Roundabout | Long live the anthem writer of women’s movement
Think of feminist activist Kamla Bhasin and you will immediately recall the peppy folk number ‘Kut kut bajra main kothe utte paani haan,’ which was made popular by the musical sisters, Prakash Kaur and Surinder Kaur, and was a crowd favourite at Punjabi weddings of yore.
The song, which is about crows that make a mess of the beaten grain drying on the terraces and querulous husbands, was rewritten by Bhasin as a siren call for women to break all shackles and build a new world: “Todh todh ke bandhanon ko dekho behane aati hai…Ayengi zulm mitaeingi…Yeh to naya zamana laayengi!”
Bhasin, who emerged as one of the most charismatic and prominent leaders of the women’s movement in India and other south Asian countries in the 1970s, always held that feminism is not a war between men and women but a war between ideologies: “One that elevates men and gives them power, and the other, that advocates for equality!” she has said.
Her achievements as a social scientist, author, a developmental professional and south Asia coordinator of the One Billion Rising Of Women are many. She has worked with underprivileged women from tribal and working classes with a strong belief in feminist theory and community action. Active with Jagori Women’s Resource Centre and other women’s groups in neighbouring countries, she resigned from her job with the United Nations as the south Asian coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2002, and founded Sangat, which reaches out to women in communities with low literacy rates, with songs, plays and other non-literary methods.
A phenomenal and innovative organiser, it was a standing ovation for Bhasin as she delivered her lecture at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. Her substantial oeuvre includes Feminism and Its Relevance in South Asia, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition and Understanding Gender.
Knowing Midnight’s daughter
She refers to herself as the ‘midnight generation’, born as she was in 1946, a year before the Partition. Her father was a doctor and she was the fourth of six siblings. She was born in Shahidanwaali village in Gujrat district of Punjab, now in Pakistan. Her ties across the barbed wire remained strong and it was she who brought the ‘Azadi’ chant to India, which was not a Kashmir invention chanted by Kanhayia at Jawaharlal Nehru University but a creation of Pakistani feminists in their protest against patriarchy.
Bhasin recalls, “ I had learnt the slogan ‘Meri behane maange Azaadi’ from Pakistani feminists and later improvised the words. The words would change many times depending on what we were protesting against, discrimination on the basis of caste, injustice to tribals or violence against women.”
An early memory of dancing and chanting to the catchy beat of the “Azaadi” number dates back to 1991, at the Women’s Studies Conference in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. A vibrant and charismatic Bhasin, in her early forties, chanted it with a little drum in hand and women surrounded her, throwing their fists in the air. My five-year-old daughter, who had accompanied me there once, caught on the song and chanted it throughout her childhood.
Trials and tribulations
Kamla grew up in Rajasthan and pursued her graduation and postgraduation there. Later, she won a fellowship to study ‘sociology of development’ at the University of Münster in West Germany and returned to work at the Seva Mandir in Rajasthan where she met her husband, the late Baljit Malik.
The first setback was when their child Chotu, just a year old then, reacted to a vaccine and was mentally and physically disabled for life. The second blow and the most painful came many decades later after their daughter Meeto died by suicide. She was pursuing her doctorate on the ‘Synchronic Secular Traditions of Pre-Independence Punjab’ at the Oxford University. Yet, Kamla moved on instituting scholarships in her name and doing the work she was committed towards.
Song sung true
Now as the hero, for that is what she was to women in struggle, is battling against an advanced stage of liver cancer. She writes to friends on her timeline page on how weak she has become but that does not stop her from doing a 45-minute session with young women inspiring them to struggle and sing one of her many songs like: ‘Poochhenge ham khoob sawal, aa gayi chetna’ (We will ask many questions for now we have awareness) which her feminist comrades had asked her to write in the early 1980s. In spite of her frailty, she has the same zest and sparkle of songs sung true in celebration of life, struggle and even fatality.
Cheers! Kamla, you never fail to inspire!