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Subversive Humour and Socio-Sexual Politics: Women’s Gaari Geet

The photo of a wedding decoration surrounded by marigold garlands.

As a social event of paramount importance, few occasions can boast of the emotional range and intensity that characterises weddings in North India. Women’s wedding songs from the region likewise express the many moods and emotional registers associated with the event; these range from the joy of union and the blessings for the couple’s future to the bride’s anxieties regarding her new home and the grief of bidaai[1]. Given the general atmosphere of levity and celebration, it is no surprise that the humorous is one of the dominant moods of these folk songs. One genre of that extensive spectrum is the Gaali[2] or Gaari geet – abusive wedding songs performed by women, which are generally obscene and bawdy, and humorously insult members of the other party, who in turn accept these insults good-naturedly. What role does humour in general and the genre of Gaali in particular play in north Indian weddings? Why is the Gaali integral to the wedding celebration in this tradition? Finally, how does the genre negotiate with the social and sexual politics of its cultural context using humour? In this essay, I attempt to show how Gaali, as a distinct genre of festive humour, serves the dual function of containing, redirecting, and diffusing the subterranean traffic of certain antagonistic interests between the wedding parties, while also providing, as an exclusive domain of women’s expression, safe channels for a carnivalesque celebration of female sexuality.

At the outset, it is necessary to clarify that my context of analysis here is the ‘traditional’ north-Indian wedding within predominantly Hindu communities. The following analysis must be understood in the context of those communities which still operate within a ‘pre-modern’ culture of strict sexual repression and relations organised around authority. Before diving into a more detailed analysis, some preliminary functions of Gaali’s humour can be enumerated: it serves as an ice-breaker between the two parties given their limited former interaction in the context of arranged marriages, relieves the tedium of prolonged ritual activity through comic entertainment, and its licentiousness serves the “traditional legitimation of sexual pleasure” (Palmer, 1994, p. 23) where the default mode is one of sexual inhibition. I suggest that one major function of Gaali’s festive humour is to diffuse the tensions ingrained in the material exchange characteristic of these events on the one hand and to tease out the profits for one’s party via ridicule and name calling on the other hand. Hindu weddings, like many others, constitute a ‘gift economy’ where large amounts of material and wealth are transferred between the parties. This context of negotiated exchanges and commitments of expenditure pervades most expressions in the genre. Here is an example (as cited in Henry, 1975) of a Gaali sung by the bride’s party when they host the groom’s side:

Oh people of Mardapur, shine the lights, the thieves of Dudhuara come.
Thieves of mothers, thieves of sisters, the thieves of Dudhare come.
You shouted that you would bring elephants; you didn’t bring elephants
Fuck your sister; you didn’t bring elephants!
You come to ravish the bride!
You shouted that you would bring a band; you didn’t bring a band! (p. 74)

It is the bride-givers’ turn to mock the groom’s wedding procession (baraat). The groom’s kin are mocked as loud mouths who “shouted” their promises of plenty but are now revealed as miserly and deceitful – suggested by their failure to come riding on elephants or accompanied by the pomp and spectacle of a band, which are both symbols of social prestige in weddings. These are markers of the economic status of the groom’s family, and therefore of the bride’s family by association, hence their absence is an affront to the bride-givers (Henry, 1975). The guests, furthermore, are not only stingy but also thieving; insulting them as ‘thieves of mothers and sisters’ allows the bride’s kin a catharsis of emotional anxieties related to the sending off of a loved one alongside those related to expenditure and prestige through the medium of insult humour. No wonder the tone is likewise more risqué and spirited – “fuck your sister”. Thus, while allegations of deceit and miserliness are common expressions of material tensions between the two sides, bride-givers’ Gaalis also use accusatory insult-comedy to manage apprehensions around sexual power dynamics: “You come to ravish the bride!”

Obscenity and licentiousness are other notable features of the genre since sexuality is a major site of repression in these societies, especially female sexuality. This repressed sexual energy must, therefore, find occasions of safe release which is achieved through the earthy base comedy and ribaldry associated with the genre. Gaalis, like all wedding songs, are sung exclusively by women. Expectedly then, the obscenity is generally directed at emasculating the targeted male, mocking his sexual incompetence, or insinuating his lowness by ridiculing alleged immoral sexual deviations such as adultery on his part. Curiously, humorous abuse of a sexual nature is not only directed towards men but also towards other women. However, it appears that while the male’s sexual attributes are derided in these songs, those of the women are celebrated via playful insults. This leads to the second claim of my argument that as a form of women’s performance, Gaali facilitates a carnivalesque celebration of female sexuality through its bawdy humour. Consider the following Gaali (as cited in Raheja & Gold, 1996):

