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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