Musical Notes

Grindmill Songs: Listen to the world’s largest archive of folk songs

These simple songs sung by rural women are precious because they are songs about all of us.

“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”.

Play

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

Play

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.