Persisters Of Purvanchal: How A Sari And Sohar Songs Became Weapons For These Women In Their Fight Against Domestic Violence And Alcoholism

by Sumati Mehrishi - Jan 25, 2020 11:24 AM +05:30 IST
Persisters Of Purvanchal: How A Sari And Sohar Songs Became Weapons For These Women In Their Fight Against Domestic Violence And AlcoholismMembers of Green Group attending a workshop.
  • Green Group was formed as a collective of women against the social vices of domestic violence and alcoholism in Uttar Pradesh.

    Armed with a green sari and the will to transform, these women derive their strength from within.

    So far, they have been working on the wayward menfolk in Varanasi. Now, they look to teach the men of Ayodhya real ‘maryada’.

The singing of sohar, the local folk form of Uttar Pradesh, cuts through the huts and kuccha paths. Accompanying their sohar are two sounds. One is the sound of the dholak, the folk percussion instrument which is played at wedding celebrations and several auspicious occasions.

The other sound is of the conch. The singers walk briskly in a single file. The leading lady blows a conch. Valued are the auspices of this creative protest and awareness drive rolled into one.

These women are dressed in green saris. They persist and resist to improve their lives, rallying behind each other against domestic violence, and abuse from alcoholic men. Green — the colour of prosperity — has become their identity.

These women are carriers of the specially penned sohar lyrics, which circulate village after village in Purvanchal. One of the leading ladies in the group is Asha Devi. She was the first woman in Green Group's first chapter, which began in Khushiyari village near Varanasi. She works tirelessly to improve lives in her village.

Asha Devi also happens to be the first woman in the village who raised her voice against domestic violence and decided to fight against it. She was herself a victim of its mind numbing excesses from her husband.

She tells Swarajya over the phone, “Alcoholism is rampant in my family. So was  domestic violence. These had ruined my life. My kids were drifting away on the same path, but I have been able to pull them out of it owing to my work and my own strengths derived from the Green Group.”

Their work is just no plain song. It is backed by action towards spreading awareness and action against domestic violence, and unruliness, recalcitrance, and hostility on the domestic front, and their village. For them, the village is extended home and they take its ownership, just as they do of home.

The Five Yards Of Change

Their green saris have no embellishment and no frills. The green sari is plain and bold green, perhaps, easily washable.

In winter, it is paired with a blanket or cardigan. How green in their green? It is, perhaps, the green of sheesham and poplar leaves, blended, if the leaves were boiled together.

These women are members of the Green Group — a group of village women founded by Divyanshu Upadhyay (student) and Ravi Mishra (a part time teacher), in 2015. Helping them were students from BHU and other universities. They founded the Green Group with the idea of empowering women to fight widespread domestic violence in the villages.

Some of these villages are situated in the Naxal affected areas of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.

To begin the task, Upadhyay and his team of rotating 40 members conducted surveys in villages. According to a document prepared by their organisation Hope Welfare Trust, they considered for the survey “Ramsipur and Kusiyari located in Kashiderib block,Varanasi and Barahi, Sarahdah, Bhawanipur, Kudi and Rajgad in Mirzapur.”

Their work has been on in villages of Varanasi for five years and in Mirzapur for three. They observed “that 50-60 per cent of the men’s population consumed alcohol.”

In villages of Mirzapur, they found from surveys conducted that “75-80 per cent of the population in Mirzapur consumed alcohol as it was available at a cheaper price.” Upadhyay says over the phone, “What worried us was children were taking to ganja consumption. Gambling was swallowing away the savings of women. We had to make a start.”

Today, the group is all set to bud in some villages of Ayodhya and Sonbhadra. Surveys have been conducted and villages chosen as per Upadhyay. Another pitch for women in green saris is getting ready.

The Song And Emotion

Green Group is working towards cementing women emotionally — in their own homes, villages and communities. They seek retribution — not through wielding lathis — but through the power of words, social change and action towards development and education in their villages.

The singing of sohar, and the playing of conch and dholak, weave a rustic narrative. The auspices involved in the effort and its beginning, seem preserved and intact. According to Asha Devi, Upadhyay told them they had to be the hands of ‘Shakti’ for their own well being.

Their singing of sohar is for womenfolk, and many times, for the unborn or newborn girl child, for the expectant mother, the new mother. If the singing falls upon the ears of menfolk in the village, the women consider that their job has just become easier by a few notches.

The music is never a standalone. It is armed with a long-term view and action backed by training, a bit of testing, experience in dealing with village-specific resistance from men.  The chorus delivers a strong message on women’s unity, identity and the continuous constructive and conscious efforts to preserve physical security and emotional prosperity.

