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Reimagining Krishna As An Adivasi: How A Self-Taught Poet From Tripura Won The Padma Shri

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

“Swba bono sini ya tong

Chobong saqa go qhaju chong

Qhaju chong saqha go naysawi naydi

Mwchang temani tokray khitong”


“Who on earth doesn’t know Him

He who wears a bun above his forehead

Look there above his bun

How beautiful the peacock feather sits”


Poet, composer and singer Beni Chandra Jamatia was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2020

This is how Kokborok (language of the Borok people of Tripura) lyricist , composer and singer, Beni Chandra Jamatia, introduces Lord Krishna to his audience. To him, Lord Krishna was the epitome of divinity, friendship, and humanity who could be identified through the peacock feather adorning his brow. In his many decades of composing music, Beni Chandra wrote more than 20 poems dedicated to Lord Krishna and his many quests. In his songs the lyricist narrates Krishna’s birth, his youth, his meeting with his birth parents, and his battle with Kans.


Beni Chandra also happens to be my grandfather. My earliest memories go back to the winter evenings in Maharani village when he and his troupe of musicians, mostly blood relations, would sit around a fire in his big village kitchen and sing into the night. He wrote and composed devotional songs in Kokborok in which he would refer to events found in the Puranas. His songs called out to "Aama" or “Mother”, to Lord Krishna, and to Tripuri god Garia. He played his handmade teentara, a musical instrument with three strings. Others in the troupe would play the drum, the flute and the kortal. In case you are wondering if these late night musicals were a nuisance for the neighbours, well then, my grandfather was a loner at heart who built his home on top of a solitary hill with no neighbours. This meant that only those who truly loved his music would land up at his doors, built so far away from other settlements in the village.


His collection of poems was published in 1992

Beni Chandra published the collection of his life’s works in 1992 under the title Dormo Lam bay Kok Borok Baul that translates to “The path of Dharma and Kok Borok devotional songs”. In this work, midway through describing Lord Krishna’s life, Jamatia shifts his narrative from the stories borrowed from the Puranas and starts reimagining the life of Lord Krishna as an Adivasi living in the forests. According to the songs, Lord Krishna disappeared from Dwarka after he killed Kans, for fear of retaliation by Jarasandha, Kans’ father-in-law. In a bid to protect himself from Jarasandha’s ire, Lord Krishna retired into the deep jungles where he would be safe. From here on Jamatia imagines the life of Lord Krishna as that of an Adivasi who lives in the forest subsisting on jhum or shifting cultivation.


Illustration of Lord Krishna living as an Adivasi

In a song titled “Zuwang Qhang,” Jamatia writes that Lord Krishna, while fleeing into the forest, renamed himself “Juang Khang'' to avoid being detected. On the way, he saw Rukmini by the side of a pond and asked her to flee with him to which she agrees. The couple then travel deep into the forest and set up a gairing (a traditional Tripuri bamboo hut built on stilts) for themselves. Here, Rukmini gives birth to twins whom Jamatia named “Totesa” and “Vatesa”. The illustration of the song shows Rukmini perched on top of a gairing, wearing risa and rignai, while Lord Krishna carries a tising (a local bamboo basket used to carry loads) on his back. The twins play nearby.


Beni Chandra’s eldest daughter and my mother, Pabitra Rani Jamatia, explains the thought process behind this reimagination and says that living in the forest would have entailed becoming an Adivasi. “Baba (father) imagined that in ancient times, anyone who lived in the forest would have had to survive by adopting Adivasi ways. This meant adopting their means of agriculture and living in harmony with nature.”


Beni Chandra Jamatia was born into a family of devout Hindus in Tripura around 1932. From his childhood, his parents Suchitra and Padasingh narrated to him stories from the Puranas thereby instilling a love for these stories. Suchitra knew how to read and write and wanted her children to learn the same. She therefore hired a tutor to teach them the basics of writing. The initial years of study created a passion for learning in Beni Chandra. However, having been born in the interiors of Tripura, he did not have access to schools and libraries. According to my mother, he would visit markets frequently in order to fetch a copy of the local newspapers. She adds that he would not waste even the scraps of newspaper that were used to wrap food. Every night he would smoothen out the wrappers and read them under the light of the lamp. She says that the image of her father reading papers till late at night is imprinted on her mind.


For his contribution to Kokborok through his poems and music, the Indian government awarded Beni Chandra Jamatia the Padma Shri in 2020 in Education. Nearly a year after the announcement, he died in December following a bout of illness. Today, many people in the state remember him for his contribution towards strengthening the indigenous language. Beni Chandra wrote all his poems in Kokborok thereby conserving many words that would have otherwise gotten lost. One of those words is “Chobong” which can mean either “forehead” “destiny” or “good luck”. It is a beautiful coincidence that he named one of his granddaughters “Chobong” who grew up to be the one to nominate him for the Padma Shri. It makes one wonder if it was his “Chobong” or “destiny” all along to ultimately get the recognition he deserved.


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