The estranged song: How Kathu Pattu and Bidesiya Birha folk songs narrate the social cost of migration in India
Migration discourses have mostly revolved around economics or, more recently, legality. However, questions around non-economic opportunity cost are not discussed enough. In South Asia’s developing countries, internal and international migration have been shaped by the economic mobility of the working class.
Kerala and Bihar, the two Indian states discussed in this piece, are heavily dependent on labour migration as a major source of income, though in very different ways. Malayalees’ relationship with the Gulf states started with the spice trade, whereas Biharis were taken to the Caribbean Island as bonded labour during British rule. Later, people from Kerala migrated to Burma and other East Asian countries as plantation labour and now make up the largest portion of the Indian diaspora in Gulf countries. Bihari labourers instead became a major workforce within the Indian subcontinent with the rise of the manufacturing industry and other low-skilled jobs. As their migration trajectories were different, so was the kind of work they started specialising in. However, one thing remained the same: sex-selective labour migration. While many may see migration as an opportunity for marginalised groups to escape poverty and feudal social oppression, the social cost of such decisions is hardly talked about. In the following article, I locate two specific genres of folksongs as a medium of communication between migrating men and their left-behind homes.
Kathu Pattu is a form of Mapila song written in Arabi Malayalam (popularly also known as Ponnani script, where Malayalam is written with Arabic letters) and sung traditionally by the Muslims of the Malabar Coast for different occasions. It was popular among the Muslim population of Northern Malabar as they started migrating in large numbers to the Gulf countries following the 1970s oil boom. Kathu Pattu is literally translated to ‘letter song’, referring to letters that are exchanged between a migrating husband and his wife who was left behind. S. A. Jameel is said to be the first to mould these emotionally loaded letters into love songs. They quickly became popular among the Malayali Diaspora and their families back home. A similar tradition is seen in Bhojpuri folksongs: Bidesiya Birha was very popular among the Bihari migrants who went to Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai as a part of post-colonial industrial development. Birha in Bhojpuri means ‘loneliness, a long, sad waiting for someone beloved, a strong sense of pain due to their absence’. Bidesiya Birha thus literally translates to ‘melancholy song for someone who is abroad’. Its origin stems from Bhikhari Thakur, a rebel leader and cultural activist, who wrote and staged a natak (theatre play) titled Bidesiya that narrated the hardships endured by migrant workers and their families. Bidesiya Birha became all the rage among the migrating working classes and it is still sung today on different occasions.
Now one might ask, why is it important that we talk about two age-old folk traditions today? They are relevant because they were able to capture the intense social cost of migration that the family and the migrant himself had to pay. These songs do not limit themselves to the expression of pain and grief, but rather raise important questions around morality, religion, domestic violence, and the challenges of single parenting.
Bidesiya Birha and Kathu Pattu carefully capture the conjugal insecurity of women as the fear of losing their husbands to other women, literally and metaphorically, is very prominent in most of the verses. The fear is justified because, when placed within a patriarchal family system, women’s mobility was restricted, and their participation in decision making was nominal in the patrilocal households. At a time where the only ways of communication were writing letters – only accessible to those that were literate – and resorting to kinship networks, it was indeed difficult for couples who married at a very young age to establish a connection based on trust and loyalty. Therefore, the sense of insecurity and the fear of being abandoned were very central to the women who had built their lives around their spouses and children.
A classic example of this can be given from the original play by Bhikhari Thakur, where the male protagonist leaves behind his wife, only to come back to the village years later with a new bride that he has met in the country where he worked. Both women accept each other as sautans (co-wives), as they have nowhere else to go.
A specificity of Kathu Pattu is its embeddedness in religiosity. Songwriter S. A. Jameel was moved by the philosophy of Salafism and thought it was important to save parting families from un-Islamic practices. With the Petrodollar boom, the sex industry flourished in a few Gulf countries and a more westernised modernity started seeping in among the Pravasis (non-resident Keralites). This was seen as a major threat to the piousness of religious Mapila Muslims. Thus, Jameel wrote songs that emphasised the holiness of the exclusive loving relationship between man and woman, attaching to it a moral and religious connotation.
The letters written by migrating husbands depicted the hardship of the early Gulf migration era. Young Muslim men who were born and brought up in the lush green of northern Malabar, with heavy monsoons, coconut trees and abundant kayals, were put in dry deserts, with different languages and completely different food habits. They wrote about the everyday struggle of staying alive and their difficult working conditions, while also expressing how they were ready to face anything to bring happiness and prosperity to their loved ones. They wrote about the dead bodies that could not reach the shores of Dubai and died, with thousands of dreams yet to fulfil as their eyes closed. The social cost was not only the separation of families but the risk to the migrants’ life and identity to fit into the new social order in a Petro-theocratic nation.
When Panasonic started producing recorded cassettes and they became available to the Malayali diaspora and their left-behind households, the tradition of listening, producing and performing these songs became widespread. In the case of Bidesiya Birha, similar to other folk songs, it took more time for these to be televised and shared, although they did have a similar reach among the masses. One can argue that these songs became a substitute for real communication, and thus, even after a revolution in the telephonic sector, they have not lost their charm. To many people from previous generations, these songs remain an integral part of their memories; the memory of separation, the memory of unfulfilled desire, and, most importantly, the hope of being reunited.
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Dipsita Dhar is a PhD Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She specialises in Regional Development and Population Geography. Her doctoral thesis looks into the social and cultural capital formation among the Gulf migrating households in Kerala, India. She is a student activist who has been vocal on gender issues and citizenship rights. She has written for different national and regional dailies in India on a range of issues. She can be contacted at email@example.com.