A fine burst of rain feathers my face when I step out into my balcony. As I watch clouds scurry into the scarlet of the setting sun, the words of a long forgotten Kajri come to mind. It is a song about love and longing in the rains; and immediately reminds me of a cloudy evening, years ago in Mirzapur. Being the birthplace of this genre of music that sings of the pathos and loneliness of separated lovers, Mirzapur continues to enjoy a robust Kajri tradition. Blissfully unaware that famous artistes like Girija Devi and Shobha Gurtu have elevated this essentially folk tradition by introducing it into their semi-classical repertories, village women still gather together during the monsoons to sing their old songs.
Anyway, coming back to my memories of that cloudy evening in Mirzapur. We were going to our first Kajri performance in Amwa village. When we reached the village chaupal at dusk, people were milling around, waiting for the singing to start. Soon, as the cloud-laden sky deepened to a moody blue, the women began to sing. They sang of lovers in faraway lands, of the desires awoken by the sweet scent of the rains. They sang with their eyes demurely downcast, heads veiled. After a couple of songs, they began to move solemnly in a loose semicircle. The tempo was slow, the notes were plaintive — all beautifully complimented by the deep purple of the clouds above. The singing went on and on. Someone pressed some hot tea in our hands. A couple of packets of glucose biscuits magically appeared. Eventually, a gusty downpour brought the evening to an unwilling end.
The evening in Amwa piqued my interest in Kajri. I learnt that the word Kajri is probably derived from kajal, or kohl. Some say it is a metaphor for the dark monsoon clouds that bring such welcome respite from the killing summer heat. Others say it refers to the kohl in the eyes of the women who eagerly await the return of their migrant husbands and lovers. According to a local legend, this style of singing was born when a local girl, Kajli was pining for her husband. Just like a modern day Mirzapuri, he too had gone to a faraway land to seek his fortune. When the upheaval in her heart overshadowed the tumult of the monsoon clouds, she invoked Kajmal, a popular local goddess. Even the goddess couldn’t bring her husband home, but she did turn Kajli’s cries into the form of music we know and enjoy today — Kajri.
Kajri piqued my interest because it was the rare time when I saw local women traditionally bound by restrictive patriarchal rules, openly singing songs that many describe as outbursts of a woman overwhelmed by desire. The body language of Kajri singers always intrigued me. Their heads and eyes would always be lowered; they’d be veiled, some right up to their chins. Yet there they’d be, singing about hearts aflutter and bodies aflame, sighing that even the rains couldn’t cool their ardour. “Kajri brings women together,” my local friend Kesha Devi had explained to me that night so long ago in Amwa, “and is an enjoyable way for us to express ourselves. In fact, we like to sing it best when the men aren’t even around…”
As I stand today with my face turned towards the clouds and the words of a Kajri on my lips, I reflect that the song does much more than echo the beauty of the monsoons — it offers a small window of freedom to women in an oppressively male-dominated society. Maybe that’s why although Kajri sings about missing lovers, Kesha Devi and her sisters are happiest when they sing it alone... .