PATNA: The paddy fields bordering the eastern corner of Dhibra village reverberate with a rhythmic boom in most mornings as ten women beat the drums and sway to the tunes gaily. These sari-clad, semi-literate women are too particular about practising their art regularly. After all, they are Bihar’s first – and so far, only – all-women band of drummers.
It is the drumbeating skills of these poor women from the Dalit caste of shoe-makers that has earned them praise from far and wide and opened new avenues for them. Apart from bringing them opportunities and luxuries they had never dreamt of, the band has also helped them make significant financial contribution to their landless families.
“The izzat (prestige) that we get for our skills is unprecedented. It prods us to keep working harder with the drums and find time from our daily struggles with family work for regular rehearsals,” says Savita Devi, 35, the head of the band, Nari Gunjan Sangam Mahila Band. “Wherever we perform, nobody asks or even thinks of which caste we belong to. We are treated like equals everywhere,” adds the mother of three kids, adjusting the strap of the brass drum hanging from her shoulders.
The band, which was formed some two years and a half ago with active help from social activist and Padma Shri recipient Sudha Varghese, is happy about its trip last month to Mumbai, where they performed at a ‘We the Women’ event and earned Rs 20,000. “That is Rs 2,000 for each of us ten band members. We no longer work as daily-wagers. Our families are happy with our work as drummers now,” says Pancham Devi, 28.
For the ten women in the band – Anita, Sona, Lalti, Chhathia, Domni, Pancham, Chitrekha, Savita, Bijanti and Manti – life is full of excitement and hope these days. The band gets orders for performance at weddings, socio-cultural programmes and festivals almost every month and earns around Rs 2.2 lakh a year. The women charge between Rs 12,000 and Rs 18,000 per programme, excluding the costs of transport, meals and accommodation. Each programme typically comprises about two hours of playing the drums.
“The band has opened up our lives. We get to fly in aeroplanes and AC coaches of trains, visit faraway cities countrywide, live in good hotels and get good food,” says Savita. “We have performed and had grand meals at all major hotels in Patna like Maurya Hotel, Chanakya Hotel and Ashoka Hotel,” she hastens to add.
In September, the band flew to Mumbai to participate in KBC and performed in front of Amitabh Bachchan. It was an all-expenses-paid tour like all others. “We love travelling by planes. We cannot forget the way Bachchanjee praised us when we played to the tune of the song ‘Mere angane me tumhara kya kaam hai’,” says Pancham.
But it was not all so rosy at the beginning. The women faced stiff protests from their families and neighbours, who said drumming is a man’s work and going to cities frequently is “bad for women”. Such attitudes melted away due to constant motivation from Sudha Varghese, whose NGO, Nari Gunjan, had arranged a drummer to teach the women and also helped them buy the drums.
“My husband slapped me once when I had to leave with the band for a programme in Nalanda two years ago. He said I have no love for our younger daughter, who was a little over two then,” says Chhathia Devi, 26, the youngest band member. When she returned home from Nalanda and handed her husband, Baleshwar Das, a mason, Rs 1,200, he was very happy. “He has never protested since,” says Chhathia.
With each band member now earning between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 a year, their families’ finances are getting stronger. All the Dalits in Dhibra village, some 20 km off Patna, are landless and often raise crops on land they take on lease from their land-owning neighbours of the Yadav and Mahto (Kurmi) castes at Rs 10,000 per bigha (0.625 acre) per year.
While Savita’s family used to cultivate barely 10 katthas (half a bigha) of land every year because that was what it could pay for, she has been cultivating 2.5 bighas for the past two years after the band started getting orders. Other band members have also similarly increased their families’ leased land for agriculture, and they raise paddy, wheat and dal on this land.
“Now life is less hard for our families than before. Paddy on the 2.5 acres under my control brings me about Rs 25,000 per year,” says Savita. Pancham has been cultivating 1.5 bighas for the past two years and Chhathia ten katthas for the past two years. Some of them, like Savita and Pancham, have also used this money to build pucca houses for their families.
All the band members credit Varghese for “making drummers out of us poor, ordinary women”. Chitrekha Devi, 65, the oldest among the ten women who has worked with Varghese for several years, says: “Without Sudha Didi, there would have been no women’s band. Her constant motivation drives the band to newer heights”.
“These women are working hard and setting a spectacular example for others from dismal backgrounds like theirs,” says Varghese, 74, who has been working for the uplift of the dirt-poor Musahar community and women in Bihar for nearly 40 years.
The band is now getting ready for a few programmes scheduled in various states next month. Meanwhile, the band members are busy taking care of the paddy they harvested from their fields days ago.