Band of women from India’s lowest caste smash through social boundaries

The members of the Sargam Mahila Band are from India’s Dalit caste, who were once excluded from public spaces. Now they’re turning India’s social rules upside down

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 5:50am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 5:56am

A group of women from India’s despised “untouchable” caste is shattering stereotypes of gender and caste in one of the poorest and least developed areas in the country.

The Sargam Mahila Band in Dhibra village, near Patna, the capital of east-Indian state Bihar, was set up about two years ago by Sudha Varghese, who runs a charity for women.

All of its members are in the Dalit castes that are excluded from the traditional Hindu system – and who were once barred from public places, including temples. And yet today these talented women are invited to play at weddings and corporate functions, upending Indian society’s expectations.

People used to laugh at us, but why should women sit at home?
Sabita Devi, member of The Sargam Mahlia Band

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?” Devi asked. “These days, women are flying planes – why can’t we be in a band?”

They practised for six months before playing in public – and once they did 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 marginalised among the Dalits,” she said. “For them to receive bookings for weddings and company functions, and to perform in front of people, is a very big deal.”

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”.

With the money we earn, we are sending our children to school
Sabita Devi

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 (US$24, HK$188) 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.

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