Let time stand still, not grind to a halt

Grindmill Songs is an effort to preserve a rich oral tradition spun around the humble grinding stone, writes Sushmita Murthy

ãvanãyãbãla jasi hulagyãcī perayani poticicī diliī kanyaā yaciī ugira bolayaniṇī

(Son-in-law, akin to my son, is like pungent horse gram, I gave him the daughter of my womb and yet he is so arrogant.)

Sharp and poignant, this Marathi couplet is one of the many that were sung by women toiling over a grinding stone many decades ago. While some of these address domestic relationships and celebrate the rains, others offer political commentary or reflect social hierarchy of the times. As the sound of grinding stones started fading from the state’s rural tapestry over the years, so did the melody of these songs. Thankfully, the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a volunteer-led platform founded by journalist P Sainath that documents stories of rural India, is reviving these songs before they completely fade into oblivion. So far, over 30,000 songs have been digitised and 40,000 have been translated into English and French from Marathi.

The Grindmill Songs Project seeks to collate and translate these lost songs while also providing their social or political context. It is thus far a collection of over 1,00,000 folk songs composed and sung by the women in Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka over decades. The project was originally conceived by late Hema Raikar and Guy Poitevin, both social activists and scholars. They transcribed more than 1,10,000 folk songs over a period of 20 years.

For the archives

In the 1990s, Bernard Bel, computational musicologist, joined the efforts and helped expand the database by recording 120 hours of audio. This was maintained by the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon which was later transferred to the Speech and Language Data Repository in France, curated again by Prof Bel himself. The project got a boost in the mid-90s when it received international grants from UNESCO and other organisations. Since 2016, PARI, under the organisation’s managing editor Namita Waikar, is working towards digitising these songs so it can reach you and me. Close to 300 of these songs can be visited on PARI’s website page titled All stories so far.

Working on the project, Waikar says, has been challenging and rewarding. “Motorised grinding started to make its way into the rural landscape in the 1980s rendering the grind mill irrelevant. So the songs we’re talking about are from decades ago when women couldn’t read or write. Hence none of these ovis (a poetic metre used in Marathi poems for rhythmic prose) have ever been written down. It’s strictly an oral tradition passed down over generations. Naturally, the songs have faded from popular memory and only make a symbolic comeback during wedding rituals that involve the grinding stone.”

 From the From the album ‘Songs of  Majalgaon, memories of Mhow’.
From the album ‘Songs of  Majalgaon, memories of Mhow’.

Cathartic

The ovis touch upon various topics. Many describe the relief brought in by the first rains, many others are an ode to Dr B R Ambedkar who played a pivotal role in the Dalit movement in Maharashtra especially. A lot many, however, mirror the deeply patriarchal times when they were made. The volunteers at PARI not only translate the lines, but give a brief insight into the social, economic and political background of the songs. “Many of the songs are about the standing of women in society, sexual harassment etc. It was a safe space for women to vent out their emotions,” says Waikar. Something that not many urban women today have the privilege of doing. She recalls a conversation with a woman who pointed out how the young girls in their villages, despite college degrees and jobs, are not able to express themselves or speak about their problems to each other. They may not have been able to fight it, but at least there was a space to talk about it. “That’s when it hits hard that formal education is not everything,” adds Waikar.

In an effort to change this and acquaint children in the cities with life in the villages, some schools in Bengaluru, Delhi etc, have started introducing these songs in a parallel syllabus. Another effort by PARI in this space is trying to archive songs of the Adivasi community in Chhattisgarh. As a community caught in conflict over decades, these songs largely reflect the resilience and the spirit of the people to live in the here and now.

Waikar is aware of how these songs account for a miniscule part of the greater repository of oral traditions that exist in the country and wishes to expand the efforts to restore more such lost songs.

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