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Iterativity, agency, and feminism in the Hindu Tij songs of Nepal1

Itérativité, agentivité et féminisme dans les chansons hindoues Tij du Népal
Basanti Timalsina et Victoria L. Bergvall

Résumés

Les chants népalais du Tij offrent l’occasion d’examiner les forces interactives de l’itérativité (la répétition, mais avec des changements intentionnels), de l’action (à la fois sociale et linguistique) et de l’autonomisation des femmes au Népal (qu’elle relève ou non de l’étiquette « féminisme »). Nous étudions les formes discursives itératives du langage (choix des mots, syntaxe et sémantique) et les formats multimodaux (puisque les médias modernes proposent des représentations audiovisuelles des chants et danses) autour du festival hindou népalais Tij, où les femmes se rassemblent, festoient, puis jeunent, chantent et dansent pour honorer l’union de la déesse Parvati et du dieu Shiva. Les chansons traditionnelles du Tij évoquent souvent des femmes qui souffrent à cause de leurs parents, frères, maris ou beaux-parents, mais qui, en même temps, trouvent joie et réconfort dans la compagnie d’autres femmes. Les chansons plus récentes, quant à elles, peuvent mettre en avant la beauté et l’ornement des nouvelles tenues du Tij, rendues disponibles grâce à la réification consumériste. Cependant, certaines chansons et vidéos récentes mettent à profit l’itérativité du langage et des nouveaux médias pour positionner les femmes comme étant dotées d’une agentivité puissante, qui leur permet de choisir des partenaires (ou de choisir de ne pas en avoir), de faire des études et de chercher à atteindre l’indépendance financière, et de s’unir pour choisir l’autonomisation des femmes et pour se rebeller contre les attentes religieuses patriarcales. Les chansons du Tij fournissent ainsi des modèles évolutifs et itératifs pour l’agentivité féministe des femmes au Népal et ailleurs.

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Introduction

  • 1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 11th Biennial International Gender and Langua (...)
  • 2 Tij is also transliterated as Tīj or Teej.

1Tij2 is a yearly Hindu three- or four-day festival celebrated in Nepal (and elsewhere in Hindu religious areas). On the eve of Tij day, women gather to sing, dance, and share elaborate feasts, followed by fasting, worship and visits to Shiva temples on Tij day. On the third/fourth day, Rishi Panchami, they cleanse their bodies through rigorous rituals, before worshiping the “Saptarishi” (“Seven Sages”) to absolve sins accumulated during menstruation, believed to be incurred by touching the untouchables such as male family members, kitchen items, and places of holy worship.

  • 3 We base our work on a corpus of about 60 popular Tij songs uploaded over the past decade, drawn fro (...)

2We are interested in how Tij festival songs (and later videos) reveal insights into local agentive and empowering practices in light of three issues: iterativity (the cyclical practice and revision of versions of forms, such as songs and belief systems), agency (the socially constituted and interpreted capacity to act), and feminism (the intersectionally embedded pursuit of gender equity and struggle against women’s oppression). We examine the linguistic meanings and structures embedded in these songs based on lexical choices, syntactic transitivity, and semantic roles, as well as their multimodal displays, and discuss the social and linguistic significance of these songs in order to better understand the local, contextual dimensions that shape their narratives and how they are expressed.3

3We focus on three thematic categories of Tij songs. First, traditional songs are often couched as laments against the oppression of women by males or in-laws in their natal or marital families, even though they may be accompanied by practices that focus on joyous celebration by and among women. Second, newer Tij songs (and dance videos) showcase consumerism, where women might revel in their beauty and goods that make them feel desirable, yet do not challenge the embedded patriarchal or economic systems. Most recently, some songs are taking up explicit themes of empowerment and resistance to patriarchal norms. It is important to note that this is not a model of complete succession and replacement: all three types of songs are simultaneously circulating (along with other types of Tij songs).

4Our linguistic analysis of song lyrics examines the syntactic positioning of women with respect to men in their lives, and the semantic roles which characterize their action as agents versus as actors, experiencers, or patients/undergoers. This is followed by a brief multimodal analysis of several of the audiovisual forms of Tij songs distributed widely across modern media. We explain why many of these audiovisual forms (apparently disjunctively) contrast song lyrics of lament with upbeat tempos and visuals of models expressing joy. We discuss how a multimodal discourse analysis reveals the complex discursive and social setting of recursive revisions to the practice of Tij songs, with some recent writers and singers pursuing agentive feminist goals. We find in these iterative practices hopeful models in accordance with ever-evolving, locally contextualized feminist theories of agency.

Hindu religious practices and the positioning of Nepali women in Tij songs

5Tij draws from the Hindu religious scriptures, e.g., as found in Swasthani Vrata Katha, narrating how the goddess Parvati, rejecting a marriage arranged by her parents, instead ran, hid, and pursued Lord Shiva. She prayed and underwent rigorous fasting. Impressed by her devotion, Shiva accepted her. Later, Hindu women started fasting in reverence to Parvati’s fast and also to worship Shiva. The Tij festival in August/September originates in women praying for their (prospective) husbands, but now it often centers on women getting together to celebrate with natal family and friends, to feast and fast, sing and dance with other women.

6Nepali society, like many in South Asia, historically follows a patriarchal structure, where male members control family decisions and finances. Nepali marriages are predominantly arranged, where women move from under the father’s authority to subservience to the husband and in-laws, and the size of the dowry can shape how women are treated by their in-laws.

7Education is changing this. As Leela Dube (1997) emphasized, where women have limited choices, their education and subsequent earning power can serve as options that “create bargaining power and negotiability” (p. 7), while Sascha Fuller (2020) noted that (for some) “education has in fact become dowry” (p. 240). Binda Pandey (2016) argued that, though the rights of women have been constitutionalized, “deep rooted patriarchal values, attitude, mind-set, culture and behaviour both in personal and institutional level” persist, and she called for “visionary feminist leadership … to achieve tangible change in the society” (p. 17-18).

