At the Chavdar Tale, just for the right to a sip of water
A crowd has gathered for the sake of women and children
The crowd celebrated in these verses is a group of three thousand Dalits that gathered in 1927 to drink water from the Chavdar Tale, a public water tank, in a transformative satyagraha, a form of nonviolent resistance based on civil disobedience, to protest their exclusion. Led by civil rights leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the crowd challenged the prohibition to drink from the tank and initiated a nationwide struggle for water access that continues to this day, with many marginalized communities excluded from this basic right. Episodes celebrating the social empowerment of Dalits and downtrodden castes are only one of the narratives contained in The Grindmill Songs Project (1987–ongoing), a vast collection of ovi, couplets sung by women in rural Maharashtra associated with the labor of hand-grinding grain between two round stones to produce flour. This archive of texts, sounds, and videos was initiated by activists and scholars Hema Raikar and Guy Poitevin, who traveled along with their team from one village to the other collecting and transcribing over one hundred thousand ovi in the 1980s and 1990s. This 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 labor, portraits of family life, and fiery pronouncements against caste and patriarchal oppression.
Mainstream corporate media mostly ignores the struggles of people living in rural India, shifting their attention to the agendas of neoliberal political reform and agribusiness. Yet the lives and livelihood of hundreds of millions of Indians, their unique tribal languages, oral histories, and ancestral professions are threatened by the dramatic transformations to the economies and ecologies of the Indian peninsula. For over four decades, veteran rural journalist Palagummi Sainath has published articles on farmers’ suicides, minority rights, agrarian resistance, and rural livelihoods and founded the People’s Archive of Rural India – PARI, bringing together a network of writers, documentary filmmakers, and photojournalists. Since 2016, the Grindmill Songs Project has been entrusted to the collective care of PARI and Namita Waikar as part of “a living, breathing journal” where the voices of women, migrant laborers, and Adivasi tribal communities can rise against an emerging water crisis, the global mining industry, and, more recently, a public health emergency.