Folk music of Bengal

Folk music of Bengal

February 24, 2014

The music of Bengal, or Bangla music, comprises a long tradition of religious and secular song-writing over a period of almost a millennium. Bengali music spans a wide variety of styles. Traditional Bengali music spans the music of both West Bengal and present-day Bangladesh, which share the same tradition.

Among the types of folk music prevalent in Bengal and Bangladesh are bhatiyali, shyama sangeet, kabigan, jarigan, sarigan, gazir gaan, bhawaiya, jhumur, kirtan and others.


Baul is perhaps the most popular and widely known folk music of Bengal. The songs are meant to find god within oneself and not to search for god in any temple or mosque. The lyrics are highly spiritual. Bauls, as the singers are called, are a very heterogeneous group, with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments – singers wearing saffron-coloured clothes, carrying the musical instrument, ektara, which has only one string. Lalon Fakir is regarded as the most important poet-practitioner of the baul tradition. Baul music had a great influence on Rabindranath Tagore's poetry and on his music. The influence of bauls on the culture of Bengal is considerable. In 2005, the baul tradition was included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Bauls have gone international as well. ‘Baul Samrat’ Purna Das Baul introduced baul to the West during an eight-month tour of the US in 1965 with stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner et al. Dubbed ‘India's Bob Dylan’ by New York Times in 1984, Purna Das Baul has also played with Gordon Lightfoot, Mahalia Jackson and others. Bapi Das Baul, an eighth generation baul artiste, with his troupe Baul Bishwa, has performed at the famous French theatre, Theatre de la Ville during the Musiques de Monde (The Music of the World) meet in Paris. He has also performed at several places around the world. Paban Das Baul and the British musician Sam Mills have collaborated to produce baul fusion music for a global audience.

Purna Das Baul, one of the most famous bauls


Bhatiyali music is generally created and sung by boatmen. It has a natural flair. Being a riverine musical tradition, it is popular throughout Bengal, the land of rivers. The word ‘bhatiyali’ comes from ‘bhata’ meaning ebb or downstream.

Though popular throughout, it is mostly sung in the Mymensingh district of Bangladesh by boatmen of the Brahmaputra. Bhatiyali lyrics are traditionally about boating, fishing and rivers. Notable collectors, composers and writers in the genre are Miraz Ali, Ukil Munshi, Rashiduddin, Jalal Khan, Jang Bahadur, Shah Abdul Karim and Umed Ali. Singer Abbasuddin made the genre popular, singing Amay bhashaili re, amay dubaili re and other popular numbers. In the 2000s, Malay Ganguly and Bari Siddiki are two most prominent bhatiyali singers.


Shyama sangeet

Shyama sangeet is a genre of devotional songs dedicated to the goddess Shyama or Kali. Kali is a form of the supreme universal mother-goddess, Durga. Hence, it is also known as shaktagiti or durgastuti. The word 'shyama', meaning dusky, refers to the skin color of Kali, who is usually depicted in black or deep blue.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, when Shaktism grew in Bengal, it inspired a number of poets to compose poems on Kali. Towards the middle of the 18th century, the poet Ramprasad Sen instilled new life into it and turned it into a distinct genre of Bengali songs. He was succeeded by a number of composers like Kamalakanta Bhattacharya, Rasikchandra Ray, Ramchandra Datta and Nilakanta Mukhopadhyaya. Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam have also composed poems of shyama sangeet.

Shyama sangeet can be divided into two streams: devotional or metaphysical, and Durgastuti, Umasangit, Agamani or Vijaya songs. The second category is based on themes of daily family matters or social events.

Shyama sangeet appeals to the common man because it is a musical representation of the relationship of eternal and sublime love and care between a mother and her child. It is free of the common rituals of worship and also of the esoteric practice of tantra (associated with Kali).

