I tell you woman!

(Excerpt from Hema Rairkar & Guy Poitevin, Stonemill and Bhakti, p. 256-258)

The moment of the songs on the grindmill belongs to a qualitatively distinct time, the one of a collective feminine act of speech. This is authoritatively, explicitly and directly asserted by the phrase I tell you, woman which repeatedly comes in a number of verses. We consider this wording as particularly characteristic of the structure of enunciation of the oral tradition of the grindmill songs. There is a variety of forms of oral literature : they can be differentiated and described on the basis of the style of enunciation specifically distinctive of each of them. The stereotyped utterance I tell you, woman, distinctive of our oral tradition, should be fully appreciated in this perspective.

womtradFirst, the phrase clearly states the functional dimension of the practice of singing at dawn. Self-expression and communication are the basic intention that motivates the songs.

To that effect, the sentence implicitly means that the speaker makes an attempt and expresses her need to attract and capture the attention of her addressee. Self-expression does not take place here in one’s close intimacy but between two female individuals, a speaker articulating her speech in the first grammatical person I and a listener addressed in the second grammatical person You.

Self-expression takes shape and finds its words as an allocution. It does not stand as an utterance for one’s own sake, private benefit or solitary satisfaction. It is a human agency where speech as an act tends to establish an interpersonal relation, a binding rapport between subjects. The addressee is therefore called to grant an active welcome to the testimony of an addressor who speaks out towards somebody.

Furthermore, the speech as articulation and relation is grounded on a gender commonalty that prevails between both the interlocutors, namely their belonging to the womenfolk. The context of the processes of mutual self-expression and communication is a human existence as peasant woman.

Second, the phrase plays the part of a signature of identification. Its role is equivalent to the formula Tuka says or Jani says that distinguishes and closes that other form of oral literature called abhanga. On their way to Pandharpur, pilgrims listen and repeat those verses of sants that gurus and preachers are recording on their lips. Pilgrims are taught and shown how to enter in and belong to, those other spheres of saintliness that the poems describe. They are expected to conform their behaviour to the model that the signatories proclaim and personify. The latter’s name at the end of the verses sounds as a call to attract the devotees towards imitating their ancestors in saintlihood.

As a matter of fact, the apparent similarity of both the signatures of identification is rather misleading. The differences that oppose them reveal the divide that separates the tradition of the abhangas from that of the songs on the millstone.

First difference.Tuka says, Jani says are sentences in the third grammatical person. They state the names of those particular individuals, authors of the verses, who are to be credited with the ideas expressed. They act like a copyright appended to the composition. As such they do not in the first instance intend to create a relation of allocution and interlocution. They put a seal of authorship and authority on the poem and a consequent claim to be received as authentic. Everyone may or may not – this is left to his personal wish – like to listen and share in the terms of the statement. Gurus and preachers are precisely there with that purpose: they make a point to address the devotees with such verses, using them as vehicle or medium particularly appropriate to circulate messages with the authority of the saints.

Moreover, this communication does not take place on the ground of any commonalty of belonging. Pilgrims are no saints as the authors of the abhangas. They are exhorted, on the contrary, to forget their every day worldly attachments and feel citizens of an other world of saintliness.

Unfortunately, although the Jani’s songs of pure mystical love are certified as authentic by those who composed them under the signature Jani of Nama, no woman pilgrim can ever identify herself with the saint maidservant of Nama nor try to imitate the model displayed in those songs. They are not even able to repeat them verbatim in their distichs – barring a few rare exceptions -. When they refer to Jani it is only to deeply alter the meaning of her message. They appropriate the figure of Jani and select some of her words as an idiom that they own and use on their own terms. They acculturate Jani, that is to say they identify her to their own lot. They fit her words into their own set of representations in which only they can make sense to them. While singing on the mill their journey to Pandhari, peasant women walk in quest of themselves and their kingdom, with their own words and worries, and not towards the paradisiac quietist bliss of Jani.

UVS-05-03 : chants sur sur Vitthal, Rukmini et Jani (Pokhar)


The signature of identification that they often inscribe in their songs I tell you, woman carries and displays the five following characteristic dimensions of the women’s oral tradition of the grindmill songs.

  1. This tradition is a milieu of communication in which all peasant women belong.
  2. Women’s will to intimate expression is not for informative nor didactic purposes. It tends to be performative of a personal relationship. Expression calls for reciprocity and exchange as a quest and a ground of personal bonds.
  3. These bonds are looked for as a life security in the context of a patriarchal ethos and a kinship system which confines women into the domestic sphere alone, depriving them from participating in the systems of communication and action prevailing in the society at large. The importance given to those primary family bonds based on motherhood and lineage corresponds to the denial and want of a recognized place to belong to.
  4. This tradition carries original and spontaneous words. Each woman is at the same time speaker and listener, in each instant of speech. Every singer is the contemporary of her age-old tradition through her personal act of speech. The signature of identification gives only a collective author. There is not a single distich with a signature of the type Tuka says or Jani says. Each word is all the more so personal that it is recognized and owned as common speech. The strength and actuality of that oral tradition rests upon the anonymity of the signatory.
  5. The time of the act of speech is always the present and its setting the actual domestic duty of peasant housewives. The spoken word is by nature time-bound when the written letter of any abhanga of the Jani of Nama builds up its constructs in an alien time and a free space. Each act of speech on the mill reactivates the actuality of the tradition. It equivalently revives and renews the awareness of a common identity. It is a moment in the continuum of a live memory of woman.

One thought on “I tell you woman!

  1. Pingback: India's Largest Collection of Rural Folk Music Contains Over 10,000 Songs that Women Sing While Grinding GrainThe Ladies Finger

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