January 19, 2018 / 9:35 AM / in a month

All-woman band smashes stereotypes of gender, caste in rural India

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An all-woman band is shattering stereotypes of gender and caste in a village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, among the poorest and least developed in the country.

The Sargam Mahila (woman) Band in Dhibra village near state capital Patna, was set up about two years ago by Sudha Varghese, who runs a charity for women. After about six months of practice, they were ready.

Initially, the 10-member band was ridiculed by their families and other villagers, but they refused to be deterred, said Sabita Devi, a member.

“People used to laugh at us, but why should women sit at home?” she asked. “These days, women are flying planes - why can’t we be in a band?”

It wasn’t long before the drumming group caught the ears of the community, said Varghese who heads the charity Nari Gunjan.

“These women are Mahadalits, the most marginalized among the Dalits. For them to receive bookings for weddings and company functions, and to perform in front of people is a very big deal,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The women used to work in the fields for daily wages, but making a living by playing music has provided them with “independence and dignity”, said Varghese, a Catholic nun who has worked with lower-caste Dalit women for several decades.

Dalits are on the bottom rung of India’s social hierarchy, and were once barred from public places including temples and water taps frequented by higher-caste Hindus.

Despite a ban on caste-based discrimination in 1955, centuries-old biases persist against Dalits, once called “untouchables”.

For women, Bihar is particularly unfriendly, ranking last among states on the gender vulnerability index for education, health, poverty and protection, compiled by advocacy group Plan India.

The women of the Sargam Mahila Band earn about 1,500 rupees ($24) each for every performance, said Varghese, a recipient of the Padma Shri, among India’s highest civilian awards.

“Now this is their primary livelihood, and they are economically empowered and confident,” Varghese said.

For the women, who used to practise every day on the terrace after finishing their chores, the money is important, as is the experience, said Devi, the band member.

“With the money we earn, we are sending our children to school, and buying things for ourselves - like the sarees we wear for performances,” she said.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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