Three Jugnis in Conversation

Raveeta Banger

Artists Raveeta Banger, Ashlee Elizabeth-Lolo and Rupinder Kaur share candid moments from their research and development process of their new play Jugni – The Female Firefly, which has been commissioned by Slanguages.  Jugni is a story about the Black and Asian female journey through time. The Jugni embarks upon inter-generational and multilingual conversations uncovering her lost voices in history. Inspiration for this play is drawn from the modern-day experiences and observations of Ashlee, Rupinder and Raveeta. This three-woman performance will explore themes of colonial history, race and migration through spoken word poetry and song. ‘Jugni’ translates as 'female firefly' in the Punjabi language, and the play (Jugni) illustrates and explores the various embodiments of fire in the lives of Black and Asian women.

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Image by L E Ludtke (2020)

Raveeta

Working on Jugni has been a soulful experience. The three of us collectively came together as a black British woman and two British Asian women to develop a play that we did not realise would go on to become the magic that it has for us. We knew that we wanted to talk about forgotten history and the importance of our mother tongues alongside that, but the life and soul of Jugni was something that came in to existence through the spirit of storytelling and sisterhood. For us, this was not the sisterhood we see posted on some large feminist platforms online that only debate feminism to pay it lip service. It was a real solidarity between three creatives. There was much to talk about, a lot in common, and with ample learning taking place between us. Did you think that we would have many similar experiences? Did you think that Jugni as she stands today would become such an extension of our creative multilingual vision in the way that she has? 

I particularly liked the way we engage with the history and stories of our female ancestors. Learning about Yoruba through Ashlee’s beautiful memories of her nan, was striking. As she spoke, I often found myself time travelling back to the 90s, to where I grew up in inner city Birmingham. I was reminded of how I learnt to fluently speak my mother tongue, Punjabi, through the stories my Nani ji would narrate and through the conversations I would have with both of my grandparents. I am thankful to still have that opportunity with them both. Fitting, then, that a key theme within our play is the concept of time travel and to revisit tender memories now past. This theme was instinctive and was borne from the conversations circulating in the room as we discussed everything from memories, childhood, history, race, caste, dual heritage and identity, and being multilingual. Debating the many layers to identity and selfhood was enriching and unique to the Slanguages project – did you anticipate that thinking critically and creatively about languages would bring to life such a personality as our Jugni character? I didn’t at first. But I do see it now.

Ashlee

The idea of Jugni or “female firefly” is an exceptionally powerful metaphor for the plight of Asian and Black women throughout time. During our fabulous production meetings, we explored how Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic or BAME women throughout history have been subjected to oppression from a variety of mediums – patriarchy, racism, caste and religion. However, as we untangled these variants, we found a commonplace of expression and healing and freedom from this: language.

Punjabi and Patois are both used throughout Jugni in many ways, but arguably their most potent function is in reclaiming our histories in the voices in which they originally transpired. Language and the survival of BAME women are similar in nature. Both languages have been subjected to the fist of colonialism and fought their way out of the grip of anglicization. Likewise, Black and Asian women have fought relentlessly throughout history to survive under oppression and to keep their inner flames alive.

The process of creating Jugni has also enhanced my experience of ally-ship amongst other women of colour. Working with Rupinder and Raveeta has been an enlightening and enriching process, in which we were all able to explore our histories in a safe space. It gave room for deep thought, debate and sisterhood.

For myself, as a Black British woman, Jugni represents breaking from societal chains and always honouring the voice within. Jugni is our biggest champion that always has our best interests at heart, which is shown throughout the play. She can express herself in many different languages – verbal, written, spoken word and dance. Jugni is a teacher, a friend and a constant reminder to speak up when the world forces you into silence. Jugni is honouring women from the past and present as well as those to come.

Rupinder

Our play and the character of Jugni, as inspired from my poem ‘Jugni’, transcends borders; it is a journey exploring the soul. The word Jugni comes from the Panjabi language and translates as female firefly. This fire essence has existed from the start of time in many schools of thought and has been explored in multiple tales; one being a Panjabi play in verse: Loona written by Shiv Kumar Batalvi.  Batalvi explores the essence of Loona as she undergoes the trials of fire in her life as a journey of womanhood. The journey of women through history has often been told through the language of men. Our Jugni explores women through our character’s eyes, using the languages that have accompanied her on her journey – Panjabi, Hindi, Urdu.

Jugni is our creation, the coming together of a black female and an Asian female along with their respective inner voices. These two voices in history are often overlooked on their own, and are, for me , rarely seen together – not least when the two histories share so much in common in terms of sisterhood. There can often be a sense of hostility between the two, but Jugni explores what a productive and nurturing sisterhood might mean. Looking at the fusion of language, culture and history we seek to explore, Jugni is also the voice telling us what has often been translated incorrectly.

Growing up in Handsworth, Birmingham, I noticed that there was a sense of solidarity between both black and Asian communities. My mum would often share food with a Caribbean lady that lived a few doors away from us and, despite her English not being strong, my mum was able to understand her language. Following conversations we had in our research and development phases of writing Jugni, we realised that it is possible to understand one another. Despite not having the same immediate language, we shared  similar cultural experiences, whether of migration, or of responses to colonialism, or of topics such as colourism, race and caste.

From my own experiences, I was always told I am dark skinned and referred to as the “sawaali” (dusky) and “kaali” (black in colour), and this is something I start to believe for myself, yet I would often wonder why my parents are quite fair compared to me. Eurocentric beauty standards have made many young girls feel like this too, and this can be seen on social media,  where beauty bloggers promote make-up methods, like contouring, or more extreme procedures, like nose jobs. This is problem shared across both of our communities, where the “light skinned woman” is preferred. Jugni aims to tell the story of our skin, both brown and black, and encourages us to be proud of our ancestors’ skin through the process of becoming women throughout history such, from Jhalkari Bai to Nanny of the Maroons.

The languages I have grown up speaking – Panjabi, Hindi and Urdu – have been, for me, about the lost voices of women. I don’t think we have really heard the voices of women in our cultures and histories actually speak. That’s why, I think, many Panjabi women have spoken about their feelings through folk songs which are followed by giddha clapping and dancing. Women were able to share their feelings via these songs in a safe space surrounded by women. Dance and music is thus an essential part of Jugni, since so often song and dance as art speak what everyday words are unable to say.

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Image courtesy of Raveeta Banger (2020).

About the creators:

Raveeta Banger (@raveetawrites on Twitter and Instagram) is a freelance writer and filmmaker who enjoys writing on topics addressing the arts, culture, race, caste, identity, other social issues and creativity. She completed a BA (Hons) in Film and Media at De Montfort University, Leicester, and a MA in Film and Television: Research and Production at the University of Birmingham.

Ashlee Elizabeth-Lolo (@LoloUnplugged on Twitter) is a writer, broadcaster and facilitator hailing from Birmingham. Her work explores the generational impact of culture, tradition and societal ideologies on the diaspora of ethnic minorities in the UK.

Rupinder Kaur (@rupinderkw on Twitter and @rupinderkw_ on Instagram) is a Birmingham based writer, performer,  and creative curator. Her debut poetry book Rooh (2018) was published with Verve Poetry Press. She has been awarded a DYCP grant from the Arts Council England to work on her next poetry collection and is currently a BBC new creative.