“Aren’t we too wheels of this nation-chariot?”: Orature as an Alternative ‘Her-story’ of the Nation
The Nepali nation-state that emerges in the late eighteenth century, like most nations of the world, bears a definitive male signature. However, the patriarchal historiography of the nation and its subsequent contestations and problematization have seldom been attempted in the Nepali or international academia using the folk corpus in the form of Tīj songs: an archive that continues to remain in the periphery of the margin as writing continues to be privileged over speech, written literature over orature in the international academia that ‘commonsensically’ associates folklore with atavism, primitiveness, pre-historicity and rusticity. The recourse to the Nepali folk archive seems all the more urgent as the indigenous academia still predominantly controlled by the upper caste, male scholars tends to dismiss these songs as āimāiko rā͂ḍiruwāi i.e. the crone’s cry in the wilderness. These songs that have played a very significant role in shaping the counter-hegemonic consciousness of Nepali women and acted as the most significant trope in Nepali women’s fight for gender equity are seldom subjected to critical reading deploying the vocabulary and idiom of critical theory that marks the contours of international academia today. In this paper, out of multiple issues that women raise in their songs, this paper seeks to highlight how ‘Nepali’ women are systematically erased from the masculinist imagination of the nation state that comes into existence with Prithivinarayan Shah’s ‘unification’ of Nepal. In the classical Tīj songs, the notion of nation continues to elude women: what comes under women’s interrogation is not the ‘politically’ political, but the personal or the realm of domesticity. There seems to be nothing for women beyond the family: the patriarchal nation made inroads into women’s lives through the institution of the family. At the outset, the paper seeks to underline how such patriarchal conceptualization of the nation state comes for serious interrogation in the Tīj songs produced during the 1990s. The democratic movement of the 1990s acts as a watershed that seriously undermines the masculinist imagination of the country. The paper also seeks to grapple with the complexity of having to imagine the alternative in the medium of the dominant. In the absence of a female vocabulary, women’s alternative conceptualization of the nation, however, continues to remain in the idiom of the dominant thereby making their women-centric remodeling of the nation polyphonic, complex and highly interesting. Moreover, women’s gynocentric imagination of nation not only shows the absence of female vocabulary, it also collapses ethnicities, castes, class and numerous internal divides amongst Nepali women into a fictitious meta-narrative of universal Nepali sisterhood. Furthermore, the essentializing patriarchal epistemology that naturally associates men with nation-building project, patriotism and heroism come in for strong critique and rejection. Absences of vocabulary and traditions as much as critiques of the native patriarchy seems to inform Nepali women’s alternative gynocentric re-configuration of nation: perhaps in the absence of indigenous womanist/gynocentric tradition of nationalism and nation-building, invocation of Indira/India and internationalism especially the ‘achievement’ of Indian and western women shapes Nepali women’s nationalist utopia. In Nepali women’s centrifugal consciousness, the west, however, simultaneously emerges as a trope of phobia and philia, feminist utopia and cultural dystopia—adding further complexities to the layered imagination and contestation of patriarchy. The paper finally maps the transformation of Tīj from the feminist nationalist to the female carnival in the first decade of the 21st century with the emergence of New Nepali women in the aftermath of globalization and market economy. The urban Tīj unravels Nepali women’s complex journey from their belligerent nationalism to, what may be possibly called ‘a post-nationalist’ era of carnival and consumerism. The journey from the critique to the carnival, from the feminist to the female, from nationalism to post-nationalism, in spite of its metropolitan and class bias, seems to be a definitive moment in recovering the gynocentric gendering of the Nepali nation state using an archive of orature that bears unambiguous female signature.
Keywords: Folk songs, gender, nation-state, erasure, alternative, contestation, her-story of gender