Kavigaan is a form of Bengali folk performance wherein folk poets sing and perform. It is generally performed in the form of duels, between two groups, who vie for the honour of being adjudged the best by a zamindar or a king.
Each group has a lead singer called kabiyal. The accompanying singers called dohars often repeat what the leader says. A kavigaan programme starts with bandana (evocation) or gurudeber geet (song of the sect patron). The bandana can be directed to or be in praise of Saraswati, Ganesh, the people, or the audience, as deemed fit by a particular kabiyal. This is followed by a Radha-Krishna-related song; some call it agamani. Then songs on four subjects are sung: sakhi sambad, biraha, lahar and kheur. Finally, the competitive part starts.
A kavigaan performance from the film Jaatishwar
History of Kavigaan
In his Banglar Kavigaan, Sajani Kanta Das said, “Kavigaan was born out of a synthesis of various art forms prevalent in different parts of Bengal at different times having peculiar names such as tarja, panchali, kheur, akhrai, half akhrai, full akhrai, danra kavigaan, basa kavigaan, dhap kirtan, tappa, Krishna jatra, tukkagiti, etc.” Various literary researchers such as Ishwar Chandra Gupta and Dr Harekrishna Mukhopadhyay have dwelt at length on the origins and development of kavigaan.
Dr Sushil Kumar Dey opines, “The existence of kavi songs may be traced to the beginning of the 18th century or even beyond it to the 17th; but the flourishing period of the kabiwalas was between 1760 and 1830.” As the religious and ritualistic content in Bengali poetry wore out, there was a tendency to break away from the traditional Vaishnava poetry but the real breakthrough came only with the introduction of the printing press in the mid-18th century. From the close of the 18th century for more than half-a-century, the new kavi-poetry and panchali reigned supreme in the Kolkata region and almost threatened to sweep everything else in literature. However, while kavigaan lost its supremacy in Kolkata, it retained its position in rural Bengal.
Dr Sushil Kumar Dey has a word of praise for the kabiyals, “These poets were, no doubt, born among the people (lowest classes), lived with the people and understood perfectly their ways of thinking and feeling; hence their direct hold upon the masses of whom many a modern writer is contentedly ignorant.”
The galaxy of kaviyals
A number of kabiyals attained popularity and fame. In Birbhum district alone there were about three hundred kabiyals from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Amongst the earliest were Gonjla Guin, born in the 18th century and his contemporaries: Lalu Nandalal, Raghu and Ramji. The famous 19th-century kabiyals of Kolkata were Haru Thakur, Nitai Vairagi, Ram Basu, Bhola Maira and Anthony Firinghee.
Some of the kabiyals in other parts of Bengal were Balahari Roy (1743-1849), Sambhunath Mondal (1773-1833), Tarakchandra Sarker (1845-1914), Haricharan Acharya (1861-1941), Ramesh Chandra Shil (1877-1967), Rajendranath Sarkar (1892-1974), Bijaykrishna Adhikari (1903-1985) and Nishikanto Raysarkar.
Mukunda Das, more popular as a charan kavi, was also a kabiyal. His character was featured in the popular Bengali film Balika Badhu, wherein the songs of Mukunda Das inspired the rural masses during the independence movement. Another famous kabiyal, Antony Firingee, a person of Portuguese origin, was featured in a Bengali biographical film bearing his name, with Uttam Kumar portraying him.
Charan kavi Mukunda Das
Bhola Moira (19th century) kabiyal was a popular and entertaining singer who could keep his audience mesmerised. Realising the importance of popular entertainment, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar complimented Bhola Moira and said, "To awaken the society of Bengal, it is necessary to have orators like Ramgopal Ghosh, amusing men like Hutom Pyancha and folk singers like Bhola Moira". Bhola Moira was also a biographical film.
Uttam Kumar as Antony Firingee, for which he won the National Film Award for best actor
Almost extinct, the spirit of kavigaan in Bengal has been restored to an extent by a film-maker Srijit Mukherji, who themed his film Jaatishwar on Hensman Antony, better known as Antony Firingee. Seamlessly merging 2013 with 19th-century Bengal through time travel, Mukherji brings to the celluloid the utterly fascinating story of an outsider's struggle to fit in, find love and acceptance. One hopes that films like these will rekindle the passion for folk music among the new generation Bengalis.
Prosenjit Chatterjee as Antony Firingee in Jaatishwar