The sight of a woman dressed in a green sari in some villages of Purvanchal is becoming a harbinger of social change and slow but gradual happiness laced domestic prosperity.

In 2016, Khushyari, a village, where Green Group turned seed into sprouts of its work, women played an instrumental role in converging their work against domestic violence, other forms of violence on women and against social evils, with their work towards development.

Village Khushyari made news for getting electricity, first time in 70 years after Independence. Upadhyay, who trained the women in alphabets, social awareness and awareness on their rights and banking work, gives the credit to women for pulling their village out of darkness — literally and metaphorically.

The women of the Green Group have an identity — that of becoming social change makers, and eventually, shapers of development. Their interventions for building roads, installing hand pumps, ensuring school attendance and better education, were a result of their own realisation of their identity, as per Upadhyay.

Persisters Of Purvanchal: How A Sari And Sohar Songs Became Weapons For These Women In Their Fight Against Domestic Violence And Alcoholism

Save Us From Domestic Violence

The turning point came in 2015 after Deepavali. It all started with Upadhyay's conversation with an elderly woman. Back then, Upadhyay was in Khushiyari village for a different purpose, though.

He had actually drifted towards the village after his observations over their work in bastis at the Assi Ghat. Their work there made him realise the root causes of many economic and social issues being faced by migrant families lies in villages around Varanasi. Most families came from these villages. Lack of education and livelihoods in villages was at the core of all troubles.

Khushyari happened to be one such village. His idea of visiting the village was more development-oriented than social.

Back to the elderly woman. He adds, “In her conversation with me, she said that the villagers don't care much about development, but they need the rampant domestic violence to end. Ironically, she complained to me about her own son beating his wife.”

Upadhyay made a beginning. His team consisting of students from various streams, broke the ice. “Our interactions helped us figure out which women among those were facing domestic violence. Then, 70-80 women were trained. They were told about savings, about their rights. We also told them stories of the brave women of India. They were given awareness on banking work,” he adds.

After two months of training the women, members of the group asked them to take a simple test — sort of a revision quiz. They helped them tick the options for them based on their answers. Among them was Mamta, who was the most educated. She had passed 12th standard. The best 25 respondents were selected.

These 25 best respondents were given identity cards and green saris. “Green was chosen for environment and prosperity,” he adds.

They Don't Call It A Gang

More than four years after it was founded, the Green Group seems to have become a powerful instrument for the women. They fight for their safety. They are trained in self defence.

Going by some of the reports in the local press, it becomes evident that there is a fascination among people in the media for replacing the word ‘group’ with gang.
The popularity of Gulabi Gang, a well known collective for being a group of women warriors against domestic violence from Banda, Uttar Pradesh, nudges some people to view Green Group in the same light.

Gulabi Gang has been bracketed by sections of the media in the past as a “vigilante group.” The sincerity of the cause that prompted women into consolidating under the Gulabi Gang cannot be denied. And bracketing, in this author's view, is problematic.

Upadhyay makes an effort to clarify that the official name has always been Green Group. According to him, the Green Group’s purpose is defined and different. “Agar wo prashasan ke paas gayee hain to pyaarpoorvak hee gayee hain (they have approached the administration in a calm and harmonious way). Apne haath mein kanoon nahin lena hai (the women of the Green Group do not take the law in their hands).”

When Green Group Smells Trouble

Whenever the women of the Green Group notice an incidence of domestic violence, or of other means of women's harassment, of gambling and alcoholism, they approach it through dialogue. Dressed in the green sari, they charge towards their chosen destination for addressing that particular incidence, on a song or sharpened words.

Their cause is fighting against gender-based violence; against female exploitation. This brings them in direct contact with surrounding issues and factors. With a desire to bring justice to the woman, they approach the man or the family involved.

Many times, their destination is a group of men busy gambling, or men engrossed in consumption of alcohol, or families where a new born girl child has either been killed or has “been thrown away” (literally).

The marching of women dressed in green saris across villages is backed by a purpose. To understand the purpose, it is important to understand the meaning. It means one word: ‘enough’. Women of the Green Group press into action when words fail to bring change, or when words have not been effective, or have been too soft, or too less.

It means that the women, or a woman in the group or any woman in the village, has been suppressed by domestic violence, harassment on the account of alcoholism, gambling, beyond her point of tolerance. It does means: “enough”.

So, here is what happens when women of the green group face the men who are the source of domestic violence, or practise gambling, and those who use alcoholism to wean away savings from the woman of the house.

