Book Review: "Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India" by Smita Tewari Jassal

Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India. By Smita Tewari Jassal. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. [xv, 296 p. ISBN 9780822351306. $24.95.] Bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Rehanna Kheshgi

Researchers in music, folklore, and anthropology have long recognized folk song repertories as valuable sources to collect, analyze, and interpret. In her most recent book, anthropologist Smita Tewari Jassal explores women’s lives in rural north India using the Bhojpuri folksong as an analytical frame. She conceives of songs as communicative vehicles, as cultural capital, as “existing cultural codes of approved behavior and norms,” (8) and “cultural discourses on emotion,” (32) recognizing that the “act of singing imparts psychological strength to individual women and to women’s collectivities” (8).

 Jassal builds on the pioneering work in rural Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan of feminist scholars such as Ann Grodzins Gold and Gloria Goodwin Raheja, who directed scholarly attention to women’s song repertories by challenging colonial constructions of South Asian women as submissive carriers of tradition (1994; 1997). In this book, Jassal takes seriously Kirin Narayan’s challenge to critically consider the interpretations of the singers themselves when trying to make sense of song texts (1995), and successfully introduces the reader to complex and gendered agrarian social relations through women’s stories and songs.

The relationship between songs and labor is at the center of Jassal’s study. She argues that the “conventional understandings of caste, gender, labor, agrarian relations, and the complex workings of power may be strengthened, questioned, and fine-tuned through the study of folksongs” (4). Jassal guides readers through an archive of songs collected over five years of fieldwork in rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, organizing each chapter around a particular body of songs. These songs are introduced to the reader in the original Bhojpuri and in English translation with interpretations crafted in an accessible writing style appropriate for a wide range of academic audiences. The book’s six chapters fit together coherently and also contain enough contextual information to be read independently of each other in a classroom setting.

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on songs directly related to labor activities: jatsar songs of the millstone, and kajli songs of the field and migration. In Chapter 3, marriage songs, as expressions of a rite of passage, are a critical site for examining women’s ambiguous relationships to patriarchal ideologies. Chapter 4 explores songs that portray alternate narratives about the tragic mythical heroine Sita of the Ramayana epic, and Chapter 5 offers a contrasting set of songs from the Bhojpuri epic Lorikayan that addresses marriage from a masculine perspective. Chapter 6 brings in a discussion of gender and technology in the context of sexually explicit Holi songs circulated via cassette. Throughout these chapters, Jassal offers a nuanced description of caste relations, situating characters as they emerge though interviews and song narratives to orient readers among the complex social structures of rural north India.

Jassal first began recording songs during her research on women’s land rights. She tells us that her earlier projects focused on making women’s agrarian activity visible by distinguishing it from household duties, which were not recognized as productive labor. Jassal discovered that the songs she had begun collecting “endorse the findings of research conducted in the 1970s, namely, that women regarded much of their agricultural labor as an extension of their household duties and that this labor therefore remained unrecorded” (102).

Not surprisingly, Jassal found that women would not respond to direct questions about their labor practices and rights to land. However, women would freely sing about these issues. For example, she encountered marriage songs that narrated stories of brides claiming land shares from their fathers (124). This led her to question how songs become vehicles for the construction and reproduction of gender identity, how songs broaden our understanding of women’s agency, and what role songs play in the maintenance and internalization of inequality in women’s lives. Through the work of recording, translating, and interpreting songs, Jassal discovered their deep connection with labor, not only as songs to accompany work, but also as gendered discourses on migration, the changing division of labor, agrarian structures, and how these have shaped the consciousness of the region (17).

Jassal employs multiple readings of song texts throughout the book, and this effective strategy allows her to carefully consider the operation of resistance in performance. When scholars are quick to interpret resistance in gendered performativity, Jassal makes clear that she is well aware of the dangers of reading resistance into ethnographic situations where it may be inaccurate (74). Drawing on Gold and Raheja’s work that demonstrated the subversive potential of folksong performance (1994), and following Narayan’s challenge to focus on songs as contexts for singers to create meaning (1995), Jassal brilliantly attends to multiple possibilities for interpretation. This is a strength of the book.

