In the 1940s, in a rural town in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, Bahinabai Chaudhari composed a poem that has chilling echoes today. A poor and illiterate cotton farmer, Bahinabai’s poem titled Pilok (Plague) describes the terrible impact of social distancing, loneliness and a breakdown in community life due to the bubonic plague that was then sweeping the country.
Bahinabai (1880 - 1951) was unaware of her poetic genius. It was the only way she could express her feelings in a life riddled with hardship and pain. Today, her verse lives on thanks to sheer chance – her son chose to write it down because he loved it so much. Bahinabai became famous posthumously and even has a university named after her – the Kavayitri Bahinabai Chaudhari North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon. In 2008, the Northern Maharastha University was renamed Kavayitri Bahinabai Chaudhari North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon through an ordinance by the Government of Maharashtra. The demand for renaming the University was then raised by Eknath Khadse, former minister and the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) MLA from Muktainagar in Jalgaon. The University has dedicated “Kavayitri Bahinabai Chaudhari Study and Research Centre” to the study of her poems, conducting workshops and often inviting literary personalities such as Film Maker and Director Nagraj Manjule, Marathi Poet Indrajit Bhalerao to discuss her poems and their significance in modern times.
Most of her poems were composed in ovi, which is a verse in couplet form that is set to an easy tune and sung mostly by women as they work. She did not compose them in Marathi but in a dialect that is a blend of two local dialects – Khandeshi and Levanganboli. It’s a long way from cotton fields to school classrooms as Bahinabai’s verse now is also a part of academic curricula. Yeshwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University has recommended Bahinabainchi gani as a part of their curriculum since June 2012. It has also been sung on the radio.
So who was this extraordinary woman who wrote about the most mundane things in the most beautiful verse? Bahinabai was born on 24th August 1880, in Asode village in Khandesh, in present-day Jalgaon district of Maharashtra. This was a region recognized with cotton-mills and a strong spiritual influence. The tradition of the poetry of Khandesh can be traced back to the 12th- 13th Century since the period of Saint Muktabai. The poetry of Khandesh took an important turn in the second half of the 19th Century. It is mentioned in the history of Marathi literature that epoch-making poets like Keshavsut, B S Mardhekar, Madav Julian, and Sane Guruji. Khandeshi culture went on to influence Bahinabai's life in other ways too as her compositions weave in its geography, raw natural beauty, festivals, and traditions.
Life was hard from the very beginning. Bahinabai was born into a farm family of modest means and was one of seven children. She grew up with three brothers and three sisters, whom she refers to fondly in her poems. She was married at the age of 13, to Nathuji Chaudhari, the Chaudhari of Jalgaon. Chaudhari is a hereditary title of honour originating in the Indian subcontinent. A few years after her marriage, the joint family split, and Bahina and Nathu were cleared out with a little piece of land and a Wada (house). She lived in the Chaudhari Wada in Jalgaon where she lived up to her death. Chaudhari Wada remains a highly regarded location in Jalgaon, visited by several on 3rd December celebrated as Bahinabai Smriti Din. To make it more regrettable, droughts struck year after year, and the couple had to work as labourers to nourish their three children, Kashi, Madhusudan and Sopandev. Her battle did not conclusion here. She lost her spouse when she was just 29, and her eldest child Madhusudan was crippled after suffering from the plague. From there on, life was largely a series of challenges, socially and economically. It was especially difficult for a woman who was a cotton farmer to raise three children on her own and this left a deep impact on her.
These hardships are reflected in Bahinabai’s poetry, which provides a perspective into the simple yet rigorous life of farmers, an insight that was rare for the time. Her poetry was also inspired by nature, the culture of rural Maharashtra, life in the fields, her home or sasar, her brothers, her maternal home or maika, and her religious values. The institution of the family is also embodied in poems on her sasural and her maher or maika, or her childhood home.
Sample one of her most celebrated poems, titled अरेसंसारसंसार (Arey Sansar Sansar – Oh! This Married Life), which was adapted in the 1961 Marathi film Manini as a song. It offers an insight into Bahinabai’s views on marriage.
येड्या, गयांतलाहार, म्हणूनकोरेलोढनं ”
“Ah, this married life!
