For the last four centuries and more, Ghagh, literally “the sly one”, has been undoubtedly one of the most popular poet philosophers for farming communities in the Indo-Gangetic plains. An environmentalist centuries before the word was coined, Ghagh was no romantic adventurer looking to project his longings and needs through poetry. His pithy couplets that have been handed down generations through the oral tradition, are based on time-tested linkages between weather and the moon’s path through various star constellations. As an astronomer and agricultural guru, Ghagh was engaged in a struggle for exactitude – for a language free of Sanskrit punditry to discuss crop cycles, seeds, various tips for buying healthy cattle, and sound reflections on vagaries of both man and nature, all without scientific meteorological systems and instruments. His poems still remain invisible pathways for illiterate villagers to understand the world around them. It enables them to access pragmatic tips to read the signs for a good crop year or a bad one.

Since 1900, when inexpensively printed copies of vernacular poetry and popular folk songs became available all over the northern plains, Ghagh has remained a perennial bestseller. At every rural fair, railway station book kiosk and with every roadside bookseller in the vast Hindi belt, little paperbacks on Ghagh ki kahavatein (Sayings of Ghagh) are available. Like the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, most literate rural families will have a dog-eared copy of Ghagh’s poems tucked away somewhere. Little is known about this enigmatic itinerant poet’s personal life. To the academe though, Ghagh remains something of a country mouse. And they tell us it could also be somewhat rash to presume that all the poems ascribed to him are indeed his, and not interpolated at a later date. But isn’t that also true of a large part of Vyas’s Mahabharata, Kabir’s Bijak and Guru Nanak’s writings? Then how does the same academe ascribe these works as theirs?

Hasty conception

Legend has it that Ghagh was born in village Chaudhary Sarai near Kannauj in what is now central Uttar Pradesh during emperor Akbar’s reign in the 16th century. This is supported by the fact that the poet is believed to have settled a village called Ghagh Sarai, a few kilometers away from Kannauj, on a piece of land gifted to him by Akbar.

Legend has it that Ghagh’s father was a Brahmin scholar who was also renowned as an astute astrologer at the court. The astrologer, once going through his own horoscope, calculated that the hour to conceive a miraculously bright son was near, and decided to rush home to his wife. He soon realised that there was no way he could make it home in time for the required act. So he decided not to let the precious seed be wasted. He found a young woman working in the royal harem as a maid, whom he quickly impregnated with his genius-engendering seed. Thereafter, as in the case of Ved Vyas, Vidur, Tulsidas and Kabir, out of this illicit encounter between a man and woman from different ends of the caste scale, the great poet-philosopher Ghagh was born. He was named Bhaddar.

By this time the astrologer, in the manner of the fathers of the above-named poets, had abandoned the impregnated maid and returned to his court life and domestic bliss. So the precocious young Bhaddar, alias Ghagh, was brought up by his mother in what must have been fairly austere circumstances. Guided by his genes, by the time Bhaddar was six, he knew all about the movements of the various astral bodies and, based on those, began to forecast coming events. His fame as an astronomer-cum-astrologer (in those days they were identical) grew after he made various precocious, but correct predictions, for the palace folk. When he heard of this, Bhaddar’s father came rushing to claim the miracle child as his, and forcibly removed him from his weeping mother. Bhaddar refused to walk so he was carried upon his father’s shoulders. On the homeward journey, the two came to a field where a farmer was scattering seeds almost half of which were being carried away by a strong wind to the neighbouring field.

“When the crop is ready, who will reap the crops that will grow out of seeds being blown into the neighbour’s field by the wind?” asked Bhaddar.

“Crops, son,” the father said, “no matter where the seeds blew in from, will always belong to the land owner, not to the scatterer of the seeds.”

Bhaddar leapt off his father’s shoulders and ran off shouting, “Then I too must leave this man and go back to my mother, whose womb bore your seed for nine months and brought me into the world.”

Jo har jotey kheti taki, aur nahin to jaki taki (The field belongs to one who tills it, otherwise anyone may come and grab it)” runs one of Ghagh’s famous sayings, inspired perhaps by this early initiation on reproductive rights and wrongs.

Man of many parts

A lonely precocious child will often invent imaginary companions. We see in some couplets that Ghagh too has an alter ego, whom he addresses as Bhaddari. Since most of the poems ascribed to the poet known as Bhaddari are the same, it is safe to presume that Ghagh was born as Bhaddar or Bhaddari and continued to address his lost self after he took the pen name Ghagh.

As was natural for a fatherless boy, Ghagh developed a deep and compassionate insight into the female psyche and grew up to be something of a ladies’ man. The poems hint that at some point he found himself a devoted and vivacious wife whom he lovingly addresses as his confidant Ghaghini, in some of his couplets.

