Finding a ‘Bihari culture’ of vilifying Bengali women in folk songs shows ignorance of history, cultural memory

While countering one form of stereotype, such commentary on the reactions to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has ended up creating another. In the process, it has made obvious the dangers of pop sociology.

ByAnand Vardhan
Finding a ‘Bihari culture’ of vilifying Bengali women in folk songs shows ignorance of history, cultural memory
Shambhavi Thakur
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If public contentions over the investigation into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death are keeping the news cycle abuzz, the urge to dabble in the social dissection of responses to it is engaging the opinion space. The latter hasn’t been helpful in understanding the reactions, however. Such exercises have smacked of dilettantism as they have dispensed with details to swing between outrage and ridicule. While countering one form of stereotype, they’ve ended up creating another. In the process, they have made obvious the dangers of pop sociology.

Before analysing some critical aspects of the reactions to the actor’s death that have escaped attention in such attempts at sociocultural critique, two points need to be clarified. First, online abuse of women from any region or community – Bengali women in this case – is condemnable. The aggrieved women have justifiably contacted institutions such as the police and the state commission for women for action. Second, with the investigation into Sushant’s death ongoing, drawing any inference, let alone conclusion, shouldn’t be treated as much more than speculation.

Yet, some of the recent commentary, such as this article in the Print, links social attitudes, regional music and what is described as “toxic” Bihari family structure with the online attacks on Sushant’s “big city girlfriend”, the actress Rhea Chakraborty. There’s also the argument that the specific targeting of Bengali women as greedy enchantresses is apparent from how they are portrayed in different forms of cultural expression in Bihar.

Both these assertions are based on flawed assumptions. The first lacks a grasp of the social milieu of the region, while the second lacks understanding of the historical context, cultural geography, and tenor of regional portrayals.

To begin with, let’s consider the argument about the negative portrayal of Bengali women in Bihar’s cultural expressions, like music. Such portrayal can be better understood in the light of certain historical anxieties in modern Bihar that are far more recent than the ancient history with which the state’s glory is generally associated. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the anti-Bengali sentiment in Bihar had 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. First, let’s look at how Bihari women’s resentment stemmed from their anxiety about the possible vulnerability of their migrant husbands to Bengali women.

From Bideshiya to Kajri genres of folk songs in Bhojpuri, including the song that Jyoti Yadav cites in her piece in the Print, there are historical reasons for the evocation of Calcutta – now Kolkata – and Bengal. They are relevant to understanding the lyrical apprehensions of wives waiting for their migrant husbands in Bhojpuri-speaking western and northwestern Bihar, and eastern Uttar Pradesh. (It should be noted that apart from Bhojpuri, Bihar is home to such dialects and languages as Maithili, Magahi, Bajjika, and Angika.)

A transit point for indentured labour in the colonial era, Calcutta, or Bengal, came to be used as a metaphor for migration in Bideshiya songs, a folk theatre genre replete with themes of migration. “The Bideshiya folk tradition evolved during colonial times. Kolkata is a metaphor for migration in these songs,” notes Professor Badri Narayan, social scientist and an expert on the folk culture of the region. “The indentured migrants were taken through Kolkata port and it is mentioned in many of the songs sung by the women who were left behind.’’

One of the most popular songs of Bhikhari Thakur, the leading Bideshiya exponent, goes, “Piyawa gaile Kalkataa ae sajni (My husband has gone to Calcutta, o dear!).” The song laments the husband’s sudden departure, without shoes on his feet or an umbrella over the head. “Gorwa mein joota naikhe, sirwa pe chhatwa.”

The Kajri song cited by Yadav should be seen in a similar historical context. The metaphorical use of Calcutta can be extended to the anxieties expressed by the wife about “Bengalin” and “jadu”. Obviously, every migrant worker from Bihar wasn’t indentured labour. Geographical proximity and the fact that Bihar was a part of the Bengal Presidency until 1912 meant that even professionals and students from the region flocked to Bengal and its capital in large numbers during the colonial era.

The Calcutta-themed songs should not distract from the fact that Bihar’s itinerant workers went elsewhere as well. For, in the songs, the waiting wives expected gifts from husbands returning from regions further away, such as Punjab and Rajasthan. In a folk song rendered famously by Sharda Sinha, the woman says, “Paniya ke jahaj se paltaniya bani aiyah piya, lele aiya ho piya sendoor Bengal ke (When you come back by ship after you become a soldier, O dear, do bring vermilion from Bengal).”

They were also apprehensive about women their husbands might meet in places other than Bengal. And not just folk songs or Bhojpuri pop, even literary works depicted such anxieties of Bihari women.

In Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, set in the early 1950s in the fictional city of Brahmpur, which can imaginatively be placed between Banaras in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Patna in central Bihar – a region called Purva Pradesh in the novel – Veena is cautioned by her neighbour against her husband, who travels to South India for trade, falling for “fierce” Madrasi women.

