In the popular imagination, Bhojpuri culture is associated with bawdy songs, rustic humour and titillating cinema. But a world of surprises awaits the reader of Pandey Kapil’s Phoolsunghi, a celebrated Bhojpuri, arguably the first one ever to be rendered into English.
Delhi-based scholar Gautam Choubey breathes life into his elegant translation of the 1977 classic, published recently by Penguin Random House India. A revisiting of the checkered careers of Mahendar Misir (1866-1946), one of Bhojpuri’s beloved poets, and the tawaif Dhelabai (died in 1931), the story spans roughly a century, from the 1840s to the 1930s.
The title, which refers to a bird that moves from flower to flower, refusing to be tied to one, is invoked by Dhelabai to describe her temperament. She doesn’t want to belong to one patron, but Haliwant Sahay, a character inspired by a real-life person, has other plans. Drama, heartbreak, tragedy and betrayal run through Dhelabai’s life. This story, much harvested in the Bhojpuri canon, has led to several fictional retellings. But Kapil’s reputation as a writer and champion of the language—he established several platforms to publish and promote Bhojpuri writing—gives his novel an edge.
As Choubey writes in his excellent introduction, Bhojpuri is spoken by an estimated 20 million people around the world. But if Bhojpuri culture has generated sociological and scholarly interest, its literary merit hasn’t travelled as deeply into the Anglophone world. “A number of Bhojpuri writers shifted to Hindi, which has a wider readership,” Choubey says. A prime example is Rahul Sankrityayan, a prolific and popular author, who switched to Hindi after writing several acclaimed books in Bhojpuri.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Jaya Prakash Narayan’s radical politics and the Naxalite movement in Bihar gave a boost to Bhojpuri identity and literary heritage. It was further bolstered by the “little magazines” that cropped up in the 1990s. By the 2000s, the seamier side of Bhojpuri culture had entered the mainstream via reality TV shows and cinema. It was a mixed blessing, bringing attention to the language but also flattening its nuances.
Although overshadowed by dominant Hindi culture and tainted by charges of obscenity, Bhojpuri has always retained a love for poetry. That refinement is palpable in every page of Phoolsunghi, where the prose doesn’t lose its sheen even as it takes us into the seedy underbelly of society. What begins as a familiar story of a powerful patriarch’s obsession with a courtesan morphs into a morality tale with spiritual dimensions and, finally, a picaresque story of adventure.
“One of the challenges of translating from Bhojpuri is its shifting register,” says Choubey, who grew up speaking Bhojpuri and Hindi at home. When it came to reading books, he was struck by the differing vocabulary across the Bhojpuri-speaking belt. “I consulted writers, scholars and ordinary speakers of the language for my translation,” he says.