Songs for the Road No. 8: A Mehndi Folk Song

by Ekua on January 30, 2011 in etcetera,India,race/culture/identity,songs for the road

I’ve had Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha in my music collection for a while now and have always loved the joyfulness of it. The percussive clapping and the freewheeling female vocals always inspire me to move. It wasn’t until after the wedding I attended in Kolkata that I found out that mehndi is the application of henna and there are whole wedding festivities centered around it. And it was only after I looked up the song for this post that I found out that it is a Punjabi folk song and the version of it I have is from the movie, Monsoon Wedding. Though the song is Punjabi, and the wedding I attended was Bengali, it seemed like an appropriate song to share before I get into talking about the sights and sounds of a four day Indian wedding.

After watching the video, the scene is exactly what I expected after hearing the song many many times. But I couldn’t get behind the lyrics. They are obviously sung in jest, but to me, they come across as chauvinistic. The man has his pick, and the “fair woman” is the chosen one for seemingly no other reason than being light skinned. That’s the thing with world music, you can really get into a song based on the sounds, and then sometimes the lyrics disappoint you. I have yet to see Monsoon Wedding, but I really want to. It seems to cover a variety of gender and relationship issues that are common in India and I’m curious to see how it approaches them.

What are your thoughts on the lyrics of this song?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary R January 30, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I love this song and that movie! Like you, I can’t help getting revved up listening to it and dancing around the living room. Looking forward to reading about this wedding… lucky you, Ekua!

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Fly Girl January 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

I love Monsoon Wedding as well as Punjabi music. I just finished watching a hillarious Hindi musical yesterday. The thing about Indian culture is like most cultures that have been colonized, light skin is considered the beauty standard. The bride in the movie is extremely fair and therefore considered beautiful. Of course, I don’t like this standard at all and typically don’t appreciate most beauty standards but I just look at is a result of colonial history. More awareness about the problems with this have developed so it at least is being discussed and examined.

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Ekua January 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm

You’re definitely right that striving to look European is a centuries old worldwide epidemic. But I found the lyrics of the song to be particularly jarring for a couple reasons: (1) India is very nationalistic and in many ways it rejects its colonial past. You hardly see people wearing Western clothing, and the country even went as far as to change the names of some of its major cities (and roads within cities) to make them more Indian and less colonial. So it’s really hard for me to understand how this particular result of colonialism has been sustained with such blatant fervor. (2) So many women seem to find nothing wrong with females being desirable based on having pale skin. Of course when it comes to marriage in India, there is a plethora of underlying issues, but still…

It always seems to be the ones who are the most oppressed by it who do the most to perpetuate it, not just in India, but all over the world. When I travel, I am often seen as “exotic” to locals so I think there are many times when I’ve received a pass. But the more I travel, the more I see the darkest residents getting the short end and the more disheartening it becomes. It’s so incredibly superficial. It’s not something I want to ignore, I think it warrants pointing out to make people think about it because many don’t really think about how it really is just a self-inflicted form of racism.

I’ve gotten into bhangra music over the past couple years and I actually discovered this song through the Rough Guides bhangra CD (although, I am not sure that is technically bhangra). There are a couple bhangra dance teachers here who teach classes and also put on events. Always a good time!

Oh wow, I’ve written a whole blog post with this response 😛 Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it helped me think out loud!

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