The rhythm of women who beat their own drums

Meeting the band of women from the Musahar community in Bihar who have been performing at weddings, ceremonies and festivals to great acclaim


Members of the Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila Band. Photo: Sumit Sharma
Members of the Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila Band. Photo: Sumit Sharma

We discussed saris. We exchanged notes on walking shoes. We talked about tired bodies and bruises caused by the shoulder straps of our equipment—their drums and my camera. We spoke about the excitement of new places and the joy of food. We talked about the freedom of travelling for work without husband and children with us.

Savita, Anita, Pancham, Chhatiya, Sona, Lalti, Bijanti, Domni, Manti and Chitrekha are 10 women from Dhibra village, Danapur, who have trained and come together to form Bihar’s first all-women band of drummers: The Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila Band. Nari Gunjan, which literally means the humming of women, is a non-governmental organization established by Sudha Varghese that works among the Musahar and Mahadalit communities in Bihar, addressing issues of rights, education, livelihood and violence against women. After training for eights months with Aditya Gunjan Kumar, a music teacher who visited their village from Patna, these women have been performing at weddings, ceremonies and festivals and have received great acclaim for their performances.

In the beginning, the band of women drummers and my documentary film crew were somewhat hesitant and very proper with each other. We had arrived to film them for a documentary commissioned by Oxfam India. We went deep into the fields so that they could play their drums without disturbance or interruption, and the three of us could film them with two cameras, mikes and an audio recorder. They rested on the parapet wall of a low bridge. I rested against a tree.

They didn’t want me to sit on the ground. “It is very dirty, Didi.” I didn’t want to be incorrect by asking them to sit on the ground either. But eventually, the music loosened our limbs and relaxed all of us. Soon we were sitting in the mud and patchy grass next to fields and exchanging notes on our mutual working women experiences. Sumit Sharma, the cameraperson, was uninhibitedly directing them to make sure that the shots would reflect the liberation we were feeling. The light, people, colours and drumbeats had come together in a unique kinesthetic tapestry.

When Pancham spoke, she said my lines. “What is the big deal about playing drums, Didi? When we go to the city, we see women driving autos and flying planes. This is simple stuff.”

“Will you teach your daughters to play in a band like yours?”

“Why not? It’s a source of livelihood. Soon there will be a demand for more bands. You have to see how people begin to dance when we perform. Even women join in.”

The Mahila Band has recently returned from its first trip outside Bihar. It had been invited to perform on Dussehra in Sambalpur, Odisha. I ask them about their train journey and they all speak at the same time, recounting incidents and teasing each other. They have played at official functions to welcome the chief minister of Bihar. They tell me names of the hotels in Patna and districts in Bihar where they have performed. The spectacular sight and sound of their performance often causes traffic jams in the city of Patna.

“Travelling outside is the real fun,” says Chhatiya. “When we go somewhere we always hope to be able to stay for a day or two longer so we can see new things.”

“Travelling opens our minds. We get so much respect,” says Savita, using the word, izzat. “When we return home, we feel like new people. We have forgotten our worries for a few days.”

Maan, samman, pratishtha. Respect, fame and prestige—these words recur in the testimonies of these women. “We are ready to go anywhere now. The doors have opened for us,” says Chhatiya in a serious tone. Her face breaks into laughter.

At home in Delhi, I call Kanta to my desk to show her footage of women playing drums in Bihar. Kanta works in our home and we hear her singing softly to herself all day in various parts of the house, most of all the kitchen. She is an instinctive drummer. Her favourite way involves holding an empty plastic bucket like an African armpit drum under her arm and playing beats on its bottom with both her palms. It signals both the beginning and the end of the floor-mopping for the day.

“See Kanta, women like you,” I say, flinching at how awkward that sounds.

Kanta laughs as she watches video clips of this band of women swaying on their feet to the rhythm of the drums they are playing. I play a close-up shot of their dancing feet, red Bandhini printed sari coming in and out of focus, revealing silver anklets and toe-rings. Mesmerized, I take a screenshot and send it to Sumit, who framed the shot, and to Aparna, the editor who will weave it into a film.

“They are playing drums like men,” Kanta says.

“Yes, Kanta, they are learning skills that will help them earn money. They used to earn Rs50 or 100 for a day’s work in other people’s fields earlier. Now they earn Rs1,000 each whenever they perform. They don’t have college degrees, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent to be able to earn a living.”

“Teach me also,” Kanta says.

“You will play like them?” I say.

“I will play at home. In family functions,” she says.

On the computer screen, Savita speaks up. “In the beginning, people used to mock us. They would say that Sudha Didi was spoiling us. This is man’s work, why should women do it? You will never be able to learn.

“Today when a Scorpio comes to the village to pick us up and later to drop us back, everyone watches in awe. We earn money and that money speaks. It strengthens our own voice also.”

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.

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