Grinding grain, singing songs: The life, work and legacy of women in rural Maharashtra

GenderAnd Culture: What the Grindmill Songs Project tells us about the struggle of rural women in India

You were pampered so much as a darling daughter,
That your brother gave you a betel-leaf plantation

That is an ovi or a couplet, just one from a collection of 1,10,000 in the Grindmill Songs Project. When Konda Sangle, of Nivanguni village in Velhe taluka of Pune district, sang this over two decades ago, the Marathi transcript was written down. The ovi, like many others in the collection, is a reminder of unequal land ownership. Women by themselves owned nothing. Anything they have is in the form of gifts given by the menfolk-father, husband or brother, the singer says.

The ovi is an overwhelmingly women-centric poetic form. It spans an astonishing range of themes – from unequal land ownership to caste oppression; from childbirth to the loss of a child; from marriage and family to poverty, history, religion and politics. There is even one on Ambedkar’s writing of the Constitution.

The ovi as a musical form evolved as women created and sang these couplets while working on the grindmill, crushing grain to flour. The crushing was, and is in many village households still done by a hand-driven stone device, even as the motorised version has replaced it in many parts. For thousands of women, this was a creative space, a personal zone of free expression where the only sounds were their own voices milling with that of the two stones of the grindmill. This form is called the jatyavarchi ovi, or the grindmill song–one of two major forms of the Marathi ovi, a poetic metre. The other is found in the poetry of the Bhakti tradition.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express on December 8, 2017
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