Unfettered Voices

Guy Poitevin
and Hema Rairkar

Participation of:
Bernard Bel
Véronique Bacci
Geneviève Caelen

A project of:
Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences

In the context of drastic transformations occurring in rural areas of Maharashtra, we are addressing specific forms of expression and communication peculiar to women which prove significant in different respects. They display a characteristic continuity between 'traditional' and 'modern' thought processes and modes of expression. This is their first aspect.

Secondly, these expressive forms aim at establishing bonds between individuals and groups. Our main concern is to capture the motivations which prompt them. The remarkable wealth of grindmill songs is one of these forms.

Sound example

Bhambarde village (Western Maharashtra)

There, expression calls for reciprocity and exchange instead of being just informative or didactic (see I tell you, woman). It tends to be performative of a personal relationship within the context of domestic duties incumbent to peasant housewives.

The dynamics of communication which appeared yesterday in the bouncing of arguments and topics during singing at the grinding mill can be traced ahead in several contemporary situations (see A performance capacity reactivated, Grindmill songs and animation). The motivations of women to express their vision of life, and the underlying patterns of communication, appear the same in different times and contexts, some of which may be codified by customs (festivals, wedding, etc.) and others utterly casual (interaction with visitors, village leaders, social workers, etc.). A recurrent motto is to "come together and speak out", whether this occurs in confidential exchange or family rituals as was the case mainly yesterday, or in present day democratic conducts or social-cultural intervention such as street drama.

The methodology for dealing with this theme relies on video and sound recordings of various situations in which these patterns may be observed.

Some visual and audio materials have already been collected in different contexts, and lend themselves to editing for this purpose. On the basis of these initial attempts, we provoke circumstances in which significant situations of expression and communication are prompted rather than engineered. (See for instance the research project on Ambore Gangu.)

The construction of the argument strongly relies on the editing of documents. Recent technology such as non-linear video editing makes it possible to achieve this work in interaction with those involved in the project of collection, study and valorisation of songs of the millstone. Thus, the editing work being an integral part of the documentation itself provides insights and distantiation from the primary material.

No external comment or explanation is needed, as the meaning of the acts of speech is brought about by its agents. The external intervention catalyses this assessment by prompting actors to reactivate their own speech process.

In the time and space of oral tradition, the transmission and reinterpretation of songs has been continuously performed, although with the limited critical insight of a 'precritical' stage of consciousness. Yet, the reflexivity induced by using modern forms of expression (meetings, group discussion, street-theatre, video etc.) draws upon a capacity of reappropriation of personal and collective identity which never eludes any human consciousness, whatever be the weight of the fetters that bind it.

Instead of isolating some cultural objects or 'rituals' -- religious or domestic -- with the risk of constructing, if not imposing, exotic items, we focus on the urge of expression and communication of the actors themselves, "in this day and age" as much as in "yesterday's regime", to quote their songs...

Musical documentation

Audiovisual material collected for this project is complementary to the textual corpus of grindmill songs already compiled and classified (approx. 90,000 as of date). It is of special relevance to integrate the dimensions of sound into this archive. The fact that this form of expression is a combination of music and speech makes it interesting for musicological, linguistic and anthropological studies at the same time.

For instance, it is important to document the variety of tunes used over Maharashtra, and investigate their connections with the semantic content of songs, their geographical location, family lineage, ritual context, other local musical influences, etc. (See: A cultural-sociological database and A musicological-anthropological analysis of singing at the grindmill)

Sound example

Sarangi interpretation by S.P. Singh

Focusing on the linguistic aspect requires that a special attention be also paid to non-verbal communication processes. This is possible through audiovisual documents. The interest of such studies lead us to undertake a wider collection of documents than needed for the sole video film.

Related publication

Poitevin, Guy, & Hema Rairkar (1996). Stonemill and Bhakti.
New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

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