Paromita Vohra: Grains of Song

Updated: 13 June, 2017 14:02 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

"In the forest, in the woods, who is weeping? Listen! Bori-babhali [jujube and acacia trees] are the 'women' who listen to and console Sita."

Illustration/Ravi Jadhav
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

"In the forest, in the woods, who is weeping? Listen!
Bori-babhali [jujube and acacia trees] are the 'women' who listen to and console Sita."

In her video interview, recorded in the 1990s, Gangubai Ambore, the singer of this song, looks frail, poor and aged. Her teeth are stained, half-moon-shadows seem to be melting below her eyes. Her voice is strong and incredibly affecting, as if grief, or the knowledge of grief, had been compacted into it, dark and dense like granular charcoal.

She says the trees she sings of (the bori-babhali) were her confidantes in sorrow. The loss of a husband, much loved, taken away by a God so cruel, who left her behind alone. "If a father or brother hurt you, where will you open your heart?" Having lost land and family, she has no use for money, busy-ness, life, or God. "I just spent my time expressing myself here."

There is much beauty and sadness in Gangubai Ambore's song, where she identifies with Sita, caught in a thorny wood, which is the lot of women. The song is both deeply personal and highly self-aware of the socio-cultural contexts which create these emotional conditions. She sings other songs, about the summer's heat, the sudden appearance of Ram at her door, her wish to buy new clothes for her son.

In another video, Radhabai of Majalgaon, a ridged, round nose-pin punctuating a lined, beautiful face sings a song of praise and gratitude to Dalit icons: "My first song is for Lord Buddha/He brought Buddha dhamma for the welfare of Dalits/My second song is to Baba Bhimraya/A diamond is born of Dalit lineage" and so forth, in homage to the dhamma, the sangha and to Ramabai.

These songs, called ovi, are among a hundred thousand, recorded with 3,302 women from 1,107 villages in Maharashtra as part of the rich and incredibly moving Grindmill Songs Project. Ovi are songs that women in rural Maharashtra sing while grinding grain, at the grindmill.

They span the range of rural social and human experiences - seasons, caste duties, farming, politics, heartache, loneliness, the joy of birth, the enchanting colour of rain, the love of God.

I discovered the project when it became part of that wonderful online archive PARI, begun by P.Sainath to chronicle the life of rural India (remember rural India?). But, it has been a two-decade endeavour begun by the late Hema Raikar and Guy Poitevin, scholars, who co-founded the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences in Pune. Other companions have joined their journey over time – musicologists, funders, students who have nurtured and grown the project. Without such labours of love, which defy instrumentality, what would we ever understand of the world, I wonder.

This Sunday you couldn't do better than to go immerse yourself in the complex world of this project. Society and history rendered through the wisdom, experience and art of women. Stories no one tells, not even when they mention farmer's strikes and five farmers shot dead in a protest, though they - and we - exist in an intertwined reality, flesh of that blood.

We need only to open our hearts to listen and be willing to reshape our notion of 'reality', or people, of India; to change the way we see the world. For, that is also how we change the world.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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First Published: 11 June, 2017 06:02 IST

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