For sure, women are exploited, overworked and underappreciated in Nepal, as perhaps everywhere. But in one instance at least, women have the freedom to flaunt their intellect in public and even be risque while doing so.
Women are not be as subjugated, repressed, exploited and battered as you may have believed, if you get to watch a certain late-night programme on Nepal Television, and its clone on the private satellite station, Channel Nepal. These are semi-dramatised sing-along jousting sessions, called the dohori geet, where men and women sing playful and often suggestive, unrehearsed lyrics in an attempt to defeat the other side.
These programmes are just organised enough to allow videography, but they remain spontaneous enough to emulate the sing-alongs of real life that happen across mid-hill Nepal. In the natural settings, batches of women and men are on the prowl, seeking each other’s company during festivals and fairs. When 4 they meet, the members sit down facing each other, a crowd gathers around, someone brings a rnadal drum and the sarangi string instrument, and the competition begins.
The dohori geet has its origins in the various malefemale bonding routines used by the different hills communities, particularly during melas (fairs), where boys and girls are allowed the time and space to get to know each other. The mostly-unmarried women and men address each other directly, making eye contact, and creating impromptu verse that has the crowd on edge. The lead singers require quick-wittedness and superior observational skills. The format of the dohori geet is simple, with a four-line submission sung by the lead female or male singer, after which a chorus common to both sides is repeated. The rhythm is zesty. Drawn by the beat, men and women rise to dance.
The lyrics tend to involve romance, elopement, marriage, jobs, income, household chores, village activities, mothers-in-law… They can go further afield, and include travel in India and (always) riding trains, going off on a jeep (invariably “raising dust”), references to gifts of silk handkerchiefs, ribbons and the wearing of watches and dark glasses. The goal of the protagonists is to try and playfully embarrass each other. The lead female singer is given ‘equal time’, and her intellect is allowed to range free. Further, she can dare be as suggestive, explicit or as subtle as she chooses in the use of humour, sarcasm, irony or even sexual reference.
The genre, therefore, could be seen as indicator of the relative emancipation of Nepal’s hill women – their ability to interact in public with the men, to dance, to joke and laugh about intimate subjects. And the fact that the two television channels of Nepal see fit to present this genre of song-and-dance too says something positive. Look at it this way – these programmes are probably among the few (if not the only) that show men and women in close physical and mental proximity in an unrehearsed rural/folk situations. Certainly, you would not find anything like this in Bangladesh or Pakistan Television. Doordarshan may on occasion show folk dances where the sexes mingle, but none of the unrehearsed interaction that is the soul of the dohori geet repertoire.
These are times when cultures across South Asia are being drowned under generic brushstrokes, pummeled by television and the market. A superficial oneness threatens to subsume all that is rare and precious in the nooks and crannies of our society. The dohori geet is one such institution. Nepal’s television seems to have discovered it just before it disappears from the scene altogether and it is swallowed by urban middle class morality. The moment we lose our little cultural eddies is when South Asia (and Nepal) stops being South Asia (and Nepal). For this reason alone, as well as for the relative freedom that it represents for womankind, let us hope that the dohori geet tradition continues, using the help of television if necessary.
The dohori geet projects the men and women as equals – although I admit the camera tends to linger on the women more than on the men. Do I have a problem with that?