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Smita Agarwal sings her poem to the rhythm of ‘Bhatiyali’ - Creative Yatra

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Smita Agarwal sings her poem to the rhythm of ‘Bhatiyali’

Smita Agarwal is a professor, poet and a trained singer from Allahabad, who not only writes poetry but also sings her poems to the tunes of folk music. At the 100 thousand poets for change in Mumbai, she sang her poem to the tune of Bhatiyali—a folk song that comes from parts of West Bengal.

In its ninth year, ‘100 thousand poets for change’ held on 3rd, 4th and 6th October at Kitabkhana saw one of the liveliest sessions when it opened with a reading by Anjali Purohit, a poetry performance by Jasmine Khurana, an Urdu poetry session by Akil Contractor, music and poetry brought alive by Smita Agarwal and a book launch by Vibha Rani.

This event has always held a special place in the hearts of the poets in Mumbai because it carries a hope that we can move collectively, through our little acts, towards change—not necessarily one that may be visible outside but that which slowly finds its own place within us. It is organised every year by MenkaShivdasani, a poet who has contributed immensely to poetry through her books as well as through poetry gatherings and readings that she curates such as this one, and the early Poetry Circle sessions in Bombay held at a time when poetry did not have an audience.

At the session on day 1, Smita Agarwal, a poet from Allahabad—whose works I have read in Mofussil Notebook and Wish Granting Words, two full-length poetry collections of hers— stands in front of me. This would be the first time that I would witness her read her poetry. There is a certain magic in hearing a poet read their poems out loud. This doesn’t mean that every poem is written for public reading, often some poems want to sit in quiet corners and take their own shape like water in glass tumblers and teacups through their readers. But the process of seeing the poem through the poet is often interesting to look out for in such readings, for so many times you’ll catch the poet, like a musician, indulge in a moment of improvised breathing like a note varied after having carefully spent time studying the other ways that it could exist in. So when Smita Agarwal took the stage that day, of course, I was looking forward to it. What I witnessed though was something I wasn’t prepared for, for not only did I watch Smita Agarwal the poet but also Smita Agarwal the singer, the performer.

Placing her shruti box on the table, which played the soft rhythmic tune of a tanpura, she introduced her poem. She told us that it was called “Beggary in Bhatiyali”, a poem written to carry the sentiment of the boatmen riding downstream in West Bengal, singing Bhatiyali—the song of the river, and finding meaning in the space they were in, in the middle of nowhere, in a world away from the material.

‘Beggary in Bhatiyali’

This is a poem you will not hear ordinarily. You may hear one that talks about a theme like this but it takes only a poet of great honesty to be able to gift us a metaphor in the manner that she does. It is moments like these that I find real joy in poetry. The honesty is not just in how true the poem is but how true the poet has been to it.

Ta nana tantanatantantanatantantanatan
Ta nana tan tanatan

Ta  nana tantanatantantanatantantanatan
Ta nana tan tanatan
Ta nana tan tanatan

Desire a dwelling? Burn down your hut
Ask for love — get the boot
Want money? Lose your last penny—
Couldn’t-care-less, Queen of the World!

An open sky
The solid earth
Tin plate
Enamel mug
Three grains of rice
Three grains of rice
Zest of lemon
Are all I need
For my confection!

Ta nana tantanatantantanatantantanatan
Ta nana tan tanatan

Ta  nana tantanatantantanatantantanatan
Ta nana tan tanatan
Ta nana tan tanatan


Bhatiyali is a folk song that comes from the Bauls of Bengal, the wandering mystic poets who sought divinity within themselves. While Bhatiyali was one form that was sung by boatmen and fishermen primarily, baulgaan more broadly in its many, many forms was sung by saint-poets all across West Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of Assam, those whose beliefs lay in non-accumulation of the material.

Smita Agarwal decided to write this poem when it came to her at a time she was personally going through a phase in her life and she tells me, therefore, that “there is a subjective element there which I tried to transform into a more universal utterance.” When you find the poem in the 2016 printed edition of her book Mofussil Notebook, with an introduction and some new poems, you will find “Beggary in Bhatiyali” among more complex images in poems like “The Garden”, “Snapshots of a Lake Resort” or “Still Life”. However, the simplicity of this poem is one that really brings it to life, one that comes from several years that the poet spent with music and poetry. “Sometimes, the snatch of a musical phrase brings about a poem,” she says talking about how organically the two art forms came together in this poem too. Therefore, when you think of its beginning and its end, you’re already given hints that the poem doesn’t want to just be read out:

“It was always meant to be sung. That is the way it is printed in the book too. But I never sang it simply because the conservative way of poetry in English is to read it off the page. Yet, the poem was written as a song.”

The existential philosophy of aparigrah i.e. non-accumulation is what the poem deals with, she shares. “Desire a dwelling? Burn down your hut” the first line is a clue itself, and therefore indicative of making sense and meaning out of the paradox: “In loss is gain.” This essence of the Baul philosophy in the poem, therefore connects the poem with it.

In the introduction to Mofussil Notebook, Prof Sarvajit Mukherjee, Associate Professor of English Literatureat Allahabad University writes, “This poem speaks to capture a sensibility, most unenglish, in English. Truth sometimes flashes out in the clash of paradox and an existential philosophy of life may be expressed in a bare minimum of words. The bauls, the wandering singing saints of India had perfected this craft but to capture in English, a way of life that dances and rejoices in deprivation and sorrow, requires some skill indeed.”

It is this skill through which Smita Agarwal reminds us of wisdom and grace, of the ways we can look outward and inward into all that is beyond the reach of language, even poetry, even the quiet intimacy and harmony that we share with ourselves.

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