8Tij songs were traditionally and exclusively performed by (mostly older, married) females, passed down through generations, and shared during performances in physical gatherings, primarily around the festival time. They draw on Nepali folk song styles, with audience participation and rhythmic dancing and clapping during oral performances. Previous anthropological studies have extensively cataloged the varieties of Tij songs in village life: Debra Skinner, Dorothy Holland and G.B. Adhikari (1994) categorized three traditional types: deutā songs (about gods), dukha songs (about sorrow), and ghaṭanā songs (“incident songs,” including about politics). Laura Ahearn (1998) identified ten categories (e.g., songs about romance or tragic love; requests for gifts; or laments about fathers, brothers, husbands, and in-laws). More recently, Niraula (2023) discussed the multimodal expression of commodification and consumer culture in his analysis of traditional versus contemporary Tij songs. We build on these studies by explicitly undertaking a feminist analysis, adapting their categories of lament/sorrow and commodification, while adding a third category of empowerment. More importantly, we focus on both the linguistic (syntactic and semantic) and multimodal structures in songs and dance videos, especially as they relate to expressions of women’s agency.

9Other analyses build on emergent themes in Tij songs. Anna Stirr (2010) argued that one of the most popular yet controversial Tij songs, “Poila jana paam” (“May I elope”) (Stirr’s translation), indicated “[u]rban young people’s increasing preference for love marriage over arranged marriage” which signaled “to many the breakdown of mainstream Hindu ideals of gendered social structure” (p. 264). Likewise, Balram Uprety (2017) claimed that in urban settings, Tij songs have created new spaces for women, “moving away from the fight to create a feminist space to the celebration of a distinctive female space” (p. 80; emphasis added). However, we argue that contemporary Tij songs continue to express explicitly feminist, agentive goals of political and social change.

10The spread of emergent themes is fostered by affordances of modern media, first through radio and cassette tapes, then CDs/DVDs and television, and now, especially, YouTube, which provides “a new outlet that is both cheap and has a wider reach than traditional media” (Sunuwar & Pradhan, 2019). This has expanded the domain of songs once limited to local villages, and to the weeks around the Tij festival itself, to a wider audience including women who migrate to cities and a diasporic community spread widely around the world.

11In contrast to traditional performances, many modern commercial Tij songs are “spectacular”, complex audiovisual displays performed and produced by teams of professionals, and they may require significant financing. And whereas Tij songs were formerly by and for women, males are now also writing, singing, and producing songs. We will address some of the considerations of feminism, media affordances, economics, and authorship below.

Iterativity, agency, and feminism

12We use the lens of iterativity to examine how Tij songs (as well as notions of agency and feminism) change over time. Iterativity is centered on repetition, but rather than exact replication, it focuses on a cyclical model of purposeful changes to a previous form that is found to be problematic or lacking (Dewey, 1938; Strübing, 2007). That lack is addressed with changes intended to work towards more desirable ends. Of course, what is “more desirable” is highly subjective, and in the case of creative forms such as Tij songs, broadly addressed in diverse ways. Thus, Tij songs are cyclical and repetitive, yet with new forms evolving, created by diverse agents in order to address new political and social issues – or to create new revenue for those who create and stream the videos. Language – which is itself recursive, and thus inherently iterative – provides opportunities in every new sentence for the expression of semantic agency and other roles.

13Modern media, which allow for continuous replay, provide another level of iterativity in their cyclical repetition and renewal as new music videos emerge. We will consider the ways that this iterative performativity of media, along with authorial innovation, intersects with issues of agency and feminism, particularly as directed towards the empowerment of women of Nepal.

14Social practices also depend on iterativity, as articulated by Judith Butler (1990, 1993) in her foundational work on gender performativity, in which she argued that social reiteration may also open up space for evolution and change. In her discussion of the reiterativity of norms that constitute sex and gender, Butler asserted that it is “by virtue of this iteration that gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions” (1993, p. 10). We adopt this notion of how change may manifest even in the ostensible sedimentary repetition of forms.

15Agency is another complex social and linguistic issue, central to the reproduction and creation of Tij songs. We here adapt Ayden Parish and Kira Hall’s (2021) definition of agency as “the capacity for socially meaningful action” (p. 1), recognizing that agency is not necessarily human or always intentional – and often depends upon the power of observers (frequently academics) to interpret the ability to act, or perhaps to assign responsibility and blame. Western notions of agents as acting autonomously, using focused intention and holding (sole) responsibility for their actions, have given way to recognition that agency is always a “socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (Ahearn, 2001, p. 112), taking place within webs of other social interactants, and that institutional, bodily, and cultural histories may both constrain and frame what counts as agentive action.

16Saba Mahmood (2009) argued that we must separate agency from resistance, particularly in examining non-Western women’s agency. Whereas she saw Butler (1993) as inscribing a kind of resistance in performative agency, Mahmood valorized

mov[ing] away from an agonistic and dualistic framework – one in which norms are conceptualized on the model of doing and undoing, consolidation and subversion – and instead think[ing] about the variety of ways in which norms are lived and inhabited, aspired to, reached for, and consummated. (p. 31)

17This view does not require undoing social norms, but allows for operating constructively within them.

