Listening to the Song of Singamma

by Shefali Jha, The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi, 2018?

Enclosures and boundaries have a conflicted meaning for women. Enclosures are often not safe spaces for them and women have to constantly resist boundaries in order to live their lives. The book under review looks at how ‘conventional Tamil symbols—unbroken enclosures like bangles, pots, wedding halls, the kolam or doorstep design—signifying auspiciousness’ (p. 104), are reinterpreted in the songs of Tamil Paraiyar women as signs of deprivation and restriction. How do Tamil Dalit women gain their insights into the real meaning of women’s lives? Trawick tells us the origin story of the Tamil goddess, Mariamman, a Brahman woman named Renuka Paramesh-wari, who in trying to escape her husband’s command to kill her, ran into a Dalit hut and clung to the Dalit woman living there. Her axe wielding son beheaded both women; when he was granted a boon for obeying his father, he asked for his mother back; the Brahman woman was reborn with a Dalit body and the Dalit woman with a Brahman body (p. 40). Is this story trying to tell us that in patriarchal societies, all women share a caste, irrespective of their class and actual caste status? It is this status of domination, experienced similarly by all women, that Dalit women in Tamil Nadu lament in their songs.

Trawick’s book seeks to make us enter the world of Dalit castes and Adivasi groups in Tamil Nadu through the songs sung by their women. The book describes and analyses the ‘crying’ songs, and the work and love songs of the Paraiyars, the stories of the Arunthathiyars, and the ‘song of Singamma’ of the Kuravars. Many Arunthathiyars or Chakkiliyars still have to work as manual scavengers, the Paraiyars are predominantly agricultural labourers, and the Kuravars, like the Irulars/Villiyars belong to the Scheduled Tribes. Trawick argues that through their songs, the illiterate women of these groups give us knowledge not only of their world, but also of how our world is structured.

Trawick, who was trained in linguistic anthropology, has spent more than twenty years doing field work in southern India (for this book, from 1975 to 1991) and in Sri Lanka. Her rich ethnography of the verbal art of oppressed communities in Tamil Nadu, enables her to illuminate their world to us. This Indian world contains enormous and unnecessary poverty and is marked by exclusion. The women from these excluded groups of Hindu society sing not only of being barred from shops and temples, but also of their own promise which is allowed to go waste. They sing that they are like ‘clusters and clusters of eggplants,…With no one to join and embrace us, We poor girls rot with the plant’ (p. 96). Faced with constant denigration and condescension—they are poor, dirty, uneducated, rough, worthless—these women still create a world with their songs in which they are not mere objects to be looked at, but are also subjects who look back at those gazing at them. As Trawick puts it, ‘When you look at another person, they in turn look at you…One must recognize that other person to be, like oneself, not just an object in the environment but a maker, a builder of it, someone for whom creation may be even more important than survival’ (p. 164)

If the lower castes face the brunt of oppression, the women of these castes can be seen as the most oppressed. They express their pain and suffering in their songs; but a song is more than a cry of pain. It presents us with layers of meanings. The ‘crying’ songs or laments traditionally sung by Paraiyar women at the death of an upper caste person or about the mother (‘O mother who bore me’, p. 78) or elder brother leaving or abandoning the younger daughter/younger sister. Trawick interprets these songs as indirectly protesting the maltreatment of the upper castes: ‘some nonliterate female rural members of the Paraiyar caste question not only their status in the social hierarchy but some of the assumptions upon which that hierarchy is based…the abandoned younger sister becomes metaphorically linked with the untouchable woman…’ (p. 111) The songs that Paraiyar agricultural workers sing while doing hard physical labour—weeding fields, lifting loads, building roads—also contain an implicit criticism of their situation.

Trawick uses her encounter with Sevi and her ‘song of Singamma’ to give us another example of the creative response of lower caste women to their oppression. Sevi is a married Paraiyar woman who sings about Singamma, a young girl belonging to the community of the Kuravars. The Kuravars, originally forest dwellers, are now seen as wandering gypsies who hunt crows, and sell birds and trinkets at fairs; they are looked down upon even by the ‘untouchable’ Paraiyars. Singamma of Melur was a Narikuravar girl ‘who was gang raped when she went out to the market, then murdered by her brothers to protect the honour of their caste. Her body was cut into pieces and buried in the floor of their hut. Singamma returned as a ghost, demanding honour for herself as well. A shrine was built for her near the place she was killed’(p. 195)

In Hindu society, are Dalits and women seen as leftovers, remainders to be cast away, not really part of the whole, things to be discarded? A leftover, a remainder must be kept in its place. When women forget their place, when they transgress their boundaries, by thinking an unbidden thought or taking a forbidden step, they are punished egregiously. In both the Mariamman and the Singamma stories, when doubts about the chastity and the purity of the women concerned arise, they are themselves held guilty of the transgression and punished severely by death. Trawick offers us this interpretation of the stories: ‘the Singamma story, like other Indian tales of apotheosis, moves through tragedy to triumph and ends with a powerful woman renouncing dependency; rising from defilement, death and corrosion, and standing at last as a deity, defiantly alone’ (p. 197)

For Trawick, both Sarasvati, the Paraiyar woman who becomes a medium for the goddess Mariamman, as well as Singamma, represent a rejection by Dalit and Adivasi women of the ideal of perfect Tamil married womanhood in the name of freedom. Mariamman and Singamma have low caste associations, yet they are worshipped by numerous upper caste and middle class women; is this perhaps because these figures represent a critique of the patriarchal status quo? Trawick has certainly done us a service by collecting, writing about, and showing us the value of the songs sung by low caste women in Tamil Nadu.

However, to turn a figure treated with extreme injustice into a goddess, a goddess who is seen as powerful and who is worshipped and supplicated so that she looks with favour at her believers—does Trawick think that is a kind of compensation for how women are actually treated, or that the turning of these persecuted women into goddess figures is a creative strike by Dalit women against their actual condition? To discover beauty and struggle in the face of death—is that how one should try to escape the meaninglessness of the death of particular lower caste women, or is one to see these songs of Tamil women from oppressed groups as part of the political protest against caste and gender based injustice? These are some questions that the rich ethnography of this book leaves us with.

Shefali Jha is Chairperson, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences II, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Trawick’s book seeks to make us enter the world of Dalit castes and Adivasi groups in Tamil Nadu through the songs sung by their women.



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