Singing And Re-signifying: Women and Musical Activism

Engendering resistance finds a particularly useful tool in music. The resignification of accessible and familiar rhythms firmly woven into collective memory allows socio-political resistance to find a firmer foothold in lived experiences. The power of music in contexts of mass mobilisation is immanent- a result of it being a “simple oral medium” (Roy, 77). Consequently, the ability to access and transmit impulses of resistance is more readily available. In South Asia the tapestry of shared musical inheritances spans folk songs in diverse dialects documenting quotidian rhythms of work and leisure (as well as the spiritual) and, popular film/commercial tunes. These shared inheritances are often ones that breakaway from elite, privileged dominance over the production and signification of sites of creative production (examples of the latter can be found in classical music recitals, both Hindustani and Carnatic). This diversity in musical inheritance allows for appropriations and resignifications aimed at mobilising people and impulses of resistance, cutting across class, caste, gender and religious divisions. This essay looks at the currencies of resistance musical performances engender by their exploration of vocabularies that are simultaneously accessible, available in collective consciousnesses, and emerge as sites of resistance.

In ‘Casettes and Sociopolitical Movements’ Manuel writes: “What distinguishes the cassette type…is not the presence of a socio-political message, which can be found in any work of art, but the deliberate use of cassettes by an organized movement to mobilize popular opinion.” (6, Emphasis mine). I believe that the same holds true of the mobilising technology available in and through, music. While all forms of creative production lend themselves to protest activity, drawing on collective rhythmic repertoires achieves two key aims of popular resistance movements. First, they establish an intellectual and emotional intimacy with large audiences by being easily accessible to non-elite populations. Second, they channel democratising impulses produced through the recognition of this accessibility. In drawing on shared musical legacies the ability to resignify becomes available to everyone– this music can be imitated and reproduced by amateurs since they contain within them “strong traditions of informal collective singing” (Manuel, 7). These traditions draw on the idea of accessible and dynamic communal identities. He identifies the production of new discursive technologies in the circulation of cassettes in context of Jagori a non-governmental organisation working towards women’s empowerment in India: “Jagori has made wide use of audiocassettes to disseminate songs promoting women’s causes…cassettes had been produced containing pieces both by educated feminists…as well as songs composed by lower-class activists and participants in workshops. Most of the songs, with texts in colloquial Hindi-Urdu, are set to familiar tunes- generally folk songs, film songs, and quawwalis.” (9, Emphasis mine) It is this production of songs drawing from diverse languages and shared rhythmic repositories that allows for activism to use music to generate awareness and act as a site for audiences to actively produce awareness.

It is in this context that I look at the reproduction of song-texts by two Dalit, women singers in India: Sheetal Sathe of the Kabeer Kala Manch and Ginni Mahi, an independent artist from Punjab. Both women seek to empower community identities and mobilise resistance to oppressive structures through ‘musical’ activism. Sathe uses a textured voice to sing refrains in a familiar, colloquial Marathi. The lyrics of ‘Mazi Mai’ (My mother) are written in the first person and Sathe sings the haunting tune to the beat of a drum. Unembellished voice and lyrics together offer a powerful and poignant articulation of the struggles women face all over the country, foregrounded by Sheetal’s urge to reject the political inactivity often forced on women. In contrast to the high-pitched, feminised voices of mainstream female Bollywood singers, Sathe’s music moves away from using both a homogenised language/vocabulary (most often in commercial cinema: Hindi) and a prescribed pitch or tone. The easy imagery, refrain and the stark simplicity of the whole performance firmly posit the ideas of access and re-production that make music a powerful tool of political activism. C.S. Lakshmi in ‘The Singer and the Song’ writes: “It would appear that the questions a woman asks herself as an artiste regarding her innate nature, her role, her art, her fulfilment, home, marriage and goals are questions that involve space and language. The entire issue is one of boundaries and erasures; fixity and motion.” It is the circumscriptive boundaries of women’s performative and quotidian realities that Sathe’s music allows her to destabilize, by centring the seemingly ordinary (stoicism born in/of oppressive circumstances, in ‘Mazi Mai’ these are motherhood and poverty) she highlights the imperative need for women’s participation in political resistance.

Ginni Mahi (her ‘real’ name is Gurkanwal Bhati) sings in Punjabi of her identity as a “chamaar” (a pejorative term used to indicate a specific ‘untouchable’ caste status). Her song ‘Danger Chamar’ shows Ginni first locating her ‘divine’ inspiration in Guru Ravi Das (a poet located as producing contemporaneously to the Bhakti movement, in both subversive style-content, as well as temporally). Ginni’s video is slick, and seems to cater specifically to a young audience in neo-liberal (North) India. If Mahi’s tonality veers close to stereotyped constructions of the ‘female’ voice, this is repeatedly undercut by the imagery in the video: overtly conveying the idea of a masculinised ‘power’ as vitalising the resistance to injustice. The use of ‘danger’ rather than an indigenous word for the refrain and the performance of the song itself (in her clothes, in the videography) suggest western modernity as possibly central to re-writing and re-claiming identities enmeshed in the historical, structural oppression of caste. Like Sathe, in Mahi’s songs the lyrics and rhythm are accessible. Although not explicitly drawing on folk rhythmic repositories, Mahi does seek to generate a sense of shared pasts and identities, by claiming inspiration and political protest as inheritance from Guru Ravi Das and B.R. Ambedkar. In ‘Danger Chamar’ Mahi’s refrain says: “Jo inko maante hain, unki izatkarte hain/ ye Deheshat (darr/fear) hi hamara danger hai” which conveys the idea that it is the vast historical experiences of injustice that makes the oppressed dangerous. Mahi’s song identifies the threat of violence (“Danger”) as inherently engendered by the sustained disavowal of humanity and social justice through the caste system.

The idea of an, ‘ideology-culture dichotomy’ (Roy, 77) is inherent to this method of discursive, yet accessible creative production. The creation of re-signification in/of/through the music does not erase the deeply entrenched alienation that has existed for centuries between privileged and oppressed social groups. The modulation of tonality and innovations of linguistic compositions to foster recognition of the socio-economic and political concerns that affect people, however offer a possible site through which to negotiate this gap. Roy calls the production of shared emotional responses to ‘activist’ music the “high water mark of babus and masses camaraderie” (77). In other words, music generates new energies of political resistance that circulate and engender new communities- built not purely on historically consolidated linkages of ethnic/linguistic kinship but through the dynamism of shared political resistance.


Manuel, Peter. ” Cassettes and Sociopolitical Movements.” Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in north India. University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Roy, Anuradha. “The Music of Politics and the Politics of Music.” India International Centre Quarterly (2006): 71-84.

‘Jai Bhim Comrade’. Dir. Anand Patwardhan. Sheetal Sathe (Kabeer Kala Manch). 2011.

Mahi, Ginni. “‘Danger’ (Song).” 2015. Youtube. <>.

About the Author

Sumedha Chakravarthy

Sumedha graduated with a Bachelor’s in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, in 2016. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Comparative Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


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