18Agency may also be encoded linguistically in a variety of forms depending on how a language displays issues of transitivity (Duranti, 2005). Semantic role definitions (as exemplified by Ahearn, 2001), such as Agent (“Pabi read the book”) – undertaking action that affects something else, with at least the capacity for intentionality – contrast with Actor (“Shiva danced”), Perceiver (“Tika heard the news”), Patient/Undergoer (“The old woman died”), or Instrument (“The stone broke the window”), often expressed with intransitive verbs or as states of being. Such categories and labels are more relevant and accessible to (academic) linguists, and may be “relatively inaccessible to the average speaker’s consciousness [yet may still] form a privileged location for transmitting and reproducing cultural and social categories” (Hill & Mannheim, 1992, p. 387).

19However, we must take care not to overinterpret the agency we see in the iteration of these lyrics by women who sing them. As Ahearn (1998) cautioned:

When I asked whether the women sing particular songs because they actually feel the anger or sadness expressed in the songs’ lyrics, I received the almost formulaic answer that the only reason women sing such sad songs is because it is Tij, and such songs are Tij songs. … Evidently, in the eyes of most Junigau residents, Tij songs remain securely contained temporally and semiotically within the frame of the Tij season. (p. 66)

20Yet, as the affordances of modern media extend “the frame of the Tij season”, we question whether the semiotic boundedness of the rural, ethnic Tij village rituals that Ahearn observed still hold in the modern production of Tij songs. And, as Duranti (2005) noted,

Any act of speaking involves some kind of agency, often regardless of the speaker’s intentions and the hearer’s interest or collaboration. This is due to the fact that by speaking we establish a reality that has at least the potential for affecting whoever happens to be listening to us, regardless of the originally intended audience. (p. 451)

21In our analysis, we consider how the linguistic positioning within sentences might reveal attitudes and models for the adoption of socially agentive roles. But we also consider the significance of the authorial agency of writing songs; we believe it matters whether the author is female or male. (We thus mark in the Notes whether the writers and singers of each song are female [f] or male [m].)

  • 4 Space limitations of this paper prevent us from including a more comprehensive multimodal analysis (...)

22There is also complex agency in the audiovisual production. Songs and dance videos are multimodal, purposive creations, composed of strategic choices of words, musical notes, tempo, rhythm, and repetition, usually created by professional teams. They are not simply pure entertainment, but are designed to engage audiences, share culture and identity, tell stories, or voice social commentaries. Songs have also been used in political campaigns and activist protests as anthems intended to inspire, empower, or incite people to change their minds and actions; see, e.g., Liz Gunner’s (2009) analysis of “Umshini Wami” (“My Machine Gun”) in South Africa, or the feminist collective, Las Tesis’ song “A rapist in your path/The rapist is you”, in Chile (Borba et al., 2020, p. 1). We address agency and multimodal factors in the penultimate section of this article.4

23Feminism(s) is another complex and much contested term, perhaps more accurately pluralized for all its constantly evolving iterations, especially as new contexts come under analysis. Mary Hawkesworth and Lisa Disch (2016) noted that “Feminism would not exist as a theoretical endeavor without the political struggles for women’s empowerment that have emerged in all regions of the world” (p. 1-2). Feminist theorists have been critiqued for overlooking the diversity of local contexts. Srila Roy (2012) cautioned against a decontextualized merger of the Global South: “‘South Asia’ and ‘feminism’ are both complex categories, not amenable to easy definition. … [South Asia] is continuously overshadowed by regionalism, geopolitics and ethnic strife, making it difficult to speak of as a singular region” (p. 5). Yet Firdous Azim, Nivedita Menon, and Dina M. Siddiqi (2009) underlined that there is a commonality to certain issues across South Asia:

What singularly marks this region for us is the sheer presence of feminist activism [which] has engaged with religious fundamentalisms, state repression, sexual violence and livelihood issues, while women have been visibly active in all the political movements in this volatile region. (p. 3)

24As feminists work to take into account the diverse social forces that shape feminist theory, Urvashi Butalia (Butalia & Falkof, 2023) noted how Southern feminism

has tried to grapple with understanding religion, it’s tried to grapple with understanding race, caste. You know this big buzz about intersectionality? Southern feminism has always been intersectional. In our countries, how can it be otherwise? … I strongly believe that this thing that we call feminism is the only form of ideology that is equal to this, that is constantly evolving, that is open enough, that is inclusive enough. (p. 480-481)

25We see these changes as an iterative force working within feminism, as theorists examine and recast the terms of analysis and the resulting definitions and applications to find a better fit with the lived realities around them.

26Some feminist theorists see particular value in the connection of agency to feminism. As Lois McNay (2016) pointed out:

Feminist analysis of what women actually do in the world, the recovery and revalorization of unnoticed and invisible forms of women’s agency, is inextricably tied to its emancipatory political project of overcoming gender inequality … [while] address[ing] the foundational fact of social interdependence and the associated idea that individuals are formed through embodied interaction and social norms. (p. 39-40) [emphasis added]

27As Mahmood (2009) argued, we must also consider forms of agency by non-Western women that are not oppositional or directly resistant. We see in the analysis of the Tij songs an opportunity to recover and revalorize women’s agency, both socially and linguistically, in the acts of choosing to gather, dance, and sing along with these songs, celebrating even as they engage in songs of lament. However, we also see more overt forms of agency in songs of empowerment, where the singers are expressing alternative goals for women’s action.

Linguistic positioning in the Tij songs of Nepal

Songs of lament

28Our first category, songs of lament, shows how women appear syntactically as objects or semantically as actors/perceivers, or patients/under-goers/recipients of actions taken by their fathers, husbands, or in-laws, having no linguistic agency, merely hoping to be treated nicely by those in power. For example, in this song, translated by Skinner, Holland and Adhikari (1994, p. 268), note the characterization of the young, married women who are subservient socially and linguistically to their brothers and husbands:

(1) Daughter: We have to go empty-handed [to our husband’s home],
The brothers fence in their property.
Brothers’ clothes are so many that they rot away in a box,
But when they have to give us a single cloth, tears come to their eyes

29Note in these lines “who acts and who has responsibility” (Machin & Mayr, 2012, p. 106): even as the daughter is left “empty-handed”, men have power to control land (“fence in their property”). In contrast, the daughter has to wait to receive things from her brothers and parents (“give us a single cloth”), i.e., she is an undergoer/recipient relying on the good will of the men in her life. While Uprety (2016) claimed that the “māita” (natal home) is glorified in the majority of Tij songs, “invalidating women’s depiction of the māita as the originary locus of patriarchal oppression” (p. 57), we continue to see expressions of women’s complaints about oppression by natal family members (as well as in the marital home) in recent songs.

