The musical tradition is on the edge of a precipice, but as long as its keepers are around in the sub-continent, the show must go on — even if it's for one person.
As Umrana Niazi and her party of five sing together while her aunt, Shahenila, skilfully plays the dholak, the modest yet joyous performance put up especially for me on a video call on October 20, resonates like a celebration. Then, the upbeat wedding song begins to crackle through the screen, as the boisterous group sing in their small two-room house in Lucknow, one of the bigger cities of Northern India and the cultural capital of the country’s Awadh region. The folk ensemble sing the familiar words:
Chup Chup Khade Ho, Zaroor Koi Baat Hai
Banno aur Banni ki pehli mulakaat hai
Banna Kahein Hume Muh Dikhla Do
Banni kahe hume tika mangvado
[You are standing quietly; I’m sure there’s something to tell
It's the first meeting of the groom and the bride
The groom says; “show me your face”
The bride says; first, get me some Tika]
To understand what 40-year-old Umrana and her party were attempting, it's important to know about their roots. They are called the Mirasins, generational female performers belonging to the ‘Mirasi’ caste, a social group of traditional singers and dancers usually found in Northern India as well as in Pakistan.
Mirasins have traditionally been involved with singing songs on the occasions of weddings, births and other festivities. The word ‘Mirasin’ is said to have originated from the Arabic word ‘Miras’ which means heritage. Mirasins are thus the ‘keepers of this heritage’. Umrana is one such proud keeper of the musical legacy that has been a part of her family over the last three generations.
Folk performances became popular in the 19th century as colonial India witnessed a movement of cultural nationalism. The popularity was partly in response to our colonial leaders’ aversion and their perception that Indian culture was ‘barbaric’, leading Indian Taluqdars, the land-owning aristocratic families, to provide patronage to artists. This included the Mirasis who came to be associated with their patron families.
“Our house was part of a Kidwai family estate. They were Sheikh Taluqdars who have been our patrons,” states Umrana. Over the last three generations; the women from both her mother and father’s side of the family have been Mirasins - the most popular being her paternal grandmother, Waliya, who was the lead singer of her party.
The Mirasins perform in a group, usually consisting of members from the same family. The slightly stout, dusky and spectacled Umrana is the lead singer of her group recognised as the Kishwar Mirasins after her mother’s name. “She too was the lead singer,” says Umrana before she starts to sing. Dressed in a simple brown salwar-kameez, with her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Umrana is seated between her Mumani (mother’s sister-in-law) Salma and Khaala (mother’s sister), Shahenila Khatoon, who plays the dholak. Umrana’s strong and slightly husky voice resonates melodiously as her hands emote the lyrics. The rest of the party compliments her tune and a beautiful performance ensues.
Banna mera sahab sahab
Banni meri memsahib
Aapas mai my dear my dear bol rahe
Jiya Mera Jala Rahe
[Groom is sir
Bride is the madam
They call each other, ‘my dear’
I feel jealous]
The wedding song being sung is Banni-Banno, which is part of their inherited treasure trove of songs. They are written in the groom and bride’s narrative and are sung depending on who they are representing. Though slow, the dholak accompaniment makes it sound quite playful alongside the lyrics that usually tease the bride or the groom.
“Though the songs of the Mirasins have been passed down through generations; they’ve also evolved in keeping with the socio-cultural changes of time,” states Ainie Farooqui, a researcher from Delhi pursuing her PhD in Modern Indian History. Quoting an example from her research work on the Mirasins of Awadh; Ainee recounts the following lines from a song;
Dubai wale bete pe sabko bada naaz hai
Kehte hai has has kar ki wo meri jaan hai
Pehle jo abba se maangta tha paise
Kehte hai abba Nitkhata kahi ke
Dubai se aaya toh Abba bhi kurbaan hai
Dubai Wale bete pe sabko bada naaz hai
[Everybody is proud of their son who is in Dubai
Everybody says, laughing, that he is their life
Earlier when he asked his father for money
His father would call him useless
Now when he has come back from Dubai
His father is also proud
Everybody is proud of their son who is in Dubai]
“The song reflects the society’s aspirations of an upward class mobility by moving to Dubai in the wake of new opportunities,” explains Ainie. Umrana resonates with her. “We usually try to tell stories through our songs, and customise them based on the family, the function and the times,” she adds.
Her first performance as a 10-year-old is something Umrana remembers with the utmost detail. It was a wedding in a village near Lucknow, where her grandmother and mother were performing with their party. “We were singing our famous wedding song, Banni Banno. I was so nervous. However, my grandmother encouraged me. Once I started performing with her, my nerves relaxed and I enjoyed it,” exclaims Umrana.
For 35-year-old Bushra, Umrana’s niece and a party-member, the memory of her first performance is not as fond. The coy, moon-skinned woman is embarrassed as a nervous 11-year-old girl - she had misremembered the lyrics. “It wasn’t very noticeable as Umrana Khaala covered it, but I still got a bit of a scolding,” she chuckles.
Neither Bushra nor the rest of the Mirasins had much of choice over what they wanted to do. “It was expected of us to be Mirasins,” recalls Shahenila, who like the others started to sing from a young age. Most Mirasins neither go to schools nor undergo any formal musical training, but learn from their families. When asked if they felt compelled to be singers and musicians, almost everyone said ‘no’. “It felt quite natural to carry on the family tradition,” states Salma
Incidentally, it's not just the women of the Mirasi caste, but also the men who are musicians—usually, Qawwals perform Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional singing. Qawwals as men tend to enjoy more respect and make more money than the Mirasins who as a group are paid around INR 25,000(USD 337) for one booking. “The Qawaals indeed earn more than us, but that’s also because they have an assortment of musical instruments,” justifies Umrana.
