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When songs from rural grind mills make it online

The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) celebrated International Women’s Day this year with a difference. No glib messaging or smug patronizing for the brainchild behind this website, maverick journalist P. Sainath, Ramon Magsaysay award winner and author of the hard-hitting book Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

Their offering instead is the Grindmill Songs Project, a compilation of over 100,000 folk songs, of which 30,000 have already been digitally recorded, with the rest being works in progress. These have been painstakingly collated from across 1,100 villages in Maharashtra, sung by women in their homes as they cooked, swept and cleaned. 

In fact, the project gets its name from jāte, the grind mill at home over which these women toiled. When motorized grinding arrived over the last couple of decades, much of this music stopped being heard in homes. Although this is not explicitly stated, the word is also perhaps a nod to the difficult and ceaseless grind that the lives of these women are.

Apart from reviving these lost songs, this project is an insightful look into their lives, covering a range of subjects from personal relationships within the family to caste equations in the community. For instance, there are nearly 200 “Ambedkar songs” composed and sung by Dalit women, an ode to their champion.

The first song to be uploaded as part of the project was by the late Gangubai Ambore, a Maratha woman who was abandoned by her husband when she contracted leprosy. She spent the rest of her life in a disused village temple, composing songs about women—perhaps women like herself, marginalized and victimized—as this translation suggests:

In the forest, in the woods, who is weeping? Listen! 

The jujube and acacia trees are the ‘women’ who listen to and console Sita.

This way, the project is about acknowledging both the unsung songs and the unsung women behind the words and tunes. 

Right now, the PARI team plans to put up one song every week, along with an English translation, details about the performer and other relevant social data. But the real impact of the project lies in their aim to build such collections in other languages and states across the country over time.

PARI itself is an online repository launched in December 2014 that seeks to tell the stories of the “everyday lives of everyday people”. Sainath describes it as, “an archive of the immediate past, a journal of the living present and a constantly updating textbook of the future”. 

Woman labourer at the landfill at Kyalsanahalli outside Bengaluru. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam

By all accounts, PARI is an ambitious project, attempting to give a voice, indeed any kind of presence, to 833 million people, speaking 780 languages and practising a few thousand different occupations and professions, many of which have ceased to exist in most other parts of the world. 

According to Sainath, “The idea of PARI arose from the complete failure of the corporate media to engage with 70% of the country’s population, to cover more than a handful of India’s 95 regions in any significant way.” 

This is simply because media coverage is increasingly driven by revenue, he says, and “poor people and weaker sections of society get virtually no space at all except in times of disaster or when looked at as a potential market”.

This project is also an endeavour to bridge the divide between the English-speaking urban India and the multilingual rural.

The content is created entirely through volunteer reporters who travel through the country, seeking out interesting subjects, spending time with them and documenting their stories in detail. There are now over 1,500 volunteers in various roles, including translation and website management. 

“This gentleman was travelling with his entire family and insisted on occupying the top bunk all by himself.” Photo: Ritayan Mukherjee

Sainath says, “We’ve recently been described by one journalist as ‘a Smithsonian from below’. That is not too bad a description, except that we place strong emphasis on the ‘from below’.” 

Often, the voices are not just those of the reporters but of the subjects themselves, told in their own words or through their own methods. One of the stated aims of the project is to create journalists from the communities where the narrative begins, the people who are systematically excluded from finding a place in formal occupations like journalism. To aid this, there are also fellowships on offer—a sum of Rs2 lakh to spend three months in and add to the repertoire of stories from that region.

Apart from English, content is available in several regional languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Punjabi, Kannada, Bengali, Odia, Assamese and, most recently, Mizo. This potentially means reaching out to far wider audiences than classic single language publications, since according to a recent report from Google, over 60% of all internet traffic in India will be in regional languages by 2020.

It has also come to mean that the site is willing to experiment with different forms of storytelling; in fact, the revival of storytelling in journalism is one of their main focus areas. As PARI’s managing editor Namita Waikar says, “We want to present multimedia stories that include text, photo and video, as well as audio stories told through prose, verse and song.” 

In their rare appearances in mainstream media, rural Indians are usually depicted as the exotic “other” with either stories of extraordinary strength and achievement or crushing poverty and struggle.  

A recurring monsoon-driven demand drives the boat economy of north Bihar. Photo: Sayantoni Palchoudhari

These stories are divided into many categories that cover a wide range of themes, from vanishing livelihoods and traditional arts to gender and caste to rural transportation, sports and healthcare. Then there are just the categories that serve the purpose of being ethnographic museums of the entire country: faces, clothing and jewellery, languages and folklore.

A category that the team is particularly passionate about is Foot Soldiers of Freedom, with stories of unsung freedom fighters, now in their 80s and 90s. Waikar says, “They were ordinary men who did extraordinary things during our freedom struggle, without being interested in fame or fortune.” (Read “Captain Elder Brother and the whirlwind army”.)

Another aim of PARI is to provide material for research and learning for both students and teachers across the country. Sainath sees the project as being a dynamic textbook and learning resource for future generations of students across the world. 

What makes this resource unique is that some of the students themselves are already creating some of the content, by writing stories, making films and doing research for PARI. All of this is to be perennially a free resource with no government or corporate links. 

Karma Rinchen is a goba or community elder. A goba must be wise, spiritual and experienced and he has all of these qualities. Photo: Ritayan Mukherjee

The massive scope of the project—the multiple languages, the translations, the production—add a great strain on resources, since the work depends on modest sums of money sent in by unknown contributors. Sainath acknowledges that their biggest asset is the volunteer base, with their idealism and willingness to contribute time and effort free of cost.

Stories published in PARI have been republished by other popular media outlets like BBC Hindi, Scroll, The Times of India and Sun TV, bringing attention to previously unknown issues from hidden corners of the country to a much larger audience. 

One of their stories on the villagers of Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand having to wait for several weeks for their mail to be sent and received, went viral on social media. This resulted in a sparkling new post office for the village just four days after the story was published.

Another example is a film by Aparna Karthikeyan, a volunteer reporter who lives in Mumbai and reports from the interiors of Tamil Nadu, on Kali, a fatherless boy from a backward tribe, who learned folk dance on his own and then made his way to Kalakshetra, one of the most prestigious classical dance schools in Chennai. Kali found not just recognition in the form of awards but also a mentor in classical musician T.M. Krishna.

The PARI team has also received requests to help set up similar websites in other countries, including one based entirely around music in South Africa, and another coming up soon in Canada.

Sainath sums up the future of PARI this way: “Say you’re a sociology student writing a thesis on rural women labour. Which would be more appealing and educative? A 35-year-old textbook you can’t afford and that is dated or just switching on a video (and reading accompanying articles) where those women speak to you about their lives in their own words?”

Charukesi Ramadurai’s life mantra goes ‘travel, write, drink filter kapi; rinse, repeat’.

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