Singing for Gender Equality

Fulbright-Nehru Fellow Christian James studies the tradition of folk songs in the Kangra Valley and how a nonprofit leverages it to promote gender equality.

By Hillary Hoppock

September 2023

Singing for Gender Equality  

Fulbright-Nehru Fellow Christian James speaks at a community talent show organized by the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, near Nagrota Bagwan in Himachal Pradesh. (Photograph courtesy Addie I. McKnight)

The Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh is known for its tradition of collective singing of folk songs. These songs are often performed by rural women as a way of articulating their perspectives in a patriarchal set-up. American Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Fellow Christian James is studying this tradition for his Ph.D. dissertation, “Song as Feminist Development Discourse in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh,” through the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington.

Jagori Rural Charitable Trust (JRCT), a nongovernmental organization In the Kangra Valley, uses folklore as a tool to create awareness on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health to access to education, and strengthening the voices of women in the region.

James’s research focuses on how JRTC’s feminist development programs use music, especially the act of collective singing, to improve the lives of women and girls of the Kangra Valley.

Kangra calling

James studied Hindustani music and Bhakti Yoga as an undergraduate at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. After graduating in 2014, he was awarded the Oberlin Shansi Fellowship, a two-year U.S. international exchange program to work at an Asian institution to promote mutual understanding and respect. James chose to work with JRCT.

James was introduced to the folk music of the Kangra Valley as a JRCT intern in 2014-16. “I was captivated by the song repertoire, based on older folk songs, revolutionary songs, and Indian film songs through the experience of performing alongside JRCT team members and the people of the Kangra Valley,” he says. “The folk songs capture people’s everyday moments, work and rituals from celebrations, birthdays and weddings, to others you would not expect, like that of a baby boy’s first haircut.”

Quoting India-born American folklorist Kirin Narayan, James notes collective singing, “is a means to cultivate states of the mind that might rise beyond the confinements of routines, disappointments and irrevocable events.”

Singing to be heard

James observes that collective singing enables ordinary people to raise topics they may not have the authority to speak about. Poet and JRCT co-founder late Kamla Bhasin began the organization’s practice of adapting old folk songs to emphasize newer, feminist messages. In the 1980s, Bhasin wrote new lyrics to an old melody, Tod Todke Bandhano Ko,” a feminist anthem calling for an end to the suppression of women.

More recently, singer Mohit Chauhan popularized the folk song “Morni (or “Amma Puchdi”), in which a girl tells her mother that the calls of a peahen are disturbing her sleep. Following Bhasin’s method, JRCT team members wrote new lyrics to the melody of this song, transforming it into a call for parents to prioritize their daughters’ secondary education.

James asserts that musical performance isn’t just a vehicle for JRCT’s activism, “it is also a way participants and facilitators bond, sharing their voices with one another as a community.”

As part of the fieldwork for his Ph.D. dissertation, James actively participates with JRCT team members and is often invited to sing, play the guitar, or accompany a Kangri villager on stage.

The road to Himachal

James’s internship at JRCT in 2014-16 was only the beginning of his fascination with music and Indian languages. He enrolled at Indiana University Bloomington in 2017, but always planned to reconnect in person with friends and co-workers in Himachal. When the pandemic hit in 2020, James notes he was not willing to change course on his research and turned to the study of Himachali languages to make him feel connected to Himachal Pradesh while not being there. Six years later, he came full circle, returning to the Kangra Valley fluent in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Kangri dialects Gaddi and Pahari to pursue his research on the collective singing of this region.

James says JRCT’s work is showing results as more young women now have higher educational degrees in the Kangra Valley. He also hopes that in the future he might play a role in revitalizing Himachali languages and “work with NGOs like JRCT to understand the role of music and related arts in social change programming.”

Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.

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