By Gita Viswanath
The Cooch Behar State and its Land Revenue Settlements was published by the Koch king of Cooch Behar in 1903 in which it is clarified that the Koch and Rajbanshi are the same communities of the State of Cooch Behar. Ancient texts such as Vishnu Purana, Kalika Purana amongst others as well as the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata mention this community. Predictably, the first to conduct ethnographic surveys and document the Rajbanshis were colonial scholars. Presently, the Rajbanshis are spread over Assam, Meghalaya, North Bengal, Bihar, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
The question of the identity of the Koch ethnic group and their language, Rajbanshi, has been historically fraught. Biswa Singha, the sixteenth century founder of the Koch dynasty, took to Hinduism in a major way. Even if kings before Biswa Singha had followed Hindu rites and rituals, the adoption and propagation of Hinduism in a big way may be attributed to Singha. He built the Kamakhya Temple which was destroyed and later rebuilt by his son Naranarayan under the supervision of Biswa’s brother Chilarai. He is equally known for introducing the public celebration of Durga Puja in Eastern India. A process of Sankritisation followed among the lower castes in the region. The ruling elites among the Koch people then abandoned tribal customs such as matriliny and adopted the nomenclature of Rajbanshi. In the present times, there has been a movement to recognize the Rajbanshis as a Schedule Tribe and the recognition of Kamtapura as a separate state that includes parts of Assam and North Bengal.
What holds this geographically diverse ethnic group is language. The language, Rajbanshi, forms a part of the Kamta group of languages that belong to the family of Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman languages. It is written in multiple scripts such as Bengali, Assamese or Devnagiri. Also known as Kamtapuri, it is not to be misunderstood as a dialect of Bengali or Assamese. Around eight million people in India are native speakers of Rajbanshi and it was recently recognized as one of the official languages of West Bengal.
This small ethnic community has produced a large volume of literature that may be traced back to oral and folk traditions of the group, predominantly song, as suggested in the Preface to this anthology. This Land This People contains translations of more than hundred poems by seventy-one poets. The poets represent North Bengal, Assam, Nepal and Bangladesh. Their ethnicity and language connect them across geographical boundaries. What is interesting here is the Rajbanshis form a marginalized community within the already marginalized and mistakenly homogenized population of the Northeast.
A doubly marginalized community thus writes about nostalgia for the agrarian past, loss of identity, a longing for acceptance, as well as assertion of its independent identity. According to Deleuze and Guattari, “minor literature” is the literature of a minority using a major language in a context outside that language. Although the Rajbanshi poems are written by members of a minority community within the nation-states of India, Nepal and Bangladesh, the poems are written in a language that is minor, in the sense that it is not recognised as a language in the Constitution of these countries (except in Nepal where Rajbanshi is officially recognised as one of the indigenous languages of the country). However, when they get translated into a major language such as English, then the poems migrate from their linguistic and cultural contexts. We may extrapolate the other two features identified by Deleuze and Guattari as characteristic of minor literature in order to shed light on Rajbanshi poetry; these being their political and collective nature. The marginalised status of the language and its users and their yearning for recognition make the content of this anthology always already political. The collection of poems here has individual beauty of form and imagery, while at the same time holding dear the afore-mentioned themes as common threads that bind them together.
The anthology is dedicated to Maharani Gayatri Devi and Padma Shri Pratima Barua Pandey. Not many may know that Gayatri Devi, the legendary Maharani of Jaipur, belonged to Cooch Behar and is looked upon by the Rajbongshis as their Rajmata. Gayatri Devi was the daughter of Maharaja Jitendra Narayan and Maharani Indira Devi of the Koch dynasty of Cooch Behar. By dedicating the book to her, the editors (one of who, Prodhani, a Rajbanshi himself) acknowledge her as the daughter of Cooch Behar, the home of the Rajbanshis. The national award-winning Barua Pandey was a folk singer from the royal family of Gauripur in Western Assam‘s Dhubri district. She was best known for her Rajboshi songs, Hastir Kanya and Mur Mahut Bandhure. The origin of Rajbanshi poetry in song, especially from the Bhawaiya folk tradition, as we will see later, is more than evident in this collection.
Women poets are represented by just eight in number. Of the 136 poems, 18 are by women. The collection opens with Pratima Barua Pandey’s “It crumbles day by day” (translated by Acharya) sets the tone of the anthology with the image of the bright mansion operating as a metaphor for a crumbling culture, a way of life of a community and their language. The lack of punctuation in the poem, except for a full stop to the last line, lends it the smooth flow of a song.
The bright mansion smoulders away
It crumbles day by day
God it crumbles in its own way
Usha Rajbanshi’s “Life’s Meaning” (translated by Prodhani) expresses nostalgia for a happy past:
In the depth of the sea of sorrow
Sank the pearls of joy
On a more hopeful note, “Flower bud” by Sharmila Rajbanshi (translated by Prodhani), glories in the power of youth to bring exuberance to the earth.
