One of the high points of my life as a filmmaker came sometime in August 2001. I was shooting a documentary, Climb Every Mountain, in Dungarpur District in South Rajasthan on how the women from the villages of Bichhiwada region had turned their lives around by planting trees in their village wastelands through the efforts of an NGO. As an introduction to the NGO (People’s Education and Development Organization (PEDO)) was necessary, I had to take some shots to illustrate their general activity in the region – the setting up of water pumps and running schools for tribal children among other things. We were shooting at one of the schools and classes were going on so we duly set up shop in one of the classrooms for a few routine ‘coverage’ shots. Or so I thought…
I must say I was more than pleasantly surprised when the teacher and the children began going through the motions of the popular children’s poem – Machhli Jal ki Hai Rani. Though I just needed 3 to 4 shots of the school activity, I nevertheless shot them reciting and enacting the entire poem even though I knew it wouldn’t find its way into the final film. What’s more, I have kept the rushes safe for posterity. Why, one might well ask. After all it isn’t unusual for children in India to be reciting this catchy four-liner in school as did I. But how many of them can say that this is my grandmother’s poem! Yes, Machhli Jal ki Hai Rani happens to be written by my late grandmother, Dr Damayanti Bali. To see just how far it had penetrated even in the far-flung interiors of rural India was just amazing and yes, very heartwarming.
The poem is part of a collection of poems beginning with each alphabet of the Hindi language that my grandmother had written, each poem being of four lines. These poems with illustrations were initially written for my father and bhua even as they attended DAV Kindergarten School in Lahore in 1939. The Headmistress of the school on reading these poems encouraged my grandmother to get them published. The collection, called Billo (my bhua’s pet name), was first published in 1940 in Lahore. There have been subsequent reprints of the book with minor alterations since then in 1952 and 1985 in India. These simple and easy-to-recite poems have proved to be extremely useful for generations of Indian children to learn and be familiar with our National language down the years and poems such as Machhli… have become our own alternatives to the standard Jack and Jill and Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhymes.
Though the collection boasts of other equally fine poems such as:
Apna Desh Humein Hai Pyara
Sab Deshon se Hai Yeh Nyara
Sona, Chandi, Resham Is Mein
Moti, Jawahar, Gandhi Jis Mein
Chidiya Cheen Cheen Karti Hain
Bachchon se Bhi Darti Hain
Door se Dalo Unko Daana
Ud Jaayengi Paas Na Jaana
Machhli Jal ki Hai Rani somehow beat out the others to become the most popular poem in the collection by far.
Now, while I am more than glad that the poem is still being taught all over India to younger generations and has been shown on several children programmes on TV (sans copyright of course), I do have a small grouse about the way it is being taught (Machhli Jal ki Rani Hai…) today. To set the record straight, the true and correct version of the poem is:
Machhli Jal ki Hai Rani
Jeevan Iska Hai Pani
Haath Lagao Dar Jaayegi
Bahar Nikalo Mar Jaayegi.
And this is the illustration accompanying the poem in the book!