When bread and song come from the same place

Rihan Najib | Updated on March 15, 2019 Published on March 15, 2019

Bedrock of sisterhood: The rural women of Maharashtra worship the grind mill as a god, while also treating it as a friend who silently witnesses their struggles   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAMYUKTA SHASTRI/ PARI

A conversation with author Namita Waikar on the poetry of rural women who sing to rejoice, berate and commiserate with each other

We are foolish women;

we are women who fight for water,

For another woman, he [the husband] is like a mad rooster at her door

Though his own wife is tender like

a steaming chapati on the iron griddle

For another woman, the fool [the

husband] puts a blouse in his pocket.

With a rough-hewn yet melodious voice that, at times, cracks at higher notes, septuagenarian Sarubai Kadu sings an ovi — a couplet in Marathi — about philandering husbands, sons who receive too much love and daughters who receive too little. With over 5,000 songs to her credit, Sarubai, who lives in Dapodi village in Pune, Maharashtra, is one of the most prolific singers recorded by the Grindmill Songs Project, a voluminous database that documents, translates and preserves the history of the ovis and the women who sing them.

Jaatyavarchi Ovi, or the grind mill song, is one of the two major forms of the Marathi ovi, the other being devotional songs in the Bhakti tradition popularised by philosopher-poets such as Dhnyaneshwar and Tukaram. Part of the rich oral traditions in India, the song is passed down through generations of rural women who gather at the grind mill in the kitchen or veranda to not just crush wheat, but also share their joys and sorrows. Over 1 lakh songs have been recorded so far by the project, a part of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). The songs can be heard on the PARI website.

BLink spoke to Namita Waikar, managing editor of PARI, about the tradition of ovis and the task of preserving oral history. Excerpts:

You’ve worked in diverse fields — from biochemistry and software development to poetry and translation. You are also the author of the novel The Long March, which examines the fallout of the agrarian crisis. What drew you to ovis?

My novel The Long March is really where my connection with writing begins. I have worked as a biochemist and a software project manager. In 2000, I took a career break and began writing. I started working on The Long March in 2004 and in the novel, the protagonist meets farmers. As preparation, I began reading up on farmers, which led me to realise I didn’t know enough about their lives, since I’d always lived in cities. So I contacted a few people, including P Sainath, the founding editor of PARI, who suggested I volunteer at the organisation. That’s how I started. People assume that I wrote the novel after I joined PARI, but actually the novel was how it all began.

What function does the ovi serve in the lives of rural women?

The jaate is the grind mill, and the jaatyavarchi ovi is a form of poetic composition sung by women as they crush grain on the mill to make flour. The songs are evocative of the work that women do, and the various social and political aspects of their lives, such as relationships between mothers and daughters, the wife and her in-laws, brothers and sisters. The songs also bring out the discrimination and abuse women face, the harassment by shopkeepers or moneylenders, husbands who chase other women, as well as caste oppression and the legacy of BR Ambedkar. Rural Muslim and Christian women sing ovis which focus on topics such as weddings and festivals.

For these women, the grind mill is their shared private space where they can speak their mind without the fear of being reprimanded. The grind mill is worshipped like a god sometimes, or addressed like a friend who silently witnesses their tribulations. There would be two or three women at the grind mill — and the songs would be a way to relieve their sorrows as well as confide in each other.

What is happening to these songs now?

To begin with, the use of the grind mill itself has gone down with mechanisation. Even as far back as the 1990s, when the Grindmills Project was conceived by scholars Hema Rairkar and Guy Poitevin [the archived material was later handed over to PARI], the mechanised mill was already present in most villages. Now, the grind mill is used in ceremonies to grind turmeric and smaller quantities of grains. Since these aren’t being used, the songs are not sung regularly or carried forward.

What does this mean for the women?

Well, when some women access the recordings of their own songs in the PARI website through their children’s phones, they are absolutely thrilled. One of the women called me to say how happy she was. She said she felt like she had become world famous.

Namita Waikar



These songs were a way for the women to express themselves; they weren’t meant to be a performing art, though now it has taken on that form at village functions. The younger generation of women is losing out as ovis are forgotten, because patriarchy hasn’t changed all that much and they don’t have this avenue of expression and support that their mothers and grandmothers did. In fact, some of the women told me that though their daughters were formally educated, they still couldn’t freely express themselves the way their mothers had. There is so much emphasis on the written word that the entire culture of passing on history orally has kind of stopped. Since daughters are no longer singing them, their mothers’ and grandmothers’ songs are lost. The Grindmill Songs Project at PARI is an effort to preserve them.

Published on March 15, 2019
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