(With inputs from Chintan Girish Modi)
How do we talk about love? About longing? About taboo and transgression? As part of our work on documenting and analysing the love legends of Punjab, we began to explore these fascinating questions. The starting point for these conversations were the prominent love legends of Punjab – Sohni Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban. We experimented with some of these ideas during workshops with studentsin Mumbai – one at Mindsprings Enrichment Centre in Worli, and another at Shishuvan School, Matunga.
The Mindsprings Enrichment Centre in Worli, Mumbai, conducts programs to support exceptionally able children, their teachers and families. It runs enrichment programmes to maximise the efficiency of thinking in ‘gifted’ or very bright children. The once-a-week Youth Discussion Forum (YDF) at Mindsprings describes itself as a “forum that aims to expose young people, to erudite discussion, so that they can truly enjoy that fine feeling of being ‘informed and cultured’.
Our group of 13-17-year-olds was smaller than we expected. This low ratio however proved to be a plus. It forced us, as facilitators, to be more intimately involved in the session we had planned, as participants ourselves, thus trying out the effectiveness of our ideas. This gave a new dimension to our role in the workshop. We became participants in addition to facilitators, writing along with the students, sharing our writing with them, and seeking comments on what we had written, breaking the ice along the way.
Kailash Kher’s lilting ‘Teri Deewani’, a song that we presumed to have great appeal, did not seem to work with the students at this workshop. In the face of self-declared ‘not-fans’ of Bollywood, we listened and watched the video until it was about half-way through, and turned it off once their interest waned, flagging the need to add more songs to our repertoire that either evoke the love legends or allude to the themes in them, so we have more genres to select from for sessions.
Students were willing to talk, however, sharing the images and ideas of love that they had learned, that they had experienced, and that they’d had passed on to them from others. While there was little personal sharing, there was a sense that this was something relevant, and worth talking about. They also talked about other kinds of love such as love between parents and children, love of family and friends, not just romantic love. The writing prompt, in particular seemed to be something they wanted to do – the boys came up with very different interpretations of what ‘not allowed to’ meant, and elaborated on those. One wrote a story about a person who fell in love with himself; another wrote about a girl who fell in love with her friend’s father. Challenging situations indeed!
What does love have to do with ‘personal development’? A lot, it would seem. At Shishuvan, a progressive child-centred school in Mumbai, our workshops were held as part of the Personal Development (PD) classes scheduled for eighth graders. PD sessions typically involve games, activities and conversations around themes that are of interest to the students. Chintan is their regular PD teacher, and from him, I learnt that ‘love’ and ‘relationships’ were topics that his teenage students would be interested in talking about.
We started by asking if they knew what the ‘class’ that day was about. “Love!” came the quick response, the rumour mill at this school being fast, furious and welcoming of class content for fodder. Most of the students seemed eager to find out what we were going to bring up, in the name of love. One or two expressed some apprehension – would this be a session of clichés? Was it really necessary to be there?
Here, Kailash Kher and ‘Teri Deewani’ appeared to be a favourite of many; nearly the whole class was singing along, some with their eyes closed, fully in the moment. They talked about his representation of love as something that was common in films (and perhaps stories) – but not necessarily one that many of them connected with in terms of physical danger. The idea of madness, risk, and falling into an abyss of emotion, however, was one that seemed to resonate.
When it was time to share the story of Sohni Mahiwal, the students were ready with both questions and explanations around the behaviour of the main characters, especially Sohni. What do you think about what happened to the lovers Sohni and Mahiwal? Is it relevant? Why did Sohni cross the river? Why weren’t the two allowed to be together? Have you heard such stories in real life, or other places, of people who weren’t allowed to be together?
The connections they drew between social pressures and the actions that Sohni chose to undertake were complex and nuanced. In retrospect, it would also be worthwhile to try and focus more attention on Mahiwal – it seems to me that while Sohni justifiably receives a great deal of attention for her actions and decisions in the legend, Mahiwal often fades into the background. We talked in this session about why Sohni didn’t refuse to marry her husband, for example, and why perhaps she went ahead and crossed the river. But we do not ask about Mahiwal’s decision to stay back from his crew of traders, why he encouraged Sohni to commit adultery, or what he represents. A couple of the students did raise the question of pressures he might have faced – and suggested that as an outsider, perhaps he was not subject to the same constraints as Sohni.
After both sessions, there were a number of students who wanted to keep talking. “How do you define love?” one set of young women asked me. Others were eager to take me into some sort of confidence, sharing a time when they “did something they later regretted”, and connecting it to the story of the star-crossed lovers. One student suggested that she’d gotten carried away – against the better advice of her friends, she’d made a decision that she (unlike Sohni) had time to regret. Another student asked if there were other legends like this one (he was certain there were), and wanted me to tell Mirza-Sahiban’s story. There was a general consensus that the themes in these stories were pervasive in Bollywood; the idea of a ‘forbidden’ something or someone created the basis for a good many plotlines.
To Chintan, later on, a student brought up something he had read about sexuality and bullying. Two other young men came up to me and explained why they thought it was important to talk about love, as more than just romantic – but also more than just familial. To hear this group so willing to engage, so eager to share, and so open to expressing their ideas, was invigorating. Where the Mindsprings discussion – perhaps because of the limitations in size, too – was less engaging, this one was full of the stuff of eighth grade experience, philosophising, and concerns.
The biggest take-away from these workshops was the reminder that young teens are not too young to talk about these love legends and what is socially sanctioned and prohibited. The issue is more one of how the material is presented, and how young people are invited to respond to it.
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