For March 8, International Women’s Day 2018, we bring you four ovi from the Grindmill Songs Project by Shahu Kamble of Nandgaon village. These songs express a woman's rage and contempt at male oppression


The vile, wicked man, abused my daughter
He pricks my eye like the [tiny] grain of panic seed

Shahubai Kamble was perhaps two decades ahead of the worldwide outpouring against sexual assault, abuse and harassment of women. In the past year, revelations on these crimes have rocked the worlds of media, entertainment and academia. The #MeToo movement has seen leading to lesser-known film stars speak out from a global stage about their abuse by men.

Shahu Kamble’s ‘stage’ was the little room in Nandgoan village where she ground flour from wheat at her jāte or chakki (grindmill). This is the unique cultural space of the poor village woman. Shahubai expressed herself on abuse and harassment (amongst many other themes) in ovi that belong to the musical genre that has come to be known as jātyāvaracyā ōvyā (grindmill songs). This she did from her village home in Maharashtra’s Pune district till she died of cancer in 2016, at age 70, unknown to the world outside Nandgaon. 

Shahubai’s songs or ovi resonate with all the disclosures flooding the media this past year. Revelations about abusers and predators who operate from a position of power over women, children and even men, across all strata of societies around the world. And that predominantly the predators are men who abuse women either verbally, physically or both. 

Worldwide, as this latest report from UN Women tells us, 1 in 5 women and girls under the age of 50 reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period. In Central and South Asia, which includes India, the corresponding figure is 23.1 per cent. 

Such harassment – and worse – is widely prevalent in both urban and rural India. Shahubai captures it in her village, in songs of scathing contempt and rage.

On gender equality indicators, says the UN Women report, 2015-16 data for India also show that the compounding effect of wealth and location produces large inequalities. In India, the report states, a young woman aged 20-24 from a poor, rural household, is

  • 5.1 times as likely as one from a rich urban household to marry before the age of 18 
  • 21.8 times as likely to have never attended school 
  • 5.8 times as likely to become an adolescent mother 
  • 1.3 times as likely to have no access to money for her own use 
  • 2.3 times as likely to report she has no say in how money is spent 

What this indicates is the near total economic and social dependence of women on men in the family. And it’s greater in rural areas than in urban India. Such a patriarchal setup emboldens some men to abuse women within their own households and outside as well – in the workplace, in the fields, on the streets.  

The database of the Grindmill Songs Project has hundreds of ovi pertaining to women’s social identity and gender issues. In March 2017, PARI published the first batch of songs from this database, which explains its history and records the people involved in this huge undertaking. There are roughly 500 ovi on just the topic of abuse and the threat of humiliation and violence by men towards women. The basis of this harassment is not only gender but often caste and class, with the stronger and more socially and economically powerful subjugating the weaker. 

In this edition of the GSP, we bring an audio clip of Shahu Kamble. We met her family – her husband, two sons, their wives and children – on September 11, 2017. We visited them at her home in Nandgoan, where they still live. Of Shahubai, of course, we could only take a photograph – of a photograph of hers on the wall.

PHOTO • Samyukta Shastri

Family portrait. From left to right: younger daughter-in-law Pornima Kamble and her husband Sanjay; Shahubai's cousin Kusum Sonawane; eldest daughter-in-law Surekha with her daughter Pratiksha; granddaughter-in-law Rajni; Shahubai's husband Namdev; and grandsons Saksham and Pratik

The four powerful songs recorded in October 1999, by the original Grindmill Songs Project team, express the anger and abhorrence felt by a woman for an abusive man.

If a man abuses a woman, she is furious and feels nothing but contempt for him. 

Shahubai sings that she can be as ferocious as a tigress, like her brave father, who is like a tiger. And the malicious taunts of a foolish man inflame her with rage.

She tells the man that his desire is evil and reprimands him as severely as she can. Cursing him, she says: ‘When Yama, the god of death, comes to fetch you, he will treat you so badly that your end will be a torment’. Her severity seems to reflect the extent of the vicious verbal abuse she suffered from the man.

Shahubai goes on to sing that the vile, wicked man said something abusive to her daughter, and his presence pricks her eye like the tiny grain of grass seeds (from ‘panic grass’ or panicum sumatrense). You are like the muddy slush and filth that collects at the door when it rains, she tells the man. Having poured out her scorn, she asks: in how many more ways could she express her anger and contempt? 

Listen to these four songs:

अशी बाजी माझ्या वाघ मी वाघाची वाघीण
कसा बोलला येडा मूरख, झाली देहाची आगीन

पापी रे चांडाळा, तुझी पापाची ती रे वासना
अशी मरणाच्या ना वेळ, तुला यमाची जाचना

अशी पापी रे चांडाळा, माझ्या बाईला बोलला
कशी राळाच्या कणीवाणी, माझ्या नेतरी तो सलला

अशी पाण्या ग पावसानी, दारी चिखल रापला
अशी येड्या तु रे मुरखा, किती देऊ तुला दाखला

aśī bājī mājhyā vāgha mī vāghācī vāghīṇa
kasā bōlalā yēḍā mūrakha jhālī dēhācī āgīna

pāpī rē cāṇḍāḷā tujhī pāpācī tī rē vāsanā
aśī maraṇācyā nā vēḷa tulā yamācī jācaṇā

aśī pāpī rē cāṇḍāḷā mājhyā bāīlā bōlalā
kaśī rāḷācyā kaṇīvāṇī mājhyā nētarī tō salalā

aśī pāṇyā ga pāvasānī dārī cikhala rāpalā
aśī yēḍyā tu rē murakhā kitī dēū tulā dākhalā

My brave father is a tiger, I am his tigress
When a fool taunted me, I was on fire with rage

You wicked sinner, your desire is evil
At the time of death, Yama* will ill-treat you

The vile, wicked man, abused my daughter
He pricks my eye like the [tiny] grain of panic seed

With rain water, it has become muddy and slushy at the door
You fool, you stupid man, how many examples can I give you?

*Note: Yama is the god of death in Hindu religious mythology

Framed photo of Shahu Kamble with garland
PHOTO • Samyukta Shastri

Performer/Singer: Shahu Kamble

Village: Nandgaon

Taluka: Mulshi 

District: Pune

Caste: Nav Bauddha (Neo Buddhist)       

Age: 70 (She died in August 2016 due to uterine cancer.)               

Children: Two sons and two daughters   Occupation: Farmer

Date: These songs and the accompanying information were recorded on October 5, 1999. The photographs were taken on September 11, 2017.

Poster: Sinchita Maji 

PARI GSP Team

PARI Grindmill Songs Project Team: Asha Ogale, Jitendra Maid, Bernard Bel, Namita Waikar

Other stories by PARI GSP Team

Namita Waikar is a writer, translator, and the managing editor of PARI. She is a partner in a chemistry databases firm, and has worked as a biochemist and a software project manager.

Other stories by Namita Waikar