2021 – Project

(R) Researcher

Ravi Thiara

Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick

(R) Researcher

Nirmal Puwar

Reader, Goldsmiths University

View the Artwork

Boliyan: The sounds of women’s activism

The Boliyan project has been co-produced with:

Mouli Banerjee
Vera Hyare
Jitey Samra
Inderjit Sahota

We have focused on scenes and narratives collected for Alternative Trials, a project on the early creation of organisations for South Asian women in Coventry, and transfigured them, through a series of workshops, into Boliyan and Giddha – a vernacular folk artful form of song and dance carried transnationally by women who migrated from the Punjab to the diaspora. There has been very little participative arts-based research in this area, and this project has been a unique opportunity for us to experiment with the form and to develop ways of telling activist stories through the existing vernacular of Boliyan.

Through a series of small workshops we played with the format to compile hybrid Boliyan, consisting of rhythms and words from well-known lyrics and gestures, combined with stories of activism and life experiences in Coventry. So often academics can flatten the textured stories we collect through our writing and presentations. In this instance, we stayed with the performative force of Giddha and Boliyan, as forms of storytelling and sharing, to disseminate women’s oral political histories in Coventry.

At the University of Warwick’s Resonate Festival, held in the Treehouse in the Assembly Festival Gardens, on 19th September 2021, Preet Grewal led a live performance with the new Boliyan with Giddha. Beyond our expectations, it was packed with South Asian women from Coventry. Much to our surprise, the event was electric and became interactive, leading to audience participation on the stage for singing and dancing too. We can say that it was life affirming to see and hear the forms of dance and song we have grown up with bearing stories of women’s activism in Coventry, on a public platform.

Herstories of the form

Bhangra is known worldwide, usually through male performers. What is less well known and appreciated is the folk female dominated space of Boliyan and Giddha, which has been carried from the Punjab across the diaspora; from Canada to the UK.

Bol means ‘words’ and ‘to speak’ and Boliyan are short snippets or couplets. Giddha is performed by women at celebratory events, as well as at impromptu gatherings, by singing Boliyan. Usually one woman starts and takes the lead to sing a Boli and a second joins in as a partner with her to dance, whilst the rest surround them in a circle, clapping and singing the chorus, urging and daring them on, if a risqué mode is enacted. The occasion impacts on the style of Boliyan and Giddha enacted from across the spectrum of baudy lyrics and gestures to more sorrowful and lamenting moods. Giddha and Boliyan offer an outlet for a range of emotions, including loss, as well as joviality and humorous banter. When created in an atmosphere of gaiety, Boliyan provide a way of having a dig at someone or something. In everyday social encounters, whilst cooking or undertaking other work together women might sing and have fun through the hard work, momentarily making ‘lite’ of the demands of life around them.

The words and gestures are passed down orally across the generations; rarely are they written down. Boliyan represent different eras, times and relationships, altering with the times and contexts. The verses are also constantly being re-invented and hybridised, like all traditions, with new elements in emergence.

Our method of invention

As we have been undertaking the place-based memory work of community organising and activism inside and outside institutions in Coventry in the 1980s and 1990s, it has become clear that Boliyan and Giddha were also enacted in the spaces of gathering: in advice offices, training centres and coach trips. The life of politics and safe meeting places often folded into impromptu Giddha sessions. As a method of production and invention, we came together to select elements from political and personal stories, from words and scenes of organising in Coventry, to invent new Boliyan, borrowing from and hybridising longstanding repertoires. We have selected a broad strand of issues, such as homeworking, education and training, racism, domestic violence, political tokenism and social gatherings. It is the ways in which joy sits alongside struggle that has led us towards this combination. They draw on an archive of feelings involved in looking back at the legacies of the entangled nature of joy and politics, building on an audio and body memory we have all carried.

Boliyan Project Photo Movie

The video loop of photos from the Project workshops includes a voice over of a Boli entitled ‘Arrival’.


Wow! Well done you lioness of Punjab
(or… a strong woman of Punjab)
You came to England with style
You boarded the plane full of longings and expectations…

But the white/host community did not appreciate you and show you any respect

But now that we are here, settled, we are not going anywhere….
We are making the city of Coventry our home

(A) Artist

Preet Grewal

Community Activist & Practitioner of Giddha and Boliyan


Illustration of women singing. The colours are bright yellow and light blue

Illustration by Peter O’Toole for the TOWNSOUNDS project, courtesy Let’s Go Yorkshire.


