Grindmill songs and animation

ubhetaraTara Ubhe
गरीब डोंगरी संघटना (GDS)

We started the animation work ten years ago and we maintained our commitment since then. In the beginning, we were new to the whole concept. But with a decade of experience, we have learnt how to be effective in the process of animation work. If our intention is that rural women should accept us in our role as animators and not only as rural women as themselves, we have to resort to some media for convincing them about the genuinity of our work. We wish indeed to transmit to them what experience and knowledge we have acquired in the process of animation work.

With this purpose, we started in particular participating in the work of collection and valorisation of the grindmill songs. All of us as much as other women in the villages know them by heart. This oral tradition of ours became a useful medium in the meetings of the rural women of different villages and hamlets of the Mulshi and Mawal Taluka of Pune District, the area where we do our animation work. Let us only give some concrete examples here.

In a village, a meeting of women was organised. Women requested us that they should be let free and go home at 10 o’clock in the night because they were tired after a whole day of hard work. In the course of the meeting, one of us sang two grindmill songs with reference to the point which we were putting forth and they literally electrified the whole atmosphere:

At the heart of a huge fire, the tender areca-nut burns away,
There’s no appreciation for a girl’s labours at her home or at her in-law’s.

Engulfed in flames, a patch of greenery burns away,
Wherever a woman goes, she must toil.

The meeting went up to one o’clock in the morning. The participants in the meeting expressed: “You started singing our songs and then, we never realised how time passed.”

In another village, women gathered in one house where the verandah was quite large to accommodate 40 to S0 women. Before we started the meeting, the lady from the house said: “You better choose another house for the meeting. I have to get up early in the morning.” This was given as an excuse for not participating in the meeting, as she was afraid. We shifted to a nearby house and started discussion. While discussing, we sang some grindmill songs:

Mother and father say :”Daughter, you must die there, where we handed you over,
The firewood must burn away in the hearth.”

You endure sasurvas (harassment at in-laws’ house), what will happen if you bear it?
What will happen if you bear it? One obtains devpan (godly status).

As usual women participated. The meeting became very lively. Next morning, the same lady who had been listening from her house, told us: “Excuse me. I should not have insulted you. I was listening and now I am convinced that your animation work is useful to the village. You were using our tradition.” We told her, “It is not your fault. You have never been exposed to any other type of gathering and any other type of thought process. That is why you objected. If you are convinced yourself, you can join us and start attending our meetings and gatherings.” Since some months, the lady regularly attends our meetings.

In yet another village, the meeting of women was going on. Some adolescent girls peeped in and slowly entered the room. Immediately, the elder women already sitting in the room scolded the girls and wanted to drive them out. We remembered one grindmill song:

Born a girl, you are too effervescent,
The earth implores pity: “Step lightly, my child.”

We quoted this song and commented upon: “We are taught to repress girls. In our meeting, we have to think of the reasons behind it.” We continued the subject and women participated.

Childhood is a kingdom, the best kingdom among all kingdoms
Let youthfulness be burnt! Youthfulness stands guilty.

This topic of girl’s socio-cultural repression really goes against prevailing normative culture, still women liked the discussions and as a result continued to keep contact with us since then. It appears that they appreciated the method that we followed as well as the content of the meeting.

When we use grindmill songs, the women participants go on singing songs. We then try to make use of those songs which may help us to put forward some analytical or critical points. For example, we use the following songs:

What fool decided that a woman’s life should be?
At her parents’ or at her in laws’ she labours for life like a bullock.

A woman’s life! If I’d known, I wouldn’t have been born,
I’d have become a plant of sacred basil at god’s door.

Then, we continue asking them some questions. “Why do we regret our own birth? What then about our existence? How does this society ask us to work like bullocks in an alien house?”

When such questions are raised in the meetings, the women gathered start thinking over it. They feel surprised to find how these songs can be related to their own problems and their own mind sets. They always express the following reaction: “Really, we have never understood our own grindmill songs in this perspective. The questions posed are genuine. We are used to open up our minds in these songs. The only thing is that we have not looked at them in this way. They certainly help us understand our own condition better.”

