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The legacy of Bahinabai

A series of drawings and a performance look at the relevance of poems by a 19th century woman farmer

A still from the dance drama ‘Mazi May Sarsoti’, which has paved the way for the experimental performance ‘Maanghe Sawali Urli’.
A still from the dance drama ‘Mazi May Sarsoti’, which has paved the way for the experimental performance ‘Maanghe Sawali Urli’.

Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is currently hosting a unique intersection of art and poetry. Verses by 19th century poet Bahinabai Chaudhari have served as an inspiration for in-situ drawings by Nalini Malani, part of her exhibition The Witness, curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and Johan Pijnappel.

Titled City Of Desires (Variation III), the series looks at the small joys and challenges of the thousands of labourers who have built Mumbai brick by brick, and yet remain invisible. In this narrative about the city as a dense, frantic geographical mass, a moment of pause is provided by Bahinabai’s poem, Dharitrichya Kushimadhi, which is translated as: “The seeds are asleep in the earth’s embrace, covered by the mud as if covered by a shawl. As the seed trembles in the ground, the sprouts emerge from earth. Overwhelming the field as if goosebumps rising on the skin…"

On 7 March, an experimental performance by writer-director Harshada Borkar and actor Manvita Joshi at the museum will also take inspiration from Bahinabai’s poetry. While going about her daily chores, Bahinabai would express her thoughts about nature, the position of women in a household and the challenges of a farmer’s life. Titled Maanghe Sawali Urli, the performance will present Bahinabai’s thoughts in the form of recitation, performance and discussion. This is part of the Museum Katta series, a curated programme series in Marathi which showcases historical and contemporary sociocultural practices in the visual arts, literature, theatre, music and more.

When asked if Bahinabai has been given her due, Borkar says: “Yes, in some ways. The Uttar Maharashtra Vidyapeeth in Jalgaon has honoured her by naming the university after her. It is rare for a lady, who couldn’t read and write, to achieve such exalted heights in Marathi literature." The poetry of Bahinabai, who belonged to Jalgaon district in present-day Maharashtra, is not in standard Marathi but in a mix of two dialects, Khandeshi and Levaganboli. She would sing of her life experiences and her son, Sopandev, would transcribe these. Today, scholars and amateur poets are making an effort to understand the dialects to get to the heart of her thoughts.

Borkar’s engagement with Bahinabai goes back to her school days, when her poetry was part of the curriculum. “We would also hear her songs on the radio. So Bahinabai was part of my growing-up years. But it was only when I started writing poetry and stories that I started looking at her words differently. These were not uttered by a saint, as in the case of Bhakti poetry, or by a scholar, but by an illiterate cotton farmer. And yet they continue to be relevant today," says Borkar.

Borkar’s engagement with these poems was deepening when serendipitously a project came along—a dance drama, Mazi May Sarsoti, written by US-based Anuradha Ganu, based on the life of Bahinabai. Borkar was asked to direct the performance and Joshi was asked to essay the role of a younger Bahinabai. The play, which has been staged 20 times since November, has paved the way for the performance at the Museum. “We will be presenting Bahinabai as we have understood through the dance drama," Borkar says.

Maanghe Sawali Urli will be held at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum on 7 March, 5pm.

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