“Navrai maajhi laadaachi-laadaachi ga
aavad tila chandrachi- chandrachi ga…”  

In the opening sequence of Gauri Shinde’s film English Vinglish, lyricist Swanand Kirkire’s opening verse in rustic Marathi is a breath of fresh air, given the frothy, generic music which Bollywood is accustomed to randomly splicing in. Folk songs may no longer appear on our favourite playlists, but they are undeniably rooted in our consciousness. In the wedding songs of our aunts, in the lullabies of our mothers, or the stories of our grandmothers, we find the essence of our ancestral life and our villages.

The village theatre artiste, the wandering minstrel and the priest-singer have traditionally been considered the guardians of the cultural legacy of our villages. But there is another set of creators and guardians rarely acknowledged for their art. The private lives of women in courtyards, for instance, are full of songs that record myth, art, life and everything in between. These songs are fast dying out. As generations migrate from villages to cities, change professions and inter-marry, cultural dilution and evolution are simultaneous. These songs of the countryside, which once entertained, educated, are being forgotten. It could spell cultural amnesia for all of us, but for organisations like the People’s Archive of Rural India or PARI.

PARI, founded by journalist P Sainath in 2014, is a volunteer-run journalism platform that documents India’s villages. The latest and perhaps the most ambitious of its projects is The Grindmill Songs Project, which collates, records, transcribes and translates songs traditionally sung by rural women at the grindmill. A grindmill is a simple contraption made of two circular stones, that is used mechanically to grind grain into flour.

The project website estimates that its treasure chest includes “over 100,000 folk songs by women in Maharashtra’s villages. Close to 30,000 of these songs have been digitally recorded and 40,000 of them translated into English from the original Marathi. Some 3,302 performers across more than 1,000 villages were involved in this phenomenal exercise of recording a poetic-musical legacy”.

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Two decades in the making

Two passionate individuals embarked upon this project over 20 years ago. The idea of creating a database of village music was conceived of by the late Hema Rairkar and Guy Poitevin, social activists and distinguished scholars. Together, they co-founded the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences in Pune and transcribed more than 110,000 folk songs of Maharashtra over two long decades. Another asset to this project came in the form of Bernard Bel, a computational musicologist and former engineer at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. He joined the project in the late 1990s, and helped create a database of texts and annotations and recorded more than 120 hours of associated audio.

This precious material was at first maintained by the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon, Haryana, and later ported to the Speech and Language Data Repository in Aix-en-Provence, France, while being curated by Professor Bel. Here, the grindmill songs database became a prototype for later Open Archival Information Systems, and paved the way for many subsequent advances in the Digital Humanities.

Between 1993 and 1998, the Grindmill Songs Project received financial support from UNESCO, the Netherlands Ministry for Development Cooperation, and the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind in Switzerland.

Grindmill with two women.
Grindmill with two women.

Today, the founders are no more, but PARI’s involvement has been instrumental in the digitising process, and has given second wind to this mammoth project. Together with Sainath in this project are Namita Waikar, managing editor, in addition many students, scholars, researchers, translators, archivists, and technical personnel, who keep adding to this incredible body of work. But the greatest single resource for this project, was a humble old woman named Gangubai Ambore from Tadkalas village in the Parbhani district of Maharashtra. She, along with other village women, acquiesced to the requests Rairkar, Poitevin and their team and allowed them to record hundreds of folk songs.

These simple songs sung by rural women are precious because they are songs about all of us – their topicality is imbued with a universality, as they speak of the human condition. We hear songs about mythology, rituals, the toil of everyday living, even political heroes. Here are some examples:

On Sita’s sorrow of abandonment

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āraṇyā ga vanāmadhī, kōṇa raḍata āīkā, kōṇa raḍata āikā |
bōrī bābhaḷī yā bāikā, bōrī bābhaḷī bāyakā |
kōṇa raḍata āīkā, sītēlā ga samajāvayā |
bōrī bābhaḷī bāikā, bōrī bābhaḷī bāikā, bōrī bābhaḷī yā |

Translation: 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 ovi or couplet, Sita is weeping. She is in the forest – sent here, the Ramayana narrates, as a punishment by Lord Ram. She is alone and the only friends she can share her sorrow with are the bori (jujube) and babhali (acacia) trees. These are thorny trees with fissured barks; their condition, the ovi implies, speaks of the barbed, unequal status of women in society. In the song, these trees, in the form of women, console Sita and tell her that they too are like her: alone and marginalised. Gangubai Ambore, who is singing this ovi, sees herself in Sita.

On the sealed fate of generations of women bound to the grindmill

pahāṭēcyā daḷaṇācā, yētō āḷaśīlā rāga 
bāī mājhyā tu uṣābāī, uṭha bhāgyācyā ga, daḷū lāga |  

A lazy woman gets angry about grinding at dawn.
My dear fortunate Usha, get up and start grinding!

pāṭhacyā daḷaṇālā rāta, kuṇācyā vāḍyāvarī
māyalēkī daḷatāta, sāta khaṇācyā māḍīvarī |
In whose mansion that grinding, at dawn, at night?
Mother-daughter grind on the floor of a seven khan 

Khan is a unit of measurement in indigenous architecture – it is the distance between two wooden pillars, usually 4x5 or 10x12 feet. A house of seven khan would be huge.

Greater scope

Managing editor Namita Waikar elaborates upon these innocuous ovis.

“These jatyavarchi ovi (grindmill songs) were sung by women while working at the grindmill every day,” she said. “This was their way of expressing their concerns, joys and sorrows, sharing these with the other women and with the grindmill – the silent listener. The songs were composed by women over generations and passed down, they were changed, added to and further enriched. With the coming of motorised grinding in villages in the last couple of decades, this mode of expression has almost ceased and is in fact a loss for the women in villages as their lives may have improved over the years in material terms but the problems and socio-economic challenges they face in a patriarchal society have not gone away.”

These socio-economic issues are common to most Indian rural societies. While The Grindmill Songs Project is currently focused on Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka, its scope is much wider.

“PARI exists for all of rural India and all Indians,” said Sainath. “The Grindmill Songs Project is about Marathi songs, yes, but the arts, cultures, folklore and music of other rural regions of India are no less important to us. We already have been recording those from other places – just not on the scale of Grindmill, for that would require enormous resources, way beyond what we have, in both human, financial and material terms. But yes, we are recording these – it is PARI’s mandate – everywhere we can. Part of our mandate is to record every Indian language there is. We are keenly aware that many of the brightest and most beautiful things of the countryside may have vanished in 20 years, so we need to document, record, preserve and disseminate treasures like the Grindmill songs.”

Here’s hoping the mill of meaning never stops grinding.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz writes and researches on culture. You can know more about her work here.