Is dholki a dying tradition today?

As women's experiences change, so does their outlook on tradition.
Updated May 24, 2019 01:08am

An informal session of song and dance — dholki — typically marks the beginning of festivities every time there is a wedding in my family.

One could describe the event as an intimate gathering wherein women of the family come together to play a dhol and sing wedding songs at the residence of the bride or groom a few days or weeks before the actual wedding day.

Growing up in a traditional Urdu-speaking family where dancing was discouraged and disliked, the only option my sister and I had of enjoying ourselves at a wedding was to participate in the singing.

Unlike religious rituals such as milads, the singing of wedding songs is not rigidly segregated; however, the practice has largely remained in the hands of women.

Women singing wedding songs is not limited to South Asia or the South Asian diaspora in England and North America, but can also be seen across different regions and languages in the Middle East.

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When I recently attended a friend’s wedding in Islamabad, I was surprised to learn that most people of my age group (in their late 20s and early 30s) were not familiar with this music.

Even though the audience had printouts with Urdu lyrics written in Roman English, they were unable to follow the melody or sing the words.

I wondered if this was the case because they belonged to families where Urdu was not the first language or perhaps it was because of changing trends wherein pre-wedding festivities mainly revolve around mechanically reproduced music and choreographed dance numbers.

I want to explore this tradition of women singing wedding songs using my family as a case study. This includes my aunt Asifa, my aunt from my in-laws’ family Mehr, and my grandmother Shaheen.

In addition to looking at the themes and topics that these songs discuss as well as the ritual around the singing itself, I also ask whether this intimate way of celebrating a close one’s wedding is on its way out in Pakistan.

Ritual-like tendencies

The singing of wedding songs has an inherently ritualistic component to it. Women usually sit on the floor in a circular seating arrangement. The elderly or those with health issues sit on chairs or sofas in the same room.

The dhol player sits in the middle while the singers gather around her. Sometimes another person is required to give the dhol player support by placing their knee against the dhol so that it does not move. At times, this person might also keep track of the beat by tapping a spoon against the dhol.

When I ask my aunt Asifa about her earliest memories of singing wedding songs, she tells me about her childhood days at the Karachi University campus where it was almost an obligation to go and sing wedding songs if one knew of an upcoming wedding in the neighbourhood or family. She says:

"We were young then so we would just copy the older women and sing after them. We would sit at the back of the group, clap and sing songs with everyone else. We would only sing wedding songs though and film music was not a part of the repertoire then".

Mehr aunty recalls a wedding from her childhood in Karachi where her parents were posted at the time:

"My cousin (who was getting married) had all these friends come in — they were called Noor Jehan and Gaitiyara and they knew all these wedding songs. Hum bohat chotay thay magar Aarha Pajama Resham ka kamarband kuch yaad reh gaya (we were very young but the song Aarha Pajama stuck in my memory)".

Asifa phuppo says that even though there was no fixed sequence, the ample number of practice sessions ensured that everyone knew the sequence and was well prepared for a synchronised performance at the mehndi.

She adds that keeping a diary or notes with song lyrics was considered amateurish. “We were passionate about singing and knew the songs inside out. We would judge people who kept notes!”

In my own experience of being a participant at dholkis, I remember the sessions usually kicking off with the following catchy tune:

Rasool-e-Paak ka Saaya,
Mubarak ho Mubarak ho

With the blessings of the Prophet,
Felicitations to you, felicitations to you

Asifa phuppo tells me that even a few years ago, a milad would be held prior to the dholki, following which women would break for tea and then sit down with the dhol to begin singing.

She laughs and says: “Well, at the end of the day we live in an Islamic country. So even if we are to transgress certain boundaries, we might as well do it in an auspicious way!”

Shaheen nani adds to this and says that since marriage holds a deeply significant religious connotation in our culture, it was considered appropriate to begin the festivities in the name of the Prophet.

Wedding songs and gender

In colonial India, wives of hereditary musicians were known as mirasins. In some families, it was considered inappropriate for women of the household to sing at weddings and therefore mirasins or domnis would be summoned to sing songs and bless the couple. The singers injected life into the party and were showered with cash by family members.

However, when I ask my interviewees if the singing of wedding songs was always a women-oriented ritual in their respective families, they give me a variety of reasons as to why. Shaheen nani says:

"It was always like that. Our older women folk would sometimes gather after dinner (when there was a wedding) and sing songs without a proper tune or melody. It was a very crude way of enjoying themselves. Singing songs did not require an instrument; women would just clap and use a clay pot for the beat".

Asifa phuppo adds: “Our tradition earlier was one of segregation. There may have been an element of purdah at some point that eventually trickled down to women’s wedding songs as well.”

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Weddings provided women an opportunity to do the things they normally were not allowed to do. Restrictions otherwise placed on women on watching films or listening to music would ease during weddings.

Mehr aunty notes that singing also allowed the women to unwind and relax. There was an entire atmosphere amidst which these songs were sung and most of the wedding-related activity revolved around women.

Songs were often sung to add a feeling of celebration while women embroidered fabric or applied sequins onto dupattas. If a dhol wasn’t available, it was replaced with a machine ka dhakna (a sewing machine case) as a makeshift drum and the women would start singing along to its beat.

