Songs of the Soil - Ovis

by Bahinabai Chaudhary
Translated by Anjali Purohit


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, Bahinabai’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 (sasural or 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.

– Anjali Purohit, translator

Sarasoti is my mother
She teaches me my tongue
How many secrets has she planted
In daughter Bahina’s mind!

For me, dear Panduranga
Your Geeta and your Bhagwat
Come together in the rain
they sprout from the soil!

God has given me darshan
of his own sweet will
and in my heart the sun etches
a form of the formless one!

I hear the sound of your footsteps
In the rustling of every leaf
The wind whispers in my ear
a record of your coming and going!

The fragrance of the entire earth
has gathered in the flower
Come, ask my nose about it
What will the nose ring know?

How long will you keep painting when
all the colours already exist in your eyes
For me, dear Siriranga
every colour plays in the skies!

My tongue savours each juice
that can be found on the earth
only then that taste in my mouth
reaches deep into my core.

*Sarasoti or Sarasvati: Hindu Goddess of Learning


Dear God, this gharote, gharote
is a gift from deep within your heart
to fill the bellies of the world
the karma writt en on our foreheads

Arey, gharote gharote
what the vani-brahmans call jatey
hear the ‘ghar-ghar’ sound it makes
you should rather call it ‘gharote’

Arey, that which snaps soon as it forms
don’t call it a relationship
that from which the fl our comes flowing
don’t ever call it a ‘jatey’*

See how my gharote
whirs and turns with a ghar-ghar
and from within this ghar ghar
I can hear a tune emerge

Fool, can’t you hear in that ghar ghar
the hum, the thrum of our home
Arey, from inside that ghar ghar
hear the rumble of a gravid sky!

Look here, my dear gharote
I neatly lay out the grain before you
so now within an hour
turn it into flour for me

Your movement, my dear gharote
is a constant whir, whir, whir, whir
and from this constant ghar ghar
comes the swiftly falling flour

As your millstone, rey gharote
turns spinning round and round
so the milky white flour falls
gently to the ground

Arey, on you my dear gharote
your mistress rests all her hopes
with one hand I hold your handle
with the other I feed you morsels

Arey, gharote I give you
morsels of jowar to eat
and at some festive occasion I will
also feed you bajra and wheat

My dear gharote, gharote
of two lips and two molars
eating fi stfuls of the grain
and giving back sweet flour

Arey, gharote gharote
when my arms begin to ache
then I sit beside you singing
this, the song of my saunsaar

Arey, gharote, gharote
as from you the flour emerges
so from deep within my belly
to my lips, my song surges

I grind, grind, grind the grain
till I am soaked in sweat
so you too get your stone eroded
abrading and wearing down yourself

wearing down and abrading
you have become as smooth as marble
arey, look now the takrin is at the door
to chip away and make you rough again!
*Jatey also means ‘to go’

This ovi was written by Bahinabai when she was widowed early in life. Here she addresses a fortune teller

The karma line on my forehead
lay sheltered under my kunku*
the kunku is now wiped away and
the fate line lies bare.

God! the fountain of plenty that flows
from your house has receded
that lacerating line of kismet
cuts and tears into my palm!

My man, don’t tell me stories
whether they be true or they be false
it is not destiny, no it is not
these lines and scratches on my palm!

Arey! destiny, destiny!
now my feet are tied to wheels
just as your own nine planets
are bound forever to their orbits!

May my two boys be safe and happy
is all that from God I pray
In this where does destiny figure?
What more will the horoscope say?

No, no, my dear fortune teller
don’t ask to see my palm
I know what future has in store for me
Don’t come knocking at my door!
*Kunku: Sindoor

Ovis and introduction excerpted with permission from the book Go Talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari by Anjali Purohit (translator), published by Yoda Press, Delhi, January 2019

Anjali Purohit is an artist, writer, poet, translator and curator. She is the author of two books, Ragi Ragini: Chronicles from Aji’s Kitchen (Yoda Press, 2012) and Go Talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari (Yoda Press, 2019). Her writing has featured in several anthologies and literary journals including International Gallerie, Coldnoon, Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry II, Four Quarters Magazine, Indian Cultural Forum: Guftugu, The Bombay Review, Antiserious, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Desilit, Chowk, Teksto, Indian Writing from Around the World, Urban Voice Indiaand Suvarnarekha. She is the founder and curator of The Cappuccino Adda. She is presently working on her forthcoming book of poetry.

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