There are basically two types of song- the pure or classical – generally played with instruments and the folk – which is vocal with very few instruments. The history of Bengali song generally traces the second trajectory. Even before the Bengali language was properly formed – there was Bengali song – pictures of musicians marching along on ancient stone-walls prove this. But there is very little other proof. In fact most of the Middle Ages in Bengali Song can be reconstructed more through assumption rather than actual fact.
He was the royal poet in the court of Laksman Sen – the last king in the Sen line [1117-99]. His subject was the legnds of Krishna – especially the love phase of Krshna and Rdha. They are informed by traditional Indian Ragas like Bhairab,Gurjari, Basanta, Knat, Mallar etc. and Tals [Bits] like Ektal, Rupak etc.. The language is a mixture of Sanskrit and Prakrita
Jaydeb’s songs mention the wealthy – the Charyapads are instances of cryptography where the ancient Buddhists have formulated their Mantras under the façade of a unique brand of folk that merges classical Ragas like Bhairab, Mallar , Patmanjari etc.
The Beginning of the Middle Ages:
The Turkish invasion decimated the history of next two hundred years – but the culture was integrating underground. We get the evidence that
The Bengali language has been formed,
New internal power circles have started to proliferate again and
The main branches of literature have started appearing.
Srikrishnakirtan or Srikrishnasandarva:
The oldest of the Middle Age manuscripts – it was written by Baru Chandidas. The theme like Jaydeb, was the life and love of Krishna. These were also instances of what we today call ballads
The Narrative Poem:
These were not songs – but poems and translation of folk-legends and myths. These were “Panchalis” [to be read in front of a village audience]. The linguistic quality of these rendered the reading of them a special melodious quality – hence they being termed as songs. Instances are “Mansa Bhasan-r Gan” , “Ramayan Gan”, “Mangalchandir Geeti” etc. Some poets also introduced songs inside the narrative at suitable gaps. Bharatchandra was a famous exponent of this genre.
Baishnab Padabali and Kirtan:
Padabali is the text for the Kirtan. The poets Vidyapati and Chandidas [not Baru Chandidas] generated the initial traditions of Padabali literature in Brajabuli and Bengali. Chaitanyadev’s nourished the Baishnab Renaissance in Bengal and Narrotam Das Thakur – in Chaitanyadev’s death anniversary created Leelakirtan or Rasakiratan on the basis of these texts – rendering them a classical feel without its strict rigours. The singer has much greater independence here as s/he can even add letters and/or sentence fragments for the sake of emphasis in this congregational tradition. There are four major traditions of Kirtan – Garanhati, Reneti Mandarini and Manoharsahi – the main tradition that sustains now.
18th Century marks a turning point in the history of Bengali song as it turned away from the Krshna-dominated thematic axis towards the Goddess Kali and Durga – especially the welcome songs. This change locates Bengali song in the socio-historical map since they narrate tales of hope and security in the Dark Age anarchy in the Pre-British and Post-Moughal era. Rampraad is the main poet in this line. It also displays the cultural mixing in terms of different traditions like Kaloati, folk etc..
Three phases structure the late 18th and early Century Bengali decadence:
Flourish of the Kabigan
Development of the classical in Eastern India
The legacy of Ramkumar Gupta
Kabigan was flourishing in the rural spaces and the new urban rich of Kolkata. This was marked by a unique combination between slang, obscenity, intelligent rhyming and legends and mythology. This gained immense popularity and these poetry/songs are realistically portrayed in Tarashankar Bandopadhhay’s novels.
Development of the classical in Eastern India:
The de-composing of the Delhi court helped in the court poets scattering all over India. Some came to Eastern India and eagerly welcomed by the rich and wealthy. Thus the classical Hindustani tradition flourished and was assimilated by the Bengali singers. Today’s Bengali version is actually an offshoot of this branch:
Ramkumar Gupta [Nidhubau 1741-1838]
Nidhubabu makes another major transition by taking popular Bengali song out of its religious platform and ushering in absolutely human subjects – specially love – in “Tappa”. “Tappa” is actually a Western Indian folk-tradition first classicalcurrency by a Bihari artist Shori Mian. Nidhubabu learned this tradition during his stay in Bihar and then applied it to Bengali in a little slower bit – than its original super fast rhythm.
Next Stage of Development
This is the first instance of serious spiritual song in Bengali. The influence was basically Classical but other traditions like Kirtan and Palligeeti [literally song of villages] was also influenced. It directly connects with Raja Rammohan Roy’s Bramhasamaj in 1828 and he was one of the main exponents of the genre. Rabindranath Tagore was another major .