  • 5 Sung and written by Haridevi Koirala [f]. (780K views)

30For example, in another song of lamentation by Haridevi Koirala (Music Nepal, 2016, August 10)5, the daughter sings:

  • 6 See the Appendix for specific Nepali lyrics and English translations of examples (2)-(7) by co-auth (...)

(2) Sinful parents did not educate me because I was a daughter
The scorching sun is burning me now [I am suffering now]6

31Again we see the subjugation of a daughter to her own parents, who denied her an education, leaving her as a syntactic object or semantic experiencer.

  • 7 Sung by Tika Pun [f]; written by Yagya Kumar Giri [m]. (1.7M views)
  • 8 Sung by Santosh KC [m], Shanti Shree Pariyar [f], and Devi Gharti [f]; written by Santosh KC [m]. ( (...)
  • 9 Sung by Purushottam Poudel [m], Devi Gharti Magar [f], and Shanti Shree Pariyar [f]; written by Shi (...)

32A common word choice in Tij songs of lament reveals a particular religious ideology: the concept of “fate”/“karma”. Many Tij songs use this idea of fate with a negative connotation in connection to women’s position in family and society. For example, recent songs, such as “Karmaile ghumayo” (Yashi Production House, 2022, November 16) (“Trapped in a cycle of fate”)7, “Chhoriko karma” (KC, 2023, July 9) (“Daughter’s fate”)8, and “Buhariko karma” (Poudel, 2022, July 9) (“Daughter-in-law’s fate”)9, center on the notion that women’s conditions are predestined, rather than arising from the complex interplay of religious, social, and economic factors. But (as we discuss below), we find it noteworthy that these lyrics are authored by men. The prevalence of such narratives in Tij songs underscores the importance of women’s writing (and singing) their own lyrics in order to challenge this framing.

33The seeming “naturalization” of gender roles and expectations in Tij songs is not monolithic, nor without challenge. In fact, while the songs of suffering on the one hand can be viewed as laments about women’s fate, the very act of commenting on that situation is also a form of agency, a means for women to assert their voices and shed light on mistreatment. The act of complaining goes on record to note disaffection with that supposed status quo, though it does not explicitly address how to change it.

Songs of consumer commodification

34More recently, some Tij songs have moved beyond sorrow to express joy, often featuring a consumerist commodification. Televised or appearing on YouTube or other social media, such songs are highly influenced by commercialization and media popularity. They include more upbeat tempos, engaging visuals, and flashy clothing (usually red saris), and they are often cast with film and music industry performers to attract larger audiences.

  • 10 Sung by Sindhu Malla [f]; written by Raj Kumar Bagar [m]. (28M views)

35This consumerist behavior is evident in the following lines from a very popular Tij song by Sindhu Malla, which was released in 201910 (8K Everest Motion Pictures, 2019, July 19) (with over 28 million views to date).

(3) [I] Look pretty, in that red sari [they say]

36Subsequent lines repeat the phrase “[I] look pretty in” followed by “diamond earrings/high heeled sandals/shiny anklets/lipstick”, all repeating the morpheme re (“they say”). (In the Nepali language, personal pronominal subjects are often omitted where they are clear in conversational contexts.) Thus, in every repetition, although the woman is now the (implied) syntactic subject, she is no agent, merely the experiencer of others’ gazes and comments: she may have chosen how to dress herself, but the linguistic emphasis is on her value as derived from the objects in which she is dressed. In addition, the iterative stress on the morpheme re “they say” indicates a search for validation of the singer’s beauty/purchases from other people. This imposes an unnecessary burden on women who cannot afford these things: no woman really needs a diamond earring to celebrate. Thus, Tij seems to be dividing women based on their class instead of uniting them.

  • 11 Written by Bipin Kiran [m]. (7.2M views)

37Another song by Anita Chalaune (Chalaune, 2020, July 8)11 also reflects beautification and again, the only agency of the woman is how she “flaunts” these commodities and thereby attracts attention:

(4) [I] Will come flaunting my red sari
[I] Will come wearing shining gold bangles
[I wish] The world would keep staring [stunned by me] when I dance

38Again, the implicit “I” is the syntactic subject, yet the dominant semantic roles are as actor and experiencer.

  • 12 Written by Jeevan BC [m]. (33K views)

39A song by Dikshya Sunar and Jeevan Rasaili (Music Nepal, 2018, July 19)12 likewise shows women’s value achieved through conspicuous consumption, where a wife petitions her husband (a migrant worker) for an iPhone, golden necklace, and an expensive sari, and she then complains about not receiving them. Such songs portray women as target consumers within a complex consumerist marketplace, focused on adorning themselves and seeking pleasure in material things rather than resisting patriarchal norms or economic inequality. They reflect what Rosalind Gill (2007) called postfeminist self-policing, self-surveillance, and a narcissistic gaze, where a woman’s “agency” is limited to flaunting her “power” through her beauty or the pursuit of beautification through the purchase of consumer goods.

Songs of empowerment

40However, there is also an emergent, iterative form of Tij song that we call songs of empowerment which challenge the traditional role of women as submissive wives, creating a new genre advocating for women’s freedom. Recent revolutionary songs contest the norms that put women in subordinated (syntactic and social) positions in the name of religion.

