Friday 27 May 2022

Films, Feminism, a travelling festival part 2- a rebellious mural in Jaisalmer

 This is part 2 of a fifteen days experience that I am sharing here. This experience was made possible by the crazy, bright and extremely hard working team at Hers is Ours, who had organised an almost-three month long travelling feminist film and art festival called 'The Outsider'. I was part of their super-ambitious and enthralling plan for a span of fifteen days, where we met and watched films and worked with women, men and children in Jodhpur, Setrawa, Jaisalmer and Moolsagar (I know! Lucky me. )

The first part of this experience has been covered in the previous post on this blog. This post covers mine (and our) experience in two places Jaisalmer and Moolsagar. The reason I have made two posts instead of one is because our experiences in Jaisalmer and Moolsagar were quite different and more complex than in Jodhpur and Setrawa, or maybe we were able to observe certain dynamics more here than in the previous two places. 

For this week, we were stationed in a beautiful, rustic home stay created by world renowned algoza player  Tagaram Bhil. His family comprised of his lovely wife Premi ji, his sons and daughters in law, his grandchildren. Tagaram Ji was the perfect host anyone could have asked for, interested in our work, making sure we were comfortable, jamming with us and even drinking with us and offering us his beedis. It was definitely a delightful place. 

Sitting in Tagaram Ji's aangan and giving beat on the ukelele while he played the algoza
Oishorjyo smoking a beedi with her morning cup of tea.

The first couple of days we worked with the mangniyar community in Jaisalmer. The community is essentially a performing arts community where the men and the boys earn their living through singing, playing the harmonium, dholak and various other instruments. They usually sing Sufi, Kabir and Rajasthani folk music. We were welcomed at their centre with marigold garlands and a wonderful musical performance by the men and boys of the community. 

What slowly started bothering all of us was the complete absence of women and girls in the performance pit. As we looked around at the many laminated banners of musicians and singers from the community that adorned the walls, we couldnt find even one banner that had a photo of a girl. A young girl wearing the traditional kalbeliya costume sat on one edge of the stairs that led up to the all-male musicians. As the music gained speed, some of us women got up and invited the girl sitting at the staircase to dance with us. Soon a few other mangniyar women started dancing with us. 

Once the performance was over we expressed our desire to meet the girls and the women of the community. For reasons so far unknown to us, the women and the girls couldn't come to the community centre and if we wished to meet them, we would have to go to the place where they lived. We immediately agreed and walked a short distance to the place where the community lives in minimalist, almost make shift homes, in a ghettoized space. 

The place was brimming with women, young girls and children. We had already seen all the men at the community centre, most of them had performed for us, but we were pleasantly surprised to see so many women and girls at the homes. The reasons for why they were not performing and why they weren't even allowed to be at the community centre slowly became clearer to us. 

Naomi showing a film to the women and girls since they were not allowed to come for the public screening

Trina and Oish hanging with the Mangniyar women and children

The mangniyar community survives and thrives on its musical talents and knowledge that has been passed down over several generations. Their music and dance is their primary and in most cases, their only source of livelihood. Most of them have travelled internationally, played in several prestigious venues across the country and are even revered by students from across the world who come and stay for years in Jaisalmer to learn the music. It is clear then, that whoever has control over the music has control over the community. The men therefore, do not even let the girls touch their musical instruments. The knowledge and the skills are duly and diligently passed on to the boys from a very young age but the girls are completely discouraged from singing or even touching the musical instruments. 

Singing with the Mangniyar musicians. Women from the 'outside' are allowed to learn from and sing with them. 

The girls are conditioned from a very young age to only learn cooking, cleaning, child bearing and rearing and how to be a perfect wife. The restriction on their movement is so heavy that they are not allowed to even go to the market to buy milk!

We were in a conundrum of sorts, since true to the name of the festival, we were 'The outsiders'. The dynamics of gender, caste and tradition ran so deep and strong that our intervention of any sort could go horribly wrong. 