Let’s take a detour to look at the audience. The audience was not trained but unlike today song was a rare commodity because of the lack of technology. So it was part of the community life. The traveling singers and song-writers were a much adored and in demand bunch. Mostly the girls were not allowed to song. Songs were circulated and the mass was always in the look out for song performances – especially the folk.
With the establishment of the first theatre in Kolkata Bengali folk song entered this space. Catering to the popular demand the theatre houses inserted as many songs as possible- even creating acting roles to serve the demand for popular songs. The Panchali tradition was re-formatted and the lyrics were immensely popular. The contribution of Theatre actually comes in terms of its wide thematic range- the traditional melodies were adopted to love song, devotional song, funny song, patriotic song , situational songs etc..
Rabindranath and Contemporaries:
Rabindranath Tagore’s Song:
A whole industry thrives around Tagore’s songs alone- cassettes/CD ROMs, lyrics and critiques. This note briefly outlines the main features:
Sources- Multiple. Tagore collects from the Classical, Traditional and the Folk regarding melody.
Structure – He adopts variations of the existing Bengali Traditional/classical model.
Theme- In “Gitabitan” his songs are classified in five thematic categories - “Worship”, “Patriotic”,
“Love”, “Nature” and “Ritualistic”. Most songs are, however, overlapping thematically.
The songs are very much dependant on their lyrics - so much that his songs are often taken to be poems which have been given melody only at secondary consideration. Tagore’s idea was that each song was carrying an idea which is generated by the lyrics but enhanced by the melody. Hence the singer needs to be very careful as s/he has to apply critical attention to the pronunciation and tone. S/he needs to have perfect sense about Bengali syntax besides melody – hence the difficulty in singing Tagore’s song vis-à-vis relatively easy musical/instrumental application.
Tagore has written more than thousand songs.
Dwijendralal Roy [1863-1913, Rajanikanta Sen [1865-1910] and Atulprasad Sen [1871-1934]
Thematically his songs can be categorized into the funny, love-lyrics and patriotic. His major contribution lies in blending Oriental Melody with Western harmony. Rajanikanta practiced in similar genres. Atulprasad explored the devotional line more.
These three mark the transition from Tagore in the following terms:
Structure – they are not classical.
Melody –they allow much more freedom to the singer as opposed to the strict Tagorian rigours. Thus it moves away from the purity of Tagore song. It can be sung in any way. In this respect they anticipate Najrul Islam whose entry to the Bengali singing space coincides with an important techno-cultural contribution.
Gramophone – the Technological Turn:
Mr. Hod brought the first Gramophone machine to Kolkata – the then Indian Capital – in mid 1902. This resulted in long-lasting effects in the Indian musical scene:
For the first time music directly entered the interior of Bengali house-holds through the discs.
Music became an organized industry with as the Gramophone Company soon turned into a well-planned business enterprise. They recognized the target audience and realized that Gramophone – because of its placing “inside” the Bengali household has to play songs which can bridge the generation gap to appeal to everybody.
This also helped in the circulation of the so “ob-scene” [sexual innuendos and slang] songs.
The technology also helped in the re-lease of the previously elite genres like the Classical, Kawali, Marga etc from their closets of select audiences and bringing them to the mass.
Gramophone thus emerged as a technology of mass proliferation of songs. This resulted in the creation of a multi-cultural musical matrix.
The gramophone technology also helped in the preservation of songs – and thus provided the first steps towards the creation of a history of music.
This preservation and mass culture of songs through technology since have evolved supremely to include the cassette industry, then the CD ROMs and now Computer and MP3s [something done in our site!]
Najrul produced over three and a half thousand songs for the Gramophone Company for a span of 22 years – 1920-42. This is an index to his popularity. His songs can be categorized in two sections- the patriotic and the romantic. A very thin line of funny songs exists somewhere in-between – but his fame rests mainly upon the romantic line which expands upon simple images – intensified by the details of melody. Melody has much more value here than the words [difference from the Tagorian tradition]. Najrul’s melodies are:
Hindustani Raga based,
South Indian Raga based
Individual Raga based
Foreign influence- Hawaiian, Arabic, Iranian and Turkish and Egyptian
Dwijendralal’s son Dilipkumar is regarded as one of the enigmas in the history of Bengali song. As composer he surpassed his father in terms of sheer variety. He blended as diverse traditions as Italian, British, French, the Russian Folk, the Gypsy tradition with Bengali folk and created a unique international melody before suddenly vanishing into Pondicheri Ashrama.