There is a conversation. Depending on how the conversation unfolds, the women lay out their message if they get a chance. The key words are ‘stop’ or ‘change’. A calm warning is given to the man/men.

Details of the troublemakers or men who were interacted with for the particular problem or issue are taken down. The Green Group volunteers refer these names to Upadhyay and his team. The men are counselled by the team.

At times, Upadhyay tells us, the conversation takes the shape of a face-off, or an ugly argument. The women hold their pitch. They issue a sweet warning. Again, the Green Group volunteers refer these names to Upadhyay and his team.

The men are counselled by them. If it still doesn't work, if the problem persists at the domestic front, or socially in the larger context of the village environment, the local administration is contacted for redress.

In such a scenario, Upadhyay and his team back off. Then, it is between the Green Group volunteers, the concerned folks and the cops.

According to Upadhyay, they were told about the high crime rate in Mirzapur villages, by a senior cop. He says, “When we did surveys in the villages in Mirzapur to get a grip on the social vices, domestic violence, and lack of development and action, the local administration became active. Police started supporting us. The women got involved in participation in police chaupals.”

In 10 villages of Mirzapur, a total of 150 women were volunteering as members of the Green Group. The sight of women dressed in green saris does instill fear in erring men, according to Upadhyay. “The results have been very encouraging. In Khushyari, we were able to end gambling in three months. We were able to address the problem of intoxication among kids alongside our work against gambling.”

The Green Group and the local administration team up and turn things around in every sphere of their work.

Asha Devi, however, has a word of caution. According to her, the strength of the movement is in the monthly meeting that is done at the local thana. “That should not stop. In Khushyari alone, we have been able to get rid of gambling by 75 per cent. I have told Divyanshu bhaiya that the monthly meeting at the local thana is what keeps the troublemakers warned.”

According to her, erring and troublemaking men try to discourage the women associated with the Green Group by either teasing them about not getting remuneration for the work done, or by confronting and subjugating them.

For Village — The Extended Home

The process of bringing change works in layers. The first priority, according to Upadhyay, is addressing domestic violence and other social vices. “Once results in these areas start showing, we begin the work on development-related areas and issues,” Upadhyay adds. The transition takes 3-6 months.

Sometimes the Green Groups in different villages team up in solidarity to widen the impact. This is done to make a long-lasting change to notions against the girl child. Currently, 815 women are working as Green Group volunteers in 55 Purvanchal villages in varied action and awareness initiatives.

It was during a meeting in a village in Rajgarh town of Mirzapur that Upadhyay heard of an incident of ‘throwing away’ of the girl child right after her birth. It hit and moved him to initiate a drive.

Women of the Green Group spread awareness on it. As a result, Green Group women are spreading awareness through his initiative Poshan se Protsahan (encouragement through nutrition) to target and curb notions against the girl child.

He adds, “We provide the expectant mother small support towards the same. When a girl child is born, Green Group women scatter across the villages, to celebrate the birth with the playing of dhapli and the singing of congratulatory songs.” Families across the village come to know of the birth of another girl child.

According to Upadhyay, no one has the courage to mess with the newborn and the Green Group keeps a watch for six months after the birth of the girl child. “Unhe pata hai, phainkenge to phansenge (those against the girl child know they will be in trouble if they throw away the newborn).”

The Road To Kashi

There are emotional crossroads and there is a frequent paucity of funds. Conversations cement emotional crossroads. And paucity of funds is fixed via donations, some from their own pool and pocket and a vital chunk from the local administration. Asha Devi is restless to get women in her village some employment opportunities.

There are moments when both aspects merge. Upadhyay's organisation arranged a tour for 80 village women from Naxal dominated areas of Mirzapur to Varanasi with the help of the local administration in the beginning of 2019.

How did that happen? He adds, “One of the elderly village women had approached me and said, ‘beta, hum kabhi Kashi nahin dekhe hain'. It pushed me to do the needful. The local administration arranged for a bus and we provided the village women the tour and refreshments. There was a lot of opposition from the menfolk, but the women persisted. It was an emotional experience.”

In many parts of north India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, green, when worn by a Hindu woman, is associated with happiness and prosperity. It becomes the defining colour in Shravan, when the monsoon brings in festivities, ensures a good crop, lush trees. It's when love blossoms.

Green becomes a backdrop to their prayers to the love powered couple — Shiva and Parvati — during this season. In all, green is considered the celebration of a woman's well being in her marital home in the state.

During the tour, when these women visited temples and ghats of Baba Vishwanath's Kashi, their happiness soared and strengths refreshed. Their sohar will now reach villages of Ayodhya.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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