Singing songs, telling lives: The Everyday Creativity of Kirin Narayan

Daniela Bevilacqua

In Kangra (Himachal Pradesh), as well as in many villages across India, women’s songs are thought to bring good fortune to happy events: they are mangal, auspicious. However, women’s songs refer to a wider world based of several layers of tradition. In Everyday Creativity. Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills Kirin Narayan tries to disclose this world, using her personal experience in Kangra that started in 1975 when she heard the songs for the first time. Since the very beginning of her contact with Kangra women and songs, Narayan, an “admiring outsider”, showed an interest that she transformed in a long term case study, whose vast amount of data was finally channelized in this book. Here, she focuses on the songs valued by the elderly upper-caste singers who were her mentors. She stresses that probably these songs she heard are going to be lost, given the fact that new generations’ songs already display the presence of consistent changes.

It is clear the gender dimension of Kangra songs: women sing, but for the well-being of men, and often they describe events in men’s lives. However the perspective is from a female point of view, since these songs describe the feelings of female relatives. Singing, indeed, allows women to express their individuality and to share stories from which other women can get support and comfort. In effect, the informants of Narayan clearly describe singing as a means to cultivate states of mind that rise beyond the confinement of routines and disappointments. This reality is interpreted by Narayan as a form of “everyday creativity”. With this expression the author stresses the creativity that every day can emerge in activities that might seem repetitive and even irrelevant, however they are the conjunction between tradition, community and the life of an individual, who assimilates them so that they become distinctively personal in everyday life. This also connects to the Kangra term sukinni, which defines “arenas of personal interest” cultivated by individuals that acquire “knowledge and skills, different from the social roles by which they are usually recognized” (p. xx). 

Narayan uses a plant metaphor to organize her book. We have a “base” for the historical, cultural and personal ground of the work. Chapter 1 focuses on Loi’s Song, whose code provides the author with the four main verbs (to attain, play, go, bath) through which the book is organized and which will lead to four different “fruits” of listening connected to the woman life stages. 

Chapter 2 introduces the area of Kangra, its history and three genres of songs collected by the author: suhāg or wedding songs that refer to the happiness of married woman; pakharu, ballads not connected to any rituals that can be sung anytime and that mostly focus on suffering; bhajan, devotional songs in which often painful events are transmuted into spiritual teachings or in which saintly women are tested. 

In the next four chapters the “fruits” are described with the intention of showing how each stage of life produces its own desires and longing and how songs, instructing about these, provided relief for the female singer-informants presented in each chapter. Songs enable women to critique cultural norms, and “communicate their own arenas of sadness” (p.15) especially on domestic concerns, but at the same time describe the local landscapes and recall past practises through depictions of gods, goddesses and devotes.

Chapter 3 focuses on attaining (pānā): the gaining is of a particular goal but also of the skills of singing and remembering songs which give prestige and honour to women. The songs here collected are mostly about the goddess Parvati in her regional form as Gauran or Gaurja and deal with her marriage with god Shiva.

Chapter 4 focuses on playing (khalānā) and many songs are about Krishna who is associated with the spirit of play as divine sport, pastime. However, other themes are well described such as becoming the mother of a son and the lovers of Krishna. 

Chapter 5 is based on the metaphor of going (jānā): songs can create an inner movement in which the singer goes from one emotional state to another, rising beyond daily responsibilities and difficult situations. The songs are about Saili or Tulsi, the sacred basil goddess, celebrating their weddings or rituals – who refer to their various roles as daughter, bride, and goddess and give women the opportunity to comment and describe the danger of a different household while asking for abundance in their own lives. 

Chapter 6 starts with songs about old age and focuses on bathing (nauhnā): this is the dip into the flow of songs which creates a sense of peace, and at the same time this is an opportunity to introduce devotional songs linked to the river Ganga and to holy men and women. Maintaining the metaphor of water, songs are described as a “river of collective memory” (p.211), in which different versions can be transmitted, maintained and reconstructed within the community. The author pays attention at the transformation the singing tradition is undergoing because of new social and cultural conditions – especially the spreading of Bollywood songs and the dismissing of pahari dialect–in the last chapter, where the head of this plant-book is also reached. Here, the fruits gained from listening songs belonging to each chapter are fully unveiled: rewards for sustained intention; the pleasure of reciprocal perspectives; the resiliency that the act of writing produces and the transformative possibility of shared imagination. 

Kirin Narayan has collected hours and hours of songs from Kangra, but obviously the limits of a book forced her to a strict and probably arduous selection. Nevertheless, she is able not only to provide cluster of songs and stories, showing the various versions a song can have, but mostly she is able to bring the reader into the rooms and the houses where old or young ladies sit and brings to life their skills and through them, their lives. The great value of this book is that with sensitivity discloses the reality of women’s lives in Indian villages and the stages of a woman life – from her wedding, motherhood, widowhood, to the old age – with all their difficulties, aims, desires and realistic possibilities. It shows the importance of singing in women’s lives to get honour and respect, but mostly to survive to hard conditions and hard works, sharing their emotions with others. As an informants said to Narayan “If you are going to write about us, you have to write about the work women do”, “if you want to learn about us, you should learn all our work” (p.149). Narayan has learned and has allowed us to learn a bit about them too.