Music for a New Life

Music for a New Life

Economic empowerment is a key factor in making possible a violence free life for women. And as the women drummers of Dhibra (Danapur block, Bihar) prove, this empowerment can be achieved in a remarkably unique way.

Clad in their red and yellow bandhani sarees, standing in precise formation and faces oozing confidence-the 10 women of the Sargam Mahila Band have been the subject of much admiration and curiosity since they first started playing in 2012. The decision to start a band came after much debate within the group and with Nari Gunajan- a network partner of Oxfam in Bihar.

Savita Das, the 40 year old leader of the band and mother to three says, “We are poor people with very little land. As farms shrink, the opportunities for getting work as farm labour are fewer. We had been part of a self help group so we knew how to work together. When the idea of playing drums was thrown at us, we sensed an opportunity.”

Despite family opposition and criticism, the most stinging of which was why must they try to be like men, in 2012, sixteen women started to take one hourly lessons in drum playing every day from one Aditya Gunjan Kumar who would travel from Patna to teach them. Six women wilted under the constant barbs, 10 persisted. 

Savita and the other band members are Dalits. In the old order of the caste hierarchy their mere presence would have polluted high caste weddings and celebrations. But these women have forged an alternate and powerful identity for themselves. People of all castes seek them out for their musical skills, sometimes going as far as deciding dates for functions based on the availability of the group. They charge anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 for one night of work. “We are not very strict and can negotiate”, laughs Savita. Other conditions- pick up and drop from the village, and proper living conditions in case they need to stay the night- are non negotiable.

Chhatiya (25) remembers the time when her husband Baneshwar Das, who works as a labourer, would object to her going out. “Do all the household chores- he would tell me before I left for the lessons. Sometimes he would make demands just as classes were about to start. Now when I have to go out, he is always hurrying me up lest I get late. How things have changed”, she says.

The back stories of the other band members - Domini, Pancham, Anita, Lalita, Malti, Sona, Chitrekh, Bijanti and Manti also feature some measure of violence with verbal and emotional abuse being the most commonly cited. During the weeks of practice they had even the other village women scornfully tell them that they would fail at it.

Domini (30), mother of two, says, “I doubted myself at first. Striking the drum felt like striking against all that and all those who tried to supress me. Even today I wonder how I came this far”.

Anita (30) voices her wonder. “All those big hotels in Patna which we could not even dare to look at, now we walk into them with pride”.

The women drummers have travelled far both literally and figuratively. Besides playing all around Patna and the neighbouring districts, they have also played in Odisha and Delhi- from where they have joyful memories of their first experience of riding in the metro. They manage their money and assignments independently. While the money is divided equally among members, any member who pulls out of a job (which might add up to as many as 10 per month in the wedding season) does not get paid. Practice sessions (usually conducted in the fields) vary depending on the quantum of the work. They have visiting cards and a code of behavior that mandates that members will be neatly dressed at all times and that only the group leader, Savita, will negotiate all gigs. 

It is also an unspoken pact that each woman will own her earnings. Malti (40) asks, “Why must I give my money to my husband? I spend it sensibly on books and school fees for my children, we eat better food, I save and occassionally splurge on myself. It has taken a lifetime to achieve this freedom. Why should I give it away?”
Economic freedom has translated into deep respect around  the village, with many other women asking if they too can be part of the band. While there are no plans to add to the numbers, the women do want to add a bass drum and a casio to the existing 10 drums and one shaker. Though the bhangra beat remains their favourite, they have now started to self improvise musical pieces. They would like to have a uniform of trousers and shirt and accessorise it with caps and small sling bags to look more like the ‘military bands’ they compare themselves with. 

“We no longer have to toil in the fields for very little money. Now we have both respect and money”, says Lalita who speaks of the group being often approached to settle petty disputes within the village.  Their example has also led to most women in the village seeking some measure of economic freedom. 

The women drummers of Dhibra have not jut challenged gender stereotypes but have turned them on their head. 

Ranjana Das, the regional manager for Bihar and Jharkhand sees in them a powerful example of empowerment. “We want to use them throughout the project area as models of liberation from violence and drudgery”, she says.

Though the drummers of Dhibra see themselves as little more than a group of working women, they can indeed be Pied Pipers of change.

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