  • 13 Written by Pashupati Sharma [m]: (9.2M views)

41Komal Oli is often considered revolutionary. Yet note that her song “Lastai Choti ho” (“The Last Time”) (Music Nepal, 2016 July 18)13, a duet with Pashupati Sharma (a male singer, who wrote the song), still petitions Lord Shiva, as she prays (“wishes”) to find the right man, and flaunts the power of being beautiful. And while the last lines suggest feminist empowerment, note who sings them:

(5) Oli [f]: For me there still is a queue of young men
I am beautiful, so is my body
Million, million (bows to) Shiva
This is the last time I sing wishing for a husband

Sharma [m]: Make strong laws for murderers
Why don’t you understand sister, why don’t you understand?
Be a leader and run the nation, why would you need a husband?

42The irony of this song is that Oli is singing words that still frame her as an actor/experiencer, not as an agent. The empowerment theme comes primarily from the male singer/author who berates Oli, implying that she is settling for too little and asking: why don’t YOU be the leader, [agentively] making laws, and running the nation? (Why settle for (just) a husband?)

  • 14 Written by Ashok Gurung [m]. (5.1K views)

43Another song, sung by Suneeti Karki [f] (Music Nepal, 2017, July 11)14, also iteratively focuses on the theme of women’s empowerment through access to education and employment. Although the song talks about wearing a sari and jewelry, those items are not the focus:

(6) I am educated
I have also made some savings
If I need a sari I will buy it on my own, if I need makeup I will buy it myself
I am also earning now

  • 15 See the Appendix for specific Nepali lyrics and English translations for song 6.

44These lines emphasize education, independent earning, and clear agency, evident in the form of the stressed “I” form, mai15, in the third line: if I pursue an education, I can earn and save money, [so] I can buy my own sari and makeup. Yet the power of the message is muted when we find the writer, again, is male.

  • 16 Sung and written by Sophia Thapa [f]. (2.9K views)

45However, Sophia Thapa [f] (Sophia Thapa Official, 2021, July 19)16 both writes and sings “Abako Tij no Brata Please” (“This Tij, no fasting please”). The singer faced backlash because the song challenged the ritual practice of fasting and breaking the fast by sipping water poured through their husband’s feet during the Tij festival:

(7) This Tij no fasting please [“no” and “please” in English]
No water from cleansing feet
Woman and man, both are equal
Decorated like dolls, we won’t go for dar [feast]
No no no no, no no no no
This Tij, no adornment/beautification, please
No spending on parties

46This song iterates by calling women to celebrate together, but innovates by strongly rejecting the normalized ritualistic practices of Tij. While overtly elided, the clearly implied subject is a collective first-person singular: “we (women)”, stresses women’s semantic agency: “No! (we will) not fast/spend money on parties/adorn ourselves/decorate ourselves as dolls to go to feast.”

47Thapa was challenged as being anti-Hindu, but she commented: “We should follow our tradition and culture according to the time. The custom for women to fast without drinking water for the longevity of their husbands is wrong in terms of both health and equality” (“After the pressure”, 2020). In speaking against adornment and fasting, Thapa called for action against commodification and patriarchal norms that can damage women’s health (evidenced by the frequent hospitalization of women who drink little or no water during their fasts). The iterative repetition of the English word “no” signals strong resistance and “we” highlights a collective (feminist) voice. Thapa (2021) commented on this song on YouTube:

This festival considers women and young girls impure. So, on the basis of this thought, I composed this song. Through the song I have focused on the equality of man & woman. Furthermore, I want to appeal to celebrate this festival in a simple way. (singer’s own comments in English)

48These three types of songs (laments, commodification, and empowerment) thus reflect different kinds of agency. However, it is important to note that these do not occur as successive eras of Tij songs: all three types are circulating at the same time.

The multimodal positioning of women in Tij music videos

49Critical discourse studies of multimodal texts (e.g., Jancsary et al., 2016; KhosraviNik & Unger, 2016), have argued that the practices of production, distribution, and consumption of texts, including those on digital media, contribute to hegemonic discourses in shaping public opinion and ideologies. Visual theorists Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright (2017) contended that “the most powerful aspect of ideologies is that they appear to be natural or given. … Visual culture is not just a representation of ideologies and power relations. It is integral to their production” (p. 38).

50Considered by many consumers as simply a leisure and entertainment activity, Tij songs might not spur all viewers to carefully analyze the language of songs or the visual symbolism as they stream them. Yet the creation and continual playback of songs and videos across social media can naturalize certain cultural ideologies (see Butler’s discussions of “reification” and “congealing” (1990, p. 33) and “sedimentation” (1993, p. 15)), even as they foster users’ involvement and pleasure in the music.

  • 17 Written by Sundar Mani Adhikari [m]. (50M views)
  • 18 Written by Sundar Mani Adhikari [m]. (11M views)

51The highlight, for many, of Tij is women coming together to party with their friends: a collective celebration of women, with women, for women, as they meet together to move their bodies. Yet, even as they gather to celebrate, they may be singing along with Tij songs of lament. For example, in two very popular versions of the video, “Chari jelaima” (“Caged Bird”) (Sapana Music Industries, 2021, August 18)17 and “Chari jelaima 2” (Sapana Music Industries, 2022, August 10)18, by Bishnu Majhi [f], the visuals tell the story of the lead character’s forced marriage and domestic violence, but these are disjunctively intercut with upbeat dances featuring the same woman, engaged with other women, emoting with joyous expressions.

