Documentary, Features

An Ode To A Fish

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 Damyanti 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 & 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.

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    1. Hi Karan, do you have a copy of the book Billo written by your grandmother. Would love to have a copy.

  1. That must have been some moment. All of us have learnt ‘Machhli jal ki rani hai’ (I know, I know the wrong version). Even Aiman did.

  2. That’s a fabulous story – I think I learned the wrong version – because it had an extra line – pani mein dalo, tair jaayegi (some vegetarian version no doubt!). But recently, listening to a friend’s kids recite it soulfully I see that the Mar Jayegi therefore correct version is also current. So take hope 🙂

  3. Wonderful poem and illustration … There are so many such wonderful poems/ditties for kids in our vernacular/s… Yet the standardization of Jack and Jill continues…

  4. in kashmir they never taught us machali jal ki raani…or did they and i didnt pay attention but i understand it must be a great moment for you everytime you hear it.
    i think next time i visit any school anywhere in india, i too must record this poem to form a great collection which i can gift you on your 100th birthday.

  5. Punjab da puttar Bali

    From Jullunder to Lahore
    Shooting many virgin n whore
    Been searchin for his muse
    A lil kidz pome finally lit up his fuse
    Punjab da puttar Bali
    Can rest – finally ….

    In jest ….

  6. Very funny Rats (I suppose!)…

    Totally spot on Monish. Whenever any of my friend’s children turn 3 or so and the parents complain about the child being out of touch with Hindi, I give them a copy of Billo.

  7. Must have been really a stirring, stand-still moment for you! My daughter by the way learnt it as ..baahar nikaalo SO jaayegi..some naram soul must have made amends to make it more passable for the tinytots. 🙂 But compared to all the Hung-rage-ee rhymes they are taught at school, jack n jill, piggy on the railway tracks, humpty dumpties… gimme my daily dose of Indian literature anyday!

  8. Neeraja,it was indeed an incredible, incredible moment for me.
    Agree with your point totally. Gimme my machhli anyday!

    1. Your grandmother’s poem on macchli was a childhood favourite! My Nani also wrote poems so I can relate how special it is though hers were never published.

      I’d love to get my hands on her hindi alphabet anthology – want to teach them to my son who has a hard time learning hindi as he’s dyslexic.

      1. Problem is am down to my last two copies. And they’re the only ones left with my family. Maybe an option would be to scan it page by page. Let’s see…

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