Amaltas

(first published in INDIAN QUARTERLY (July-September 2019)

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

The Art Column: May 25th, 2018, Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruit

(photo credit: The Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Rekha Rodwittiya)

 

Rekha Rodwittiya’s art underlines a strong feminist position and engages with the socio-politics of the world, says Anjali Purohit

Rekha Rodwittiya has been known to be a painter who engages with the socio-politics of the world, its contradictions and inequalities. Her art underlines a strong feminist position as also her reaction to the many issues that confront women.

In the artist’s words, ‘… I hold as consistent the desire to examine the feminine space of survival, the spirit of female endurance and the empowerment of pride and self-dignity that centuries of feminist oral histories are infused by, as the territory from which my work takes shape’.

The Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, is presenting her work at the show, Songs from the Blood of the Weary (Dialogues of Peace), which will run until mid-August.

Songs from the Blood of the Weary was first created by Rekha as part of an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations at Geneva in 1995 which brought together 12 paintings in the form of a painted room. Additional works from the collection of Sakshi Gallery form part of the present show. Together they provide us an understanding of the artist’s journey and the issues that are central to her work.

Rodwittiya says, ‘…in a world where atrocities are committed against women in the name of upholding traditional values, a focus to redress this is vital if we are to define true liberty for all humanity…’.

However, there are ways art can pose a challenge, be disruptive, confrontational and subversive without being destructive. The entire oeuvre of Rekha’s work demonstrates this very fine balance. Rich and nuanced, her paintings do not ‘explain themselves’ or offer a singular narrative but suggest meanings through the placing and character of the figures and the use of metaphor.

The metaphors consist of objects (often repeated like a refrain in a song) and the relative size and structure of human figures on the canvas especially that of women. The woman in Rodwittiya’s paintings is strong and corporeal. This confidence comes from laying claim to a heritage of feminist practice which she has elsewhere described as her ‘gifts of legacy’ where, in her words, ‘my complete belonging is within the womb of my feminist ancestry…’.

A collection of these metaphors is what Rekha describes as her ‘lexicon’ or vocabulary through which she creates her art. Objects such as a spade, fish, scissors, leaves, locks, dice, boats and airplanes, maps, are infused with significance when juxtaposed with human figures that play out a dramatic statement on each canvas—the position and ‘pose’ of the hands and fingers acting as clues or prompts (or ‘mudras’, as Rekha calls them) to the script.

The palette, predominantly red, brown, yellow and grey has been put to great effect in her haunting work, Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruit. This is the artist’s articulation of her outrage at honour killings, female infanticide and dowry deaths. The title bears a disquieting throwback to the Abel Meeropol poem (sung by Billie Holiday) Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit, about lynching in the Jim Crow era. This becomes even more chilling for us today because of growing instances of brutality that have a real danger of becoming ‘normalised’ and not being ‘strange’ any more.

Finally, I leave you with this.

This show is at the JNAF Gallery, which is itself housed in the CSMVS. Tourist buses bring people from the mofussil on a Mumbai Darshan. They are impressed by the ancient museum pieces and then sometimes a family, wanting to investigate what lies in the east wing of the second floor, stumbles into the art gallery. One such large family with several unruly children was there when I visited the exhibition. While the other children ran about chasing each other through the space, I noticed one eight-year-old girl standing, quiet and absorbed, in the ‘painted room’. It was one of those rare private moments that pass without much notice. She didn’t want to leave even after several calls from her father. I believe that while art criticism must play its part in placing an artwork in the context of art history and aesthetic theory, being privy to the sight of this little girl was significant validation as well. I don’t know who she was but did send out a silent wish to her saying, ‘may your tribe increase’.

 

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

The column in the ADC48hrs can be viewed here –  http://www.afternoondc.in/48-hrs/burnt-earth-yields-strange-fruit/article_223596

The Art Column: May 4th, 2018: Three Storeys of Art

(photo credit: The Delhi Art Gallery-DAG)

 

A show such as this bears several visits to soak in the richness that it holds, says Anjali Purohit

Tucked away at the Kala Ghoda precincts, in the by-lane off what we knew till now as the Rhythm House, is a charming, finely appointed home for art that had quietly opened its doors in Mumbai five years ago. In a beautifully restored colonial era building, the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) has successively offered some exceptional art collections in India.

Spread over three floors, a visit to the gallery is especially captivating because this tiered placing of the artworks gives a discerning gallerist great manoeuvrability to experiment, each floor of the compact space offering almost a canvas on which to place the curation of the show as a work of art itself. One is then taken through the exhibition in stages, the works on the ground floor yielding to a different vista on the first floor and then reaching the top in conclusion. Having viewed the three tiers, you descend, again to view the earlier tiers and perhaps ‘see’ the art works there in a new light making the experience much more immersive and participative than if the entire collection was placed in one large and open gallery space.

Presently, the DAG is showing its gallery collection, Manifestations of Indian Art. If the three floors have been used to display photography, figurative art and abstract art respectively, then one would subconsciously expect the abstract to be on the highest floor. However, it perhaps is one of the aims of curation to be disruptive (of expectations) and subversive (in content) as this show begins with abstraction, moves to figurative and ends with photography.

Abstract art from artists like S H Raza, Natwar Bhavsar, S K Bakre, Ambadas is on display. J Sultan Ali’s painting Festival Bull (reminiscent of the bull on Indus Valley seals) is especially striking, incorporating as it does tribal art, mythology and folklore against the suggestion of an agrarian setting.

Ascending the wooden steps, the intermediary landing space bridges the abstract and the figurative sections by four truly remarkable woodcuts from Hiren Das. At a time when the popular conception of ‘art’ did not go beyond painting and sculpture, it was the brilliance of printmakers like Das, Somnath Hore and Chittoprosad, in the mid-twentieth century that placed printmaking firmly in the realm of art. These three artists from Bengal were witness to the horrors of the Bengal famine but, while Hore and Chittoprosad’s work reflected these conditions in all their painful and brutal starkness, Hiren Das chose to focus closely on the depiction of the details of a quieter rural life.

The human body is the focus of the next tier with paintings such as M R Achrekar’s brilliant watercolour and K H Ara striking gouache on paper, depicting the female nude at rest, inward looking and unselfconscious. Other works include F N Souza, Akbar Padamsee and, surprisingly, two beautiful nudes in oil from Chittaprosad, the great chronicler of human suffering and political art.

However, for me, the most arresting and haunting canvas is the one from Sunil Das from his Prostitute series. The scribbled-on walls, an overhanging naked bulb, the lack of colour but for an all-pervading grey, highlight the squalor of Sonagachi and the posture and eyes of the two figures (evidently the prostitute and her customer) are deeply revealing as well as disturbing.

The next section consists of the photography of Nemai Ghosh who was a close associate of Satyajit Ray for over 25 years, recording with his camera almost every moment of Ray’s cinematic life. Much before movie stars were particular about which profile to show the camera, great trust with photographers meant that they were often photographed off guard and in candid moments. Accordingly, we have candid and beautiful portraits of actors such as Sharmila Tagore, Smita Patil, Simi Garewal, Amjad Khan, Jaya Bhaduri, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and others.

One then descends again from the ‘realism’ of the camera, through the figurative interpretation of the human body and, after a final look at abstraction, walks out of the DAG into the ‘real’ world knowing that such a show bears several visits to soak in the richness that it holds.

 

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

This column in the ADC48hrs can be viewed here: http://www.afternoondc.in/48-hrs/three-storeys-of-art/article_222270