Like Aesop, a tanner by profession who was jailed later in life, Ghagh too was a man of many parts – scholar, astronomer, astrologer, lover of women and vet. His poems, for instance, offer a cornucopia of information on how to tell a good horse, bullock or a milch cow, or gauge the temperament of an animal before buying, based on certain subtle physignomical details.

In a feudal age dominated by the nobility and major landowners, Ghagh had watched the spectacle of power closely. As a witness-turned-participant, Ghagh was not arrogant but stoutly refused to suffer fools or bullies. “The biggest landlord, if he is no use for tackling my woes, can go hang himself for all I care,” he said. Farming, Ghagh was convinced, was the best among all professions for a self-respecting commoner, giving him the supreme authority of the self-employed. Trading came next. It may uproot a man, but helped him retain financial self-sufficiency. At number three was service, an infinitely worse choice than the first two, but better than begging: “Uttam kheti madhyam baan, nikhid chakri, bheekh nidan.”

Farming, according to Ghagh, was of three kinds: the self-sufficient one, where the owner himself tilled the land, the fraternal kind, where one’s brothers looked after the fields, and the last was the kind where serfs were left to handle all affairs, and even if the land was going to the dogs, they could not care less.

Common wisdom

As an abandoned son Ghagh turned his face firmly away from a certain sort of classical learning favoring instead the age-old wisdom of the ordinary farmer. He borrowed his authority from the simple folk among whom he lived and loved – farmers, housewives, widows, barbers, cobblers, makers of simple farming tools, farm laborers, tarts, witty thieves and scoundrels. They all revealed to him their hidden desires and secret lives: “Teetar kari badri, vidhawa kaajar rekh, yeh barse, vo ghar kare, ismein na koi mekh,”(If the cloud is the colour of partridge feathers and a widow sports kohl in her eyes, the first, have no doubt, will bring rain, and the other will shack up with another man.)

“She eyes you, then looks at herself suggestively, touches her ornaments, lets her head covering drop to reveal her midriff, after this the harlot does not need to beat drums to get attention.”(Parmukh dekhi apan much govey, choodi, Kankan, besari tovai/Aanchar tarey pet dikhavey, ab chhinari ka dhol bajavey.)

Ghagh also makes some shrewd pronouncements on the downward slide of worldly power and/or natural degradation: “Ochho Mantri raja nasey, Taal binasey kai/saan sahibi foot binase, Ghagha pair bivai “(A foolish minister is the death of the ruler, moss destroys a pond, a flashy lifestyle is killed by insider trading and a foot is destroyed by cracks in the heel).

According to Ghagh, there are four things that may cause sorrow unless one watches out – A pretty wife, a servant who knows your secrets, a well-worn silk garment, and a period of bad governance.

To the farmer, Ghagh handed down many tried and tested formulae for growing good crops. Sow jowar (millet), he said, at a distance covered by a frog in one leap, sow bajra and cotton at the distance of a footstep, and cucumbers at the distance covered by a deer in one leap. Sugarcane is best sown in clumps close together where water is plentiful.

There is also oft quoted advice from Ghagh on a healthy diet for men and women – Jaggery in chaitra (late February, early March), oily food in Baisakh (April and early May), and bel juice in Asadh (July). Food to be avoided during specific seasons are greens during the monsoons, curds during Bhadon (August), buttermilk in Kartik (early winter), cumin in Aghan (late spring), coriander in winter, sugar in Magh (early winter), and chana (gram) during Falgun (early February).

A curious composure exists in Ghagh’s poems, despite occasional cynicism and a sardonic sense of humour. Moralists, theologians, merchants and philosophers may often ignore experience, being exclusively concerned with actions and products. Literature, therefore, will be mostly created by the disinherited or exiled who, even after four centuries, seem to be sitting cross-legged under a tree and smiling at you as they define true happiness:

“Khet hoye goinde, hal hoy char

ghar mein grahasthin, bhains dudhar

ann mein gehun, dhan mein gay, agal bagl baithey do bhai

Hans ke anda as dadhi hoye

banke nayan parosey joye

rhreek padti, jdhaney bhat

galgal nimbua aur ghee taat

Oonch atariya bahey batas, Ghagh kahey ghar hee Kailas.”

(Says Ghagh, who would wish to move to another heaven if the family farm lay close to the village, and one owned four pairs of bulls for ploughs, a milch cow, a duo of blood brothers always by his side, and finally a wife, who still gives her man an arched glance each time she serves him a good meal: a ladle full of arhar dal on fragrant and freshly cooked rice served with side helpings of hot butter and slices of lemon, and all topped with a bowl of rich yogurt solid as a duck’s egg, topped with raw sugar.)