30 Jun 2017 15:23 IST

Songs of grit and grist

The 25-year-old Grindmill Songs Project is a rich repository of oral history

Kusum Sonawane was born in an impoverished family in Nandgaon, a village in Pune’s Mulshi taluka. As a young girl she dreamed of going to school but her mother couldn’t afford it. Instead, the child was forced to herd cattle for a living. At 12, she was married to a man who worked in one of Mumbai’s stone-crushing units. She lived with her in-laws in a neighbouring village in Mulshi and farmed their fields. During a workers’ strike, her husband lost his job and returned to their village, where he worked as a labourer. In 1980, Sonawane joined the Garib Dongri Sangathana, an organisation working with the rural poor in the hilly tracts of Pune district.

“In a society where women are fed up of social pressures, of the husband’s oppression and the brother’s domination, when they are tired, they feel this life is unnecessary,” she says in an introductory audio clip, before singing the lines she composed:

“Burn, burn, youth, / Because a young woman is blamed, / even when she is merely standing, / let my blossoming into a woman be burnt, / My mother Gandhari gets the blame / Which fool has given birth to a woman? / My body is toiling on rent in someone else’s house”

Sonawane’s voice is loud, fierce and provocative. And yet, what strikes you is the loneliness and isolation she hides behind it. The outpourings, in Marathi, sound less like music and more like feminist protest poetry. While she might have pulled her punches in real life, she unleashes it all in her songs. Life has been brutal, and composing these lines has helped her punch her way through to her destiny.

Recording oral treasure

The song and Sonawane’s commentary were recorded on October 5, 1999, as part of the rich archive of traditional music collated through The Grindmill Songs Project, which can now be accessed online through the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). The project was originally conceived in the early 1990s by the late Hema Rairkar and Guy Poitevin, social activists and distinguished scholars, who co-founded the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences (CCRSS) in Pune. Together they transcribed more than 110,000 folk songs of Maharashtra over a period of 20 years. Bernard Bel, a computational musicologist and former engineer at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, joined the project in 1995, building a database of texts and annotations, recording more than 120 hours of associated audio. Between 1993 and 1998, the Grindmill Songs Project received financial support from Unesco, the Netherlands Ministry for Development Cooperation, and other international foundations. The recordings continued from Maharashtra’s heartlands. Eventually the database had archived 1.1 lakh Marathi two-line couplets, known as Jatyavarchi ovi, or Ovi, of which 30,000 had audio recordings and 40,000 were translated into English.

“My three goals were to preserve the collected material through changes in software and encodings; make it freely accessible to a large public, including scholars and a worldwide audience unfamiliar with Indian cultures; and return it to the community of performers in villages,” says Bel, in an email interview to BLink.

After the death of Poitevin, in 2004, the recording was temporarily put on hold. However, the team kept adding song transcriptions, meta-data and classification to the database under the supervision of Rairkar. Bel paid particular attention to storing backups of the database. In 2010, Rairkar died and by 2013 the project was disrupted due to lack of leadership. But there was hope still.

“It was great news, in the summer of 2016, when I was introduced to P Sainath. He quickly expressed a genuine interest in the collection for its inclusion in the PARI archive. We share views on cultural heritage and the importance of providing living testimonies of rural creations. It is a great achievement because the PARI team has been able to create a presentation of this corpus that makes sense to a large audience in India. In addition, they are now eager to return to villages and collect interviews, songs, videos to enrich this corpus,” says Bel.

The project was revived together with a host of old and new collaborators under the leadership of Namita Waikar, the managing editor of PARI. The 70,000 untranslated songs are being tackled by Asha Ogale, a former documentation officer at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, and her colleagues Rajani Khaladkar and Jitendra Maid. Their deep knowledge of the Marathi language and rural life lent context to the translation.

Rairkar and Poitevin helped Bel figure out the great distance and misunderstandings between rural and urban cultures.

“This dissociation is explicit if we pay attention to messages conveyed by peasant women and the very context of “performance” of grindmill songs. These songs are not “music” in a classical sense. Their meaningful aspects are best highlighted by the tools and models of speech prosody. Thus, we ought to look at them as poems rather than songs,” says Bel.

The songs range from a woman’s life in society, relationships (brother/sister, mother/daughter, father/daughter, father/son), devotional verses that have a deep personal element, couplets on farming, songs about politics, caste and society.

There are 2,400 songs on Ambedkar and his writing of the Constitution, composed and sung by Dalit women. In an Ovi, Muktabai Jadhav from Majalgaon sings about rejecting caste-based duties:

“Daughter of a Baman, why are you sprinkling water in the courtyard? / We have gone to Buddha’s mansion, now you drag the dead animals”

Other Ovis talk about working in other people’s homes:

“In whose mansion that grinding, at dawn, at night? / Mother-daughter grind on the floor of a seven khan”

(Khan is the distance between two wooden pillars, usually 4x5 or 10x12 feet. A house of seven khan would be huge.)

Then there are those that poignantly capture the farmer’s desperation for rains:

“There is not a drop of rain, the whole world is worried / The cow’s sons are compulsorily fasting / Meghraja, you pour, you create a black mare / He decorated a black mare, the whole earth became wild with joy”

And others that are telling of a hot summer that deepens sibling love:

“Hot summer sun, I am burning in the heat / I shall go and stand in my brother’s shadow… who is like a mango tree with thick foliage”

Most of the audio recordings are sung to the accompaniment of the rhythmic circular motion of the stone grinder crushing grains, and the gentle clinking of glass bangles against the stone in the quiet of the dawn. The songs are sung either solo or by a chorus of women working at the jate (grinding mill).

“The journey has been one of great learning. The thoughts and feelings of the women who found this way of original expression to compensate for the physical hard work and labour of having to use the stone grinder every day to make flour from grain is incredible,” says Waikar, in an email interview to BLink.

Mechanisation cuts expression

With rapid urbanisation, will the advent of motorised mills and electric grinders eventually mean the end of an era of oral history?

“The act of grinding was a very specific situation of communication. First, because of the very gesture of grinding and the particular sound of the mill heard in the recordings. Also because grinding took place entirely before sunrise — while the men were still asleep. It was the act of a small group, often an old woman with her daughters and daughters-in-law with babies on their lap,” recalls Bel.

“Even back in the ‘90s the regular use of the grind mill was dwindling as mechanised mills were present in many villages. Though in some villages, like Kolavade in Mulshi, which we visited in April, the women still use the stone mill occasionally for grinding rice flour or gram flour, the staple wheat or millets like jowar get ground in mechanised mills,” explains Waikar.

The grind mill will eventually be relegated to occasions like weddings, where the haldi ceremony includes making a paste of turmeric and singing wedding songs. “In April, we met Manda Pandekar in Lawarde village who sings these songs while grinding turmeric and gets called upon at local weddings ,” says Waikar.

Bel sees other possible transitions. “Grind mill songs are sometimes ‘transferred’ to singing while working in the fields. However, the change of context, time of performance and audience will probably modify their structure and contents,” he says.

What is also ‘transferred’ with the times are newer forms of oppression and patriarchy. The songs were archived from the ‘90s to 2002, during which period the classic stone mills were shutting shop or evolving to incorporate mechanised methods. “The women’s struggle continues, but they have lost this avenue of expression. More women go to school and some even further to colleges. But this collective expression is no longer available to them, whereas the society around them continues to be patriarchal and oppressive,” says Waikar. As long as a woman’s life is a toil and a grind, the songs, no matter how ancient, will always strike a chord.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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