by Rahul KumarDec 10, 2020
Having recently dwelled on systems of embodied knowledge and their dissemination for a yet-to-be published essay, an extension of my ongoing investigations into lost female subjectivity, it was inevitable that I should be drawn to the Grindmill Songs Project when I came across it in the guide to the ongoing 13th Gwangju Biennale. Supported by the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), the project fits like a glove within the subversive framework ofMinds Rising Spirits Tuning, curated by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala, whose pre-installation Instagram posts I had been eagerly following. I was impressed by the audacity of the curators, their empowered enabling of non-canonical artistic traditions and mystical, shamanic narratives within the space of the Western construct of the biennial. I was always on board with the idea of tuning into spiritual frequencies and nourishing other-than-human discourses, going ‘beyond the horizons of western reason’ by bridging the divide between mind and body that can be traced back to Plato.
In their introduction to the downloadable guide, Ayas and Ginwala lay out their intentions: “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning sets out to challenge the structural divisions imposed on corporeal, technological, and spiritual intelligence, and seeks to bring forth dynamic aspects of the communal mind and its artistic and restorative potential in current struggles towards social justice”. Soon enough my attention landed on a photograph of what a Western epistemological tradition would call an ‘object’, a “Stone Grandmother”, an undated work of stone sitting on silk, from the collection of the Museum of Shamanism in Seoul. I moved forward until I arrived at the introduction to the works within the exhibition hall, the largest of the exhibition venues, featuring over 50 artists and thinkers, with each of the five large-scale galleries organised as a ‘meta-score’. “The works on view conjure sensorial entryways into the present while inviting audiences to experience commemorative aesthetics, indigenous life worlds, legacies of militarism, and strategies of survival devised by matrilineal collectives and queer cultures, laying bare the groundwork of collective intelligence in a network society,” read the curatorial note, music to any intersectional feminist’s ear. It was in Gallery 2, titled Kinship of Mountains, Fields and Rivers that the Grindmill Songs Project had been placed. The accompanying image illustration showed a group of women seated around a stone mill, three of them using the force of their hands to collectively move the top stone in order to turn grain into flour. Their mouths are half-open, as if caught in the midst of their song. Behind them are three sari-clad bodies standing. Their mill was ancestrally related to the ‘Stone Grandmother’, suggesting a continuity existing outside of historical time.
The project—a colossal archive of texts, sounds, and videos—was begun by Hema Rairkar and her husband, Guy Poitevin, back in 1987 when they, along with a team, with funding from diverse international institutions, went from village to village in rural Maharashtra until the 1990s, collecting and transcribing over one hundred thousand couplets (ovi) composed and sung by farmer women. The project has been in the custodianship of PARI, founded by P Sainath, since 2016, and is cared for by Namita Waikar. The website frequently features in-depth stories foregrounding the voices of these women who sang their sorrows and their joys while grinding grain every morning, performing their subjectivities and sharing them with each other. “The collection is a testimony of a literary and musical tradition kept alive by unsung communities of women, sampling poetic impressions of everyday life and seasonal labour, portraits of family life and fiery pronouncements against caste and patriarchal oppression,” reads the note by Michelangelo Corsaro, a member of the Gwangju Biennale curatorial team who oversaw the installation of this project.
Corsaro responded generously to my request for images of how the work had been exhibited in Gwangju, sharing with me also the hand-outs that succinctly communicated the heft of the archive to listeners, sectioning it into five domains: Ambedkar songs and the lives of Dalit women; Women’s identity; Farming: the hot summer and the wait for rain; Familial relationships, and Festivals and Pilgrimages. Listening to the songs uploaded by PARI on Soundcloud is a profoundly emotional experience, the next best alternative if one cannot physically visit the installation in Gwangju. One hears how the rotating stones emit a tonality, serving as the base rhythm for vocal explorations. You can pinpoint in most instances when the female body moves into a state of labour—you discern the heart beating faster to produce the additional energy required to rotate the top stone, effecting a change in the modulation, making it more hectic, making the song more urgent, the clamour of bangles adding beat, which is pronouncedly poetic when the song in question is about female labour, like Kusum Sonawane’s songs that perform the rage of gender inequity.
One frequently hears the sound of children in the background, tender voices that cry ‘Aai’, the Marathi word for mother, reminding you of all the roles the labour of a woman surviving patriarchy is meant to perform, often simultaneously, making this archive feel so precious because of the spontaneity with which these recordings are done, that they are not studio-based but ‘live’ and site-specific. A range of intrinsically female emotions are staged within listening distance of the mill, echoing the poetic and linguistic registers that inform such a matrilineal tradition. The archive had been instituted in anticipation of the fact that this tradition could, at some point, no longer exist. Some of the singers have passed on and what remains as their canonical legacy is what we are privileged to hear. As the music continued to linger in my ears I thought about the cultural costs of the historical and systematic devaluations of women’s labours around the world, a fact that makes the curatorial crux of this 13th edition of Gwangju Biennale feel all the more necessary, relevant, and robust, even if most of us can only access it virtually.
(Gwangju Biennale is on till May 9, 2021.)