The reinterpretation of the same songs which women have been singing for generations, provides the basis for starting a thought process in different and new directions.

jate2For example:

This is not a millstone, but a hermit from the mountain
I tell you, woman, open your heart to him.

We tell women in village meetings: “While singing like that, we open up our heart to the stone. Now, slowly this place of expression is vanishing. Millstones have gone, flourmill has come. Then, we have to find another place to express our minds and share our sorrows and joys. There are many question marks before us and we have to face them. Meetings like this can provide us with another space.”

A critical reassessment

Recalling the songs in village meetings reactivates memory, boosts awareness and constructs a common identity among peasant women. Yet songs should not be resurrected only for the sake of their last female heirs neither restricted to communication with illiterate or half educated rural population. What illiterate women spoke out for themselves as a collective soliloquy can now be spoken up for all and addressed to all those who use to overlook their speech. It is in particular the task of women social animators to show the relevance of their mothers and grand-mothers’ tradition to an academic society of professors and scholars concerned with women studies, folk culture, popular literature, oral social history, subaltern studies, cultural anthropology, etc. Songs are an asset of communication of common women with the academic intelligentsia, two worlds which stand totally apart from one another to the detriment of genuine anthropological knowledge.

As an example, this is the presentation that I made at Nanded (Maharashtra) in January 3, 1995 in the course of a seminar on Collection and study of the grindmill songs: a perspective organised by CCRSS with the departments of Sociology and Marathi Literature of the People’s College. To give a hint of the rhetoric and style of expression characteristic of the grindmill songs as symbolic system of communication, I presented the words which come to the mind when a girl child is born. They all express disgust and helplessness. The following eleven key words show the communicative and cognitive power of most common words, images and literary similes.

  1. Body/being. God finally decides upon the form that takes the body (pida) of a girl. Nothing can be done about it.A song says:

    The hope was to have a boy, a daughter broke it
    Why to blame her? God has created her being.

  2. Lineage. The word is usually associated either with light or darkness. The son should maintain the lineage. He is the light of the lineage. A daughter spells darkness.

    Our hope was to have a boy, the mayna came, a daughter
    Mother-in-law says: “The lamp is blown off from my bed.”

  3. May she die. The birth of a girl is so much resented that one wishes her death as soon as she is born.

    Mother-in-law says: “That girl has come, isn’t it?
    Now, woman, when shall her palanquin go?”

    The word palanquin here stands for the stretcher that carries the corpse in a procession towards the funeral ground. The assumption is the inhuman feeling that the girl’s life instead of growing should perish, nipped in the bud.

    A girl’s existence is worthless. Four comparisons are borrowed from the vegetable world to convey her no-value.

  4. Bran of ragi. A girl is alike bran of ragi or red millet. Ragi is a good nutritious grain but its bran is bitter. While pounding ragi, if the bran happens to touch the body, one feels an itching sensation; the throat gets irritated. It is just worth being thrown away as it carries no value. Such is the case with a woman.

    The bran of red millet is of no use whatsoever
    O king Ram, why do you give a woman’s life?

    Sita has only bran of ragi to eat when she is sent away by Ram to suffer alone her forest exile (vanavas). Such was the hardship of her exile.

  5. Flower of ramita tree. This flower is found in our region of Mulshi taluka. The tree (eriocephala) also but it is of no use.

    A child plucks flowers of jasmine and champak to play
    But the branches of ramita , woman, go as fuel only.

    If ashes of ramita are put on the face, they give burning sensations. Cracks develop. A saying circulates in our area to guard one from “offering that tree to god or giving it to eat to human beings.”

  6. Wild fig. A girl is compared to a wild fig: one should eat garden fig but throw away wild fig. Below the tree wild figs spread a cover of sludge. They ought to be cleared away like mud.

    Both garden fig and wild fig are one and the same
    Here is the garden fig in bloom, the muck of the wild fig.