A vivid ethnographic example of overt resistance comes from Jassal’s introduction where she describes a recording session that she organized for a group of Dalit women to perform in a Brahmin household. The low-caste female singers, uncomfortable with the upper-caste male gaze during their performance, inserted the young men’s names into the song narrative, thereby implicating them in associations with incest and effectively shaming them into leaving the room. Though Jassal concludes, “songs have constituted one of the few spaces for resistance traditionally available to lower caste women,” (23) this example is one of the few that is directly read as resistant.

Jassal tends to adopt a more ambivalent position with regard to most of the other songs presented in her book. Upon a first reading, many of the song texts, seem to either reinscribe or subvert patriarchal ideology through their portrayal of relationships and the stakes involved in taking certain forms of action. Informed by her sustained engagement with singers, Jassal walks the line between reading either strictly resistance or subordination into these performances. For example, in Chapter 2, Jassal presents a series of kajli songs which she uses to discuss bargaining techniques within marital relationships. Many kajli songs portray a married woman negotiating with her husband for permission to visit her natal home during the season where her agricultural labor is not required. A group of women in Allahabad sang a kajli for Jassal in which the husband requests his wife to leave all her jewelry behind on the bed while she travels to her parents’ home so it would feel as if she hadn’t left. Jassal suggests jewelry might serve as a reminder of marital duties, while the casting off of jewelry might signify liberation. In contrast, one of the singers told Jassal that “the husband of the song is simply expressing his protest and displeasure since she will not be with him in the days to come,” and another suggested that the song serves an empowering purpose, to “make women realize that their absence will be strongly felt” (104). In addition to these possible interpretations, Jassal recalls that during the performance, the women sang with an ironic tone, further complicating the situation, and then posits that forcing a woman to present herself in public without jewelry may be interpreted as desexualizing. By juxtaposing multiple interpretations in this manner, Jassal conveys a sense of complexity and multivocality long denied to folk song repertories and practitioners and in addition, Jassal avoids making definitive judgments about the meaning and cultural significance of these songs.

When writing analytically about musical practices, it is often difficult to maintain a balance between the social significance of performance and the formal structural elements of music. Jassal describes the recording and transcription process and her experiences listening over the recordings with singers, but after reading the book, I am left wondering how these songs actually sound. There are multiple moments where rhythm is mentioned, for example in a section on the jatsar song form in Chapter 1. Jassal describes jatsar, which women sing while grinding grain and spices, as long ballads with a distinctive rhythm that mimics the sound of the two millstones grinding together. In a footnote, she writes, the “cadence with which jatsars are sung makes them easily recognizable, even to the untrained listener,” but the reader needs further guidance to imagine the sound of a jatsar (262). In Chapter 2, Jassal promises to analyze “the melodic structure of work songs” and to address the “transformative aspects inherent in music” (73). These elements are explored in terms of shared emotional experiences, but I wish these meaningful and perceptive analyses would have been accompanied by more descriptive passages about sound.

Overall, Jassal’s project breaks new ground for ethnomusicologists to take up the challenge of combining research on the labor of music making in the context of rural agrarian political economies. By including a variety of song styles from one geographic region and language family, Jassal provides a broad and evocative sense of the musical worlds of her interlocutors. Photographs of the women Jassal worked with and carefully crafted excerpts from their stories and interview sessions contribute to the intimate and dynamic portrait that emerges from this book.

An engaging combination of detailed ethnography and insightful interpretation of song texts and their social significance, this book is well-suited for advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars in ethnomusicology and anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, South Asian studies and agrarian studies as well as all who are concerned with expressive culture in its gendered nuances.


Raheja, Gloria Goodwin and Ann Grodzins Gold. 1994. Listen to the Heron's Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Raheja, Gloria Goodwin. 1997. “Introduction The Paradoxes of Power and Community: Women’s Oral Traditions and the Uses of Ethnography.” Oral Tradition 12(1): 1-22.

Narayan, Kirin. 1995. "The Practice of Oral Literary Criticism: Women's Songs in Kangra, India." The Journal of American Folklore 108(429): 243-264.

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