This project gave me the opportunity to combine two aspects of my life; my experiences in the 1990s of setting up South Asian women’s organisations and projects in Coventry, such as Panahghar (a safe house for women fleeing domestic violence), with the joy of creative social gatherings through Boliyan and dance. Across all the projects I worked on, we were attentive to the struggles faced by Asian women, as well as the possibilities for creating fun. Thus, trips and outings to popular British places such as Blackpool beach, dance and song were always ways of bringing women together, to create a new experience, laughter and reflection on their lives in Britain.

Across a number of workshops, we were able to select scenes from the accounts we shared from our histories of organising and activist days in Coventry and to convert these into Boliyan. There was a lot of playful back-and-forth in the choice of stories, rhythms and gestures in our lively workshops. We tried words, dropped words, tried new combinations and even acted them out. Some of us even learnt new words! We chose to develop Boliyan on a range of issues, including arrival to the UK, racism, homeworking, education, coach trips, tokenism and the importance of safe refuges for women.

When we went one step further and performed the Boliyan and Giddha at the Treehouse as part of the University’s Resonate Festival, it was uplifting to bring our stories of activism to the centre of the city at an open public event. Lots of South Asian women connected with the experiences we were highlighting. Several joined us on the mic and took to the floor to sing their own Boliyan and show their Giddha moves. This performance was a trial run for another public performance planned for the Amazing Women festival (19th March 2021), organised by the University to take place at the newly renovated Drapers Hall. I am delighted we can spread the word of our serious struggles through joyful forms of gathering. Well recognised Boliyan are likely to be remembered and performed when women come together. Our project brings new Boliyan, informed by women’s everyday struggles in Coventry, to the mix. As far as we know this is the first time this has been done. I hope some of the Boliyan we have written will circulate globally. You can read a sample on this website.


Performers on video clips:

Preet Grewal
Chanpreet Kaur
Kiran Puwar
Gursharan Randhawa

Homeworking provided an important avenue of employment for many South Asian women, helping them to contribute to the family income. Lacking child care and skills to enter the formal labour market, they utilised existing skills and turned to textile related work through contacts in the community. However, it was widely recognised that such work was ‘hidden’, and it was labour intensive, low paid, lacked health and safety requirements and provided no opportunities for training and development. Homeworkers lacked any worker rights. Homeworking also added to the never-ending list of chores for women at home.

As work for men shrank in the manufacturing industries across the city, Asian men turned to the textile trade in what was known as the ‘Cut, Make, Trim’ subcontracting attached to London-based fashion companies. The majority of Asian women were highly skilled machinists and pitifully low paid. They worked in cramped conditions with industrial machines in their homes. Ironically, women doing homework spent less time with their children. In fact, children also became involved by helping in the packing and assembly of the garments. (Vera Hyare)

As a way of addressing the situation for all homeworkers, and as part of economic community development strategies in the late 1980s, Coventry city council employed a development worker to design and deliver support and training to homeworkers. For South Asian women, this training was delivered through the organisation Foleshill Women’s Training and the Nay Yug project.

Women were very resistant to change and considering other options, work and the income it provided was a priority. Very few women joined the courses at first and only did so after being recommended by others to trust in my interaction and support I was offering. Partly this was a fear of council intervention. I used my own work history  – of moving from working in a hotel to local government through adult education and training – as a starting point for the conversation about the importance of training. (Vera Hyare)

All day long drrr drrr. All day long drrr drrr [sounds of sewing machines]
All day long we sat at home sewing.
All day long we sat at home sewing.

It was very hard to make a living.
Then Veero came.
Then what happened?
Veero arranged training for us.
Then what happened?
Then we rose and progressed.
Then we rose and progressed.
Then we rose and progressed.

Domestic Violence and Refuge 

Domestic violence is better known and recognised today but in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was still largely seen as a ‘private’ issue. Specialist support services for South Asian women were developing nationally, as part of Black feminist activism challenging violence against women, but were still few. South Asian community leaders denied the existence of domestic violence in their communities and the problem remained largely hidden. In Coventry, the gap in help for South Asian women and children was recognised and the seeds sown for Panahghar in the late 1980s. The Panahghar refuge services provided, and continue to provide, an important lifeline to escape violence and abuse for women and their children.

