Rhythm & Pink Society

This all-woman band from U.P. sings about gender justice

All-women band Meri Zindagi   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Every seat in the big tented hall in Arail Ghat in Prayagraj is taken. There are some 300 people waiting for the event to begin. Occasionally, the soft chanting by priests at the Kumbh Mela wafts in. After interminable mike checks, the name of the performer is announced; and the audience erupts in applause. Many who came late, and were forced to stand at the back of the hall, begin jostling to get a better look. A guitar strums, strobe lights flash, and drums roll. Three huge LCD screens, one at the back of the stage and two on either side, come alive as cameras zoom in on the colourfully dressed performers. The wait is over; Meri Zindagi, the band, begins its performance.

But this is no ordinary performance. And this is no ordinary band. On the electric guitar, the synthesiser and the drums, are all women. And the band doesn’t belt out Bollywood numbers. This all-woman band sings only of women’s empowerment and social issues. In their performance at the Kumbh Mela this year, the band focused mainly on raising awareness about the practice of child marriage.“One in every five girls in Uttar Pradesh is a child bride. Once married, her aspirations and dreams die. So through our songs, we question this practice. This way it doesn’t anger anyone. We find the audience is interactive, and claps and sings along. Many come after the performance to appreciate our lyrics and music,” says Jaya Tiwari, the founder of Meri Zindagi and its lead singer-song writer.

At the end of the performance, even at the Kumbh Mela, the band is mobbed by young people and students. Mobile phones are whisked out, selfies clicked and instantly shared on Facebook. Some girls want to know if they can join the band, others ask about the next performance.

Vacant chairs

But it has not always been like this. When they first started out in 2010 in Lucknow, it was difficult to get audiences to even turn up. And when they did, the numbers were discouraging. No money meant that the band could not buy the instruments it needed. But the six-member band did not quit. Nine years later, Meri Zindagi is Uttar Pradesh’s first and only rock band that sings foot-tapping songs about female education, gender justice, equality, domestic violence and female foeticide.

Led by Tiwari, who has a doctorate in music, the band came together when Tiwari noticed how baby boys at an orphanage near her house were adopted within days while there were no takers for baby girls. “I saw that over a period of time the only ones left at the orphanage were girls. This depressed me. I began to think how I could change it,” recalls Tiwari.

She hit upon the idea of starting a band with some girls from the orphanage. “I saw the band as the perfect way to empower these girls. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out.”

She then began to look for like-minded musicians to form a band. First to audition was Niharika Dubey. Although she was nervous, Dubey says, “Having been Jaya’s student, I knew the basics of music. She remembered me but it didn’t give me any added advantage. I still had to pass the audition.” Dubey plays the synthesiser. More girls soon came on board. But, besides a guitar, they didn’t have any other instruments and neither did they have the money to buy them. They picked up anything they could find — metal spoons, bowls, glasses, plates, and even chimtas (tongs). They practised in parks early in the mornings so that some of the band members, who were college students, would not miss classes. “People on their morning walks would smile, some would buy us a cup of tea too,” says Tiwari.

Popularity chart

Slowly, people began to take notice of the band. Facebook and YouTube boosted the popularity of their songs like ‘Mairi mera byah na rachana’ that asks mothers to give girls a chance to live their dreams rather than getting them married young; or ‘Dreaming ke pressure cooker ki seeti ko bajne do, mere hauslon ke shank nath ko badhne do,’ encouraging girls to believe in themselves and not stay in the kitchen.

Their heart-wrenching song on female foeticide ‘Teri galiyon mein na aayenge kabhi is raat ke baad, maa, meri maa’ went viral. It also led to invitations from organisations like the State unit of Mahila Samakhya, the autonomous government organisation working for women’s empowerment, and from UNICEF, BBC Media Action, Breakthrough, and WaterAid India .

So far, they have composed over 70 songs, including jingles for Women Power Line 1090 and U.P. Mahila Police. They have also been supporting the education of underprivileged girls in Lucknow district.“There is no other band that practises what it preaches. This is why I am proud to be associated with this band,” says Anamika Jhunjhunwala, 17, the youngest member and the drummer. Jhunjhunwala has been playing the drums since she was eight and when Tiwari heard about her extraordinary talent, she invited her to join the band. Still at school, she jams with the band via Skype when she can’t make it in person for practice.

Some younger members initially left the band to study and were replaced by other aspiring musicians like guitarist Poorvi Malviya, and vocalists Saubhagya and Swastika. Although the trio recently moved out of Lucknow to complete their post-graduation, they continue to be a part of the band. As they say, “The band has given us the chance to be a part of something we believe in. It is our life.”

The writer is an independent journalist writing on development and gender.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 10:33:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/this-all-woman-band-from-up-sings-about-gender-justice/article26953292.ece

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