Although we did manage to have a few moments of success where we showed a deeply feminist film 'Gulaabi Gang' by Nishtha Jain in the Jaisalmer Fort premises and had a large and curious local audience.  We managed to conduct a beautiful arts based workshop with Tagaram Bhil ji's own family and those in his neighbourhood. We even got to play songs and tell feminist stories to another group in Jaisalmer and distribute and speak about menstrual hygiene with the women. 

Distributing sanitary pads and menstrual cups to women in Jaisalmer

Showing animation films and documentaries on feminism to villagers at and around Tagaramji's house in Moolsagar

Public screening of Nishtha Jain's Gulabi Gang inside the Jaisalmer fort

But the gender gap in the Mangniyar community and also in the Bhil community remained a point of disappointment and despair for us all. 

Whenever it was possible, we went and just hung out with the women and the girls in their ghetto and encouraged them to speak, sing and come up with their own lyrics to popular children's songs. 

There are a few interesting conversations that we did have with the men in the community that may or may not result in any narrative change. 

I am sharing some of these conversations here.

Once, when the men were singing the Kabir bhajans that spoke about how God/the supreme being did not make any difference among human beings then who are we to create those differences. 

We jumped at the lyrics of the song as a great conversation starter on discrimination. 

"How come you sing about God making any differences among human beings and that we must follow the same path, but in your own home you differentiate among your boys and girls? Didnt God make men and women the same as well?", we asked.

The men listened, went silent, smoked a few beedis and then went on playing some more music.

In another instance, one of the older men asked me to read out a message that had been sent to him by an American student who had not paid the entire amount to this man who had taught him his music for an entire year. I read the message and told him what he was saying. I continued the conversation with speaking to the man about educating his girls who all looked so bright. If they could read and write they could have translated the message for him too, and the payment would have been on time. 

Krantinaari sharing a laugh with the Mangniyar girls

Several such conversations took place all the while that we were there, without much reception or reciprocation. We met the women separately and they told us that most of them get married when they are still minors and have babies by the time they are eighteen or nineteen.

A young daughter-in-law who was making tea for us had recently had a miscarriage, and was expecting again. She was all of nineteen. A young daughter who was about fifteen could speak English, which she had picked up from her father's students over the years. She was bright and intelligent but had never been to school and will be married off by the time she is sixteen or seventeen.

When we spoke to her father he said, "Well, what can we do? We have so many children and she is another mouth to feed. Once she is married its her destiny. Where ever it may lead her."

The frustration and anger among the girls was palpable. They were at the beck and call of their father and brothers. For every little thing that they needed they had to plead with their father or brother, whether it was getting some sugar from the market, or getting a needle and thread to sew their torn clothes. 

As the gender discrimination was getting clearer among the Mangniyar community, it was also getting clearer at the Bhil home where we were staying.

Tagaram Ji Bhil ate with us, so did his sons and grandsons, but his wife and daughters-in-law and their daughters ate separately, after we had all eaten. Our multiple requests to let them sit with us and eat went unheard, by the men and the women.

We watched Premi ji working in the house from dawn to way after dusk, she also worked as a anganwaadi worker in the local preschool. She cooked and cleaned and mopped and looked after us, but she wasnt allowed in the shed that contained all of Tagaram Ji's musical instruments. Only the men could enter that room!

One of our tasks at the festival was to create a mural. Krantinaari, Ayushi and Oishorjyo had been creating powerful, relatable murals through our journey. 

Here we were going to paint a mural on the white mud wall of one of the cottages. We racked our brains as to what should we make. And then it came- we were going to paint Premi Ji, the matriarch of the house, the silent figure who was actually the backbone of the home and also the one who had never been acknowledged for all her hardwork and warmth.

Oishorjyo and I ran the idea past the team- Anal, Naomi, Ayushi, Trina and Ashwini. Everyone was gung ho about the idea. 

