FOLK SONGS OF BENGAL by Premendra Mazumder




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Folk Songs of Bengal is a vast treasure to explore. Folk songs display the sentiments and emotions of the common people, their hope and anguish, love and hate, dream and desire. Bengali folk songs are the phenomenal examples of excogitating these humane qualities of a vast land historically known as Bangalat or Bangal or Bangla, later on distorted by the British pronunciation as ‘Bengal’. While studying the demography of Bengal we have to consider a huge land where the people speak in the main language Bangla (Bengali). This language has so many different dialects, which vary from place to place, district to district. Before the partition of India, this entire population had a free access to interact amongst themselves, which developed their cultural solidarity right from the very grass root level. It was a threat for the rulers and the barriers were created by dividing Bengal in several parts. During independence of India in 1947, Bengal was divided in two parts East and West and the western part was given to India. This part is known as West Bengal, the capital city of which was Calcutta, now Kolkata. Some of the portions of undivided Bengal were also distributed to other neighboring provinces like Bihar and Assam in India where the people still speaks in Bengali language. Besides this, Tripura is another province in India where Bengali is the main communicative language. Eastern part of Bengal, popularly known as Purba Bangla (East Bengal) was given to Pakistan and officially, it was known as East Pakistan, capital city of which was Dhaka. In 1971 through a great disastrous independence movement, this part of Bengal emerged as a free nation called Bangladesh, which means the ‘land of the Bengali speaking people’. Dhaka again became the capital of this sovereign state.



Despite all these divisions and turmoil, the Bengali culture, language and literature, its folk songs in both the parts, have the same bonding, flavor and philosophic coherence. Though no Bengali can cross the border without a ‘visa’ still its impossible to differentiate Dhaka and Kolkata in terms of cultural connotations. It comes true for the entire Bengal – the undivided Bengal, which was in existence only a few years back. Folk song is one of the richest factors of these cultural ingredients, which is the inherent spirit of Bengal. Due to the richness of Bengali folk songs, the elite urban culture always adored and admired it. Even the Noble Laureate like Rabindra Nath Tagore was highly influenced by a couple of the schools of the folk songs of Bengal. Many of his famous songs were composed on the structure of some particular Bengali folk songs, especially the Baul. Tagore’s fabulous novel ‘Gora’ starts with the description of a baul who is singing a baul-song ‘khanchar bhitar achin paakhi kemne aashe jay / dhorte paarle manobedi ditam paakhir paay’. Singer is surprised how this spirit of life comes in and goes out of the structure of the body. He also says that if it was possible to find out that spirit, he certainly would have got hold of that. Practically this song was composed by the legendary baul Lalan Fakir, the most famous sufi singer of eighties, whose secular philosophical baul songs had a great influence on Tagore. He studied Lalan Fakir, his life and works very sincerely and written extensively on him. He was so deeply influenced by the baul songs, especially by the songs of Lalan Fakir that he widely used these particular tunes in many of his compositions. Due to his fascination to this particular sect of folk cult, he was even popularly referred as Rabi-baul. Maestro Sachin Dev Barman was passionately obsessed with the vast treasure of the folk songs of Bengal. There are so many schools of folk songs spread over different parts of the undivided Bengal. More than a hundred schools could be defined distinctly with its unadulterated originality besides which hundreds are there mixed up with one another or corrupted by the urban trash. Though mostly secular in nature, still so many are there which belong to some religious sects but adored by all the casts and creeds in general.



In Hindus, two main sects Sakta and Vaishnava have their own folk songs. Sakta means the worshipers of Shakti (the power) represented by the goddess Kaali or Chandi or Durga whereas Vaishnavas are the worshipers of Vishnu means the Lord Krishna. Both the sects are famous for their own schools of folk songs to appease their own gods and goddesses. Muslims also have different sects with different schools of folk songs. In between, there are many secular cults which mainly dominate this vast land to maintain deep rooted fraternity though politically disturbed by the outsiders and sometimes succeeded to destroy the age-old heart to heart inter religious bond. Still due to the immense impact of the folk songs of Bengal, it was not possible for them to ruin the cultural fraternity of the undivided Bengal.



