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Mirchan Kurkurian and Swollen Lips
Words by Sangeet Toor; Illustration by Samia Singh
Welcome to Punjab: Food, Music and Resistance, a Vittles series on food imagery, themes and lyrics in Punjabi music, from boliyan to protest anthems.
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Mirchan Kurkurian and Swollen Lips, by Sangeet Toor
Mirchan kurkurian naale chholeyan di daal kraari
Chandre ne hor mang layi
Main vi karrchhi wagaah ke maari
Naale ohda bulh sujjeya naale aakar bhaj gayi saari
Ve kaahnu chheri si naagan di pateyaari
(I served) crunchy chillies and spicy gram daal
the rascal had the cheek to ask for more
And I flung the ladle across
He got a swollen lip and his arrogance broke down
Why did you dare touch the basket of snakes?
It was at a wedding that I first heard this boli. I was eighteen years old, and my papa di bhua di kuri da munda – the son of my father’s cousin – was getting married in a village in Punjab, accessible via a dirt path off the Sangrur-Malerkotla road. After the men left for the bride’s village, the women gathered in a small, intimate circle. Around fifty of them huddled together under the warm sun in a chilly December and began the first boli, congratulating the mother of the groom – Wadhaiyan bebe tenu wadhaiyan ni. Then the common boliyan followed, which set the premise for those to come– boli main paavan nach gidhhe vich tu – ‘I will recite the boli while you dance in the circle of giddha’.
Boliyan are an integral part of Punjab’s oral culture, and when the couplets are performed in dances or skits, they become giddha. At first, when the women recited 'Mirchan kukurian', they stood in a circle, their voices low and faces expressionless. It was only when the two concluding lines were invoked that the reciter, alongside a few other women, jumped inside the circle. They danced and acted on these lines, clapping their hands in rhythm with the rest of their bodies. Their feet thumped on the ground, raising dust around them. They laughed at the mention of ‘swollen lips’. And when the line Ve kaahnu chheri si naagan di pateyaari ‘Why did you dare touch the basket of snakes?’ arrived, they joined to repeat this line in chorus, while three others lay on their backs and slithered like snakes on the ground. To this day, I have never forgotten witnessing this giddha.
Boliyan are usually recited by women, except for in the Malwa region of Punjab, where men recite them too, or in Dalit communities, where giddha is performed at weddings by both men and women. The themes of boliyan vary – they can tell of marriage woes, familial affairs and agrarian issues – and within boliyan, there is often mention of crops, cooking and food. The things they mention are often quotidian – like mirchiyan (chillis), chholey (graam daal) and gur (jaggery). But behind these everyday things are metaphors, wishes, and curses that have been woven into poetry and song.
Consider this boli, in which a wife laments the scarcity of food in her kitchen: Bharoli de vich aata haini, pipi de vich daal, ve tenu haija hoje bhukhey tan marde mere baal – ‘There isn’t any wheat flour or daal in the kitchen, may you (the husband) get cholera, as my kids are dying of hunger’. Or this one, in which the ripening of harvest is equated to the marriage of a daughter: Edhar kankaan udhar kankaan, vich kankaan de boor peya, mutiyaare jaana door peya! – ‘The wheat fields on all sides have ripened, the young girl will have to go far away now!’
When I heard it for the first time, I crammed ‘Mirchan kurkurian’ into my head, because that's what we did when we heard a new boli. But even without memorising it, I would have remembered this giddha because of how it opened up another side of rural women for me. I had previously always witnessed them as reticent cooks; during the days I spent in Sangrur, my aunt, her daughters, and daughters-in-law were already at work by the time I woke up, since their days began at four in the morning. They would be around the chullah making saver di roti, dopehar di roti, raat di roti – cooking for the whole day. Between all that, they washed clothes, fed and milked the buffaloes, cleaned the house, washed the dishes, and prepared up to twelve glasses of milk for the whole family after dinner.
And so in ‘Mirchan kurkurian’, when the reciter communicated directly with other women, telling them about the chholeyan di daal for raat di roti that she cooked, I watched her take back the domestic space as her own. In the boli, when the narrator’s husband asks for more and she throws the ladle at him, she gives him not just a swollen lip but also bruised, broken pride: I believe that the woman provided her husband with an estimate of the lentils, wheat grain and besan in advance, but he was careless, testing her patience and demanding that she worked more. While, in Sangrur, women around me laboured all day, the woman in the boli resists, refusing to expend herself for the sake of her husband. In the boli, there was an element of protest.
Food in boliyan is also used to express desire. In Punjab, like in many parts of South Asia, sexual desire is a man’s world in which women are secondary participants. But in boliyan and giddha, women upturn that polarity, decentralising access to desire and taking charge. There is a boli I heard in a teej (wedding giddha), in which a young woman expresses desire for a partner. In it, the woman compares herself to ripe crops, almost ready to be harvested. Urle khet vich kanak baajra, parle khet vich ganne, ve mai nacha baalma khetan de banne banne, she sings: ‘This side is the wheat-millet field, that side is sugarcane, O my man, I am dancing on the edge of these fields’.
While women are prevented from doing so in their real lives, in the boli we see desire and sexual agency being expressed by a young woman herself. Even ‘Mirchan kurkurian’ demonstrates this: the spicy chholeyan di daal can be interpreted as the husband desiring more sex. But the woman stands her ground, and in doing so she levels the playing field between them. In this boli, male dominance is shattered by a single assertion of female will.
Boliyan are filled with resistance, humour, and assertion; what women cannot normally express in front of family is expressed in front of everyone in the boli. A daughter-in-law can recite sass margi sahure nu lai gya koi kurio, ni mai ajj ghar baaran hoyi kurio – ‘My mother-in-law has passed away and my father-in-law went away, today I became the woman of the house’. A wife can dance to balle balle vayi jai mai hundi jaildarni, teri muchh te chobara paundi – ‘I wish I were a village leader, I would have built a nice house on your moustache’. In boli and giddha, women tap into their own potential, to assume roles otherwise forbidden to them. The narration of the boli is a story of triumph, and the repetition of the concluding couplets by more women is a validation of that victory.
I still think of the women in the wedding at Sangrur, dancing to ‘Mirchan kurkurian’, their shawls falling off their heads; I remember watching two of them locking eyes as they danced, daring and outrageous, merging their personal with the political. During my lifetime, there is only one other time that I have witnessed the women of rural Punjab doing something so extraordinary; that is, when they left their homes and fields to protest the farm laws at the Delhi borders, demanding rights for their crops and their land. When the women danced to ‘Mirchan kurkurian’, they laughed; they sang; they ridiculed men; they ridiculed the matriarchs who restricted them. At the wedding, as I watched the woman dance together, I witnessed a concert of their esteem. Main vi karrchhi wagaah ke maari, they sang, as I witnessed their freedom.
Sangeet Toor is a cybersecurity analyst and writer based in Chandigarh. She writes on political undercurrents of culture, social movements and technology.
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.