Stonemill and Bhakti

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Item Code: IDD119
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Guy Poitevin and Hema Rairkar
Edition: 1996
ISBN: 8124600597
Pages: 280 (18 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.7" X 7.3"
Weight 730 gm
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Book Description

From the Jacket

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 or 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.

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’etre. When preachers and swamis advocate a holy insensibility to earthly things and fellow human beings, the work of grinding – epitome of women’s office – carries worldly utopias of abundance and reveals a quest for salvation through bonds of affective attachment.

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

About the Author

Guy Poitevin, born in France in 1934, and an Indian citizen by naturalization, settled in Pune in 1972. he obtained his Ph. D. in social sciences from Paris University, with a research on attitudes and aspirations of Indian students from lower social sections. In 1982, he established the Center for cooperative Research in Social Sciences, Pune, devoted to researches on those social agents and communities whose socio-historical plight, struggle for survival, internal representations and cultural potentialities happen to be overlooked by academic research methodologies. Alternative ways are explored, based on the active cooperation and self-investigation of all those concerned, and self-investigation of all those concerned, and geared in one way or the other to social agency.

Hema Rairkar, born in Maharashtra in 1939, graduated in Economics. She is actively associated with action-groups of peasant women in villages of Pune district. She follows and facilitates their attempts of self-learning in study-groups concerned with current gender issues. She organizes, in particular on the grindmill songs, seminars which bring together social animators, school teachers, professors of Marathi and social sciences, and those peasant women themselves who reappropriate their tradition.


Historians of human and social development have naturally emphasized the important role of material culture and technology in doing so, attention has also been paid to non-material culture, although the predominance of material culture and technology has been emphasized. Gordon Childe in his pathfinding work asserted a very close relationship between material culture, technology and social formations. Of course, what Marx had to say about the role of material culture, technology and relations of production in extremely well-known to be repeated.

However, the importance of culture per se also needs sufficient emphasis, particularly because literacy is more often than not regarded as a basic or the most important component of culture. On the other hand, societies with very strong oral traditions without much of literacy raise certain problems. The role of oral traditions in maintaining cultural traditions, not only that but in continuously reforming or improvising such traditions, needs to be both argued and substantively emphasized. Moreover, there is a general tendency to ascribe cultural capital to the menfolk by the large. Of course, this is not to deny the role played by females in providing artistic contributions to culture in the shape of music, dance, ritual, drawings and paintings.

In the case of Indian society bhakti or the path of devotion has been rightfully emphasized as one of the important paths of salvation. However, there is not adequate appreciation of the fact that bhakti incorporates the secular and the non-secular, the material and the non-material, the personal and the social. Catharsis has of course been appreciated insofar as the path of bhakti is concerned, because the afflicted human beings want to communicate to the divine god their woes and sufferings. The importance of communication is sufficiently underscored. However, such communication is not restricted to communication with god but also fellow human beings.

Going further, I would say that the substance, content and modality of such communication beautifully incorporates social comment. This is particularly relevant because the generally down-trodden and oppressed sections of Indian society took recourse to this mode of communication for expressing their suffering and pain, which was rooted in an unjust social order. Injustice and oppression of various kinds find expression in the works related to bhakti.

Therefore, there has been a continuous attempt to revise and refurbish the content of works of poetry, prose, etc., related with bhakti. It would not be wrong to say that such revising and refurbishing has made bhakti a dynamic force. Rather it should be emphasized that there is no uncritical acceptance of and adherence to, the works of the past by different sections of people in India. Thus, right from appealing and appeasing to questioning and criticizing, even to the point of rejection, Tukaram asks god in no uncertain terms: “Who is god except for human creation (creation of human mind)?”. And as such it is incumbent on god to listen carefully to what the human being has to say and tell, and offer help to redress the sufferings and to change the order from which such sufferings emanate.

It has been very rightly observed by the famous poet Ananta Murthi that the two major languages of India are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There is hardly any doubt that these two epics have influenced the psyche of Indians in various ways. However, it would be wrong to suggest that there is the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, for the simple reason of its interpretation the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, for the simple reason of its interpretation in diverse ways by persons and groups who belong to diverse backgrounds. No attempt at bringing out critical editions of Mahabharata or Ramayana has been successful in putting forward the only substance and interpretation of these epics. These epics are experienced, interpreted and criticized by diverse elements from time-to-time, adding, rejecting, revising not only the content of these epics but also providing alternate formulations and interpretations.