  7. Thorny shrub. The cilar is a thorny shrub. It is only useful to be planted around fields as a fence. If a thorn pricks into cloth, the cloth will be torn but the thorn will not go. Used as fuel, it throws out sparks. This gives troubles. A woman is at the image of the cilar.

    What to tell you, woman, the thorn of the cilar
    No son to keep the lineage, what’s the use of a girl?

  8. Botheration. The birth of a girl is not a happy event. A girl is synonym with difficulty. She appears as an obstacle, a source of troubles, headaches and hindrances, not only for her mother but for the whole family as well.

    In the middle of the fire, wet wood burns
    The birth of a girl, a botheration for the clan.

  9. Second marriage. If a first wife does not give son, one should immediately envisage of taking a second wife. To beget a boy is of utmost importance. What is a woman? If one has been brought home already, nothing prevents from bringing a second one.

    The hope was to have a boy, mother-in-law is angry
    I tell you, my son, be preparing to take another wife.

  10. Adverse fate. To be a girl is a matter of misfortune. The fact itself is a basic reason for being blamed or considered faulty. Several words are commonly used with reference to that fatal misfortune, bhogavata, nashib, bhog, with the same attribute, vait, i.e. “bad” with connotations of all kinds: wrong, defective, injurious, detrimental, harmful, guilty, etc.

    I gave birth to a daughter, the fate apportioned to me
    A thorn has been brought, come on! pierce my nose!

  11. Madness. Once a mother gets a baby girl, she becomes almost mad.

    Birth of a son sweet mango tree
    A daughter is born I go mad.

    Does a mother really feel like becoming mad when she gets a girl? With the norms that she has internalized, she expresses also what she actually feels:

    The hope was of a boy, a mayna my daughter has come
    Now, my dear woman, who could be weary of you?

    The mother gets a boy, the property gets an owner
    In her womb no daughter, closed is her path to heaven.

    The belief is that a woman should have a daughter opening her path to heaven through her crying out of grief when at the time of death she is taken to the cremation ground and departs from home. A boy is welcome to look after the estate and manage the household as the owner; it is a love relation that binds mother and daughter. A son is expected out of social constraint, but in her heart, a mother loves her daughter, she has with her a love relation.

    The hope was of a boy, why is a girl discredited?
    Oh no! my woman! you are my heart’s diamond.

    Though a son is born, what will her mother actually gain from it? She may have got a boy but for all that her poverty is not likely to disappear; we do not see her for example all of a sudden becoming a builder:

    The hope was of a boy, Parbati a daughter was born
    Where did the mother with a son erect buildings?

    A woman is aware in her mind of her qualities and of her strength. But she fears the society and because of social pressures she says that she cannot achieve anything:

    I was born from a tiger, I take off like a tiger
    What to tell you, woman, I am born a woman.

    I was born from a tiger, mine is like a tiger’s jaw
    What to say, woman, I fell in woman’s bondage.

    A woman is subject to restrictions. She is “fallen under control” namely “she sank into madness,” “she is kept under constraints,” these are her common expressions. As a consequence she can not achieve any thing. In our present terminology we say that “society looks down upon her,” considers her “as an inferior being,” keeps her “lagging behind as backward.” But there is no need of such clumsy words to express this. In the grindmill tradition, this is articulated with simple words which are used everyday. It is thus not difficult at all to convince them of this.

When you agree with us and acknowledge that our mothers and grand-mothers have composed on the millstone at dawn that living tradition, you ask us why then they did not act against this condition.

meule2Our answer is that society was keeping hold of them and they were not given any chance to act upon. They understood very well but spoke up only in a dark corner of the house and at a time when all men were still sleeping. Nowadays, ideas are changing and a bit of freedom is given. We toiling women wearing nine yard saris take time to think for ourselves. We have started investigating and seeing through the trickery that stands behind what was received as truth yesterday: who did this and for whose vested interests?

A few of us are gathering to study this. But how to make our observations reaching out to other women? We resort in particular to grindmill songs for this purpose.

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