Bengali Nursery Rhymes
The moon is full. The flowers bloom.
Beneath the kadam tree
The horses dance and elephants, too
The li’l girl’s wedding spree!
Imagine rural Bengal, some four hundred years back. It’s dark and an elderly lady is singing a lullaby to her grandchildren. Split images, both from the everyday life and a world of pure imagination, are being cast into a “chhora”, the Bengali equivalent of a nursery rhyme. The words are simple, and there is a gallopping rhythm that springs out from a line to another.
The rhymes still exist, handed down from generation to generation by an oral tradition. Let me try translating another such gem –
Please visit our home
O gentle aunts of sleep
We don’t have cots or beds.
But the little one’s eyes, deep,
Be seated on them. Here’s
Some betel leaves, have these,
The kid is wide awake.
Do lull him to sleep, please.
Rabindranath Tagore in his essay “chhele-bhulano chhora” writes that the strength of these rhymes lies in the way they can stir childhood memories. That’s why even though epics fall and are forgotten, the apparently-meaningless children’s poems survive through ages.
This specific form of folk literature soon made its way to Bengal’s elite literary heartland. Jogindranath Sarkar (1866-1937) authored books like “Hasi-khushi” and “Hasi-rashi”. Children’s magazines “Mukul”, “Balok”, “Sandesh” , “Shishu-sathi” played an important role, too. Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) took children’s poems to a whole new level with his nonsense verse – infused with pun, wit, and at times, sarcasm. Here is an excerpt from his “Ram-gorurer chhana”, translated by his son, Satyajit Ray.
“To the sons of Ramgaroo
Laughter is a taboo
A funny tale will make them wail –
“We are not amused – boo hoo”
They live in constant fear
Of chuckles far and near
And start and bound at every sound
That brings a breath of cheer”
Eminent poets of today like Shankha Ghosh and Nirendranath Chakraborty all have penned short poems for children. But where do Bengali nursery rhymes stand at present?
With new-age TV shows and video games to keep the kids hooked, “chhora” is often being pushed to the lower rung. Still, it is far from being obsolete.
When someone came up with the line “khoka ghumalo, para juralo/borgi elo deshe” ( The child falls asleep and the neighbourhood becomes quiet. Bargis come to Bengal) little did he/she know that it would become an eternal testimony of the 18th century Bargi invasions . Similarly, when Annada Shankar Roy in 1947 wrote “teler shishi bhanglo bole khukur pore rag koro/ tomra je sob buro khoka bharat bhenge bhag koro” (You scold the little girl for breaking the bottle of oil/ But you overgrown kids are breaking India itself), that was perhaps one of the strongest statements against the partition of India.
Like tiny capsules of history, these poems have successfully traversed the fabric of space-time.
And the legacy continues …..