Women Musicians of Rajasthan

By Jaipur Virasat Foundation

Jaipur Virasat Foundation

This exhibit  tells stories of women vocalists of Rajasthan, who have made a voyage from performing in their traditional settings to reclaiming their place in  public forums - paving a way for women to take control of their image and to explore previously taboo roles.

Sumitra Devi at Badal Mahal (2015)Jaipur Virasat Foundation

Women of Rajasthan have played a large role in shaping the rich musical repertoire of the region by composing songs and expressing themselves through language and music. The songs they sing reveal their intimate worlds - shedding light on religion, ritual, kinship, family life gender roles and sexuality.

Women musicians in Rajasthan generally belonged to two categories - nonprofessional musicians, who performed within their own communities and professional musicians, who performed in the public space often in exchange for rewards.

From 19th century onwards women’s performance in the public realm was looked down upon. The rejection had its roots in the colonial era - when women’s expression in public challenged the victorian notions of domesticity and gendered private and public spheres. In the postcolonial nation state, Indian social reformers and urban intellectuals intending to initiate changes in the social and customary behaviour of women and disadvantaged castes carried the same attitude towards women’s performance as did the colonisers. Moreover men in these communities internalized these attitudes and started regarding women’s expression in public as a transgressional activity that demeaned the social status of the family and the community itself.

Bhanwari Devi (2014)Jaipur Virasat Foundation

In the past decade, with a spurt of urban and transnational music festivals, women folk musicians across Rajasthan are bringing back their music in public domain. These platforms act as what Homi K bhabha defines as the “third space” - or the “in-between space” devoid of any originality or purity of cultures. These spaces facilitate a dialogue between female local musicians, national and international performers. The translations between different cultures allow women musicians to deconstruct and reshape the dominant discourse and create new forms of identity and expression for themselves.

BBC The Lost Music of Rajasthan (2012)Jaipur Virasat Foundation

The late John Singh, founder of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF), Divya Bhatia - Festival Director of Jodhpur RIFF and Vinod Josh - community director JVF record how women have been engines of creation and change in their communities in this documentary with BBC Imagine - The Lost Music of Rajasthan.

Sumitra Devi at Badal Mahal (2015)Jaipur Virasat Foundation

Against the Grain


Bhanwari comes from the Bhopa-Bhopi folk tradition, in which husband and wife team recite a poem that has been a part of the community's oral literature since centuries. The four thousand lines long poem is recounted over the course of five nights in front of a 'phad' a hand painted scroll, which serves as both an illustration of the highlights of the story of the folk hero and as a portable temple of Pabuji. The audience of the bhopa-bhopi performance is primarily made of traditionally nomadic and camel herding Rabari caste and Rajputs, the warrior caste of the region.

Bhanwari Devi traditionally sang with her husband. However, after her husband passed away 10 years ago, Devi began to sing folk songs beyond her traditional Bhopa-Bhopi repertoire to support her family of twelve with the power of her voice.
The act of a Bhopi performing without her Bhopa partner was unprecedented act in her community.
Today Bhanwari Devi - despite all odds has made a monumental mark for herself. She has performed at several platforms like Edinburgh, Coke Studio, Jodhpur RIFF; and has shared space with several International and South Asian Artists.
What makes bhawri devi distinct is the fact that she can sing as great as a pure folk traditionalists and at the same time make her music accessible and enjoyable to audiences who haven't experienced Rajasthani folk music before.

Bhanwari Devi- Bhiksha Ghaalo (2015)Jaipur Virasat Foundation

In this video Bhanwari Devi and her son Krishan Bhopa perform 'Bharthari's Bhiksha Ghaalo' - a song that recounts narratives from the life of the great king of ujjain Bharthari who renounces his kingdom to pursue a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
In India - religion, philosophy and art have always been inseparable and unified. Classical philosophical systems rely heavily on poetry and music. Similarly music and poetry are permeated with metaphysical concepts.
In the folk repertoire of Rajasthan an important and frequently performed piece is the epic tale of the renouncer Bharthari.

The Gypsy Allstars "Return to Rajasthan" FEAT. Bhanwari Devi - Katte (2013)Jaipur Virasat Foundation

In this video Bhawri Devi sings the Bhakti song Kattey - the gist of the song is that the sacred is neither in temple nor in mosque: it resides within all beings.

An important theme that runs through Rajasthani Folk music are evocations of Bhakti Teachings.
Bhakti Movement was a literary revolution that swept across north India in the 15th century, when Medieval Hinduism become a deeply stratified and rigid social system.
To humanize and even out disparities in the power structure, poets poetesses, saints and society drop outs encouraged people to establish their own direct connection with their divinity through deeply affective personal forms of devotion involving poetry and performing arts. Allowing them to escape the strangle hold of hindu orthodoxy.

Jamuna Devi and Mali Devi belong to the Nayak community. The Nayaks are poor peasants in rural Rajasthan - exploited and treated as out castes in the name of feudal values.
The two Nayak sisters - who are devotees of the Bhakti poet saint Kabir - draw from his religious poetry and literary consciousness - to fight - to assert - and to spread the message of equality and humility through their music.
Today, they are the only two performers in Rajasthan who play the Iktara - a rare one stringed folk instrument.

Sumitra Devi- Beera thari yaad satave (2014)Jaipur Virasat Foundation


Sumitra Devi from the Village of Jaitaran, in Pali district comes from a long tradition of jagran (all-night) singers. She began training under her father at the the age of eight, and began performing in nearby villages at Jagrans (the all-night singing of religious or spiritual songs) since her early teen years. Since 2006 she has been performing at several national and international festivals and has been an integral part of a collaboration "Dharohar Project" with Laura Marling and the Mumford and Sons.

Jamali Bai- Kele ke kamri syun kyun mari re (2014)Jaipur Virasat Foundation


A versatile singer from the Dholli community, Jamali Bai's hailed from a family who were performers in the Rajputana durbars of Bikaner. She was trained in 'maand', a local folk singing style, and sang on the All India Radio for over 40 years.

Though the Manganiyar community is one of hereditary musicians, Manganiyar women are limited to performing in their domestic spaces. Rukma Devi, was the first woman from the community to sing in a public space.
Almost abandoned by her family due to physical handicap, Rukma had to take to music to support herself. Despite all odds, Rukma became one of Rajasthan's best-known voices and had many foreign artistes take her on global tours. Inspired by Rukma Devi’s story, several voices like Akla and Dariya Bai began to stage and earned recognition.

Sugni Devi- Nana Dewariya (2015)Jaipur Virasat Foundation


Kalbeliyas are a nomadic group of dancers, acrobats and musicians. The roots of the Kalbeliya community can be traced to Romani artisans and entertainers who became an identifiable culture in Rajasthan around 3000 BCE.
There is a clear gender segregation in their performance - usually women dance, while men accompany them on instruments. While the community is replete with women dancers, there are very few women vocalists in the community.
Sugna Kalbeliya is a rarity in that sense. Inspired by listening to her mother and grandmother sing, Sugna started training at the age of 10 and performing at 16.

Despite the traditional taboos and age-old restrictions, she fearlessly honed her talent and has performed at major festivals in the country and internationally. A staunch believer of women rights, Sugna would like to see more women in her community train, become successful artists and break free from their bondages.

Credits: Story

Project Team:
Ayush Bakliwal
Priyamvada Golcha
Tanushree Agarwal

Project Consultants:
Vinod Joshi

Jaipur Virasat Team
Balcony TV, Delhi
Jodhpur RIFF Team

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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