Grindmill Songs In Maharashtra

A Musical-Anthropological Study (1997)

VĂ©ronique Bacci

This project is part of the research programme "Popular oral tradition and collective memory" conducted by the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences (CCRSS, Pune).

The program is an attempt to project new insights into the symbolic systems and processes of social communication among communities with a low social status in India. It aims at revealing ways and forms of cultural agency characteristic of the subordinated.

Initial work has been undertaken by CCRSS during the 1980s decade. It consists of a methodical collection of data (basically song texts), structural content analysis with interpretation involving the informants, write-ups and publications, seminars and eventually practical valorisation. About 50,000 song texts have been collected so far, classified and stored in a computer database, along with data about the performers, places and contexts of performance. (See A cultural-sociological database <hdl:11041/sldr000735/database-en.htm>)

Grindmill songs are interpreted at dawn by peasant women in the few villages in which the grindstone has not yet been replaced with the electric mill. In the context of drastic transformations occurring in rural areas of Maharashtra, the texts of these songs display a characteristic continuity between " traditional " and " modern " thought processes and modes of expression. They aim at establishing bonds between individuals and groups.

The main concern of the semantic/linguistic study of grindmill song texts undertaken so far by the CCRSS has been to capture the motivations which prompt them, thereby strengthening various forms of social intervention among low social status women.

An example of the context analysis will be found in Poitevin & Rairkar (1996) " Stonemill and Bhakti ", D.K. Printworld, New Delhi. The insider's perspective is highlighted in communications to seminars, e.g. Grindmill songs and animation, by Tara Ubhe and A performance capacity reactivated by Kusum Sonavne.

Since 1995 the documentation on grindmill songs is completed with sound recordings in digital format which are classified in the database. This new bulk of data (which currently contains more than 30 hours of selected recordings covering about 22 villages) is an important reference material, both for the study of the performance itself, which otherwise is blurred sby the descriptive transcription of song texts, and for the study of tunes related to different subjects, geographical areas and social groups.

In 1996-97 I undertook classificatory work of the melodic repertory contained in this database. About 100 tunes have been identified and partly classified. This work was the subject of my Master Degree in musicology under an agreement between CCRSS, the Centre des Sciences Humaines (CSH, New Delhi) and Aix-en-Provence University.

This initial work highlighted the need for new analytical tools that would lend themselves to tonal classification in a musical system devoid of explicit musical rules. Further, it outlined inconsistencies in the concept of "musicality" from the points of view of performers/listeners belonging to different social groups.

It is clear that a thorough study of the practice of singing at the grindmill will involve an integrated approach combining the discursive elements of text, melody and para-musical components such a gesture, intention, group communication, etc...

During my first PhD year (DEA), I came across new analytical tools able to account for discursive, argumentative, rhetorical structures inherent to musical forms, which may not necessarily be isomorphic to the same structures in the song text. My study will therefore focus on specific musical structures and attempt to link them with language-discursive structures encountered in the text. As a starting hypothesis, a parallel may be drawn between melodic patterns and the prosodic intonation patterns of speech.

It is hoped that the "deciphering" of communication patterns in an oral popular tradition will bring new insights into emerging sciences of music (as exemplified by endeavours such as the international project on "Musical Signification") which so far have almost exclusively rested upon a classical hermeneutical deciphering of musical "text."

Return to home page of Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences (CCRSS, Pune)