I Am Not a Wall That Divides, I Am a Crack in the Wall

Singing our way forward

I think my main contribution to the women’s movement, and the movement’s contribution to my creativity, has been the songs I have written for over twenty-five years.

I don’t know music, meaning I don’t have any (conscious) knowledge of musical notes, but I do know folk songs – learnt in childhood – and am able to pick up new ones when I am with folks who still sing. I have been writing lyrics to fit the tunes of popular folk or film songs, and the themes can be anything that is of concern at that particular moment – violence against women, unfair laws, the burden of household work, etc. Or the songs can celebrate our solidarity or dreams for a just society. The ideas and inspiration for all of them have come from the movement, they are the product of the warmth of a workshop, the intensity of a discussion, the heat of a struggle.

Actually, I do not ‘write’ these songs, they just emerge. I capture the sentiments and the words floating around and weave them into a song. I try and put complex analyses into simple words, emotion and passion are added to turn the cold data into a strong statement. While the song is being written it is shared with others and almost always altered – women change words, add or delete, to suit their own needs and environment.

These and other songs have been sung during meetings and workshops, demonstrations, women’s day marches and other social gatherings. Women in SEWA (Lucknow) start their day by singing three or four inspiring songs which, they feel, makes them work much better. An inspector of schools in Bihar introduced one of my songs, ‘Irade kar buland/tu jeena shuru karti/to accha tha’ (Liberate your desires/start living) as a daily prayer in about one thousand government girls’ schools; instead of singing religious songs in the morning, thousands of girls are singing feminist songs! A programme for women’s empowerment in UP has adopted another song, ‘Mil kar ham naachenge, gaayenge’ (Together we’ll sing and dance) for their non-formal education centres and they find even children love to sing it.

Some songs have been used on posters; short films and TV spots have been made on five or six of them, many have been reproduced in several women’s magazines, newsletters and books for neo-literates.

I have always felt the need for humour and joy in the women’s movement. As our struggle is sure be long and arduous, we need to enjoy the journey as well!

Neither long faces nor taking ourselves too seriously is fun, so I have used humour, light-heartedness, even cheekiness, in many of my songs. One such song which I have had to sing every time Vinadi and I are together, is about women’s studies and the tensions between academic and activist feminists. To infuse more humour in the movement I put together a whole lot of gender-related jokes in a book called ‘Laughing Matters’, published by Jagori on its twentieth anniversary.

Feminist rhymes for children

When my two children were born, I needed rhymes to entertain them but found most existing ones in Hindi and English quite senseless or sexist. I was forced to make up my own and, of course, they were not free of my feminism. I shared them with my friend, Razia Ismail, at UNICEF. She liked them and asked that amazing cartoonist, Mickey Patel, to illustrate them. And so was created ‘Dhammak Dham’, a book of children’s rhymes, which challenged the gender division of labour within homes. It showed fathers singing lullabies to daughters, changing nappies, cooking; sons doing housework; mothers playing and going out to work, in addition to looking after the home. This book was translated into many languages in India and Pakistan, where they set it to music – EMI marketed the cassettes along with four hand puppets.

The next piece of writing to emerge for and through my children was a long poem called ‘Ulti Sulti Meeto’, giving a daughter the right to be naughty, to be herself, to have a childhood. Kali for Women had it illustrated by a Malaysian artist, Simryn Gill, a young woman who had never drawn before! Her illustrations were brilliant and this little book was loved by a whole generation of daughters. It, too, was translated into several languages in Pakistan. All this was in the 1980s.

Almost twenty years later, in 2009, the UP government introduced both books into their Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, and ordered about 80,000 copies each. I wrote two more children’s books, this time along with my children, so the personal kept flowing into the public and the political.

(Excerpted from ‘Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India: Making A Difference’, Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, 2011/386 pages/Softback; Rs 350) (Women’s Feature Service)