Ram Kishan had a son, a floppy-eared fellow.
Take down my full water pot, small husband dear.
Small, small what’s to be done?
See the male wonder:
In nine months I’ll feed a son.
Daughter have a lot of fun! (p. 58)

The groom’s suggested sexual incompetence becomes the subject of laughter here; the stress on ‘small’ is a clear reference to his sexual organ which is also rather inadequate like his ‘floppy’ ears. This mockery of his sexual organ stands in stark contrast to the implied sexual prowess of the bride; despite the shortcomings of the ‘male wonder’, the singers are confident in their expectation of a child – “In nine months/ I’ll feed a son”. In the spirit of inverting the general power equation of the conjugal relationship, the daughter’s sexual capacity is implied to overcome her husband’s lack. She can even arouse his incompetent male organ and bear a son. The final line addressed to the bride, “Daughter have a lot of fun”, may also be interpreted more radically as hinting at sexual liaisons to satisfy her carnal desires elsewhere. The resulting son would then further ridicule the unsuspecting, cuckolded husband.

While the preceding song is insulting towards the male and marked by an attitude of gentle playfulness towards the female since she is the daughter of the house, other expressions of female-female Gaali are spectacularly vulgar and celebratory. Here is a Gaali (as cited in Raheja & Gold, 1996) targeting the bridegroom’s mother, for instance:

Bridegroom’s mother asked for a sugarcane stick.
Take this one, a piece of prick.
Oh, but it’s sweet! I’ll plant more quick,
In my cunt I’ll plant that prick.
In my cunt I’ll plant that prick. (p. 61)

Here the Samdhan[3] is depicted by her insatiable sexual desire, the incongruity of such characterisation when contrasted with normatively chaste depictions of women produces the comic effect. Her desire for a ‘sugarcane stick’, the symbol of a particularly large phallus and the attendant connotations of its ‘sweet’ juice etc present her excessive lust through exaggerated comic imagery. The hilarity of the situation is only compounded by the fact that the Gaali singers and their target both seem to have unlimited access to ‘pricks’ – “take this one”, “I’ll plant more quick”. As this example shows, obscene Gaalis addressed to other women appear to be more in the spirit of camaraderie than outright ridicule as those addressed to males are. In fact, the joke here appears to be on her husband (the Samdhi[4]), who has clearly failed to satisfy his wife’s sexual desires.

As seen in this essay, the Gaali genre of wedding folk songs uses its ribald, earthy humour to various ends. On the one hand, this genre of insult humour is used to manage the tensions implicit in North Indian weddings given the economic and material negotiations intrinsic to them. On the other, we see that Gaalis directed at other women provides safe passages for a carnivalesque celebration of female pleasure through the unrestrained idioms of sexual abandon. The ambivalent character of the Gaali allows it to both express as well as contain antagonisms and repressed emotions in a non-threatening manner and humour is pivotal to this process. Risqué festive humour here functions as a safety valve and is, therefore, integral to communities characterised by a high degree of repression – for joking relationships have a “structural complementarity with and functional relevance to, social structure and cultural values” (Apte, 1985, p. 30). These zones of licensed disrespect through joking relationships have to be institutionalised – as in the wedding context via Gaalis – to manage the tensions inherent within certain social orders. Joking is sometimes a rather serious matter.


Apte, L. M. (1985). Joking Relationships. In Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach (pp. 29–66). essay, Cornell University Press.Henry, E. O. (1975). North Indian Wedding Songs. Journal of South Asian Literature,
11(1/2), 61–93.

Palmer, J. (1994). Joking Relationships. In Taking Humour Seriously (pp. 11–23). essay, Routledge.

Raheja, G. G., & Gold, A. G. (1996). Listen to the Heron’s words: Reimagining gender and kinship in North India. Oxford University Press.

[1] Bidaai or Vidaai refers to the farewell ceremony of the bride when she leaves her natal home (Naihar) for her marital home (Sasural).

[2] Literally meaning ‘verbal abuse’ (Gaali) or a ‘song of abuse’ (Gaari geet).

[3] Samdhan (the female equivalent of Samdhi) may refer to the mother-in-law of the bride or the groom or any of the other female kin of her generation.

[4] Samdhi predominantly refers to the father-in-law of the bride or the groom but may also refer to any other male kin of his generation.

Cover Image: Photo by Joshuva Daniel on Unsplash