Stonemill and Bhakti

Poitevin, Guy, & Hema Rairkar (1996)
Contemporary Researches in Hindu Philosophy and Religion, No.3.
New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P)

Tangible patrimony usually attracts attention and efforts of preservation. Intangible cultural traditions do often go with the winds of history when their social and material setting disappears. Such is the case with the songs that women in India, while grinding before dawn, have kept singing for ages on their hand-mill. Aside from the male society, they hoarded up for themselves a non-material matrimony. Today, though, motor driven flour mills have put to rest these voices of silence, their legacy remains with them: immense and immemorial, purely feminine and oral, anonymous and personal, collective and intimate. Words from the heart, they glitter like flames in the domestic hearth.

(See songs at the grindmill)

This book is the first attempt of systematic cultural-anthropological study of that unique tradition. It offers keys to apprehend it. Why should this tradition, first of all, originate from a shared compulsion to "open up one's heart"? This differentiates the women singers' intentionality from the didactic treatment of pundits and sants who make grinding and grindmill the allegory of an advaitic bhakti. For women -- Laksmis dedicated to serve the fortune of their family and its lineage -- life in plenty is their raison d'être. When preachers and swamis advocate a holy insensibility to earthly things and fellow human beings, the work of grinding -- epitome of woman's office -- carries worldly utopias of abundance and reveals a quest for salvation through bonds of affective attachment.

God grinds in company of Jani
Seeing her feelings, Pandharirao is pleased.

Eventually, the study raises radical questions on such crucial concepts as those of bhakti, tradition, the status of popular traditions versus elaborate constructs of literati.

Listen to a bhajan
sung by Ambore Gangu:

I take your name, God,
Every morning and evening,
And forget myself.

The symbolism of the stonemill in religious Marathi literature is contrasted with the experience of grinding of peasant women as the latter articulated it in their work-songs.

(See A performance capacity reactivated, Grindmill songs and animation)

What is sought is an epistemological insight into the cognitive processes which result in the dialectic blend of affinity and glaring inconsistency that one observes between those two levels of cultural creativity.

Related project: Unfettered Voices

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