The Gujjars and Bakerwals of Jammu and Kashmir
The Pir Panjal range known for its unique topography and passes is home to different ethnicities and linguistic communities. This array of cultures existing here shares the common space (territory), which is the basis for survival. In this heterogeneous abode various Linguistic and Cultural minorities live, Gujjar and Bakerwals are one amongst them. This tribe is well known for its nomadic-pastoralist lifestyle and seasonal migrations, therefore their economic, religious, social practices and interactions are suited around the same. The members of the tribe who still practice nomadism migrate to the meadows and pasture lands (Margs / Galis) on the upper reaches where they live for four to five months in structures called Dhara (Summer houses in Pastures). This migration begins with the onset of summer (April- June) and during the autumn season, they descend back to the plains or foothills with their livestock and essentials.
Bakerwals grazing their animals in the alpine pastures of Peer Gali Poonch, Bakerwals believe the grass at certain high altitude pastures is an important feed for the goats and sheep to survive winter in the plains. Image Credit: Garima Sharma
Gojri Bait (बैत): Cultural Heritage of Gujjars and Bakerwals
The theme of Gojri Bait usually comprises of events, occasions, histories, love and separation stories of migration, etc, which sometimes has a literary base to it- written in form of Qalams, passing down the culture of the tribe from generation to generation. Bait is sung in full charm during weddings, Gujjar Bakerwal weddings are the ones where you can witness culture in its entirety. The celebration does revolve around specific traditions and music. There is a variety of baits for every occasion like one for gaana, mehendi, rukhsati, etc. Bait is usually sung by women on these occasions. Along with this, both men and women have been singing bait leisurely whilst grazing their cattle and working in fields.
Women of the same family are captured in this picture, they were preparing to leave in a day or two from Jai Valley Bharderwah for Kathua district of Jammu, where they would spend the winter season. A couple of weeks ago they had a wedding in their tent, describing to me how they had content celebrations with music, bait. Image Credit: Garima Sharma
Challenges to the Existence of Gojri Bait
Gujjars and Bakerwals have struggled long to keep their culture alive and to a great extent have been successful in doing so. But the pressures of various urban, social, and religious narratives have impacted their music traditions. Gojri being a minority language has been facing the challenges of survival within dominant languages like Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu, and Pahari– to some extent. In this case, the demography plays an important role, that is, where there is a good Gujjar-Bakerwal population (for example Poonch and Rajouri) Gojri has more space and recognition. Whereas, in districts like Doda, Kishtwar, Udhampur, Anantnag, Budgam, etc where the population is minuscule and scattered the tribulations for the language to survive out of domestic space are much worse.
The popularity of Bait, even amongst the Paharis (in districts like Poonch) is significant due to the presence and visibility of Gojri in public spaces. Radio channels and local artists from Poonch Rajouri have been using both Gojri and Pahari music traditions, but in other regions, this music tradition is not in the mainstream. When I spoke to Basharat a Gojri singer and poet from Bhallesa Doda, he talked about how the appeal for Gojri music is less in those regions in contrast to Poonch- Rajouri.
Gujjar women with their goats in Sultan Pathri Poonch, they belong to the category of Gujjars who are semi pastoralists- meaning they have settled practicing agriculture but also go to the nearby pastures in summer with their livestock, at least some members of the family. Sultan Pathri a village has road connectivity facilitating the sedentary lifestyle and is close to the meadows or pasture lands as well. Image Credit: Mir Miran Gulzar
Gujjar boy near his nomadic tent in Aru Pahalgam, one can see the solar panel is used in the tent. A lot of Dhoks have benefited from the tourism of Pahalgam, with good road connectivity to these meadows and electricity supply in some of them. The Gujjar Bakerwals here use their horses for tourists, generating some income. Image Credit: Mir Miran Gulzar
While working in Bhaderwah valley of Doda district, I met Samina Bi (name changed) a Bakerwal woman who told me how “bait” is not something to be structurally taught it is something which is adapted with interest, her children were never taught but learned it while indulging with it. She expressed her concern over how her grandchildren or children of this age were not so keen in Gojri music rather sought after Punjabi music. With the availability of indefinite Hindi/Urdu and upbeat Punjabi music on various digital devices the teens and young adults are more drawn to them for its popularity and composition, often choose this music over their traditional renditions even on occasions.
Over the years a lot of Gujjar Bakerwals have taken up settled agriculture in villages and some have settled in towns etc for occupational purposes, this development has created lifestyle changes (towards a more sedentary form) which has clearly affected their practices, music traditions are no different to this. While interviewing Gujjars and Bakerwals who were into jobs – that were not related to agriculture, as to how often do they sing bait, the usual answer was, not without an occasion as the times are different and the pace of life does not grant them enough space and time to indulge in it.
Gujjar boy standing in front of his permanent house in Brad Anantnag where his family works on a sheep rearing farm and perform other labor activities in the main town as well. They no longer practice migration, but live in this forested area even during the winter season and visit the main town when needed. Image Credit: Mir Miran Gulzar.
Bakerwal with his sheep in Anantnag, during the winter season. He had descended from the meadows of Aru Pahalgam, now waiting over someone’s land in a makeshift structure along with his family and livestock. Image Credit: Mir Miran Gulzar
Often the accounts on the history of Jammu and Kashmir have left out the stories of Gujjars and Bakerwals, besides due to lack of educational access the members from this community could not easily write their own accounts (which now is evolving for good), therefore musical renditions in the native language became a space for Gujjar- Bakerwals to have a voice of their own, making it a primary source of their alternate histories. In this regard the women have almost equal control over this orality, the close association of Bait with the domestic space provided them with control over stories and histories.
The dominant cultures and religious narratives have often tampered with Gojri music traditions, during the interviews it was found that in areas where the Gujjar Bakerwal population was less, the majority religion’s cultural and theological regulations often impacted Bait, claiming it to be contradictory to religious guidelines on music. Similarly, in heavy militarized zones and areas affected by insurgency, the freedom to perform music traditions was curtailed often. As mentioned before the urban pull has been the leading factor of reducing Gojri music from domestic spaces.
Hopes for Revival
Gojri Bait by contemporary artist Kabul Bukhari, Video Courtesy : Kabul Bukhari
Bakerwal Woman singing Bait informally at Jai valley Bhaderwah, Video Credit : Garima Sharma
Gojri bait which is an exceptional form of music amongst the Gujjar- Bakerwals, has a detailed history of evolving through different times. This has been a primary in solidifying the tribe’s identity and struggle as a minority community. The transition of this practice and control has become more symbolic yet popular, shrinking from its earlier spaces and acquiring new dynamic forms of existence.
First published by Shepherds of Himalayas on 24 Oct. 2020