52It may be that the great popularity of Majhi’s videos reflect for many women the only agency they have: joining with other women to complain and then partying (anyway). If songs reiterate suffering and lamentation about marriage, they may thus (inadvertently or intentionally) normalize the idea that such suffering is women’s fate, an inherent part of women’s lives – even when couched as complaints against that suffering. The contrastive visuals of upbeat dancing might suggest that at least one can (temporarily) alleviate the stresses of that fate by partying with one’s friends or purchasing consumer goods, even if those actions do not promote larger social change.

  • 19 Written by Neeharika Laxmi Shahi [f]. (28M views)

53Many modern Tij dance videos, such as “Chittikai bha chhu re” (“Looking pretty”) (2019) by Sindhu Malla (see Note 10) and “Aayo Teejako Lahar” (“Tij festivity is here”) (Kendra Motion Pictures, 2021, August 7)19 by Melina Rai [f], are “spectacular”, high-value visual productions, highlighting consumer commodification. They are set in “party palaces”, with beautiful women (frequently popular actresses and models) dressed in flashy saris, jewelry and makeup, dancing to highly choreographed, upbeat tempo songs. They exploit social media, such as YouTube, enabling year-round consumption, evidenced in the millions of YouTube views. However, the spectacle behind these productions requires significant financing by music companies. They advertise that women’s agency seems to depend on their consumerism, available to women if they only buy enough products to look like these models.

54However, some videos directly advocate for women’s empowerment. Sometimes, their makers express authorial agency, writing songs and producing videos themselves, or releasing them on their own channels, all while recognizing the market demands for the iterativity of new songs:

Sunita Dulal, a folk singer … has released Teej songs every year since 2008. For the last few years, Dulal has made it a point to release her Teej songs on her own YouTube channel. “If I don’t release at least one Teej song a year, I don’t feel complete. I know that a demographic of my loyal listeners awaits my Teej song. If not for myself, I have to do it for them”, says the singer. (Rana, 2022)

  • 20 Written by Ramesh BG [m]. (270K views)
  • 21 Sung by Komal Oli [f], Juna Prasai [f], & Riza Uprety [f] and written by Dandapani Pandey [m]. (5.1 (...)

55Komal Oli’s video “Discoma Tij” (“Tij in a disco”) (Action Media, 2015, October 29)20 highlights women’s personal and financial independence and the choices they have regarding dress and the manner of celebration. The video reflects the influence of Western fashion (with the dancers wearing crop tops, miniskirts, and cocktail dresses), while the lyrics address how old traditions must change, that women must act or celebrate in ways that they desire. Oli sings of the freedom available to women in celebrating the festival in “Aau na aau sangini” (“Let’s get together, friends”) (Rodung, 2011, August 13 )21. As Smriti Basnet noted, “Singers like Oli are no longer taking their secondary role in society as a given. They are voicing their independence and using Tij songs to do it” (2016).

56Sophia Thapa’s song “No brata please” (Sophia Thapa Official, 2021, July 19) is also visually distinctive: it features fast-paced music and dance but stands out among other videos because of the blue-themed setting (rather than the traditional red of Tij), with the singer and models wearing casual outfits without heavy jewelry and makeup. The rapid, synchronized dance incorporates non-traditional dance moves. Such unconventional representations suggest that women can choose any form of dance or attire to be part of Tij. Binita Kafle noted that “Songs and dances are a strong form of resistance against efforts to control women”, and though “strong messages [in recent Teej songs] have been suppressed by patriarchal systems, … we should get those hidden messages as tools of resistance” (2021).

  • 22 Sung and written by Haridevi Koirala [f]. (780K views)

57Again, we caution against seeing the development of songs of resistance and empowerment as totally replacing earlier types. Even as Tij songs and videos themselves cycle and evolve, older themes still recur (both in lyrics and visuals), as in “Sunnu hola” (“Please listen”) (Music Nepal, 2016, August 10)22 by Haridevi Koirala. Yet the continuous iteration of videos again leaves space for the innovation of new forms open to resistance.

Resistance, backlash, hope

58While Sophia Thapa and Komal Oli’s songs resist the excesses of commodification and iterate messages of (feminist) empowerment, they have provoked backlash, including death threats by Hindu religious organizations (Freedom Forum, 2020). What seems to be viewed as the more troubling aspect is not the excesses of consumerism, but perceived threats to the patriarchal religious system.

  • 23 Despite Hinduism having a pantheon of goddesses (e.g., Parvati, Devi, Kali), Rajan (1998) cautions (...)
  • 24 Written by Dandapani Pendey [m]. (384K views)

59Furthermore, while the roots of Tij lie in the narrative of the goddess Parvati rebelling against arranged marriage and choosing her own partner, which suggests “a revolt against patriarchal order … this aspect of revolt has been overshadowed in the myth making process” (Mishra, 2011, p. 83)23. Even today, in Nepal, if a woman elopes (referred to as “poila”), as in the popular Tij song “Poila jana paam” (Music Nepal, 2020, July 24)24 sung by Komal Oli, she may be labeled as immoral. Due to the song’s provocative language and theme, Oli also faced severe backlash. Anna Stirr (2019) commented:

Protestors’ questions overlooked the fact that Dandapani Pande [m] wrote the lyrics, and attributed them to the true feelings of Komal the singer. They collapsed the idea of a persona in the song with the singer herself, leading to personal attacks on Komal’s character. Komal and the persona in the song appeared to have an excess of desire and agency – the capacity to act independently and make choices – that was deemed inappropriate for an honorable woman, and thus too much for the song’s detractors to bear.

60Such backlash suggests that these singers’ social protests and issues of women’s empowerment have touched some nerves, and that they thus matter.

61Despite facing backlash, artists contribute to the preservation of culture by actively participating in the tradition of Tij by presenting songs with new themes. For instance, they might advocate that women participate in the Tij festival but reject the practice of “nirjala vrat” (fasting without water). Yet they innovate by introducing a more assertive feminism in their lyrics. The example of the Tij songs as resistance thus offers models for agency that are consistent with (global) feminist goals of women’s empowerment – even when there are not always overt claims to the label of “feminism”.

