How regional pop in the Hindi heartland is using Holi to push the sexual envelope

“Where is my bhabhi?” asks a bhang-stoned Maan in the beginning of the second chapter of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy as he sets out to get playful with his sister-in-law on Holi.

The novel is set in the early 1950s in the fictional city of Brahmpur – a place which could be imagined as somewhere located between Varanasi in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Patna in central Bihar, a region called Purva Pradesh in the novel. The narrative then unfolds telling how the regular banter between the bhabhi and her devar, or husband’s younger brother, on Holi. It gets into the risqué realm of Maan’s opportunist lechery, something Seth calls ‘licentious attack’. Maan is described as “fondling her a bit… rubbed the moist powder on her kameez over her breasts” despite sister-in-law pleading against it and struggling to get away, a character thinks such audacity is possibly “the licence presumably provided by the day”.

As a social subtext to the playbook of Holi revelries and varying contexts, particularly in the Hindi heartland, such assumption of “licence” can swing between risky exaggeration and lewdly offensive reality. In certain social settings, it can even be dismissed as a non-starter. Over the years, the vague, and often contradictory, cultural conditioning and social construct of bhabhi-devar, and jija, elder sister’s husband, -saali, wife’s younger sister, banter in Holi celebration comes has been a register of mixed signaling.

If devoid of contextual understanding, the pattern of social expectations from these relationships, within or without festivities, are as widely different as that of asexual affection, even of benign maternal or paternal care, or something bordering on constant sensual tease, if not sexual tension.

Of late, it’s the latter – sexualised shades of these relations — that is providing notes on titillation to the annual Holi pop music numbers churned out in different dialects in Hindi heartland. Such risqué themes are replete in annual Holi pop numbers in Bhojpuri, targeted at people from west and south-west Bihar, and to a lesser extent as in Haryanvi and Rajasthani.

In the Bhojpuri pop circuit, for instance, the Holi numbers use this theme as frequently as the running thread of migrant workers and their waiting wives. In about Bhojpuri Holi pop published four years ago, I had argued that despite its current bawdy distortions in the pop circuit, the theme of a missing migrant husband could even be seen in early strands of Bideshiya genre of Bhojpuri music and theatre. Last year, in wake of a controversy, the centuries-old migrant theme in regional music of the Bhojpuri was. However, there is equally pervasive, if not more, presence of bhauji, the regional term for sister-in-law, and saali as subtexts to raunchy numbers and videos.

In the Bhojpuri belt, as well as Magahi, Bajjika, Angika and Maithli regions, there seems a clear divide between the traditional nurturing of boisterous Holi singing as a genre in its own right in villages and lewd Holi numbers produced in the pop stream. The latter have inundated smartphones with the sheer number of songs and steamy videos that go with them. The use of bawdy double-meaning lyrics leave these Holi songs with no imagination, and objection to playing them in public space during Holi festivities has also led to violent incidents. In 2013, for instance, two persons were killed and over two dozen were injured triggered by objection to playing vulgar Holi pop songs in Sheikhpura, Gaya, Patna, Nalanda, Aurangabad and Saharsa districts of Bihar.

The overuse of bhauji-saali trope in the Holi pop somehow stem from the same urge to titillate which makes forbidden fruit relationships the top draw in various crime shows on television and the web. The cultural context of festive banter with the sister-in-law seems just a prop to portray them as the predator of physical favours or the revelry-sanctioned catch of a persistently cunning brother-in-law. A search, for instance, on video sharing sites like YouTube search for bhaujisaali theme Holi pop songs in Bhojpuri would of , many sung and enacted by well-known names in the regional music and film industry. The polemics about the objectification of the female form and lecherous portrayal of colour-applying ritual seem an understatement when one realises these songs don’t pretend any semblance of concealment in their attempt to gratify crass denominators. Although not to similar extent, the sexual tension between flirtatious banter and raunchy advances could be seen in similar online searches of pop songs about Holi.

Besides Holi, even the round-the-year offerings from Bhojpuri pop industry have sexualized, and mostly lewd, portrayals, of sisters-in-law. This appears a stark point of departure from a stream of musical compositions which placed sisters-in-law in asexual roles, almost exuding maternal glow. Nadiya ke paar (1982), a hugely popular film in the poorvanchal region on which Awadhi, Bhojpuri and khari boli Hindi speakers can lay different degrees of claim, heralding the sister-in-law with “my sister-in-law has come to the courtyard” before going on to exalt her as “embodiment of prosperity and maternal affection”.

In what’s markedly different from the regional Holi pop or even the regional films, the bhabhi-saali theme had very limited presence in Hindi film and pop music and as a narrative plot in movies. Some social commentators look at it through the prism of urban-rural divide. The different nature of family structures in rural, semi-urban and urban spaces have also altered the interactive patterns with family members in festivals like Holi. In by National Family Health Survey, and a civil society group Nirantar in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujrat, the nature of sex lives of rural women showed a different pattern of activity. The studies also suggested that for a section of rural women, the outlets to repressed sexuality were within the family. However, for all its empirical findings, the study couldn’t be called representative, and quite far from conclusive.

In , historian Charu Gupta had argued that bhabhi-devar relationship could also be seen in the light of the fact that in certain structures, the newly-married woman turned to the devar-bhabhi bond is also formed by the fact because he is the only one with whom she doesn’t have a subservient relationship in family. However, such explanation premised on patriarchal setting could also extend to the younger sister of the husband, the wife doesn’t share a subservient relationship with her too. More significantly, it may be noted that even such absence of subservience doesn’t intrinsically mean a space for sexual element in the relationship. This could still mean a relationship that could hinge on shades as varied as elderly affection and maternal presence to flirtatious banter and lure of forbidden-fruit encounters.

The lewd appropriation of banter-driven Holi revelries by regional pop industry in general, and Bhojpuri pop circuit in particular, is a reminder that titillation has become a genre itself. The overt sexualisation of sisters-in-law in Holi pop also suggest that given the choice between their asexual affection-driven presence and expectations of sexual tease, the regional pop is going to be a noisy mutilplier of the latter. In an age when consent has become the byword for different forms of physical contact, the regional Holi pop is out of sync with the cultural context of playful festivity as well as out of tune with a wider array of fun.

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