Songs of experience: The Mirasi women of Punjab

  • Namita Kohli, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 27, 2016 22:34 IST
A still from the documentary film Mirasans of Punjab: Born to Sing, by Shikha Jhingan

Many moons ago, before the likes of Honey Singh became de rigueur at Punjabi weddings, melodious strains of popular folk songs such as mehendi ni mehendi (a traditional henna song) and phullan di bahaar (flowers in bloom) occupied pride of place at wedding celebrations. Growing up in Delhi in the 90s, wedding rituals, and the accompanying rendition of folk songs, provided rare glimpses into the cultural moorings of the pre-Partition generation, and their fervent attempts to hold on to their past.

But the repertoire of Punjabi folk songs was certainly far richer than what one was exposed to in urban Delhi. And Mirasans of Punjab:Born to Sing, makes that amply clear. The 40-minute documentary film on the lives of women singers of the Mirasi community in Punjab was screened in Delhi this past week, by the city-based Kriti Film Club, on the occasion of World Heritage Day that falls on April 18 every year. Aanchal Kapur, who heads the film club, says she decided to screen the film not just because it tied in well with celebrations around heritage, but also because she felt that the theme tied in with the cultural essence of World Earth Day (April 22), beyond its mere “environmental” significance.

The film, shot in the old city of Patiala and the town of Malerkotla in Sangrur district, captures the unique histories of four of the Muslim women singers in Punjab’s Malwa region, who would sing and perform at “life-cycle” rituals such as birth celebrations, weddings rituals, and mourning gatherings.

The Mirasi community members were among those Muslims who decided to stay back during the Partition, even though, at least in the case of Sugran, one of the Mirasi woman in the film, the family eventually left for Pakistan. Her sister and she, however, never left. The Mirasis trace their lineage to Bhai Mardana, who was a Muslim. Bhai Mardana was the first disciple and also a long-time companion of Guru Nanak Dev.

Mirasi women sang at birth celebrations, weddings and at death rituals. A still from the documentary film Mirasans of Punjab: Born to Sing.

The Mirasi women were an important part of the cultural landscape of the region, where they derived power and prestige from their royal patrons. However, as the film shows, the women who were once sought-after for their rich repertoire of folk songs, their quick-witted nature, and their charms, saw a decline in their fortunes after the patrons fell on hard times. The rewards from singing at celebrations stopped, and slowly, the women themselves started to recede to the margins.

Different strokes

Mirasans of Punjab...traces the journey of four such women, each diverse in their repertoire of songs, style of rendition, and even their personal charm, explains filmmaker Shikha Jhingan, who teaches cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She recalls reading a news report on two sisters of the Mirasi community, and fascinated by their story, Jhingan travelled to the spot in Patiala. Once in the old city, Jhingan discovered that one of the two sisters had already died in the interim. But she met with Sugran, the other sister, and thereafter, Jhingan spent two years on the film that was released in 2001, and has been screened at film festivals in Delhi, Karachi and Seattle.

Amongst the charming women that the film follows, Sugran is easily the ‘star’. She is thin, her face is gaunt, and when she wears her spectacles, they almost cover her entire face. Jhingan says that Mirasi women such as Sugran were quick-witted, strong-willed and passionate singers, who shared a strong relationship with their patrons, and were rich repositories of the oral tradition of Punjab.

(Sugran, one of the characters in the documentary Mirasans of Punjab:Born to Sing.)

The Mirasans’ repertoire was diverse — there were different songs for each ritual in the region’s elaborate weddings, and even songs for mourning were specific to the class, gender and age of the person who had died.

Though the Mirasi women claim that the profession is inherited, it was not that they were formally trained in the art, even if at home. As Sugran says in the film, she only learnt by watching the women in the family sing, even though Sugran herself was forbidden from doing so. But when the family fell on hard times, her sister and she took to singing. Of course, the craft brought the sisters much fame, and some fortune too.

But it wasn’t that the patron-artiste relationship was bereft of a complex power dynamic — the Mirasi women were aware of the “secrets” of the royalty, at times, they were even involved “closely”with their patrons, who, in turn, were also under pressure to reward them “appropriately”.

One of the Mirasi women in the documentary film, Mirasans of Punjab:Born to Sing.

Trade winds

But for women such as Sugran, the power that they held over their patrons didn’t mean much as times were changing. From performing within the confines of the patrons’ homes, the shift in popular culture demanded that the women now sing and dance in public, and the younger women faced stiff resistance from their families against doing so.

The talent that had once been valued by the patrons, had now become “vulgar”. But as Jhingan points out, the shrinking space for women such as Sugran could be attributed to the Mirasi men’s struggles to gain a foothold in the regional music industry.

A shrinking space for the female voice, as in the case of the Mirasi women, is something that has contemporary parallels too. Today, we hear the voice of Arijit Singh, Javed Ali, Atif Aslam, more than that of female singers, says Jhingan, whose work focuses on music, sound technologies and cinema.

Back in Punjab, however, the younger women who did take up the Mirasi tradition are only left hoping for state recognition and patronage. And for a woman such as Sugran, death came sooner.

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