It is glibly said that women constitute half the population and still the experiences, interpretations and critical observations made by womenfolk are rarely taken serious not of. That is why in the present work, in the study Stonemill and Bhakti, special effort is made to rectify these lacunae.

One of the reasons, perhaps, of neglect of women’s world and women’s contributions may be the lack of literacy and of course participation in life beyond the home, which again is a very mistaken notion, for the simple reason of an extremely important role of women in the productive process. Several studies have pointed out that as far as agricultural production is concerned, it is handled by two-thirds of female work force, and this proportion may even increase with technological advances. And still, women’s contributions and particularly their world-view and of course various kinds of sufferings, deprivations and exploitations get underplayed.

A mere glance at the contents of this work would enable one to appreciate the comprehensive nature of this enquiry. The inextricable mixture of the material and the non-material, the familiar and the social as well as the secular and the other-worldly is to be found in these songs which have been duly encompassed. Various kinds of beliefs and construction of utopias – wordly utopias, which is extremely important because bhakti or the path of bhakti has been generally misconstrued and misrepresented as an essentially other-wordly outlook and concern. On the other hand, that this is not so has been amply brought out in several studies. It is very significant that in these songs one finds sufficient emphasis on the construction of wordly utopias by incorporating figures of distinction, redemption and abundance.

Moreover, a utopia is sought to be realized here and now through one’s own efforts. Quite in keeping with these concerns, the substantive situation which centers around the family relations, finds important and recurring, persistent mention in these songs, such as mother and daughter, mother and son, the daughter-in-law in search of belonging. The secular dimension is also significantly reflected in the quest for security here and now.

No wonder that these songs do not subscribe to any kind of a monolithic version of any of the epics or for that matter, even of other works as enshrined in the Vedas and Upanisads. One finds throughout the working of a dialectical process whereby no tradition is uncritically accepted. On the other hand, it is amended and revised in accordance with various perception, experiences and needs.

That is why oral tradition is a living force rather than a static entity.
Moreover, set formulations about material culture, technology and social formations also need to be questioned particularly because of the vibrant role played by non-material culture – bhakti.



Handmill and Anthropology

Grinding and Singing at Dawn

When there were no mechanical flour mills driven by an electric motor as is the case nearly everywhere to-day in the villages in India, housewives used to rise much before dawn, towards four or five in the early morning, in order to immediately settle down, firmly seated, in front of the stonemill secured to the hard-packed earthen floor of the kitchen or the veranda:

In the yesterday's regime, life knew no happiness

In this day and age, the village has a flour-mill. By dint of grinding, one's skin hardened at the bottom

In this day and age, the mill is fitted out with a belt.

The handmill of yesterday is made up of two cylindrical millstones, (pali) placed flat one on top of the other. The upper one, the revolving millstone, is two to three inches thick and fitted with a vertical wooden handle, (khunta), fixed in a hole sideways, enabling it to be rotated by hand. The nether stone, stationary, about two inches thick too, is embedded in the ground. It supports an upright iron peg set vertically in its centre to permit the interlocking of both the stones and the rotation of the upper millstone. In the centre of the upper stone, a circular hole of about one and a half inches is made for this purpose. The metallic rod, the axis of rotation or pivot, would easily fit in this opening, which singers call the mouth of the mill as they pour grain in it through that hole. A metal ring, (mandali), would sometimes reinforce the interlocking of the two millstones and the securing of the mill to the ground. The diameter of the mill usually varies between fourteen and eighteen inches.

The contemporary Marathi word used for the flour mill, (jate), belongs to the family of the Indo-Aryan languages. Many of the latter call the hand-mill by etymologically comparable words equally derived from Sanskrit. Jate likely derives from a word signifying instrument, machine, yamtrakam, while the present form of the handmill itself represents the latest evaluative stage of the changing forms of rotary querns.

The best millstones were usually cut from a specific metamorphic rock called corundum, an extremely hard mineral, aluminium variously coloured by metallic oxydes. The corundum of the mill is sparkling!sing joyfully the millers. The permanence of the heavy corundum millstone in the heart of the house testifies to the prosperous continuity of the lineage:

Mill made of corundum, its corundum is old, in a five khan house

We grind both of us together mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Mill made of corundum, millstone to be pulled by four women

My father-in-law's father, Jhiloji, he has set it up, the Fortunates!

