Nadiyan Gaatee Hain [The Rivers Sing] – Book Review

August 30, 2007 at 7:09 am 3 comments

Nadiyan Gaatee Hain [The Rivers Sing]
by Dr. Omprakash Bharti
11/56, Sec-3, Rajendra Nagar, Sahibabad,
Ghaziabad, U.P., India:
Email :
Published by : Dharohar, 2002, 192 pages, Rs. 190/-
—Review by Prof. Naresh K Jain
16, Sycamore Close
United Kingdom
Email : / nareshjain@
Published in Journal of folklore, University of Cambridge

The book Nadiyan Gaatee Hain [The Rivers Sing] with a generalized title by Om Prakash Bharti is a sensitively written scholarly book on the Kosi river known as the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’. It tells the fascinating story of this ancient river and the songs associated with it.

The book is a product of both head and heart. It is primarily a collection of 50 Maithili folk songs, which express the agony and the pain of those who have suffered because of the waywardness of the river, or who wish to avert the suffering the river will cause them if their supplication to mother Kosi is not heeded. The author has also added 19 songs collected by Edwin Prideaux in English under the title ‘Mother Kosi Songs’ in Appendix 1. These songs first appeared in Man in India in 1943 (pages 61-68). Besides, there are folk songs connected with other Indian rivers and foreign rivers like Volga and also Kiso in Japan. This last addition offers some justification for the generalized title of the book.

But the book is much more than an anthology of songs. It devotes its first 85 pages to a serious investigation of different aspects of the Kosi story. It discusses its multiple origins in the Himalayan ranges in Tibet and Nepal; its tumultuous journey; its myth, its history and the folk beliefs associated with it; and most importantly, its oscillating course and the disastrous consequences that follow. The author has supported his investigations into the changing course of the river with the help of maps. The author is a native of Mithila that falls in the Kosi terrain and has experienced the ravages caused by the river at first hand. He has also given account of three recent heart-rending tragedies.

Kosi is a simplified form of the Sanskrit Kaushiki, which survives in the folk songs as Kosika along with Kosi. Since it is formes as a result of the confluence of seven streams, the river is called Saptakaushiki. The seven streams from west to east are:
Indravati, Sun Kosi , Tama kosi, Likhu kosi, Dudh kosi, Arun kosi, and Tamar kosi.
Of these Indravati, Tama kosi, Dudh kosi and Likhu kosi merge with Sun Kosi. Later
there is a confluence of Sun Kosi, Arun kosi and Tamar kosi near Chatra in Bihar.
Thereafter the river proceeds as Saptakaushiki or Mahakosi or simply Kosi to cause widespread devastation in North Bihar. Finally it merges with Ganga at Kursela in the Katihar district of Bihar.

The uniqueness of the river lies in its changing course. The river in its rush down the Himalayas carries with it and enormous load of sedimnt, which it deposits as it slows down. When this deposited sediment impedes the river flow, the river cuts across these deposits and shifts laterally, making a new path for itself. According to Dr. O.P. Bharti, there is not an inch of land in the districts of Supaul, Saharsa, Madhepura, Arana, Kishenganj, Purnea and Katihar over which the kosi has not flowed. According to the sources consulted by our author, before the twelth century Kosi used to flow in the land of the modern-day Saharsa and Madhepura districts in the west. Thereafter it started moving east. It seems that in 1737 the oscillation started moving west. It has been estimated that during the last 250 years Kosi has moved westwards by 120 kilometers through more than 12 channels. The river that used to flow near Purnea noe flows east of Saharsa. Now with the building up of embankments on both sides of the river a few decades ago, the river has been contained – but perhaps only temporarily. Experts like F.A. Shilling Feld have predicted that there could be sudden swing back to the east and if that happens it would catastrophic, causing great loss of life and property.

Apart from charting the shifting course of the river over the ages, the author has traced the myths surrounding the river in some detail.
The ancient river finds mention in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other ancient books. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Vishvamitra while telling Rama and Lakshmana about his royal lineage, talks of Kaushiki as his sister Satyavati. After the death of her husband sage Richik, she faithfully went with him to heaven and became a ‘pure celestial stream’. Witness these lines :
Down from Himalaya’s snowy height,
In floods for ever fair and bright
My sister’s holy waves are hurled
To purify and glad the world. (Canto XXXV: Ralph Griffith’s translation) (Italics added)

Though the use of the world hurled suggests rapidity of movements, it does not prepare us for the devastation the river causes now. This according to the author is understandable particularly in the light of the religious veneration accorded to rivers. But ancient texts like the Puranas have imagined angry and destructive ancestors to Kaushiki. Jahnv drank the Ganga in a fit of anger, Kosi’s father-in-law Bhrigu kicked God Vishnu, Kosi’s descendent Parsuram exterminated the Kshatriyas on the earth 22 times, and Vishvamitra himself has a standing feud with sage Vasishtha and invented a universe of his own. All these do succeed in depicting Kosi as a river that spreads destruction all round.