However, patriarchal institutions penetrate much more than just pay-gaps. Unlike Qawaals, Mirasins are usually forbidden to play on stage. 32-year-old Qawaal Salim, Umrana’s brother, states, “Mirasins from our family can only play in private household functions; not on stage during cultural events as it's not considered very respectable for women.” This is a belief that most women in the household also subscribe to by stating that they’re ‘sharif’ (decent).
In the sub-continent, ‘gaane-nachne wali’ (women who perform for money), have historically been considered ‘vulgar’ or ‘low-character’, who are often clubbed together with sex-workers. It isn’t uncommon for men amongst the audience to, at times shout lewd comments, make obscene gestures or have sexual expectations from the performing Mirasins.
Patronage has often led to exploitation. “The structure of patronage is deeply casteist; as it employs lower-caste performers entertaining upper caste elites. The exploitation doesn’t just emerge from an upper-caste male entitlement; but the normalisation of casteism that even upper-caste women, as well as lower-caste men are part of. The harassment has often been a public spectacle, arising out of gender and caste power-structures—to show the lower-caste women-performers their place in the society,” states Ruchi Rana, a researcher on folk paradigms of Northern India, who is associated with the University of Delhi’s Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies Department.
The Mirasins of Awadh do not deny these incidents. “We are one of the very few Mirasin groups left in the region and are command respect in the region. However, few people think that by booking us to sing; they have also booked us for ‘other’ things. But if they try to act cheap with us, we put up a fight,” asserts Shahenila.
Another way to imagine the Mirasin’s rebellion against these structures may be through their songs - they give them the vehicle with which to emote their feelings. Aine Farooqui has explored this in her work by examining one of the songs written in the voice of the bride.
Main Toh Karungi Apni Hi Manmani
Saas kahegi paas toh aa
Aake mere pair daba
Main kahungi chal budhiya
Main toh nahi teri naukrani
Main Toh Karni apni hi manmani
[I’ll do what I feel like
Mother-in-law will ask me to press her legs
I’ll tell her to go away
I am not your servant
I’ll do what I feel like]
Here, the bride is refusing to obey her mother-in-law’s instructions and is typically going against what’s expected of her. However, to further explore this, Farooqui also puts forth arguments of several western academics that dismiss this claim by stating that “inversions of socially established hierarchies were happening in a precise, ritualistic, and prescriptive way, so to imagine them as a challenge to the establishment would be far from true—especially when these songs were sung by the mirasins who were patronised by caste and class superiors.” However, Farooqui counters these arguments by analysing ideas of non-western scholars such as Lila-Abu Lughod who writes, “Agency should be studied in the everyday struggles and negotiations especially while understanding the agency of women. The complete overturning of establishment is not the only form of resistance.” The Mirasins see the songs as their primary source of expression. “Although the songs are in the third person; the narrative is somewhat derived from personal and societal experiences. To give it a voice is liberating,” explains Umrana.
The Hindu-Muslim factor
The agency of Mirasins has also been questioned by some radical sects of Islam that consider dance and music as immoral. While Umrana’s family does not subscribe to such beliefs, they do consider themselves as religious Sunni Muslims. Though mostly composed of Muslims, this social group is spread across other religions over the sub-continent as well. Despite religion not being central to the institution of Mirasins, their culture does borrow from it. Some of the songs of the Mirasins draw from the writings of Mirza Ghalib, a renowned Urdu poet of the late Mughal era and Amir Khusrow, a 13th-century Sufi poet. Secular and non-discriminatory in their demeanour, some Muslim Mirasins from the Punjab region have even composed songs in the devotion of Sikh saints.
The Mirasins of Awadh have also had Hindu patrons. However, amidst the growing Hindu-Muslim communal divide, such commissions have reduced. “But our old clients continue to commission us,” adds Umrana.
In fact, the last performance of Kishawar Mirasins was for a wedding in a Hindu household of Lucknow. That was on March 22, 2020, a day before the lockdown in India began owing to Covid-19. Since then, the Mirasins haven’t performed or have had a booking which has had severe repercussions for their livelihood.
“We have starved through the lockdown. I’m diabetic and didn’t even have money to buy medicines,” says Umrana breaking down.
The families since then have been surviving on their savings, individual donations and some crowd-funded campaigns facilitated by well-wishers. “Space is an important element for folk performers; one that cannot be accurately replicated in new digital avenues that the world is moving towards,” adds Ruchi. Further, the digital-divide in India is quite vast and most folk artists including the Mirasins are not technologically adept. As the Kishawar Mirasins struggle to make ends meet, they also miss singing. “It's not just our livelihood at stake, but also our passion,” rues Shahenila. The consequences of Covid-19 lockdown have endangered the Mirasin institution—that had already been wavering as the younger generation has been reluctant to take the tradition up.
25-year-old Mehmoona in the Kishwar family is a trained Mirasin, but she wants to have a ‘good service job.’ “It isn’t financially lucrative,” she adds. Her Mumani, Rafia, 60, resonates her sentiments. “We do want the kids to continue the family tradition, but with the patronage system diminishing and Bollywood/DJ culture gaining more traction in weddings, our demand has been considerably low. No one’s thought of us, even as the lockdown opens and the wedding season begins.”
As a mood of despair sets in the room, Umrana sighs and suddenly breaks into a song. “It's my favourite; a ghazal of the veteran Indian poet Jigar Moradabai,” she adds. The others join in with the chorus as Shehnila beats Dholak. Umrana is indeed sad that the Mirasin tradition might die with them, but as long as the keepers of the heritage are around, the show must go on—even if it's for one person.