They say art imitates life, and in the 1900s, as India was brewing the ideas of Independence, things were no different — the songs, too, began to reflect the socio-political landscape.

While Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram became the anthem for political movements, devotional songs like Raghu Pati Raghav Raja Ram, popularised by Gandhi, became particularly popular during the Salt Satyagraha in 1930.

Kolkata-based educator Chandra Mukhopadhyay, who has spent decades documenting rare folk songs sung by women in undivided Bengal, explains, “In Bengal, the slogan of Vande Mataram reached the remotest villages, which otherwise had no direct connections with the centres of the freedom struggle.”

Chandra has documented the folk music of the undivided Bengal region, travelling to districts like Murshidabad, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, and Bankura, among others, and learning about this women-centric music tradition.

Today she has a collection of about 6,000 folk songs. Her 2022 book Narir Gaan Shromer Gaan collects together 400 of these songs.

She says these melodies tell tales of many things —  from a girl’s first menstrual cycle to a woman giving birth and caring for a child, agricultural activities, and more. They also challenge the traditional portrait of women as shy, inexpressive, oppressed, and inactive, as recorded in traditional kinds of literature and histories.

“They sing for protest and social responsibility. They were powerful, socially responsive women. Picketing melodiously is their creativity. They were not secondary citizens of society.”

Here are five melodies that Bengal’s women used to express their patriotism during the peak of the freedom struggle:

1. Boile Vande Mataram, Kolkatate bhoire go anlam kalotilar jal This is sung by the weaving community of Comilla, a district of east Bengal. The marriage song talks about chanting Vande Mataram while carrying out a ritual, which included going to collect holy water.

2. Paati bichhao maaj ghare, Vande Mataram boile sita sajao maar kule, Vande Mataram boile This song is sung by all the artisan communities of Faridpur, a district in Bangladesh, and talks about chanting the phrase when dressing the bride up for marriage.

3. Paatite dhalia chaal, chaal kare uljhaal sabe bole Vande Mataram Another marriage song, this one originates from the communities of Dhaka, and discusses saying the phrase when separating rice grains as part of marriage rituals.

4. Swadeshi sindur diye korabo sajan sindurero modyi lekha Vande Mataram From Mymensingh in Bangladesh, this song has been composed by a community that creates earthen utensils and focuses on using homegrown products like vermillion, which ring of independence instead of relying on foreign goods.

5, Deshi sajan chamotkar, paro bondhu akbar bilalite mou diyo na, Gandhi Rajar maan mero na From Sylhet’s weaver community, this song talks about following Gandhi’s call to use indigenous clothes and reject foreign items.