piya sendoor Bengal ke (While you come back by ship once you become a soldier, O dear do bring vermilion from Bengal).

In the folk number, rendered famously by Sharda Sinha women of Bihar sing about the gifts they want their itinerant husbands to bring home // Photo:

In the folk number, rendered famously by Sharda Sinha women of Bihar sing about the gifts they want their itinerant husbands to bring home // Photo:

Along with these hopes of gifts, there were also the insecurities about the women that the peripatetic husband might meet in places other than Bengal too. It isn’t only the folk songs or Bhojpuri pop numbers, even the literary portrayals have depicted such anxieties that the women in the region had about their husbands.

This is evident in a conversation in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), set in the early 1950s in the fictional city of Brahmpur — a place that can be imaginatively somewhere between Banaras in east UP and Patna in central Bihar (a region called Purva Pradesh in the novel). While chatting with her neighbour Veena, a woman asks her neighbour to ensure that her husband Kedarnath, who regularly travels to south India for his shoe trade, doesn’t fall for fierce Madrasi women (Madrasi was a general term to refer to anyone living south of Vindhyas).

In recent decades, Kolkata (or for that matter, Bengal) has been largely eclipsed by other cities like Delhi, Mumbai or states like Punjab, Haryana Gujarat, and Maharashtra as more attractive destinations for the migrant workforce. At the same time, Bhojpuri pop music has cut corners by churning out numbers with bawdy lyrics and risqué dance videos. But, the missing man in the house and the fear of him being bewitched by the woman continue to surface intermittently in the songs rolled out by pop Bhojpuri pop music.

Now, we may have a brief look at something which triggered a phase of anti-Bengali sentiments in a section of Bihari middle class, particularly men, as far back as 1912. When the partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911, it was also decided that Bihar would be carved out as a separate province. This was done in March 1912. Till then Bihar was part of the Bengal presidency and the demand for separate province of Bihar was largely limited to the voices of the educated elite in urban Bihar and a few big landlords in its vast rural expanse. Ironically, it was after creation of the segregation of Bihar province from Bengal that the resentment against Bengalis became widespread in the urban middle class of Bihar.

Scholars like Arvind N Das have argued that this resentment could be explained by an influx witnessed in Bihar during that period. After the annulment of Bengal partition, the staff of the redundant Dacca (now Dhaka) secretariat were transferred in large numbers to the newly created Bihar province secretariat and other offices in Patna. This move had wider implications.

“Staff of the disbanded Dacca secretariat was transferred almost en masse to Patna, thus artificially creating a Bengali middle and lower- middle class in Bihar. This, in turn, created anti-Bengali sentiments in the emergent Bihari petty-bourgeoisie similar to those that were to spread in Assam much later. The adoption of the non de plume ‘Ghose-Bose-Bannerjee-Chatterjee’ by a popular Hindi humourist is but one of the many innocuous expressions of the anti-Bengali feeling”, wrote Das in The Republic of Bihar (Penguin, 1992).

This doesn’t mean that a sizeable Bengali community in different parts of Bihar wasn’t present prior to this influx. It did for obvious reasons of geographical contiguity and the economic imperatives in the historical process. In fact, in the nineteenth century, the Bengali community in Bihar was conscious of its distinct interests. Bihar Herald, for instance, was founded as a periodical in 1872 for articulating the interests of the Bengalis living in Bihar.

Bihar still shares a part of its north-east border with north Bengal, while the undivided Bihar shared its southern border with West Bengal till 2000. The cultural exchange could be seen in how the Maithili language and literature of north Bihar found ways to interact with Bengali language and literature, leading to formation of a literary language called Brajabuli. The great Maithili poet Vidyapati’s influence on Bengali poets, including Rabindranath Tagore, is well-known.

Adding to the geographical imperatives and cultural exchange, the movement of people across the territory also became a part of the Bihar-Bengal encounter. It’s clearly illustrated by a fact from the colonial period. Dr Sachidanand Sinha and Dr Rajendra Prasad, two most important personalities in the social and political life of modern Bihar, spent many years in Calcutta for higher education and early phases of their scholarly and professional life.

Similarly, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, two outstanding figures in the history of modern Bengal, received a part of their early education in Patna. Besides completing his school education in Patna, Dr Roy, an eminent doctor and arguably one of the most influential figures in post-Independence Bengal, was born in Patna.

In many ways, the cultural expressions of the Bihar-Bengal encounter can be seen with multiple strands of historical evolution, particularly those emanating from the more recent colonial past. Seen in such context, the anxieties expressed by women in the lyrical statements of folk music can be better understood in their actual as well as metaphorical shades. That would be an important exercise in historical understanding. However, the more immediate, and insidious concern, is the use of regional stereotype in the pop scene for risqué themes and titillation.

(Cover: Online abuse in case of Sushant Sing Rajput’s death has given way to abuse aginst Bengali women and even while being countered by ‘toxic Bihari family’ stereotypes