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”.

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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.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.