CULTURE ‣ Gaun Bithauna (Part 2): Women’s Song Circle at a Traditional Punjabi Wedding.
Updated: Apr 20
Sarvar Kahlon, Senior Editor, Cross-Cultural and Traditional Music
Mise-en-scene and Singing Manner
In Punjab as in the rest of South Asia, marriages were typically arranged. If you’ve seen the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking, you probably are aware that the practice continues even today. Once the wedding date was fixed with the approval of both parties via a matchmaker, the bride’s family set about drafting the Sahe di Chitti or the wedding announcement letter, which was addressed to the groom’s family. On the day that the letter was dispatched, both parties sent summons through the nain (barber’s wife) inviting women of the local kin and community to gather in the house of the betrothed after finishing their chores for the day.
Punjabi women relaxing after a day’s chores at the backdoor of a house, Punjab, 1945.
Photo by Sunil Janah
Dr. Indira Virk, scholar of Punjabi folk literature at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, recalls that, “the summon would be sent in the afternoon so that women could get free early. They all brought either ground flour, rice or some other ration item and put it in a vessel kept outside the house near the door before entering. This was recompense for the nain (the barber’s wife) who had summoned them.”
Three unidentified women from the Punjab photographed in their kitchen, c.1899.
The women thus invited, would sit in the kitchen or in the living room huddled under quilts if the weather was cold, or on the roof or the open courtyard if it was Summer. This tradition was called gaun bitauna, which literally means made to sit and sing, and took place an odd number of days before the wedding day, from a minimum five to maximum twenty-one days.
For the large part, the repertoire of these sessions comprised songs with long heks (a long drawn out call of “ho” sung in plaintive tones) such as Suhags, Ghodi and Lamme Gaun. A renowned scholar of Punjabi folklore, Dr. Nahar Singh (2011) notes that as the song session advanced, women rapped upon vessels like a clay pot, pitcher, or a copper plate with a spoon or a ring on their finger. Such improvised instrumentation is witnessed not only in Punjab but in music traditions across the world wherever singing is considered a feminine activity and playing instruments a masculine domain.
Typically, Suhags and Ghodis are performed by two pairs of women singing alternate verses. The songs could also be sung in chorus or with a group repeating the refrain in response to a soloist (Singh, 2011). Besides the ritual songs sessions, women could also be heard singing Suhags (bride’s house) and Ghodis (groom’s house) as the sahe di chitthi was being drafted, while performing chores like sifting flour, sorting stones from lentils etc., during all the rituals associated with bride preparation and also, at the time of bride departure.
Although singing at weddings was a part of women’s cultural duty, it was equally an opportunity for them to socialize, have fun, and gain respite from the routine of domestic obligations. However, with the evolutions of Punjabi society over time, owing in large part to village outward migration, marriage traditions have undergone a sea change. As several rituals fell out of use, their accompanying music traditions also dwindled. To the extent that pre-wedding song sessions are now rarely established, even less so at urban weddings. Few Suhags/Ghodis may be sung at the outset to token the tradition. Nevertheless, these songs live on in people’s memory thanks to popular renditions by legends of Punjabi folk music like Surinder Kaur and Gurmeet Bawa.
Surinder Kaur (Center) singing while playing the dholki (double sided-drum)
The above video is a tribute to the legendary BibiSurinderKaur the nightingale of Punjab who made this song into a household phenomenon. This time it is rendered by her very talented daughter DollyGuleria ( who carries the family tradition with aplomb ), granddaughter Sunaini and great granddaughter Rhea. Three generations come together for this superb rendition. Mawaan Te Dheeyan, is rightly known as the finest expression of the relationship between a mother and her daughter. This evergreen number song is a must at weddings.
You can listen to Suhags here
And Ghodis here:-