The grindmill songs: making music with stone and verse

The grindmill songs: making music with stone and verse

The idea was to publish one ovi, a couplet rendered as a song, everyday, from the Grindmill Songs database along with text and audio. It seemed like a simple enough idea. Just pick one and put it up. How difficult can it be? All I had to do was: read through a collection of 110,000 Marathi two-line transcripts, some 30,000 of which have audio recordings and 40,000 have English translations and find the matching text for audio clips. Simple enough.

Even so, it took me some three days to figure out with a little help from our tech expert who put the data into an excel sheet. Using this, I decide where to start each time I want to select songs. This is about the workflow of selecting the couplets for publishing. But lets keep that aside for now.

Let me share with you the experience of intently listening to a jatyavarchi ovi, a grindmill song, an experience I’ve not had before.

A grindmill is a device made of two circular stones, one of which is rotated by hand to make flour from grain. This was used in villages before motorised grinding became the norm.

There are a few songs where it is only the singer’s soulful voice and no musical instrument for accompaniment. For most of the songs the background music is the whirring of the grindmill. This is gently interspersed with the rhythm and clink of glass bangles as the singer’s wrist holding the vertical wooden rod rotates the mill.

There’s subtle beauty in the simple words of the songs, and sometimes, deep insight. On life, on relationships, the status of women in society and the day-to-day goings on in villages. The women are confiding in the grindmill in the part of their home where they are left alone to toil. The physical impact of the hard work softened by the singing.

For me, discovering these melodies has been the most important and profound part of working on the Grindmill Songs Project. I know I have formed a bond with the ovi and everyday listen to the recordings to select some of them for the weeks to come. Often, forgetting the passing of time, or that it has become dark, and I need to switch on the lights.

This project was started by Guy Poitevin and Hema Rairkar, supported and continued by Bernard Bel, Asha Ogale, Jitendra Maid and Rajani Khaladkar. For a crisp note on the project, read The grindmill songs: recording a national treasure. That was the first article we published to kick-off the series.

Gangubai Ambore, of Tadkalas village in Parbhani district renders ovis suffused with sorrow, her voice speaking of long years of loneliness — and it captivated listeners. A story on her life written by Jitendra Maid is published here: Gangubai: village voice, Marathi soul

We at PARI got involved in this project in May 2016. Close to a year later we still cannot begin to quantify the value of this treasure. We are forever indebted to the thousands of unsung women of rural Maharashtra, but for whom there would be no songs and no database.

What we are doing is selecting a few couplets – two to eight – and publishing the audio clips along with the transcripts. We also carry translations and short notes that tell the general reader a little bit more about songs as well as the singer. I invite you, dear reader, to listen to the ovi as a different kind of treat.

We began publishing from this large database on 7 March 2017, to honour the International Women’s Day, and every week brought out numbers focussing on women’s life and labour:

In Burn, burn, youth, because a woman is blamed, Kusum Sonawane of Nandgaon village in Mulshi, Pune, sings about the oppression of women and the forced waste of a life for those born female. Her deep ardent voice, especially the intonation of “अस्तुरी जलम“ which refers to a woman’s life, haunts me even now, days after I first heard it.

Listen to these delightful songs about grinding itself by Yashoda Umbre here: Morning songs on making flour

The March series will end next week with songs on a lighter note, of a woman’s nephew buying her bangles before she leaves for the big city and becomes a Mumbaiwali, a city dweller.

The songs span varied subjects across eight major sections. These further divide into several subsections and topics. 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 and yes, also songs about politics and society. This vast array of topics is brilliantly captured by the comprehensive classification devised by Guy Poitevin and Hema Rairkar. We are grateful to these two individuals who have left the world this legacy. Guy Poitevin died in 2004.


Seven years ago, on this day, March 25, Hema Rairkar passed away.

In the photograph, Hema Rairkar is writing an ovi on an index card. That is how the recording of the grindmill songs collection began in the late 1980s.

For years, I passed the ‘Rairkar Bungalow’ in the Deccan Gymkhana area of Pune, without knowing this was the home of Hema Rairkar. And clueless that I would one day have the pleasure and honour of being a part of her project, the beautiful and soulful grindmill songs.

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