Unearthing Gender

Folksongs of North India

Unearthing Gender

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 30 photographs, 2 maps Published: March 2012

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Unearthing Gender is a compelling ethnographic analysis of folksongs sung primarily by lower-caste women in north India, in the fields, at weddings, during travels, and in other settings. Smita Tewari Jassal uses these songs to explore how ideas of caste, gender, sexuality, labor, and power may be strengthened, questioned, and fine-tuned through music. At the heart of the book is a library of songs, in their original Bhojpuri and in English translation, framed by Jassal's insights into the complexities of gender and power.

The significance of these folksongs, Jassal argues, lies in their suggesting and hinting at themes, rather than directly addressing them: women sing what they often cannot talk about. Women's lives, their feelings, their relationships, and their social and familial bonds are persuasively presented in song. For the ethnographer, the songs offer an entry into the everyday cultures of marginalized groups of women who have rarely been the focus of systematic analytical inquiry.


Unearthing Gender is a welcome addition to literature on South Asian gender and folklore. Jassal writes with compassion and with technical rigor—with an eye for poetry and an appreciation for the power of performance. She is clearly moved by the creativity and artistry of the performers with whom she worked, and she conveys this sentiment well.” — Ian Woolford, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Erudite and original, this book makes a signal contribution to scholarship on gender, class, caste, sexualities, identities, and labor by bringing attention to the lives and practices of low-caste peasants in the rural North Indian countryside. Engaging and expertly written – Jassal’s prose enacts a most pleasing poetics to this reader’s ear – the genius behind Unearthing Gender lies in its use of women’s folk song genres.” — Antoinette DeNapoli, Anthropos

“Jassal’s project breaks new ground for ethnomusicologists to take up the challenge of combining research on the labor of music making in the context of rural agrarian political economies. . . . An engaging combination of detailed ethnography and insightful interpretation of song texts and their social significance. . . .” — Rehanna Kheshgi, Ethnomusicology Review

“Ultimately, this beautifully written and highly readable (and teachable) ethnography offers important insights into gender, caste, and kinship. Its most immediate impact is the richness of the worlds it explores and the possibilities it raises for thinking about the place of expression in the crafting of culture. What comes through most vividly, aside from the poetry of the songs themselves, is the vibrancy and warmth of the lives of those who sing them. Jassal’s portrait of women’s expressive lives is one of deep humanity and, at its core, is about possibilities for action, intimacy, and selfhood.”  — Sarah Pinto, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Jassal’s strength lies in this nice balance of affirmative and negative genealogies that anthropology has wrestled with. . . . Through a study of expressive traditions, Unearthing Gender calls on us to renegotiate our ways of knowing and ascribing meaning.” — Rama Srinivasan, Social Anthropology

"Unearthing Gender is a valuable contribution in terms of the interesting and moving song texts it contributes to the body of women’s song in the study of Indian culture." — Edward O. Henry, American Anthropologist

"A particularly cogent example of how much is to be gained by attending simultaneously to the structural and expressive aspects of culture and to the subtle and complex ways subversion and reinforcement can harmonize and create dissonance in the very same tune." — Coralynn V. Davis, Asian Ethnology

"Recalling Smita Tiwari Jassal’s own ancestral roots in this rural region, I see this lovingly researched book as embodying one such way of remembering, reframing, and transmitting songs into the future." — Kirin Narayan, Journal of Folklore Research

"Smita Tewari Jassal has accomplished meticulous and groundbreaking original scholarship based on many years of fieldwork. The most admirable feature of this book is its ritually contextualized presentation of rural women's songs (full texts and translations) with their nuanced poetics—all framed by the author's acute insights into the complexities of gender and power in the world from which these songs emerge." — Ann Grodzins Gold, co-author of In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan

"Smita Tewari Jassal's incisive ethnographic analysis of folksongs maps a complex, multivocal genealogy of agrarian structures, patriarchal practices, and the nuanced gendered worlds of peasant women in north India. This rich exploration of emotions embodied in women's collective singing practices offers an unusual, often delightfully irreverent window into caste, gender, and the workings of power in the agrarian political economies of north India. An engaging and beautifully written book—a 'must read' for scholars and teachers interested in questions of subaltern consciousness and women’s agency." — Chandra Talpade Mohanty, author of Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Smita Tewari Jassal is Associate Professor Anthropology, Graduate School of Social Sciences at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. She is the author of Daughters of the Earth: Women and Land in Uttar Pradesh and is coauthor of The Partition Motif In Contemporary Conflicts: Germany, India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Note on Transliteration and Pronunciation xvii

Introduction. The Unsung Sing 1

1. The Daily Grind 33

2. Singing Bargains 71

3. Biyah/Biraha: Emotions in a Rite of Passage 115

4. Sita's Trials 155

5. When War is Marriage 189

6. Taking Liberties 219

Conclusion. Taking Liberties 219

Notes 261

Glossary 271

Bibliography 277

Index 289
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5130-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5119-1
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