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Rhyme without Reason: আবোল তাবোল

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 14, 2008 3 Comments

The King of Bombaria (“Bombagharer Raja”)

In the land of Bombaria,
The customs are peculiar.
The king, for instance, advocates
Gilded frames for chocolates.
The queen, who seldom goes to bed
Straps a pillow round her head.
The courtiers—or so I am told—
Turn cartwheels when they have a cold

… The King’s old aunt—an autocrat—
Hits pumpkins with her cricket bat
While Uncle loves to dance Mazurkas
Wearing garlands strung with hookahs.
All of this, though mighty queer,
Is natural in Bombagarh.

Sukumar Ray, translated by Satyajit Ray

I was reared on a steady diet of nonsense poetry in my childhood years. Growing up “prabashi Bangali” (the word for a Bengali person who lives outside Bengal), in faraway New Delhi, one of the strongest links I had to Bengal was the nonsense verse of Sukumar Ray, in the form of the absolutely magical anthology of Abol Tabol, or Rhymes Without Reason. I had it read to me by my mother, I would read it by myself, and I even participated in a recitation competition during Saraswati Puja. In fact, one of the most traumatic moments in my life (one I mentioned in a previous post) revolves around an event that occurred during one such recitation competition. I was about five, standing before a huge audience of parents and children, reciting a poem from Abol Tabol. Midway through, I totally forgot the remaining lines—and given the nonsensical nature of the poetry, naturally, there were few cues to be had. Ultimately it ended well for me: I lip read my mother, who started reciting it from afar. Despite that unfortunate incident, however, I have not left my passion for Ray’s poetry behind.

Children’s nonsense poetry has had a long tradition in Bengal. The most popular poems for the youngest children (till around the age of five) tend to be the four-, six-, and eight-line poems called “chharas.” Originally, these poems were “handed down” orally, though since the advent of print publishing in Bengal, the poems have begun to be written down, and illustrated. While written for children, most adults enjoy them tremendously. The setting of such poetry, traditionally, has been a rural village. The focus is on the everyday, on the simple things in life. Though there is attention to form, the content is more often than not nonsensical. One line may or may not have anything to do with the next, and words may or may not be part of the Bengali lexicon (though they always “sound” Bengali). What is interesting is how ingrained this practice is in the life of a Bengali caregiver and the child: they are used to “soothe,” “distract,” “lull,” and “coax and console,” as Sen (1996) tells us. The socialization of Bengali children, remarkably, is mediated, then, by nonsense verse.

Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) grew up under the shadow of the British Raj, and is most famous for his nonsense poetry in Abol Tabol. The book is an anthology, multi-semiotic, with each poem illustrated by the poet himself. Traditionally, Bengali has had a strong poetic recitation tradition, and children are encouraged to recite from very early years. “Proper” or “good” আবৃত্তি (recitation) is considered an art form, a matter of pride in Bengali households. The point is not just to recite, but recite well: they are learnt for competitions, with large audiences watching. As far as I can tell, the functions these recitations serve are the following: (1) the preparations for the competitions instill self-discipline in little children, (2) they allow children to have first hand experiences in “public speaking,” (3) the children are taught to pay particular attention to formal features, such as rhythm, tone, emphasis, and mood/emotion, and (4) children are forced to memorize texts, and hence hone their memory.

Bengali children’s nonsense poetry is seen to primarily be a source of bond-building between the caregiver and the child; teaching the child about how words sound (the phonology, without an emphasis on semantics) in Bengali, and how they may be strung together, and, finally, for providing children small glimpses of typically Bengali behavior: good or bad. In nonsense poetry, as I commented in Youki’s brilliant post, the everyday becomes exoticized, and outrageously exaggerated. Through humor, the everyday becomes atypical.

At whatever age, Sukumar’s seductive exhortations are un-turn-down-able.

Come here, innocent one, without any thoughts
In the lap of dreams dance and come
Come here, crazy one, nonsense (abol tabol)
Play the drunken percussions and come


Sen, S. (1996), Tagore’s “Lokashahitya”: The Oral Tradition in Bengali Children’s Rhymes: Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1. pp. 1-47.

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3 Responses to “Rhyme without Reason: আবোল তাবোল”

  1. daveski on: 15 December 2008 at 8:02 am

    Hey everyone, this post also appears on the mega-progressive blog The Daily Kos, Usree’s first-ever front-page diary. This is a BIG deal in the blogging world. Read it again here, and be sure to check out the lively comment thread (25 and counting) and the poll asking thousands and thousands of Daily Kos readers (they’re called Kossacks over on those servers) whether there should be more articles there on language and literature issues. Congrats Usree!

  2. Youki on: 15 December 2008 at 9:22 am

    congrats Usree!

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 15 December 2008 at 11:11 am

    Thanks you guys! 🙂 I should clarify that it’s a front page “rescued diary.” 🙂

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