After dealing with the myths about Kaushiki, the author talks about the folk beliefs relating to the river, particularly how they deviate from the mythical accounts. For

instance, in folklore Kosi is imagined to be the daughter of the Himalaya. Another belief holds her to be the daughter of sage Deven who once out of anger curses her to be a stream.
Like many other Indian rivers, Kosi is envisioned as a mother, ‘Kosi maaye’. So it is in these songs. But she is a mother who in stead of providing nourishment brings death and destruction with itself. Part of the agony in these songs, I like a believe, is because of this sense of bafflemen. It is also the source of the hopeless hope that springs eternal in the human breast that Kosi is after all a mothe and things could yet be better.

But if she is imagined to be a mother, folklore also presents Kosi as a lively maiden of extraordinary beauty who likes to adorn herself. She is also given lovers like Ranu Sardar and Rai Ranpal, both belonging to Nepal. Both of them figure in serveral songs. The author also refers to the folktales current in the Mithila region about them and talks of the certain historicity of Rai Ranpal who, it seems, was a small landholder of the region. He speculates that perhaps both the Rai Ranpal of popular belief and the Rai Ranpal of the songs is one and the same person. Kosi has a low caste lover also, Bodila, who wants to marry her. The author also refers to several other folk beliefs woven round Kosi and he does so with a masterful ease that comes when one is completely at home in the subject.

How did the songs originate? Bharti says that when one is surrounded by sorrow, there is a limit even to one’s crying. It is at such moments that pain bursts forth in song and helps to assuage it and also give strength. The process of folk creativity is complex but what Shelley has said about sad songs – Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought – is certainly true of these songs.

We can now talk about the songs themselves. This collection is a fine example of folklore research at the grassroots level. The author spent his childhood in the lap of Kosi, as he puts it, and had heard Kosi songs right from his early days. Following in the footsteps of the great collector of folk songs in India, Devendra Satyarthi, Dr. Bharti has gone about the Kosi region both in India and Nepal and has collected these songs. Two of the songs (14 and 15) are stated to have been collected from Nepal. His brief account of travels that he undertook for this purpose makes an interesting reading. It also gives us some idea of the kind of sustained devotion that folklore research at the ground level requires.

To aid comprehension by non-Maithili speakers, the author has given the Maithili text of each song followed by a one-line context and a summary of it in Hindi. Explanations of local terms and other references are also provided wherever necessary.

The characteristic form of the songs is a dialogue. As many as 32 songs are cast in the form of a dialogue, in most of which Kosi is one of the interlocutors. The other character may be a suppliant, a boatman, a folk hero, a historical figure, or a sister stream. Only in a few of them is Kosi not present. There are seven other songs in which the speaker first asks a question or and then answers it, taking the song closer to the first category. The remaining 11 songs are monologues in which the speaker is often supplicating Kosi or describing the ravages caused by it.

All these songs vocalize the reaction of the common people to the overwhelming presence of Kosi. There is a constant refrain of unavoidable pain in them. And underlying them all is the spectacle of man pitted against the fury of nature and finding himself helpless.

There are a number of songs that talk more or less directly about the devastation caused by the river, e.g. songs 2,3,4,6,10,14,9,20,23,25,32 and 34. Since as mothers, wives and sisters women suffer most, they figure prominently in them.
For instance, Song 2 expresses the predicament of a wedded woman who naturally desires to go to her mother’s home during the rains but when her brother comes to fetch her, her fears of not being able to cross the river in spate prove true. In the last part of the song she tells her friend with how she and her brother both have died in the floods: she has become a koyal and her brother has become an offering) to Kosi mother.
Beech hi samudra hey sakhiya, tooti gelai hey gairooliya
Hamhoon je bhelai hey sakhiya, van ke hey koyaliya
Bhaiyya mor bhelai hey sakhiya, kosi maaye ke hey sandesba
My friend, in mid-stream the makeshift square float has got broken.
I have become a koyal of the forest,
My brother has become an offering (sandesh) to Kosi mother.

Song 6, that talks of a woman and her brother who are similarly doomed, offers psychological insight into the configuration of relationship within the family. Addressing the boatman, she speaks of the reactions of the different members of the family thus:

Baba je suntai re mallah dharti loti re jayatai
Bhaiyya je suntai re mallah jaal bans re khirtai
Aama je suntai re mallah Kosi dhainsi re martai
Bhauji je suntai re mallah bhari munh re hanstai.(99)
O boatman, if my father hears of it [my death] he will collapse,
If my brother hears of it, he will have a net thrown in the river,
If my mother hears of it, she will drown herself in Kosi,
If my sister-in-law hears of it, she will inwardly smile.
Songs 4 and 23 talk of the futility of human effort in the face of Kosi-a newly wedded wife’s effort to plant fruit trees and to dress herself up for her husband. But Kosi has destroyed her home ad hearth forcing her husband to go out in search of livelihood in one case and landing the family in the moneylender’s trap on the other.
Song 4 is noticeable for another reason – for making a traditional woman frankly acknowledge her need to satisfy her sexual urges.
Joora le badheliya he Kosi maaye laami laami kesiya he
Bhoge le je kailiye patre balmua re. (97)
I grew long hair in order to make a bun, Kosi mother
And I got a handsome husband for sexual enjoyment.
There are several other songs that are particularly touching. One of these songs (10) shows a mother lamenting the loss of seven sons in the Kosi floods and she is apprehensive about the loss of her eighth son. When Kosi tries to assuage her pain and tries to reassure her that her eighth son will live, she says with tragic simplicity that while articles like salt and oil could be bought, how could a child in the lap be got?