I would splash pollen off its anther
And would turn every dull nook of the earth
Into a fete of joy and splendour.
Ramola Ray Shankar strikes a strident note in “As we search for our roots” (translated by Prodhani). The poem, at times, like a speech, outlines the history of the Koch community and castigates the powers that steal their unique identity.
This our history
They attempt to steal
Snatch, appropriate and distort
We can deeply feel.
Similarly, Nirmala Ray Bhakat’s “We are Rajbanshis” (translated by Prodhani) is an assertion of a glorious history of kings, warriors and battlefields.
Known to all Bir Chilarai
Who in the battle fields
Like a kite would fly.
Preetinicha Barman Prodhani reworks the tale of Teesta and Rangeet from Rajbanshi myth in “The Old River Teesta” (translated by Prodhani), a poignant narrative poem. Teesta and Rangeet were the legendary river gods who decided to race one day. While Teesta, guided by the serpent king, reached the plains first, Rangeet, guided by the bird king, took time to reach. Angered by the bird king’s several detours along the way, the furious Rangeet created havoc creating floods on his route. Teesta, who was waiting patiently, pleaded with her lover to stop the damage he was causing. Rangeet agreed and both flowed down peacefully into the plains of Bengal. The legend of Teesta and Rangeet is harnessed by the poet to the plight of the helplessness of the Koch community whose identity is marginalised in the context of the modern nation-state. The image of the dam in the last line is a telling one. Lost in the developmentalist narrative of modernity is also an allusion to the creation of metropolitan centres with their attendant peripheries.
The poet concludes:
Old Teesta stares wearily at Rangeet
Bound in shackles
Taken a prisoner to the dam.
Basudev Sen’s “Kali Bandana” (translated by Acharya), also bears the rhythm of a song. The repetition of the apostrophe ‘O my Mother’ likens it to a poem from the Bhakti tradition.
O my Mother it’s by your grace
That the dwarf reaches out to the moon
O my Mother they worship you
In their way, with their rites
Some poems paint delightful pictures of the ordinariness of daily life in the agrarian past. Kalindranath Barman’s “Ancient Tales” (translated by Acharya) is full of earthy images that elevate the mundane to the poetic, driving away tigers and scaring away snakes – all being just another part of another day!
I came running in, drove away the tiger,
Cut the thatch, built a shed
Scared away the snakes
Cut wood, made the plough,
In a similar vein, “The Moon smiles in the lap of clouds” (translated by Prodhani) reveals the resigned attitude of one who is constantly exposed to the dangers of natural calamities. The oxymoron in the opening line, The April storm is calm and quiet, signifies the fatalism embedded in the rural consciousness.
The storm ceases, well and good, the danger is gone,
Now come and sleep, the wind is no more loud
If Kalindranath can cut wood after scaring away a snake, Shyamapada can sleep peacefully after a storm.
Such stoicism and resilience are extolled in a series of declarative statements in Bachchamohan Roy’s “The Longing for the Life” (translated by Prodhani).
No matter how much pain and agonies
Being thrust on my head
I shall endure with hearty laughter
Be it small or be it great,
While certain terms retained from the original such as ‘patani’, ‘ekadashi’, and ‘gajamatihaar’ among others are explained in footnotes, a lot many remain unannotated. While the explanation helps the reader to better comprehend cultural specificities, not offering help is equally the decision of the translator. As Walter Benjamin said the existence of a translation is not predicated upon giving readers meaning of the original. Rather, it is best to retain the foreignness of the original text. However, one wishes for consistency on the question “to annotate or not to annotate!”
The book bears an attractive cover designed by Benji Syiem depicting Neta, a washerwoman from the myth of Behula-Lakindar. The beautiful cover opens up to an equally beautiful set of more than hundred poems ably translated by Acharya and Prodhani, along with essays that contextualize the poetry of the Rajbanshis, thereby defying the popular saying, “Do not judge a book by its cover.” The appearance is certainly not deceptive! The translations ensure a worthy ‘continued life’ (to use a term from Walter Benjamin) to the original. This landmark anthology is a valuable addition to the body of existing literature in translation, without which we would be the poorer.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator” [first printed as introduction to a Baudelaire translation, 1923], in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn; ed. & intro. Hannah Arendt (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968), pp.69-82.
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Gita Viswanath is a Baroda-based writer. Her novel, Twice it Happened, was published in 2019 by Vishwakarma Publications, Pune. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema, published by Cambridge Scholars, UK in 2014 as well as a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems have been published in Kavyabharati No 28, New York Parrot and Coldnoon. Her short stories have been published in Muse India, Borderless Journal, and Commonwealth Union. Her short films “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube.
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