Go Talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari

Published by Yoda Press (January 2019), Go talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari is a book of translations of the Ovis or verses of Bahinabai Choudhari, a 19th century peasant poet from the Khandesh region of Maharashtra.

Bahinabai Choudhary (1880-1950) was an unlettered peasant poet from the Khandesh region of Maharashtra who has authored a collection of poems in the form of ovis. An ovi is verse in couplet form that are set to an easy tune and sung by women in this state as they go about their work. So, in a sense, they can be regarded as ‘work songs’ not unlike the blues. However, while most ovis that have been popularly sung were about God, stories and characters from mythology, festivals or moral precepts, Bhainabai’s ovis were about her work both in the home as well as a farmer; they were about the village, people around her, incidents and about her maher (maikaor her childhood home that she missed so much having been married at the age of 13 (as most girls were in that period) and sent to her saasar (sasuralor matrimonial home). 

Bahinabai is not remarkable only because she ‘wrote’ (authored) these poems inspite of being unschooled but, to me, she is exceptional because she was perhaps the first Marathi poet to have written so well and so consistently about a woman’s work and experience. Her ovis also show us how she coped with adversity and reveal to us the personality of a woman of great resolve who took life head on, turned it into song and, in doing so, left us a treasure in the form of her ovis that were at once simple, earthy, full of with and also deeply meaningful.

This book, ‘Go Talk to the River’, contains translations of all the known ovis of Bahinabai along with their transliteration.

What people say about the book –

Anjali Purohit’s lovingly crafted translations of Bahinabai Choudhari’s poetry bring into English both the cadence and the ethos of this remarkable woman’s oeuvre. Bahinabai (1880-1951) was named after a 17th-century saint who composed devotional abhanga poetry. Born into one farming family in northwestern Maharashtra, she was married, at an early age as was customary in her generation, into another. Her everyday life revolved around the activities of running a household in a demanding rural economy and attending to the fields. Along the way, Bahinabai began to compose ovis – a form of poetry that has been sung by women in Maharashtra for centuries, and is closely related to the rhythm of grindstone and well windlass – in a regional variant of Marathi known as Ahirani. Unlettered, she wrote nothing down. Her ovis might have been passed down orally after her death; but equally, they might have vanished from memory. Fortunately, they were transcribed and committed to print by her son, Sopandev Choudhari, in 1952. Through print, recordings, the radio and academic syllabi, they have since passed into Maharashtrian culture at large.

In Bahinabai’s poetry, women’s labour receives long overdue acknowledgement, as do seemingly quotidian subjects that vanish below the radar of literary modernism: family relationships, financial difficulties, the vegetation and landscapes of the countryside, the Divine, and the challenge of leading a life of wisdom and prayer in the face of the world’s capacity for mischief. Anjali Purohit engages closely and deftly with the texture and resonances of Bahinabai’s poetry, her English shot through with Marathi as she attempts to convey as much of the oral tonality and lifeworld of the original as possible. Through this, she seems to argue that English in India cannot remain aloof from the subcontinent’s other languages, but must expand itself to include and be enriched by them.’

Ranjit Hoskote (January 2019)

‘…Go Talk to the River: The Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhuri (Yoda) is excellently translated from the Marathi (Ahirani) original by the poet Anjali Purohit. Bahinabai (1880-1951) was named after a 17th century saint who composed abhanga verse. The poetry is about the everyday, about a woman’s life and role in it, about relationships, financial hardships, and rural countryside. The poems are presented both in Marathi using the Romanised script along with its modern English translations on the facing page. One can see and feel in Purohit’s well-crafted translations, the texture and flavour of the original language, which is at the same time rendered in precise conversational English. The woman’s voice is shot through with power: “Arrey! Look, who I am! Who I am! / I have God’s name on my lips! / then the atma residing within says, ‘Then why / don’t you go and ask your tongue what it speaks.’”

Poetry comes back full circle to the magic of the “tongue” — a palette where sound originates; a place where sound become words, both spoken and written; where words in a poetic register sing resonantly in various tongues.

– Sudeep Sen, Asian Age, 5th July 2019

GO TALK TO THE RIVER: THE OVIS OF BAHINABAI CHOUDHARI translated by Anjali Purohit (Yoda Press, Rs450): Born in 1880, married at 13 and widowed at 30, Bahinabai Choudhari remained an unsung genius during her lifetime. It was only after her death in 1951, when her son published her poems, that she became recognized as one of the most poignant voices from Maharashtra. A cotton farmer from Jalgaon district, Choudhari was named after a 17th-century Bhakti saint who was known for composing abhang, a form of devotional poetry. Like her namesake, Choudhari had a remarkable facility with words, all the more so because she was unlettered. She had the gift of turning even the most mundane everyday situations into poetic truth. The changes of season, stages of harvest, characters in her family and neighbourhood, nothing escaped her keen sensibility. In a few lines she could distil the essence of a person, even of a favourite tree or cow, as though she were creating a verbal impression of their soul. Purohit’s translation, bolstered by an excellent introduction, attempts to faithfully capture the rhythms and nuances of Ahirani, the regional variant of Marathi Choudhari composed in.

Somak Ghoshal, Best to Meet them in Poems Live Mint, 19th May 2019

‘…Ahead of Poetry Day — celebrated across the world on March 21 — a look at an assortment of poetry that focuses on the diverse shades of our lives – Sasurvasin

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up at midnight, neatly set out the grain

begin working the grinding stone

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up, it’s dawn, the rooster crows

it’s time to take the pitcher on your head

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up and light, light the stove

the sun rapidly rises

Get up, saasurvasin bai

get up, massive work in the farm lies ahead

You are but cattle in the shed

Get up, saasurvasin bai

Mother-in-law grumbles and is annoyed

wipe that tear from your eye

Get up, saasurvasin bai

be patient, don’t talk back, hold your tongue

let the memories of your maher comfort you!

From Anjali Purohit’s Go Talk To The River: The Ovis of Bahinabai Chaudhuri…’

The Hindu, BusinessLine, 15th March 2019

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