Oishorjyo clicked a photo of Premiji for reference, in her usual pose of sitting cutting vegetables in the kitchen. 

As Oishorjyo started making the outlines of Premiji on the large, white wall, we wondered whether we should show her in her actual pose of cutting vegetables? No, was the immediate and unanimous response. Then what could we show her doing?

Oishorjyo making the mural

What should Premiji be shown doing in the mural?- became a question that we asked everyone around. Her kids, grandkids, neighbours, herself. Everyone.

Making rotis, someone suggested. Peeling potatoes. Cooking vegetables. 

When we asked them to think out of the box we got great responses- holding a mobile phone!, holding a camera, a laptop, a radio set. The suggestions kept coming in. There was a little crowd that had gathered around her, thinking with us. 

And then the picture was finally complete- she should be holding a musical instrument, an algoza! 

Of course, yes. What could never have been realized in reality, could atleast be painted on a white mud wall, isnt it?

While Oishorjyo started drawing the algoza in Premiji's hands, me along with several women and girls from the house started filling in the mural with different natural colours. 

The mural was complete late at night, too dark for anyone to see what it was all about. We went to our cottage, washed the colours off our hands, gleeful in our little rebellion and nervous about what the reaction from the men, especially from Tagaram Ji would be in the morning!

In the morning the wet paints had dried up and Premiji looked at us with her dark, deep eyes, holding the black algoza with all her strength. The family huddled around us, women and girls, admiring and giggling at the politics of the mural. The giggles turned to silence as Tagaram Ji walked up to the mural, for the first time since we had started painting it.

"What have you made?", he said disappointed and confused more than angry.

"Its Premiji, holding your favourite, black algoza.", we responded innocently.

"But why would you make this? She doesnt play the algoza, in fact she has never even held the algoza in her hands.", the anger was apparent.

"Well, art imagines things that dont exist in reality, isnt it? Just like your music. It takes us to the mountains and the rivers and the cool breeze of a seaside, sitting here in the desert, doesnt it?", we were being very cheeky now.

"But it would have looked more beautiful if you had made her cooking, or fetching water in an earthen pot on her head, you know?", he wasnt giving up either.

The women and the girls looked on at this battle of words, silently, their hearts hoping for us to win (or thats what we think, atleast)

"Well, we think this is also beautiful. Doesnt she look beautiful?", we asked hopefully looking at our audience. 

They nodded non-committedly. 

"But why have you given her my black algoza. Its my favourite, you know!", Tagaram Ji battled on, almost in a childlike manner, his conditioning not letting him appreciate what lay in front of him.

"Well, its just a painting. The real one is all yours.", we had to pacify him like a little child who refuses to share his favourite toy with his friend. 

It was heartbreaking to see what patriarchy does to men, how it takes away their will to share, be happy in someone else's glory, even if it is their wife of thirty years, the mother of their many children.

Tagaram ji left, probably thinking we were mad woman who didnt understand good reason. 

and the women huddled around us, laughing, giggling, talking, a strange, hopeful bright light shining in their restricted eyes. 

"Why did you make this, didi?", a young girl asked us.

"So that you see this and one day grow up to know that you can also play the black algoza, or any other instrument you like, if you wish to.", we said.

As we packed to leave, as this was our last day at the village, we hoped and prayed that Tagaram Ji wouldnt get the mural painted over. We dont know if it is still there. We clicked photos of a very shy and reluctant Premi Ji with her mural. 

Premi ji sitting with herself :)

Premiji dressed Naomi in traditional Rajasthani attire

Tagaramji obliged us with parting photos. With the whole team. 

On our way to the train station we stopped by at the Mangniyars' basti.

We met with the warm women and girls from the community, had a last cup of chai  with them, sang a few more songs and clicked some photos. With a promise that we will be back soon. 

"When will you come back, didi?", they asked us.

Soon, hopefully.

Afterall, what is life without hope?