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All-women musical band breaks stereotypes in Bihar

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A musical band formed by a group of Dalit women is breaking social stereotypes in a tiny hamlet on the outskirts of the state capital.

The “Sargam Band”, which performs at weddings and other public functions, comprises 10 women in their 30s – all from Dhibra village in Danapur sub-division of Patna.

The women have been raking in moolah while carving out a “distinct identity” for themselves, said Sudha Varghese, the owner of NGO ‘Nari Gunjan’ that helmed the formation of the band.

“The idea struck me in 2016, when I was working with women of Ravidas community, mostly agricultural labourers. I wanted to think of ways to bring about their social and economic emancipation,” Varghese told PTI.

Fondly called “Sudha didi” by villagers, Kerala-born Varghese had come to Bihar five decades ago to work as a school teacher.

However, the social and economic inequality that she witnessed here moved her immensely and she became a full-time social worker.

On course of her journey in Bihar, Varghese has been involved in imparting skills like reading, writing, sewing and embroidery to women hailing from the lowest social strata. She also provides legal help to victims of sexual abuse and other forms of violence.

“When I shared the idea with the Dhibri women, their initial reaction was that of incredulity. It was not unnatural. Nobody had heard of an all-women musical band here. The job that I was asking them to take up was hitherto considered an all-male vocation,” she said.

The women were, however, courageous and willing to experiment, Varghese noted.

“It did not take much persuasion on my part to make them come out of their shells. Soon, we had to arrange for instruments and a teacher who could train these women, braving social derision. We found someone in Patna and the women began practicing with earnestness,” Varghese said.

Patna-based teacher Aditya Gunjan Kumar likes to stay away from media glare, but Savita, who heads the troupe, was effusive in her praise for him.

“Sudha and Aditya have transformed our lives. Aditya worked hard on us for about six months, without charging any money and only accepting food prepared at our kitchens by way of Guru Dakshina,” she said.

The journey wasn’t an easy one though, Savita explained.

“We were mocked by our husbands, our male relatives and neighbours. Even some women looked down upon us as if we were doing something outrageous. But we persevered and, gradually, the disdain gave way to admiration,” she added.

Finding clients for the new band was not too difficult for the band, Varghese noted.

“The charges were initially low – Rs 250 per performance for each performer. Of course, the first to call these women to perform at functions were from Danapur. Soon, people became curious and the news about the band spread like wildfire. We started receiving bookings from Patna,” she said.

During last year’s wedding season, a professional based in Gurgaon read about Sargam band on the Internet and approached the women.

“The man contacted the band, days before his marriage. His parents asked for a performance, on trial basis, at Delhi. We agreed and they were hugely satisfied with the presentation and immediately booked the band for a wedding that took place in Nalanda district,” she added.

Travelling to far-off places made the women initially nervous, Savita said.

“Now, we have become used to it. We have travelled to Delhi and far-off districts in Bihar a number of times. No male relative accompanies any of us as we do not feel the need to be protected,” she asserted.

Varghese said the success of ‘Sargam’ band inspires her to embark on a similar endeavour for women of the “Mushahar” community in Punpun, a satellite town of Patna, close to Danapur.

“I feel proud to see the women making a success out of this venture. Now each of them charges Rs 1000 for every performance. Nowadays, clients get in touch with the women directly instead of calling up Nari Gunjan,” Varghese remarked.

Savita, along with her colleagues, is bracing for a hectic wedding season.

“We will ask Aditya to teach us how to play flutes and clarinets. So far, we have been beating drums of various sizes and shaking jhunjhunas (rattles). We wish to learn to play new instruments, it would add variety to our performance,” she added.

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