Holi, Migrants And Waiting Wives

Bhojpuri music has a tradition of wives fondly remembering their husbands during this festive season. Moving with the times, the songs also include train advice.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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For reining in the swell of seeing-off crowd, platform tickets aren’t available at New Delhi railway station even as announcement for Holi special trains for Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh is adding to more than usual melee. Some will get lucky in sneaking into cattle class travel in one of those trains, many have been wise enough to book their tickets earlier. A sizeable and growing number are heading towards the same destination in the cosy confines of air-conditioned coaches. Many would not make it in any of the coaches, they have not been returning home for centuries now.

They weren’t lucky with ships either when they worked in lands as distant as Fiji, Mauritius, Suriname or even Trinidad. Since then their waiting wives, not ruling out mistresses or even girlfriends, have been singing – expressing the pain of separation, pleading them to come back or even complaining about their heartlessness, sometimes chiding the faceless poverty too. From Bideshiya folk tradition developed by Bhikari Thakur in colonial times to the peppy and often raunchy Bhojpuri Holi songs of digital age, the yearning for the return of migrant husband has remained a recurring theme.

In many ways, it reveals how little has changed over the centuries for the workforce in the region who still seek the escape from the hopelessness of opportunities, or rather the lack of them, in their native villages and towns.

Contrary to popular perceptions in the rest of the country, Bhojpuri is just one of five languages/dialects spoken in Bihar (Magahi, Maithili, Bajjika and Angika being the other four). However, the appeal of Bhojpuri folk poet, singer, playwright and theatre actor Bhikhari Thakur (1887-1971) cuts across Bihar and eastern districts of UP bordering Bihar as he gave voice to the anxieties of migrant workers, and more poignantly, to that of the families they left behind.

Interestingly, the eastern metropolis of Kolkata, as a transit point for indentured labour, can be seen as a metaphor in Bideshiya songs though it’s located in another state. Professor Badri Narayan, social scientist and an authority on the folk culture of the region, 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.’’ Here is a recent rendering of the song Piyawa gaile Kalkataa ae Sajni ( Husband has gone to Kolkata, o dear):

This song also made its way to Hindi film music in Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaron Khwayeisein Aisi.

Revisiting this song in 2017, Kolkata may not figure as one of the prime destinations for migrants now nor the ships going to distant islands. But people from Bihar and east UP (Poorvanchal to be precise) continue to constitute a migrant workforce employed in different sectors across the country. The current wave of pop Bhojpuri music has been slammed by many for being too bawdy and far removed from the authentic feel of everyday life in Bhojpuri-speaking regions in its attempt and ending up as just another version of Bollywood. This hasn’t, however, meant that the missing man in house has been forgotten in popular songs being rolled out by pop Bhojpuri music industry.

Holi is the right time to take stock of it for two reasons. First, the industry releases many new songs to coincide with the boisterous nature of festivities which are part of Holi. Second, there is lot of importance attached to be there with your family for this festival in Bhojpuri land, almost an index of your social personality, and by extension, your filial and marital bonds also. The mood may be raunchy and tunes peppy, but the Holi numbers being churned out by the Bhojpuri music industry clearly suggest that the migrant husband is still at the centre of the musical scheme of things for Holi.

What’s also reflected in the Bhojpuri Holi songs of last few years is the diversifying nature of migrant workforce. It now has many references to the growing number of white-collar migrants as it has to the traditionally identified section of blue-collar workers.

Trains are an important part of complaints waiting wives have, they offer travel advice too. For instance, this Anu Dubey number has a lament against central Bihar-bound Magadh Express, which is infamous for arriving late from New Delhi. Frustrated with delay in husband’s arrival for Holi, she sings, “Sunnke ee ho gail manwa aadha O Rajaji, bari chali late Magadhwa wo Rajaji/ Lewa kaise Holi ke swad o Rajaji, Bari chali late Magadhwa O Rajaiji (My heart sank when I heard Magadh is running late O dear/How will you taste the joy of Holi? I have heard Magadh is running late. Oh dear).”

In another song, she demands earrings and lipstick, but also suggests the fastest train for homecoming among three north Bihar-bound trains. The song goes, “Baali le ayeha na balam/hothlaali ayeha na/ chhorr ke Lichhvi au Armrapali, Vaishali se ayeha na (Bring with you earrings and lipstick, leave Lichhvi and Amrapali, only catch Vaishali to come home).”

Can a call to return home in the month of Fagun from IT city of Bengaluru be a wife’s way of telling her husband that’s the only way she can get pregnant? That’s what Pawan Singh hums in this number and further injecting a sense of urgency wit the suggestion that tatkal ticket is the way to come. Pawan, one of the more popular singers on pop Bhojpuri scene, sings, “Lela tatkal ticket, faagun aayel ba nikat/ jeeyawa ke peera bhuja rajaji/ hardam je rahab Banglore/Na hoeb larkor rajaji (Fagun is coming, get a tatkal ticket/ Understand heart’s pain dear/ If you are always in Bangalore, how will I have a child?)”.

All such pleas obviously do not always get favourable results. What if the migrant husband fails to come home for Holi? Pawan Singh gives his voice to the disappointment of a dejected wife as he sings, “Asara dhara ke bhulaa gela Rajaji/ Holiya mein kahe na aayela Rajaji? (You forgot after giving me hope, why didn’t you come for Holi dear?).”

To read too much into the historical continuity of migrant labour theme in popular Bhojpuri songs since colonial times may be a case of overanalysis. However, the persistent conditions that have been forcing the lowest rungs of economic ladder in these regions to leave their native places to survive and feed their families certainly constitute a  reminder of our failures on various counts. And such patterns of deprivation have been traced to even more distant past. Historian D D Kosambi had argued that two thousand five hundred years ago, Arthashashtra  (addressing Magadh empire with Patliputra, modern Patna, as capital) noted that the lowest annual wage paid by the state was sixty pannas (one panna was a silver coin of 3.5 gram standard) for menial and drudge labour.

That means that minimum wage was set at 210 grams of silver, which was “almost exactly what was paid to the lowest Indian labour by the East India Company in the early eighteenth century”. Identifying the continuity Dr Arvind N Das wrote in The Republic of Bihar about 25 years back, “Even at today’s prevailing price of silver, it can be calculated that drudge labour are paid almost same amount in money, which their forefathers were paid in silver two-and-half millennia ago.”

The last 25 years have pulled that wage rate age up by significant degree, even data would suggest and so would the diversifying work profile. Still the sheer number of people from Bhojpuri heartland you find on railway platforms rushing back home for Holi makes you think that the upswing in wage rates has been at the cost of many waiting and complaining wives.


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