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Vanvās to Vārī: The Travel History of Songs and Poetry in Maharashtra

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Duration: 0:20:03 | Added: 21 Dec 2021
Part of the International conference on Maharashtra in September 2021 - Madhuri Deshmukh, Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, USA

Whereas “the oral forms of the pavāḍā, lāvanī and kīrtan have typically been sung by travelling specialists,”as the conference Concept Note puts it, the grind-mill songs were composed and sung by women in their homes. Accordingly, the grind-mill song tradition is likely to evoke images of a static, timeless and unchanging “folk culture.” In fact, however, the songs of the grind mill—as a genre— record a dislocation particular to the experience of women: their movement from the natal to the conjugal home, from one village and family to another. This movement of women through marriage might be one way in which the songs of the grind mill traveled, as they seem to have, from one village and region to another. This paper will argue that the verse tradition inspired by the labor of the grind-mill traveled well beyond the confines of the domestic space and circulated widely across the genres of Maharashtrian culture, most notably, poetry. Women’s movement from māher to sāsar— represented in poignant songs about the vanvās of Sītā and the homelessness of Janābāī— encapsulates the experience of exile that seems to undergird the widely expressed desire in bhakti poetry for a māher in Pandharpur. Indeed, the journey to māher is the central metaphor for the annual vārī or pilgrimage to Pandharpur, evidence of the influence of the grind-mill songs in crafting the geography of the bhakti imagination. By drawing on the comparative examples of the African-American tradition and European poetry, this paper will delve into the history of the ovī, the dominant poetic form in Marathi literature until the eighteenth century, and the abhaṅga, the dominant form of bhakti poetry, to uncover the circulatory routes between women’s oral compositions—their songs—and the development of written poetry in Maharashtra.

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