62An overarching theme present in all the categories of songs and videos we discuss is the collective celebration of women, which also marks the very essence of Tij. An opportunity to get together and dance “highlights all kinds of female dancing bodies, young and old, moving joyously together” (Stirr, 2019) in ways not sanctioned outside of the Tij fest. Recent songs of empowerment, moving beyond covert social commentaries limited in time, instead position women at the center, agentively refusing lavish parties and commodification, prioritizing gender equality and financial independence, and focusing on “empowerment and social justice” (K.C., 2019). Challenging such normalized rituals and practices in Tij songs can extend beyond the Tij events, transcending their boundaries, both temporal and spatial, empowering women to consider alternative choices in their daily lives.

63Thus, it is not language itself (not just the syntax or semantics), nor the videos of Nepali Tij songs that can cause change, but the multiple iterative ways that lyrics, songs, videos, and authorial intentions both arise from and yet also work to reshape cultural narratives. A woman who has felt disparaged and discriminated against for being born as a woman (and thereby often deemed unclean), can agentively create a song for a religious festival – or choose to join with other women to complain or to joyously sing and dance along to such songs that advocate seeking an education or running for government. These performances, tapping into spaces that form in the iteration of local ideologies and body politics, can create a particularly powerful tool to reform ideologies over time.

64Our discussion of iterativity and agency in Tij songs in this paper can speak to other global contexts: just as South Asian scholars have stressed the need for South-South conversation (Butalia & Falkof, 2023), such knowledge-sharing can offer new ways for understanding complex situations and finding new forms of agency elsewhere. As Butalia is quoted, “as we grow into feminism, we understand more the complex nature of the problems we are confronting. Our modes of resistance change, our modes of questioning change” (p. 483).

65In order to understand the uptake, revision, and iteration of new feminist definitions and messages of agency across the world, it is essential to take into account local material-discursive conditions including religion (as well as caste, class, ethnicity, etc.). Iteratively adapting locally mediated forms of communication offers models for how others living under patriarchal domination may agentively adapt their own local discursive tools to their own contexts. Thus, discursive empowerment can be one important force in feminism, particularly due to the iterative nature of language, the circulation of modern media, and agentive authorship embedded in our cultural systems.

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Video References

All videos are accessible as of January 28, 2024.

ACTION MEDIA. (2015, October 29). Superhit teej song | Disco ma teej "डिस्को मा तीज" | Komal Oli. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnyZd_uEmGM

CHALAUNE, Anita. (2020, July 8). Yesto Banos Mero Teej by Anita Chalaune | Feat. Sagar Lamsal & Twinny Girls | New Teej Song 2077. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNptWpx7n74

8K EVEREST MOTION PICTURES. (2019, July 19). Chitikkai Bha Chu Re - Sindhu Malla Ft. Aanchal Sharma | New Teej Song. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16Qf5qMRtY4

KC, Santosh. (2023, July 9). New Teej Song 2080 | Chhoriko Karma - छाेरीकाे कर्म | Santosh Kc, Shanti Shree Pariyar, Devi Gharti. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_afDkAeu8Rk

KENDRA MOTION PICTURES. (2021, August 7). AAYO TEEJAKO LAHAR | Official Teej Song 2021| Melina Rai Ft.Prisma & Princy Khatiwada (Twinny Girls). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bn5Qpr79LQw

MUSIC NEPAL. (2016, July 18). Komal Oli & Pashupati Sharma’s "LASTAI CHOTI "लास्टै चोटी हो" | New Nepali Teej Song 2073. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2AYi2DRjbU

MUSIC NEPAL. (2016, August 10). New Nepali Teej Song 2073/2016 | Sunnu Hola - Haridevi Koirala. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVqaOkhx_R0

MUSIC NEPAL. (2017, July 11). New Teej Song | Ma Pani Ta Kamaune Bhaki Chhu - Suneeti Karki Ft. Suneeti Karki & Anusha. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL_OobA1T0c

MUSIC NEPAL. (2018, July 19). New Teej Song 2075/2018 | Iphone Kinne Ho - Dikshya Sunar & Jiwan Rasaili Ft. Bimal & Mamata. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPNu4SqbfoM

MUSIC NEPAL. (2020, July 24). "पोइल जान पाम्" तिज गित | Poila Jana Paam - Komal Oli | Nepali Teej Song. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTGNdf3iPbA

POUDEL, Purushottam. (2022, July 9). New Teej Song 2079 - BUHARIKO KARMA बुहारीको कर्म | Purushottam , Devi gharti, Shanti Shree Pariyar. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIY9wyi7BTE

RODUNG, Prakash. (2011, August 13). teej song by komal oli. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebi8nGZ4gf0

SAPANA MUSIC INDUSTRIES. (2021, August 18). चरी जेलैमा | Bishnu Majhi New Nepali Teej Song 2078/2021 | CHARI JELAIMA| Putaliko Bhatti - 17 | 4k. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsKAqFo0Yck

SAPANA MUSIC INDUSTRIES. (2022, August 10). चरी जेलैमा | Bishnu Majhi New Nepali Teej Song 2022/2079 |CHARI JELAIMA 2 | PutalikoBhatti-18, 4k. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEzCys3Yluk

SOPHIA THAPA OFFICIAL. (2021, July 19). Sophia Thapa | No Song | No brat please #NoSong#abkoteej#SongForEquality#VoiceForHumanity#. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02gd0HXKbUk

YASHI PRODUCTION HOUSE. (2022, November 16). Karmaile Ghumayo |कर्मैले घुमायो | Tika Pun & Yagya Kumar Giri Ft. Dikshya & Parbati | Teej Song. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sq9d1IkjhI

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Annexe

Nepali & English lyrics in examples (2-7):

Romanized versions of the Nepali language (from Devanagari script), and sense translations in examples (2)-(7) are by co-author Timalsina [f].

