Grinding grain, singing songs: The life, work and legacy of women in rural Maharashtra

GenderAnd Culture: What the Grindmill Songs Project tells us about the struggle of rural women in India

Updated: December 8, 2017 3:12 pm

You were pampered so much as a darling daughter,
That your brother gave you a betel-leaf plantation

That is an ovi or a couplet, just one from a collection of 1,10,000 in the Grindmill Songs Project. When Konda Sangle, of Nivanguni village in Velhe taluka of Pune district, sang this over two decades ago, the Marathi transcript was written down. The ovi, like many others in the collection, is a reminder of unequal land ownership. Women by themselves owned nothing. Anything they have is in the form of gifts given by the menfolk-father, husband or brother, the singer says.

The ovi is an overwhelmingly women-centric poetic form. It spans an astonishing range of themes – from unequal land ownership to caste oppression; from childbirth to the loss of a child; from marriage and family to poverty, history, religion and politics. There is even one on Ambedkar’s writing of the Constitution.

The ovi as a musical form evolved as women created and sang these couplets while working on the grindmill, crushing grain to flour. The crushing was, and is in many village households still done by a hand-driven stone device, even as the motorised version has replaced it in many parts. For thousands of women, this was a creative space, a personal zone of free expression where the only sounds were their own voices milling with that of the two stones of the grindmill. This form is called the jatyavarchi ovi, or the grindmill song–one of two major forms of the Marathi ovi, a poetic metre. The other is found in the poetry of the Bhakti tradition.

The grindmill songs database was conceived by the late Hema Rairkar (1939-2010) and Guy Poitevin (1934-2004). Both distinguished scholars, they co-founded the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences in Pune. Together with their team, they transcribed tens of thousands of folk songs of Maharashtra over a period of 20 years. Barely four per cent were recorded on cassette tapes, rest were all in the form of Marathi transcripts. After their deaths, the work continued under Bernard Bel, an ethno-musicologist along with Asha Ogale, Jitendra Maid and Rajani Khaladkar. In 2016, this project was taken over by the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), an online digital journal and archive founded by P. Sainath, rural affairs journalist and Magsaysay award winner in 2014.

A team from PARI, of which this author is a part, has been visiting villages to reconnect with the women (and their families) who contributed their voice and songs to this endeavour. The aim is to find out more about their life, work and the time when the song was first noted. Name a topic and you’ll find a couplet in this treasure trove. From childbirth, to growing up, adolescence, work, and land-ownership to pilgrimage, marriage, poverty and politics, these women were chronicling not just the toil of daily life but also a commentary on politics, their political heroes and more. There are many songs in this archive dedicated to Ambedkar, Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha, the Razakars of Nizam’s army, the killing of Narayanrao Peshwa.

There are couplets on Lord Ram, but the women identify themselves with Sita. Their own hardships reflected in the injustices that Sita bore in her lifetime.

In the forest, in the woods, who is weeping? Listen!

Bori-babhali [jujube and acacia trees] are the ‘women’ who listen to
and console Sita.

In this song, published by PARI in March this year, the singer talks of how Sita has been banished to the forest. Abandoned by Ram, she is alone and the thorny trees, the bori (jujube) and babhali (acacia) trees are the only friends she can share her sorrow with. These ‘feminine’ trees are less valued than say, a ‘masculine’ fruit-bearing tree like mango.

Which fool has given birth to a woman?
My body is toiling on rent in someone else’s house

Had I known it, I would have refused to be born a woman
I would have become a tulsi plant at god’s doorstep

Kusum Sonawane of Nandgaon village from Mulshi taluka in Pune sang of the indignity of being a woman, saying she would rather be a plant, perhaps the holy basil (tulsi), more revered than the woman of the house.

The ovi thus speaks of a clear unequal status of women in society, something the women from the village noticed, sang and listened to. As the PARI team now meets the same women, year’s later words come to life. The context, the social landscape and the cultural moorings have sometimes changed, and sometimes remained achingly stagnant.

An ovi singer, told the PARI team, why she sang, “I am the woman who sat at the grindmill, crushing grain to flour every morning to make bhakri, the daily bread that fed the family. Singing makes it easy to forget the drudgery. So we sing. We sing what we learnt from our mothers and grandmothers. We sing away the thorny hedge that surrounds me and every other woman like me in the village”, she said.

These are stories of rural women leading ordinary lives with extraordinary passion. A majority of the singers are not literate. That has not hindered their power of expression. The word ovi is derived from the Marathi ovane, which means, “stringing together.” The women string words together, conveying both meaning, even as they rhyme. The songs, handed down through generations of women – mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers are collective memories. 3,302 women from over 1,100 villages in Maharashtra and 17 in Karnataka are the fountain spring of the collection.

The People’s Archive of Rural India published songs on Babasaheb Ambedkar in April this year to commemorate his birth anniversary. These songs reveal the influence of the architect of India’s Constitution on the lives of Dalits, notably women, who realise the value of education. Radha Borhade, a singer from Beed district, a landless labourer, learned to read and write through adult literacy programs. The Ashok chakra locket that she wears with pride symbolises her belief in the teachings of Ambedkar.

She sings in the ovi, saying

Keep moving along the path of emancipation,
In spite of poverty, do not give up education.

Put an end to enslavement; keep your self-respect alive,
Come together one by one, strengthen the collective.

How many songs should I sing, my voice is weak [from singing,]
One-lakh songs are not enough for my Bhim.

About 4000 songs have been recorded on audio by the founders of this project. The PARI team is recording more of them on audio and video. With the use of the traditional grindmill declining, this creative space for women’s expression is shrinking rapidly. It is PARI’s endeavour to revitalize of the ovi genre and thus the space for women to share their stories, their histories and their life through songs.

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Namita Waikar is the Managing Editor of People's Archive of Rural India, where she heads the Grindmill Songs Project.