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Covid-19: Women's bands keep up the tempo

Determined not to let their spirits flag, all-women bands are charting a new course through the lockdown. Lounge tracks how three such groups are embracing the unprecedented situation

Meri Zindagi, a Lucknow-based ‘mission band’ led by Jaya Tiwari (centre).
Meri Zindagi, a Lucknow-based ‘mission band’ led by Jaya Tiwari (centre).

Lockdown doesn’t mean we will confine ourselves behind lock and key," says Jaya Tiwari, the feisty leader of Meri Zindagi, an all-women “mission" band from Lucknow. That seems to be the sentiment shared by several other women’s bands. They have spent the past decade overcoming societal pressures to carve a niche for themselves and are determined not to let covid-19 fritter their gains.

Live gigs may have come to a halt but they are finding new ways to connect with their audience. Some are opting for the digital route, while others are helping small-scale women entrepreneurs tackle the effects of the pandemic. Still others are using the time to hone their skills.

Meri Zindagi, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

It is quite a sight when five musicians take to the stage armed with guitars, drums, tongs, spoons and other kitchen instruments. Part of the “mission" band Meri Zindagi, they sing of discrimination on the basis of colour, child marriage and gender equality. Ye Dekho Mujhe Judge Karte Hain and Mai Re Le Chal Wahi are some of the favourites with the audience.

The decade-old band, which quite often takes the stage in bright pink saris, sings about societal issues. “This was not just a band, it was a story of what aam ghar ki ladkiyaan (girls from ordinary households) could do. Some of us were studying and working, so we would jam early mornings in parks and then head off for our day’s work. Over time, some members left and others got added. So it has been quite a journey," says 40-year-old Jaya Tiwari, a radio station employee who started the band in 2010 with three other members.

Having done a PhD in classical music (vocal), she had the option of teaching at a university, but wanted to start a band that would work towards social empowerment. “I came from an empowered household. But when I saw my friends, who were very talented musicians and had to sacrifice their interest because of marriage, it haunted me," she adds.

When they started out, audiences in Lucknow hadn’t heard of the concept of a mission band. Initially, event organizers would ask them to limit their songs of empowerment to one-two tunes and then move on to ghazals or film numbers. The band members stood their ground.

Apart from Tiwari, the lyricist, composer and vocalist, the band today consists of Niharika, 29, on synthesizers, Poorvi, 24, on guitar, Subhagya, 24, on okhal and Utsavi, 23, on maracas. “Hum desh ki aadhi abaadi ki awaaz hain (we are the voice of half the country’s population)," says Tiwari. 

Meri Zindagi has now launched Project Covid, to focus on the impact of the pandemic on women. “The pandemic and the lockdown have not just induced mental trauma and anxiety about physical safety but also created a financial crisis," says Tiwari. “And this financial crunch breaks people’s spirits. Women who were self-sufficient suddenly find themselves dependent again." So the band is trying not just to motivate women through its songs, but is collaborating with an NGO to support micro-businesses run by women in Lucknow through funds and marketing.

Tetseo Sisters, Kohima, Nagaland

We first saw the Tetseo Sisters perform at the NH7 Weekender in Delhi, in 2014. Dressed in the traditional garb of the Chakhesang tribe, complete with the headgear and ornaments, they presented a folk fusion version of traditional tunes from the area around Phek in Nagaland. Their performing style ensured they stood out—they were one of the first to do folk fusion and their songs in the Chokri dialect created an electric atmosphere.

The Tetseo Sisters are popular for their folk fusion style.
The Tetseo Sisters are popular for their folk fusion style.

Over the years, they have been bringing out albums and performing across cities. Some of their songs, such as Say Yes To Life, O Rhosi and Jano Nyekha, have become quite popular. In fact, the single Say Yes To Life, a lockdown project, has been chosen as one of the Top 10 anti- drugs campaign songs of 2020 by the Narcotics Control Bureau of India.

The Kohima-based vocal quartet of sisters—comprising Mutsevelu, Azine, Kuvelu and Alune Tetseo, aged 27-37—has been performing since childhood. “We have always based our performances on the availability of our various members at any given point of time. For many years, we performed in pairs and then as a trio on stage. But for our studio releases, we have tried to maintain the quartet status," they mention. For them, live gigs—across Nagaland, Delhi, Pune, Bengaluru, even Scotland—have been particularly special, a chance for the sisters who study or work in different cities to reunite.

Today, obviously, stage shows are not possible. “We have always been about live gigs so it is a hard setback," they say on email. But there is a silver lining: They are sharing and connecting with people over music, stories and experiences digitally, through Zoom sessions, live streaming and webinars. They have been releasing songs online and continue to work on new ones. “Meanwhile, staying home safe and healthy is a huge blessing," they say, though Azine, who doesn’t live in Kohima, hasn’t been able to meet or record with the rest, or be part of their live-streaming sessions. "Lulu (Alune) has had to head to Nagpur to continue her medical studies. She will start her internship soon. So, we will hold fort the best way we can," they mention. 

Sargam Mahila Band, Dhibra, Bihar

In 2012, 16 Dalit women from Dhibra village in Danapur block came together to form the state’s first women’s-only band of drummers. The Sargam Mahila Band was getting at least 8-10 gigs a month before the pandemic struck this year. They have used the opportunity to take a step back and practise daily to hone their skills further.

The Sargam Mahila Band.
The Sargam Mahila Band. (Nari Gunjan/Facebook)

The journey over the past eight years hasn’t been easy—some of the women dropped out due to family pressure but the 10 who continued are now happy that they have become self-sufficient. The band offers them an opportunity to change the narrative of oppression—by landlords and upper castes in the past or by husbands—even if in a small way. “We used to labour on the farms," says Savita Das, one of the original band members. “But the farmland kept shrinking as it was sold off. Jahaan khet tha wahaan ab apartment hain (there are apartments where there used to be farms)." Their livelihood options too shrank further—in any case, they didn’t always get minimum wages or, for that matter, pay, regularly.

This was a time when several women who went on to form the band were part of self-help groups started by the Patna-based not-for-profit Nari Gunjan, which focuses on the empowerment of Dalit women. Together with the secretary of the organization, Sudha Varghese, they began to think about the future. “Kaise jeeyenge, yeh hi soch mein the when Sudha Didi suggested starting a drumming band," says Das, who estimates her age at above 35.

Varghese had seen women drummer groups in villages in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. “She asked us, drum bajaoge (will you play the drums)? And we said, if you teach us, why not," says Das. So, a teacher from Patna was engaged to instruct them. “We wanted them to acquire a skill as a sustainable livelihood option," says Varghese. 

Initially, they had to face resistance, from the villagers and their own families, to starting what was considered a “man’s job". Varghese, who had been working in the area for years and knew the villagers well, counselled them. A year into their training, the women staged their first performance, during the Mahila Diwas at Nari Gunjan.

Gradually, as video clips of their performance started doing the rounds, gig offers began to come in, particularly for performances at marriages. “Today, they have total support from the village and the families, who treat them as special entities. Gaadi lene aati hai, chodne aati hai (a vehicle comes to pick them up and drop them). Initially, when they had to travel overnight, we suggested they take one of the men from the families along. But they refused and said they will do this on their own," says Varghese. 

The members now manage their own gigs, sharing the money equally. Before covid-19 struck, they were earning 1,500 per performer, plus travel costs. Their confidence high, Das says: “2 ladka-1 ladki ki padhai ke liye hum paisa de sakte hain ab. Ghar parivar ka samaan juta sakte hain. Pehle pati se maangna padta tha (today we can meet household expenses and educate two boys and a girl without asking our husbands)."

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