Kamla Bhasin, activist, songwriter, extraordinary communicator, and our fellow traveller in the feminist cause is no more. Yet she will live on forever in our hearts and in her songs that will resonate long after people have forgotten who wrote them.
Kamla had a rare talent for coining witty slogans, writing feminist songs set to popular folk tunes and empowering verses for girl children. But one song, in particular, flew across conferences and continents. This was (in Hindi): “Tod todke bandhanon ko dekho behne ati hain / O dekho logon dekho bahne aati hain / Ayengi, zulm mitayengi, woh to naya zamana layengi …
Breaking their shackles the sisters come
Look O you people, the sisters come.
They will come, they will fight oppression,
They will build a new world!”
In 1984, at the first conference of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) in Kerala, the halls resonated with Kamla’s freshly minted “Tod todke”.
In 1992, the song reached Harvard when I was teaching there. Radcliffe organised women’s history week to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The panellists included Betty Friedan (author of The Feminist Mystique), Gerda Lerner, Juliet Mitchell, Carol Gilligan, Dessima Williams and myself. I spoke on ‘Positioning the Western feminist agenda’, and ended my remarks by singing Kamla’s Tod todke. Colleagues in the audience who knew the chorus joined in.
Kamla’s song was a great success. But Betty Friedan, who had fallen asleep on the stage, woke up with a start, rather annoyed that she (the star) had been upstaged by a song, sung by a young woman from another continent! (The whole event was reported in The Harvard Crimson.)
In 2004, the song flew to Oxford. I was then president of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE), and at IAFFE’s annual conference held at Oxford, I invited Kamla and Aruna Roy to speak on a plenary titled ‘Empowering Women’. Kamla spoke brilliantly on ‘Singing to empower Women: the Subversive Potential of Feminist Songs in South Asia,’ illustrating her talk with snippets of her songs and ending with a full-throated “Tod todke”. Many of us sang with her. People remember it still as the conference’s most memorable panel.
Kamla and I became friends in 1981, when I returned from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex and plunged straight into the then immensely vibrant women’s movement in India and South Asia. She and I launched a campaign against the negative portrayal of women in the media. This included carrying a ladder and cans of paint to blacken particularly offensive billboards around the city; organising demonstrations outside cinemas in Delhi which clandestinely showed films with violent pornography; and editing a special issue of the journal ISIS international/PAWF published in 1984 by Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house.
Since the 1980s, Kamla’s slogans have enlivened numerous banners in protest marches. But she wrote for children, too. Her 1980s volume of Hindi rhymes for children, Dhammak Dham, was transcreated in many languages, including in English by me, and illustrated by Mickey Patel. In the preface of the 2014 edition re-titled: Housework is Everyone’s Work: Rhymes for Just and Happy Families, she writes: “It is both necessary and urgent that the division of labour between girls and boys, men and women within families is changed… We need books that show women in different roles, and … girls and boys, men and women … sharing household work.” Consider some illustrative lines from one poem I translated:
Mother works away all day
Through the week and all Sunday…
She bears the burden all alone
She wears herself down to the bone…
Don’t you think this is unfair?
Shouldn’t we help and do our share?
In another of Kamla’s poems in Hindi — Because I am a girl I must study — a daughter tells her father the many reasons why she must study. This has continued relevance, as a neighbouring country bans girls from school, and adds to the arsenal of other crusaders for girls’ education like Malala Yousafzai.
Kamla Basin was linked with many organisations — Seva Mandir, FAO, Jagori, Sangat. The latter two she co-founded. But her songs transcend borders. They are sung across South Asia in their original Hindi, and globally in the original or in translation by the One Billion Rising campaign.
I can imagine Kamla arriving at the gates of heaven with her countless followers, singing “Tod tod ke bandhanon ko, dekho bahne aati hain.” As she once said: Heaven too is full of patriarchs who need reforming!
Kamla Bhasin occupies a unique place in the pantheon of feminist activists.
Farewell friend, your songs live on.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2021 under the title ‘The songs of Kamla Bhasin’. The writer is professor of development economics and environment, GDI, University of Manchester.