Pune Activist, French Husband Documented 1,10,000 Couplets
Sonyace ghosaphula Ramabai kadhi kele? Bhimaraja tice patiimainata pat havile Baman ace pori kaya t akitisa sad a? Ami gelo budhda vad ya ata tumhi d hora vad ha (Ramabai, when did you make these gold earrings? Bhimraj, her husband, sent them by airplane 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).This women’s ovi or couplet in Marathi translated to English, seemingly innocuous, makes a political joke. The perspective is anti-elitist where ornaments and airplane suggest prosperity while the cleansing of the courtyard denotes a rejection of caste-based jobs they have been compelled to do.

The singing is accompanied by ambient music created by whirring sounds of a gyrating jate or a grind mill that merges gently with recurring clink of glass bangles on the singer’s wrist. The music made in stone and verse springs from Muktabai Jadhav , a dalit woman from the hamlet of Bhim Nagar.

Muktabai is among 3,302 such women performers in Maharashtra whose poetic-musical legacy of singing while toiling at the grind mill at dawn was preserved for posterity in the `Grindmill Songs Project’ when Hema Rairkar and her French husband Guy Poitevin, both social activists and scholars from Pune, came calling in the Eighties.

By 2004, Rairkar and Poitevin had scoured 1,107 villages in rural Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka and documented around 1,10,000 such ovis transmitted orally across generations. Some were translated in to English and French and some were audio taped. However, the task of archiving this corpus that attests to the oral tradition of peasant women and their insights on village life, gender, class, caste, religion, relation ships with children, husbands, siblings; and even social and political concerns, remained incomplete after Poitevin passed away in 2004 followed by Rairkar in 2010.

Shelved due to lack of fi nances and enterprise, the Project aimed at preserving and translating the ovis had previously received financial support from UNESCO, the Netherlands Ministry for Development Cooperation, and the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind in Switzerland between 1993 and 1998.

Following a long lull, a mutual friend of the couple, Bernard Bel, a French computational ethnomusicologist who had joined Rairkar and Poitevin in their mission in the 90s, decided to breathe life into the dormant project. He handed over the sweeping corpus of 1,10,000 songs including 30,000 digital recordings and 40,000 translations that was maintained by the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon and later ported to the Speech and Language Data Repository in France, to the Bandra-based People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), last year.

“I had promised Guy and Hema that this monumental collection would become accessible worldwide to scholars, common readers and even members of the communities it emerged from. This became possible in the early 2000s thanks to Internet technology ,“ says Bel who recorded more than 120 hours of associated audio and developed a tool for creating Roman Devanagari transcriptions. Unlike folk songs that were popularized, jatyavarchi ovi (grindmill songs) that softened the manual labour of pounding grains was confined to women’s workspaces ­ kitchen, courtyard or terrace. “The tradition functions as a `women heritage’ and a touchstone for understanding psychological motivations and social constraints of its performers,“ says Bel who lives in Aix-en-Provence, France.

While Bel is currently helping split the audio tapes into short one-minute clips from his home in France, older collaborators ­ Asha Ogale, Rajani Khaladkar and Jitendra Maid ­ translators and experts on oral traditions along with Namita Wairkar, writer and editor currently heading the Grindmill Songs Project at PARI, are helping translate the left over 70,000 songs, revisiting villages and reconnecting with the women to record and restore what re mains of the grind mill songs.

“That’s how we ended up at Bhim Nagar in April to meet Muktabai, now 65 on the same day that she had met the former `Grindmill Project’ team, 21 years ago,“ smiles Waikar.

Starting Women’s Day this March, PARI has been putting out ovis from the database along with a translation, story and audiovisuals on its online portal every day.

Radha Borhade of Savargaon could not remember the songs she sang two decades ago, when the team visited her recently but the melodies came back to the 70-year-old, when they recited a few couplets. “She was sure she would remember more if she read the transcripts of her songs ,“ said Waikar.

The act of singing at the grindmill is now a rare phenomenon, usually seen during haldi ceremonies at a wedding.Given the unyielding face of the Grindmill Project at celebrating unsung women without whom there would be no song, the stones will hopefully not stop grinding.