- Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills by Kirin Narayan
Everyday Creativity begins with Kirin Narayan's memory of herself as a 15-year-old girl, sitting in a courtyard in Kangra at the base of the Western Himalayas, listening to women singing songs that she cannot fully understand (xviii). Over the three decades that follow, Narayan visits the region several times, forging a strong bond with the singers, recording their songs, and noting the many textures of meaning that the singing practices bring into women's lives. In this book, she combines her memories and notes to contextualize oral literacy in Kangra, enlightening the reader with stories of individual women who became her mentors, and providing a detailed commentary on collective memory, intimate social relations, and the history of everyday life in the region.
Narayan's book is a part of the Big Issues in Music Series.1 In its foreword, Philip Bohlman, one of the series editors, writes that the series aims to highlight cultural plurality in music and challenge hegemonic views that treat music as "a sonic object that is aesthetically autonomous and (universally) identifiable as music" (xiii). Narayan takes up the issue of plurality through the concept of "everyday creativity." To Narayan, creativity does not signify a deliberate display of innovation or genius. Instead, she emphasizes the minute, often unintentional, variations that occur in the lyrics and the music when mundane contexts prompt women to express themselves through song (29). Narayan calls these variations "everyday" because the improvisation spills across the boundaries of ritual and religious ceremonies. Women sing throughout the day—when they work, rest, socialize—allowing these songs to pervade all aspects of their lives, [End Page 421] filling their silences with stories of their beloved gods, and offering them solace and a sense of well-being. Through an analysis of minute textual variations, Narayan and the women she interviews reflect on the music's intimate connections to the history of the region and to individual women's embodiments of these histories.
As residents in agrarian Kangra, women use plant metaphors to structure their songs. Each song proceeds from a base (dhak) to a head (sire), and notes the fruits (phal) that women will gain by singing that particular song (30). Narayan uses these very metaphors to structure her book (xxii). Chapters 1 and 2 form the "dhak" or the root, grounding the songs in the history of Kangra, and contextualizing the songs' relations to its singers. Chapters 3–6 organize the "phals" or the rewards of singing into four different genres, exploring each one in detail. The epilogue becomes the "sire" and accounts for challenges posed to the songs and to the singers after the liberalization of the economy and the intrusion of Hindu nationalist narratives in the everyday lives of the singers. The use of local metaphors to structure the book underlines the credence that local language and knowledge have among women in Kangra. This ethnographic strategy also reinforces Narayan's attempt to account for the authority of oral literacy and the female voice.
In fact, it is precisely the authority of oral literacy that the "dhak," comprising of Chapters 1 and 2, emphasizes. Studying how multiple oral renditions allow women to chronicle their varying experiences, Narayan underlines the role that singing practices play in producing a record of Kangra's rich gendered history. In Chapter 1, she explains how singing allows women to take care of themselves, even as they navigate a complex, gendered life that puts them in charge of tending to the needs of others, particularly men. Through songs, women "remember" stories of local goddesses, and by likening these stories to their own, women create an archive of gendered life in Kangra. Recalling these songs in moments of anxiety and sorrow allows women to reach into the lives of other women for comfort and to heal through social bonds that stretch across time. Similarly, women form intimate friendships with each other as they come together to recall and render songs.
Chapter 2 illustrates the unintended variations...