(2) Chhori bhani padayenan papi baba aamale
Sinful parents
did not educate me because I was a daughter

Ahile malai poldaichha charko ghaamle
The scorching sun
is burning me now [I am suffering now]

(3) Chitikkai bha chhu re tyo rato sarile
[I] Look pretty, in that red sari [they say]

(4) Rato sari dhalkaudai aaula barilai
[I] Will come flaunting my red sari

Sun chura talkaudai aaula barilai
[I] Will come wearing shining gold bangles

Mai nachda duniya hereko heryei hos
[I wish] The world would keep staring [stunned by me]
when I dance

(5) Oli [f]: Malai bhanda ajhai pani tanneri ko queue chha
for me there still is a queue of young men

Manchhe pani ramri chhu ma testai ramro jiu chha
I am beautiful, so is my body

Ye koti koti ho Shiva koti koti ho
million, million (bows to) Shiva

Poi chaiyo bhanera geet gaune mero lastai choti ho
This is the last time
I sing wishing for a husband

Sharma [m]: Petmai chhuri maarne laai kanun banau kada
Make strong laws for murderers

Kuro bujhya khoi didi kuro bujhya khoi
Why don’t
you understand sister, why don’t you understand?

Neta banera desh chalau kina chaiyo poi
Be a leader and run the nation, why would you need a husband?

(6) Dui char akshyar padeki pani chhu
[sense translation: I am educated.]

Dui char paisa jodeki pani chhu
I have also made some savings

Saari chahiye mai kinchhu srinagar chahiye mai kinchhu
If I need a sari I will buy it on my own, if I need makeup I will buy it myself

Ye hai ma pani ta kamaune bhaki chhu
I am also earning now

(7) Abako Tij no brata please
This Tij no fasting please [“no” and “please” in English]

No khutta ko pani
No water from cleansing feet

Mahila purush dubai nai barabari
Woman and man,
both are equal

Gudiya jastai sajiyera nakhane dar haami
Decorated like dolls, we won’t go for dar [feast]

No no no no, no no no no

Abako Tij no nakkal please
This Tij, no adornment/beautification, please

No Kharcha ko party
No spending on parties

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Notes

1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 11th Biennial International Gender and Language Association Conference: Language and the Geopolitics of Gender on June 22, 2021. We are grateful to that audience, and to two anonymous GLAD! reviewers and editor Cornelia Möser for their incisive commentary, which greatly clarified our argument.

2 Tij is also transliterated as Tīj or Teej.

3 We base our work on a corpus of about 60 popular Tij songs uploaded over the past decade, drawn from YouTube over the years 2020-2024. See the Video References and Notes below for full references and number of views of the selected videos.

4 Space limitations of this paper prevent us from including a more comprehensive multimodal analysis of these videos and viewers’ comments, both rich sources of more data.

5 Sung and written by Haridevi Koirala [f]. (780K views)

6 See the Appendix for specific Nepali lyrics and English translations of examples (2)-(7) by co-author Timalsina.

7 Sung by Tika Pun [f]; written by Yagya Kumar Giri [m]. (1.7M views)

8 Sung by Santosh KC [m], Shanti Shree Pariyar [f], and Devi Gharti [f]; written by Santosh KC [m]. (971K views)

9 Sung by Purushottam Poudel [m], Devi Gharti Magar [f], and Shanti Shree Pariyar [f]; written by Shiva Paudel [m]. (2.3M views)

10 Sung by Sindhu Malla [f]; written by Raj Kumar Bagar [m]. (28M views)

11 Written by Bipin Kiran [m]. (7.2M views)

12 Written by Jeevan BC [m]. (33K views)

13 Written by Pashupati Sharma [m]: (9.2M views)

14 Written by Ashok Gurung [m]. (5.1K views)

15 See the Appendix for specific Nepali lyrics and English translations for song 6.

16 Sung and written by Sophia Thapa [f]. (2.9K views)

17 Written by Sundar Mani Adhikari [m]. (50M views)

18 Written by Sundar Mani Adhikari [m]. (11M views)

19 Written by Neeharika Laxmi Shahi [f]. (28M views)

20 Written by Ramesh BG [m]. (270K views)

21 Sung by Komal Oli [f], Juna Prasai [f], & Riza Uprety [f] and written by Dandapani Pandey [m]. (5.1K views)

22 Sung and written by Haridevi Koirala [f]. (780K views)

23 Despite Hinduism having a pantheon of goddesses (e.g., Parvati, Devi, Kali), Rajan (1998) cautions against thereby considering them as models for “feminism”.

24 Written by Dandapani Pendey [m]. (384K views)

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Référence électronique

Basanti Timalsina et Victoria L. Bergvall, « Iterativity, agency, and feminism in the Hindu Tij songs of Nepal »GLAD! [En ligne], 15 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/glad/7697 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/glad.7697

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Auteurs

Basanti Timalsina

Basanti Timalsina is a PhD student in the Rhetoric, Theory, and Culture program at Michigan Technological University. She obtained her MA in English from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Her primary research interests include gender studies, media and communication studies, and rhetoric and composition.

Victoria L. Bergvall

Victoria L. Bergvall is an Emerita Professor of Linguistics, Michigan Technological University, and a past president of the International Gender & Language Association. Her publications include co-editing Feminist Vigilance and Rethinking Language & Gender Research: Theory & Practice, containing “The Question of Questions: Beyond Binary Thinking” (Bing & Bergvall, 1996); and “Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Language and Gender”, Language in Society.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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