The Modern Song:
The term Modern is relative – it mean from the third decade of the 20th Century to around the 70s when it reached its apex. Modern Bengali song centrally differs from the previous era by its shift from the individual to the group. Deriving the idea from the Theatre Bengali song became a multiple-ventured production with different people working as lyricists, composers and singers. Hence a combination of talent pool became responsible for the production of any song unlike the individualistic ventures of previous era. The Gramophone Company and the motion picture industry were also responsible for this change:
Lyricists: Pranab Roy, Shyamal Gupta, Mamata Mitra et al.
Composers: Salai Choudhuri, Himanshu Dutta, Kamal Dasgupta et al.
Singers: Sachin Denbbarman, Shyamal Mitra, Hemanta Mukhopaddhaya, Geeta Dutta te al.
Linguistically the history of Bengali Modern Song does not trace the development of Bengali Language at all. They are generally imitations of the Tagore- Najrul line.
Melody –wise they show lots of experimentation – classical, Western, the folk and regional music from other Indian provinces.
These songs also act as a multi-cultural index as they have close parallels with contemporary Hindi film songs. Many Bengali artists like Saachin Debbarman, Hemanta Mukhopaddhaya have worked successfully in the Hindi film industry.
The Transition to the Contemporary:
A recent trend which has attracted considerable critique from the purists is re-make where many artiste have re-recorded the Modern Bengali Songs in their own voice with slightly different instrumental accompaniments. It must be remembered that remake is the index of a song’s sustaining ability/quality. Whetehr it is tagore’s song, Najurl’s song and/or modern Bengalo Song. As long as the main frame [regarding melody and lyric] remains there should not be any objection.
This is an offshoot of the patriotic song. It is propagandist in character, simple in terms of tune and lyric and addresses the common urban wo/man [difference from the folk] – ideologically, nostalgically and intellectually. Salil Chodhuri, Hemanga Biswas, Jyotirindranath Maitra et al contributed to this type. One example is “Abak Prithibi Prithibi” [“O Strange World”]
Jibanmukhi or “Reality Songs” marked a return to the individual Taogore-Najrul tradition with Suman Chattopaddhaya’s revolutionary lyrics and tune. Suman spent a few years in Europe and attacked the existing Bengali music for its escaping tendency from real socio-cultural issues and its linguistic incompetence. He changed the entire concept regarding the theme of the song – it can be anything – the foul smell of the drains, the colours of the city, the hints-spaces we read in the eyes- mine, our, your, other.
Necessarily the tone of saying can also be different. In his startling formulation – “Let us talk. Talk to our parents, friends, brothers, sisters, lovers. Talk even if it is self-contradictory, unruly.”
Suman’s first two albums hit the stagnant musical scenario in Bengal like wild-fire. His followers – most notably Anjan Dutta and Nachiketa popularized the genre – but somehow the genre fizzled out of fashion within the next 10years.
“Bhumi“, “Chandrabindu”, “Cactus”, “Fossils” et al carry the Suman tradition and are pioneers in terms of initiating the Band culture in Bengal for the first time. They sing of contemporary issues – especially issues and emotions of the student life [thematically they are too varied to be classified yet]. They use heavy instruments. But so far they have lacked Suman’s linguistic excellence and his deep bass voice.
Folk Culture and especially folk song has received renewed interest in late 20th Century Bengal. Folk Song is a subterranean current continued to circulate amidst religious rituals and daily life all along the history of Bengal. The socio-political scenario in the mid 20th Century changed the existing socio-cultural pattern by allotting the Bengali land in two countries – India and Pakistan. [Further divided later with the creation of Bangladesh]. Later 20th Century further infested this rural space with the spread of technology and global media – thus affecting the ambience for the production for these songs. The existing lines can be categorized in the following types:
Bhatiali: From the “Bhati” land – the river bed of Eastern Bengal.
Jari Gan: Narrative song. Narrates issues of Muharram – emotions and warfare.
Sarigan: Song for Workers- especially during the time of rowing.
Baulgan – Most major branch. Has nomadic touch and spiritual message.
Bhaoiaia – Festive song of North Bengal
Jhumur – Folk of Rarh Bengal
Cryptic- Various types of spiritual quests and secret physiology. People outside the community can rarely understand them because they work in an entirely secret frame of reference.
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