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Jatyavarchi ovi (Grindmill songs) comes back to life!

30-05-2017 03:05 PM | Lathika Saju | My Indian Dream

Jatyavarchi ovi (Grindmill songs) comes back to life! | My Indian Dream

A Pune activist and her French husband walked the extra mile to preserve Maharashtra's old poetic musical legacy of singing by women while toiling at the grinding mill

The manual work of pounding grains on the stone was solely the work of women and was confined to their workspaces like kitchens and courtyards. In order to lighten the strain of physical toil, the women would compose and sing poetry.


The poetry and songs would often be accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of the gyrating jate or grind mill blending with the tinkling resonance of the bangles on the wrists of the singing ladies.


These poetry or couplets are known as ovi in Marathi and ' Jatyavarchi ovi' refers to the songs sung by the women while working at the grind mill. These songs caught the fancy of Hema Rairkar, a social activist and scholar from Pune who along with her French husband, Guy Poitevin worked in the Eighties to preserve these songs for posterity. They started the 'Grind Mill Songs Project' which recorded and preserved such songs sung by around 3,300 women performers in Maharashtra.


This poetic musical legacy of singing while toiling at the grinding mill reflected the psychological motivation and social constraints of its performers. It throws light on their insights on village life, gender, class, caste, religion, relationships with their children, husband, siblings and even social and political concerns.


Rairkar and Poitevin documented around 1,10,000 ovis which were passed on orally across generations. By 2004, they had visited around 1,107 villages in rural Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka.


Some of these ovis were translated into English and French. However, the project which aimed at preserving and translating the ovis remained incomplete owing to the demise of Poitevin in 2004  followed by Rairkar in 2010.


The project had earlier received financial assistance from UNESCO, the Netherlands Ministry for Development Cooperation and the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind in Switzerland between 1993 and 1998.


Thanks to the efforts of a mutual friend of the couple, Bernard Bel, the project was revived. Bel, a French computational ethnomusicologist breathed life into the project. He handed over the corpus of 1,10,000 songs including 30,000 digital recordings and 40,000 translations to Mumbai-based PARI ( People's Archive of Rural India).


Bel himself recorded more than 120 hours of audio and developed a tool for creating Roman Devnagari transcriptions. He is assisted in his mission by Asha Ogale, Rajani Khaladkar and Jitendra Maid who are translators and experts on oral traditions.


Along with them, the head of the 'Grind Mill Songs Project' at PARI, Namita Wairkar is also helping in the translation of the leftover 70,000 songs. Their work demands, revisiting of the villages to connect with the women to restore and preserve what remains of the grind mill songs.


The project tasted success this year on Women's Day when PARI started putting out ovis from the database accompanied by a translation, story and audio visual on its online portal every day.

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