Themes and lyrics

Over the years, the repertoire of women’s wedding songs developed organically and slowly, resulting in a diverse mix of songs taken from ancient folklore, Sufi music and electronic media.

As TV came to Pakistan, it brought in melodies from Hindi films from across the border. Film songs that somehow fit into the wedding universe were added to the list. Shaheen nani says:

"You can think of the wedding songs repertoire as a bouquet. Each region in the subcontinent had a distinct civilisation whether it was that of Hyderabad Deccan or that of Punjab, and as people migrated from one place, they brought in these distinct influences to the mainstream culture".

Given the large variety of sources from which the songs were taken, the topics explored by these songs were also varied and complex.

The songs explored themes of love and fertility whilst also doing the job of expressing good wishes for the couple’s happy marriage and long life. The lyrics often glorified the beauty and high status of the bride or the groom, depending on the side the singers were representing.

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Mehr aunty says: “Chotay chotay chutkalay chaltay thay families kay darmiaan. Larkay walay apnay larkay ko barhatay thay aur larki walay larki ki tareefain kartay thay.” ("The songs acted as banter between the bride and bridegroom’s families. The groom’s side would talk of his qualities while the bride’s side would sing of the bride’s youth and attractiveness").

The following chorus of a song talks about the beauty and wealth of the bride, and praises the grandeur of her father’s luxurious mansion:

Banno teray abba ki oonchi haveli,
Banno may dhoondta chala aya

Banno your father’s high mansion
Banno I kept searching for it

Given South Asia’s discomfort with talking about sex in general, the songs did not address sexuality directly. Instead, they would refer to the bride as banno and the groom as banna.

Certain songs could not be sung in front of the elders for there was a fear of offending them. “Things were not as straightforward as they are now”, says Asifa phuppo.

Mehr aunty says that in Hindu tradition, the bride tossing rice at the end of the wedding ceremony was a symbol of fertility. However, in the Indo-Persian culture, “such topics were expressed discreetly in poetic verses”. She sings two lines from a song that I recognise instantly:

Haryalay banay baghon hamara mat ana
Baghon may bethi begamein meri jaan

O fertile lad, do not come to our gardens
In the gardens await the ladies, my love

Other than film songs and Sufi poetry such as Chaap tilak sab cheen li, there were continuous additions in the repertoire by the women themselves. Asifa phuppo explains:

"We came up with our own songs as well. Woh toh dibbay may laya suhaag, suhaagan teray liye was one of them — we came up with it ourselves. We would also adopt songs from other places as well. If we went somewhere and heard a song that we liked, we would just learn it.

Sometimes we had the words but did not have a melody, so we would borrow the melody from a film song. Once I was visiting India for a family wedding where I saw domnis or what we used to call mirasans at one point. I liked a song that one of the domnis was singing and learnt it".

Mehr aunty tells me that when her family moved to Lahore, she learnt that the wedding songs there were also different.

“It was amusing to us that even the wedding songs in Lahore talked about food!” she laughs. “However, there were some beautiful melodies as well such as Desan Da Raja, Mere Babul Da Piyara and others”.

Some of the most popular wedding songs today such as Latthe di Chadar and Chitta Kukar come from Punjab. Using Chitta Kukkar as an example, Shaheen nani tells me that wedding songs were often created by what was referred to as tuk-bandi.

She says that wedding songs had a strong influence of folk music, and that sometimes women would create songs by joining unrelated pieces of lyric. For example, the first two lines of Chitta Kukkar are not really connected:

Chitta kukkar bane re te
Qasni dupattay waliye, munda sadqay tere te

The white rooster is on the roof’s edge
The girl with the mauve dupatta, the boy is in love with you

According to Mehr aunty, wedding songs also encapsulated women’s experiences of being in a wedding, whether it was from the bride’s point of view, her mother or close friends.

“It was a different time. Women were not as independent or self-assured as they are today.”

She says the words of the following song to explain to me the anxiety and fear of loneliness many girls had at the time of getting married, especially if they were to move to another city or country following the wedding:

Tore sung jaongi
May piyasi mar jaongi
More pehar may surahiyaan
May tore sung na jaongi

If I go with you,
I will die of thirst
Vessels of water await in my parental home
I will not go with you

In the above song written from the bride’s perspective, it is implied that she is sad to leave the comforts of her parental home where everything is prepared for her, in this case a jug of water that she might not have once she moves to the husband’s home.

A dying tradition?

Speaking to these women, it becomes evident that these songs were a reflection of the times and experiences of the women of a previous generation. It gave them agency to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

Whether it was the bride herself who was anxious about leaving her home or her mother who was worried about her daughter’s future, women found respite in this music and expressed themselves through wedding songs.

Over the years, these experiences have changed and so has the language around wedding music. Thus, it perhaps makes sense why many young people, especially women, find the tradition obsolete.

And even though the elders in some families are holding on to these songs, it appears largely as though it will die out soon.

All three of my interviewees point out to me that it is up to the younger generation to preserve these traditions.

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