The Haven project was already out there, and they wanted to do something, like a pilot project with Asian women. So I was appointed and I worked with the Haven and social services to set up the pilot. And then we got more funding. Around then was when I had the run-in with the [Asian] councillor, who was a very popular community leader, and he was knocking this project. He was blocking our application… So once we got the funding, we took one of the two houses as a refuge for Asian women. I had my little desk in [name of road] with another white Christian, old-school woman desperate to convert me and the other women to Christianity. They would have objections to any of us having Guru Nanak’s calendars there even. Then we moved… Women came to us through social services at the time, so if a woman had domestic violence they referred them on to us… what we did… it was all dependant on the context because in some cases you could really clearly see that the woman should not go back, but sometimes the women were traditional, or wanted to go back, and instead of bringing them out of the family and then leaving them out cold in a world they were not equipped to handle, we tried to talk to the families. But the other organisations did not like us for that. (Preet Grewal)

Fighting, beating, fighting, beating
Continuous conflict, continuous conflict
Peace never entered the house
Where can I go? Where can I go?
I will go there, Panahghar saved my life
I will go there, Panahghar saved my life
I will go there, Panahghar saved my life

Panahghar – Refuge

In Panahghar I received plenty of peace
In Panahghar I received plenty of peace
Fear was banished to the dark side, our life journeys saw a new dawn
Our life journeys saw a new dawn
Our life journeys saw a new dawn

Sea Side Trips and On the Motorway 

Social gatherings were central to building confidence and social networks away from domestic responsibilities. These social scenes were zones for learning new skills and developing friendships and offered independent ways of being in public spaces together as women. Social spaces for enjoying festivities, with food and song, across different religions, were a vital element of most women’s projects. These initiatives were both for and led by South Asian women across the generations.

Trips and outings were regularly organised and a huge pull factor for women to leave their homes and create spaces of fun and laughter. Often workers had to talk to families so that they could develop trust in them as the facilitators of these social gatherings. Seaside trips and visits abroad required considerable organisation; the joviality of these outings is still remembered by participants today. They have become significant scenes in our biographies of making space for ourselves in the UK, beyond both the strictures of family life as well as the borders of racism.

I remember when we went to Glasgow from Coventry. The mini-bus was stuffed with food to eat. We had a rajeye (duvet) strapped to the top of the mini-bus. We were on our way, when on the motorway we suddenly heard a THUD, THUD, a huge noise. Next thing, we looked out of our windows and the rajeye had fallen off on to a motorway lane. We stopped on the hard shoulder but had no idea how we were going to pick it up, as vehicles were zooming past us at high speed. Luckily for us, a huge lorry passed by and the air pressure from it pushed the rajeye towards us. (Preet Grewal)

[Each time this story is told by Preet, the image memory of the physical scenes sends us listeners into elated laughter].

At one time when we sat down with our group on the beach with our food, we took out our dholki and started singing. The English passers-by were staring at us. Regardless, we did what we wanted to enjoy ourselves at the seaside. (Preet Grewal)

When the women from the trips we took 10 to 20 years ago look at the photos, everything comes back to them. By looking at the photos together they are able to remember, miss and celebrate those times together. (Jitey Samra)

Seaside Trips 

I am tired and fed up of working so hard sisters…
I am tired and fed up of working so hard sisters…

Now let’s go on holiday
We’ll go to the seaside to play music
There we will play the dholki and other instruments.
And we will dip and splash in the sea, and we will dip and splash in the sea…

On the Motorway

From Coventry a group of sisters went on a trip to Glasgow
From Coventry a group of sisters went on a trip to Glasgow

Going along the motorway a peculiar event occurred – THUD! THUD!
Going along the motorway a peculiar event occurred – THUD! THUD!

Our duvet flew away [from top of mini bus] on to the motorway
Our duvet flew away [from top of mini bus] on to the motorway
There it goes, there it goes. Who will pick it? Who will pick it?


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A digital exhibition of creative work by local artists, each an interpretation of academic research from Coventry University and University of Warwick. Building on last year’s show created during the lockdown, there are 12 new projects for 2021, each aiming to change how we perceive and experience our worlds.

The collaborative commissions this year explore how Covid-19 has impacted hospice care, what museum closures mean to communities, whether artificial intelligence can create art, how we can promote respectful interactions around names, what an ideal society looks like for women of colour, and more.

Coventry Creates is part of the ongoing work by Coventry and Warwick universities in the lead up to and during the City of Culture. The University Partnership has funded over 60 creative research projects, involving many diverse Coventry organisations and local communities. The University of Warwick and Coventry University are both principal partners of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021.

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