Like a pan on the fire,
First, the burns sting on your hand,
But, only then do you get bread!
Ah, this married life!
One mustn't belittle its institution!
You wouldn't call the pinnacle of a temple,
A melting pot, for the sacrament it represents!”
This married life doesn’t allow
Any room for sadness or misery,
For it is a garland of flowers around your neck,
Not a burden of weight!”
“Ah, this married life!
Always think of two souls henceforth!
Face your pleasures and sorrows together!”
In this poem, Bahinabai captures religion, nature and the harsh truths of marriage. She also deftly uses everyday objects like a frying pan as a metaphor for something as weighty as marriage.
In Maher, Bahinabai vividly portrays the home she grew up in. She describes how difficult it was to travel to her family home but the travails of the journey are forgotten with the happiness she feels on seeing her siblings, especially her brothers. She says that the fresh scent of the farms near her home remind her of her childhood and fill her with a yearning for the past. Clearly, memories of her childhood brought her great happiness, especially in the darkest of times. It is as if her maher is blessed.
In many of her poems, Bahinabai thanks God for the small joys in her life. She envisions Goddess Saraswati as her educator, Saraswati urges Bahinabai to express and explore. She thanks Goddess Adi Maya for the unconditional love she bestows upon her.
Bahinabai was also a follower of Appa Maharaja and Pandurang. She describes the Pandhari Yatra as bringing joy to the Varkaris, who to this date make a pilgrimage to Pandharpur, carrying with them the palkhi of Lord Vithoba (also known as Pandurang), barefoot.
In the poem Pilok (Plague), Bahinabai shares her experience of the bubonic plague of 1940, and how it affected community life in rural Maharashtra. She says:
पिलोकपिलोक, कशाच्यारेभेठीगांठी !
उचललारोगी, आन्गांठलीकरंटी I”
Bahinabai paints a horrid image of the pandemic, stating that the village is deserted and the only way people can interact with each other is in the open fields, to avoid close contact, and thus contracting the plague. She says people had started setting up huts on the outskirts of the village, away from each other, and that this breakdown in the ‘community experience’ was taking a toll on her mental health.
It would have been tragic if Bahinabai’s verse had ebbed with her passing. Soon after she died on 3rd December 1951, her son, Sopandev, found the notebook he had used to record his mother’s verse. A poet himself, Sopandev showed her work to noted Marathi writer and poet Acharya Atre, also known as ‘Pralhad Keshav’.
Atre was a prominent Marathi litterateur, an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. On reading Bahinabai’s poems, he was struck by her originality, the fact that she was a woman writing verse in those times and a simple farmer. He called her poetry “pure gold”.
Upon Atre’s encouragement, Sopandev published his mother’s verse as BahinabaichiGani in 1952 consisting of 50 poems with a foreword from Acharya Atre. Bahinabai’s great-grandson Rajeev Chaudhari and his mother Suchitra Chaudhari are the proprietors of the publishing house Suchitra Prakashan, which is the sole publisher of Bahinabaichi Gani.
Bahinabai was introduced to the Western world by the famous American writer and historian, Eleanor Zelliot, in the 1982 issue of the Journal of South Asian Literature. This special issue focused on “A MARATHI SAMPLER: Varied Voices in Contemporary Marathi Short Stories and Poetry”. This was the beginning of her poems being studied and translated into English by various authors for a larger audience. The latest translation of her poems has been published by Anjali Purohit under the title “Go talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhari.” (Yoda Press, 2019).
Bahinabai’s legacy lives on through her descendants, who continue to publish her poems. Sopandev's son Madhusudhan Chaudhari served in the police forces and retired as an Assistant Commissioner of Police in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. The late Madhusudhan Chaudhari's son Rajeev Chaudhari—the great-grandson of Bahinabai Chaudhari—and his mother Suchitra Chaudhari continue to be the sole publishers of Bahinabainchi gani in whose name the publication house Suchitra Prakashan operates. Perhaps her verse is timeless because hers is the voice of someone like us, common – yet extraordinary.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vishwajeet Deshmukh is a law student at Government Law College, Mumbai. He is the recipient of Tata Trusts and 1947 Partition Archive Research Grant 2021. His research interests include history, law, and cinematic studies.