Nun tel payab Kosi maaye,
Godi ke baalakba kaise payab hey. (104)
Salt and oil can be replaced,
How can I get my son?
The mother’s wail in the folk song reminds me of the lament of a long-suffering mother, Maurya in the lrish playwright, John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea. After losing her husband and her six sons to the sea, she says: ‘They are all gone now
and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me. No man at all can be living for ever and we must be satisfied.’ The irony is that while the sea cannot harm Maurya any more, Kosi has brought and could still bring havoc in the lives of people in North Bihar. The tragedy brought about by Kosi is grimmer because it is recurrent.
There are lighter moments also as for instance in songs 13 and 30, in which a beautiful woman passenger promises to give the boatman her sister-in-law as a reward if he ensures a safe passage to her.

An interesting aspect of the songs is how folk beliefs and figures have got incorporated into the songs. This applies to the songs relating to folk figures like Ranu Sardar (songs 7, 12, 31, 36, 42 and 49) and Rai Ranpal (songs 1, 21, and 29), Salhes (songs 27 and 35) and Koyalvir (songs 14 and 37). There is also a folktale relating to the Kosi first killing and then on entrealy reviving the peacocks (song 16). Both Ranu Sardar (7) and Rai Ranpal (21) are asked by Kosi to join her army, which of course means assisting her in carrying out her destructive agenda. In Keeping with this agenda the folk mind has given an awesome appearance to Ranu Sardar (12) and has armed him with a huge spade weighing 80 maunds. And as if her own destructive potential is not enough, Kosi is shown taking aid from Bhairav. (song 20)

Inevitably there are many boatmen’s songs in the collection. These songs relate to Jhimla (songs 13, 30, 33 and 40). In at least two Jhimla songs, 15 and 45 Kosi comes through as a beautiful ‘dame sans mercy’ enticing the boatman to row her across in

spite of the fact that he knows that both the boat and the oars are broken. Song 40 is particularly bath in the Ganga and asks the boatman at midnight to ferry her across the river. The boatman again says that the boat and the oars are broken but she promises she would have the boat ends covered with gold and have the oars made of silver. Perhaps knowing her treachery, he asks her to swear a vow that she will fulfil her promise, which she does. She also assures him that his mother would be cured of her blindness and twin sons would be born to him. The song ends with the usual supplication to ‘Kosi maaye’ to help him in times of need.

The two Bodila songs (22 and 47) make an interesting reading from a sociological point of view. In most songs Kosi introduces herself as a daughter belonging to a Brahmin family. Here in both the songs she is shown resuing a ‘low-caste’ person called Bodila from the river and in both he wants to marry her. But when she finds out Bodila’s low caste origins she regrets having rescued him and accuses him of violating her caste. In the first song she also urges him to provide himself with a spade weighing 80 maunds and join her army before he can think of marrying her. This song also reminds us of song 7 dealing with Ranu Sardar. The reference to the heavy spade is suggestive of the deep cuts that Kosi in its fury makes in the land. As the author tells us, these cuts called katnis caused by the fast flowing Kosi can be as deep as 15-20 feet. As a child he was an eyewitness to the loss of his grandfather’s house as a result of the katni inflicted by Kosi.

There are at least six songs (1, 5, 8, 9, 17 and 18) that talk of Kosi’s beauty and her dressing up – her bathing, her drying up of her hair and her adornments. This effort to praise her could, I suggest, be part of the folk effort to placate her. Song 5 even talks of her marriage party. There are six other songs (9, 26, 28, 38, 43, 44 and 46) in which the suppliants attempt to propitiate the river with promises of Kosi’s favourite food articles and other things like laddu, pan, sandesh, laung, sacrifice of an animal etc.
There are songs that refer to one or more of Kosi’s sisters. River Kamla is also mentioned in some of them.

Komalda’s beautifully written foreword reminds us of the fact that each song is a window through which one could get a glimpse of society, man, his knowledge and his intellect and his action-oriented nature expressing themselves. Also, folk songs, he tells us, do not depend for their effect on language alone. They come to their full fruition only through voice and rhythm.

Kosi resonates with myth, folklore, history, human aspirations and their defeat, pain and suffering, all interwoven into songs, which the author has collected and studied with scholarly exactitude. The songs themselves are simple but they are rich in meaning and often what remains unsaid is as important as what is expressed. Dr Bharti has given a big push to the study of Kosi songs and it should hopefully lead to a more thorough analysis and study of songs from the point of view of cultural anthropology.
A bibliography would have facilitated further study. And of course, an index often considered redundant in Hindi books is indispensable.
This important study deserved better proofreading



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3 Comments Add your own

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