The corundum is a crystallized mineral which occurs in gem varieties such as sapphire and ruby and in a common gray, blue, brown, black form. The Marathi word kurunda, probably comes from the Tamil kurundam. In Telugu, we have kuruvindam and in Sanskrit kuruvinda, 'the ruby'. According to Hobson- Jobson, Thevenot noted around 1666 that one finds this stone, called corind in Telugu, in a particular place of the kingdom of 'Telengana.6 The extremely hard granular corundum is used as abrasive.

In their songs, at the sight of the huge stone so heavy to move and turn at a quick pace, the peasant miller women are, at times, scared by the tedious task they have to get down to. No wonder if their tradition has songs to spur on and scold each other:

Pull the mill, make it hum, keep the rhythm

Your nonchalance in work makes me angry.

As a rule, the sense of one's sacred duty as housewife generates feelings of enthusiasm and pride:

I grind and pound, this is forever my play

Give me, god! give me a multitude of men.

A woman forgets her sluggishness as soon as the cock crows, flaps its wings and shrieks, and thechariot of Ram - this is the name their tradition sometimes gives the rumbling millstones - moves off and rattles:

Black corundum from the mine! Grind, woman, grind!

Let us pull the mill! This is our youth in its bloom!

The artisans specialized in the making of the grinding stones are the Partharvat. This is the specific name of the cutters of stone for household use. They form a caste on the basis of their particular occupation. Pathar designates a block of stone or a slab of smooth stone used for washing clothes, bathing, preparing condiments or simply sitting. Pathar has given Patharvat, Patharad, Patharut, Patharud and Patharvat. The Patharvat devote themselves traditionally only to the work of cutting domestic mill-stones, mortars for kitchen and pieces of rectangular and rough stones used by women to crush green vegetables, spices and condiments, while cooking. The group of Patharvat families settled at the nearest to the area of collection of the songs to which we refer in this study, have to-day set up a workshop on the side of a congested street, at Paud Phata, a junction of roads which, at the western periphery of Pune, connect the town to the hilly tracks of Mawal (in the Sahyadri range, Mulshi taluka in Pune district, western Maharashtra). These Patharvat to-day do not cut anything else but stones for crushing, the pata-varavanta, the last of the three traditional domestic instruments still widely used, the stonemill and the kitchen mortar falling progressively into disuse.

Twenty years ago, the same families still crossed the villages and towns in Konkan, the west coast of Maharashtra, and Mawal, the mountainous region which is the link between Konkan and the Deccan Plateau, on foot, with their donkeys for mounting and carrying. They used to prepare the millstones needed by the women. They never used to work as farm labour or domestic servants in anybody's house. They usually got themselves paid in kind against the delivery of the cut stone, in preference to payment in cash. However, they were not balutedar. At that time, they sold a millstone for ten rupees. They got the supply of corundum from Belgaum, a city situated at the north-west tip of Karnataka and the southwest tip of Maharashtra (more than six hundred kilometres from Pune).



  Foreword v
  Introduction: Handmill and Anthropology 1
Theological Rationalism

(a written tradition of pundits)
1 Christian Strategy for India’s Salvation 27
2 Deliverance from the Pangs of Earthly Life 39
3 Considerate Love of God for the Lowly 51
4 Mystical Crushing of Duality 61
5 God’s Companionship with the Destitute 69
The Flour And The Song
Peasant Women at the Millstone

(an oral tradition of women)
6 The Call to Grind 95
7 The Compulsion to Sing 113
8 A Breath of Laksmi 139
9 Divine Liberties 153
10 Wordly Utopias 167
The Bonds of Hope
A Set of Attachments as System of Affective Security
11 Mother and Daughter : Intimate Identification 137
12 Mother and Son : Reassuring Presence 205
13 The Daughter-in-law : In Search of Belonging 215
14 Salvation Through Appropriation 231
  Conclusion : Epistemological Perspectives 241
  Annexe 1 : Area of Collection : Mawal Corpus 267
  Annexe 2: Western Maharashtra Places and Saints of Bhakti Movement 13th – 18th century 268
  Annexe 3: Popular Visuals 269


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