“You must tell Kedarnath to beware of Madrasi women, he spends so much time there, they are very fierce,” the neighbour advises. “I hear that they don’t even wash their silk saris gently, they just go dhup! dhup! dhup! like washerwomen under the tap.”

In recent times, Kolkata has been largely eclipsed by cities such as Delhi and Mumbai while Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Maharashtra have become more attractive destinations for migrant workers than Bengal. At the same time, Bhojpuri pop music has cut corners by churning out songs with bawdy lyrics and risqué dance videos. But the missing man in the house and the fear of him being bewitched by another woman continue to appear intermittently.

These songs are laced with quasi-erotic expressions of separation, but they sometimes still give vent to the anxieties of the wives about the saut and the fear of the vile mistress, distant or local. From “piyau dubar bhaila ho, sautiniya ke chakar mein” and “kauno saut sange kaat taara chaani” to “kaun bhatarkatni bhatar ke fasaulas”, the vicious “other woman” continues to make her presence felt. Although far less frequently than in the last century, Kolkata is still evoked – sometimes as the place where the feared Bengalin lives (“jahan Bengalin rahe ho Rama”) and other times as the city from where the husband is returning (“Kalkatwa se aaile sajanwa re”).

While the context of a different historical period and the social processes unleashed by migration can explain the anxieties and stereotypes seen in folk songs of the past, overt objectification of women can help explain locational stereotyping in contemporary Bhojpuri pop. Indeed, crass attempts at invoking regional identities – “Bengal ke maal”, “Aael baara Bengal se gori, Dilli wali gori” – and even social identities such as caste to stretch the public sphere for titillation is integral to Bhojpuri pop now.

Now, let’s take a look at another historical reason that generated anti-Bengali sentiment in a section of the Bihari middle class, particularly men, as far back as 1912. When Bengal’s partition was annulled in 1911, it was decided that Bihar would be carved out of it as a separate province. This was done in March 1912. The demand for a separate province was limited largely to the educated elite in urban Bihar and big landlords in its vast rural expanse. Ironically, it was after the separation of Bihar from the Bengal Presidency that resentment against Bengalis grew widespread in the urban middle class of Bihar.

Scholars such as Arvind N Das have argued that this resentment could be explained by an influx of Bengalis at the time. After the annulment of the Bengal partition, employees of the redundant Dacca secretariat were transferred in large numbers to the newly created Bihar secretariat and other offices in Patna. The move had wide implications.

“Staff of the disbanded Dacca secretariat was transferred 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 nom de plume 'Ghose-Bose-Bannerjee-Chatterjee' by a popular Hindi humorist is but one of the many innocuous expressions of the anti-Bengali feeling,” Das wrote in The Republic of Bihar.

This doesn’t mean that a sizable Bengali community was not present in Bihar before this influx. It was for obvious reasons of geographical contiguity and economic imperatives. In fact, in the nineteenth century, the Bengali community in Bihar was so conscious of its distinct interests that a periodical, Bihar Herald, was launched in 1872 to articulate its interests.

Interestingly, at the same time, the emergent press in Bihar played a significant role in the campaign demanding the separation of Bihar from the Bengal Presidency, as the historian Sumita Singh noted in Role of the Press in the Creation of Separate Bihar.

One also can’t overlook the common grounds that Bihar and Bengal have found beyond political and administrative divisions. Until 2000, when Jharkhand was created, Bihar shared its southern border with Bengal. It still shares a part of its northeastern border with Bengal, which means that the people of the two regions remain close geographically. The cultural exchange can be seen in how the Maithili language and literature of north Bihar has interacted with Bengali language and literature to form the literary language called Brajabuli. The great Maithili poet Vidyapati’s influence on Bengali poets, including Rabindranath Tagore, is well known.

The movement of people between the two regions has also shaped the Bihar-Bengal encounter. Dr Sachidanand Sinha and Dr Rajendra Prasad, two of the most important figures in the sociopolitical life of modern Bihar, went to Calcutta for higher education and spent early phases of their scholarly and professional lives there. Similarly, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, two outstanding figures in the history of modern Bengal, received some of their early education in Bihar. Roy, an eminent doctor who became one of the most influential figures in post-Independence politics in Bengal, was, in fact, born in Patna.

In many ways, cultural expressions of the Bihar-Bengal encounter can be seen in multiple strands of historical evolution, particularly those emanating from the more recent colonial past. It’s in such a context that the anxieties expressed by Bihari women through folk music can be better understood in their actual as well as metaphorical shades. That would be a crucial exercise in historical understanding. The more immediate concern, however, is the use of regional stereotypes in the Bhojpuri pop for creating risqué themes and titillation.

This is the first part of a two-part article looking at the commentary on the responses to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The first part discusses the absence of historical context in portraying folk songs as a “Bihari culture” of the vilification of Bengali women. The second part will deconstruct the argument that attitudes to the inquiry into the actor’s death reveal a "toxic” Bihari family structure.


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