Folk songs of Bengal could be classified in several categories: Emotional, Secular, Sectarian, Religious, Ceremonial, Occasional, Occupational and Festival. Some songs are solo and some are chorus. Lyrics of most of the songs are traditional and spontaneous. As by nature folk songs spread through verbal communications, in so many cases same songs have different texts which change from place to place in time to time. Musical instruments mainly used with the folk songs in Bengal are Dhak, Dhol, Kansa, Khol, Madal, Kartal, Khanjani, Ektara, Gopijantra, Flute et al. Dhak is a drum, made of big wooden shell, covered by parchment in both the sides, tightened by leather straps, hung on the shoulder when played with two wooden sticks. Its sound is very loud and rhythmic. Widely used in all Sakta (related to Sakti – the female power) and Shaiva (related to Shiva –the male power) festivals and rituals. Dhol is comparatively a smaller version of the Dhak, constructed by more or less same components and technique but with different shape and moderate sound effect. It is widely used with most of all the folk songs of Bengal. Kansa, Kangsya or Kansar is a metal plate accompanying with the rhythm of Dhak and Dhol to reinforce their beats. Khol is a cylindrical type of clay shell, the body of which is laced heavily by leather straps, the heads covered with parchment. Kartal is a pair of metal plates used as percussion instrument accompanying Khol to give rhythmic support. Khanjanee or Khanjari is a round wooden frame with numbers of jingle plates attached inside the frame. There are so many other instruments made in indigenous method used to accompany the folk songs.



Most of the folk songs of Bengal are sung with dance, solo or in groups. Many of the folk songs are sung to beg from door to door. Important to note that, begging is one of the most significant customs of the folk culture. This is not that fact that they do not have any other means to earn their livelihood. On the contrary, most of them have their sufficient source to survive but still they beg occasionally to keep themselves always down to earth and also to keep their ego always mellowed down. The famous sects like Bauls, Vaishnavas, Fakirs and so many others beg from door to door to propagate their philosophies by singing folk songs. Rural society of Bengal never look down upon to them. Rather these begging folk singers are respected for their simple way of living and high thinking. People also offer them food and temporary shelter in anticipation of their blessings. This is a typical spiritual and emotional bond shared by the mundane people and the beggars by philosophic choice. Folk songs keep this bond always vibrantly alive.





PREMENDRA NATH MAZUMDER is a playwright and has written widely on Indian and Bengali cinema and literature both in India, Bangladesh, Portugal and Egypt. Premendra has served on Juries of numerous film festivals in India, Bangladesh, Egypt and Mongolia. He is a consultant and correspondent at numerous film festivals. Some of the publications he has authored/edited:

• Shatobarsher Chaalchitre Bharatiya Chalachchitra (Hundred Years of Indian Cinema, Collection of Essays, Authored)

• Shamay Ashamayer Naatak (Collection of Plays, Authored)

• Prekshapat (Collection of Essays on Socio Economic Issues, Authored)

• Latin Americar Chhotogalpo (Collection of Short Stories of Latin America, Edited)

• Latin Americar Kobita (Collection of Poems of Latin America, Edited)

• Dusho Bachhorer Bangla Natak (Two Hundred Years of Bengali Theatre, Edited)

• Loukik Uddyan: Folk Song of Bengal: Collectors’ Volume (Edited)

• Loukik Udyan: Two Hundred Years of Bengali Theatre: Collectors’ Volume (Edited)

• Loukik Udyan: Womens’ Right: Collectors’ Volume (Edited)



Other work:

• Co-Editor, Chitralipi (continuing since 1986)

• Editor, Loukik Udyan (1986 – 2001)

• Co-Editor, Arani (1982 – 1986)

• Advisor, Board of Editors, Deep Focus (continuing since 2007)

• Editor, Chitrabhavna (2000 – 2008)

• Authored three full-length plays and one short play (all published) for the Group Theatres of Kolkata, which are still being played.

• Translated several plays (mostly published) from Hindi to Bengali and Bengali to Hindi.

• Main Speaker of the Banga Sanskriti Sammelan, Nagpur (2001).

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