Ramprasad Sen


Kabigaan is a form of Bengali folk performance wherein folk poets sing and perform. It is normally sung by two groups, each being led by a kabiyal or sarkar. The accompanying singers, called dohar, repeat in chorus what the leader says A kabigaan programme starts with a bandana (song of evocation) called gurudeber geet (song of the sect patron). The bandana can be directed to or be in praise of gods and goddesses like Ganesh and Saraswati, as well as to people, and the audience, as deemed fit by a particular kabiyal. This is followed by a song on the Radha-Krishna theme, called agamani. Then follow songs on four subjects: sakhi sambad, biraha, lahar and kheur. Finally, the competition proper starts; this portion is called kabir larai (fight (as in competition) between poets). Two persons answer each other in the form of songs, which they themselves compose.

A number of kabiyals attained popularity and fame. Amongst the earliest were Gonjla Guin, Lalu-Nandalal, Raghu and Ramji. The famous 19th-century kabiyals of Kolkata were Haru Thakur, Nitai Vairagi, Ram Basu, Mukunda Das, Bhola Moira and Anthony Firinghee. Other famous kabiyals include Balahari Roy, Sambhunath Mondal, Tarakchandra Sarker, Haricharan Acharya, Ramesh Chandra Shil, Rajendranath Sarkar, Bijaykrishna Adhikari and Nishikanto Raysarkar.

Uttam Kumar famously enacted the role of Antony Firinghee


Jari or jarigaan is a kind of sad song. Its origin lies in the tragic events of Medina and Karbala (in present-day Saudi Arabia) and the death of Hazrat Imam Hassan and Hussain. The shia community of South Asia commemorates the events of Karbala in the month of Muharram by singing marsiyas or dirges in Urdu, which when sung in Bengali is called jarigaan. Today, singers of jarigaan are found especially in Mymenshingh district of Bangladesh. The origins of jarigaan may be traced back to the early 17th century in Bangladesh.

Pagla Kanai was a legendary poet famous for his jarigaan, to which he brought a new dimension. Jarigaan traditionally consisted of poetry written on the tragic stories of Karbala. However, Pagla Kanai successfully introduced other myths such as Radha-Krishna, Manashamangala, as well as contemporary social issues of his time and traditional baul music in his compositions. Through these, he has analysed Sufism, the meaning of life and other themes in his songs. In fact, he gave an aesthetic presentation of jarigaan, and subsequently earned a name in history. His songs were once very popular in many areas of Bangladesh including Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Tangail, Faridpur, Pabna, Jessore, Kushtia, Khulna and Barisal.

Pagla Kanai was the lead singer of a troupe. His itinerant group of singers included Kala Chand Bayati, Hakim Shah, Karim Biswas, Indu Biswas and Karamaddi. A lot of these songs have come down to us through the book of collections, Jari Gaan (1968), edited by another famous poet of Bangladesh, Jasimuddin. 

A statue of Pagla Kanai


Sarigaan is a traditional form of folk music in Bangladesh which is usually sung by boatmen to mitigate the tedium of their work. It has been modified to accompany various other activities, such as agricultural and construction works, which require mechanical rhythmic action. These songs are sung by groups of men and women with a lead singer and a chorus. The pace of the beat depends on the nature of the activity. For instance, the songs accompanying a boat race are necessarily fast-paced. The themes of the songs range from devotional to comical. 

Gazir gaan

Gazir gaan, or Gazi’s songs, was popular in the districts of Faridpur, Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet of Bangladesh. They were performed for boons received or wished for, such as for a child, after a cure, for the fertility of the soil, for the well-being of cattle, for success in business, etc. Gazi’s songs would be presented while unfurling a scroll depicting different events in the life of the Sufi saint, Gazi Pir. On the scroll would also be depicted the field of Karbala, the Ka’aba, Hindu temples, etc. Sometimes these paintings were also done on earthenware pots.

Gazi’s songs were preceded by a bandana or hymn of evocation, sung by the main singer. He would sing, ‘I turn to the east in reverence to Bhanushwar (sun) whose rise brightens the world. Then I adore Gazi, the kind-hearted, who is saluted by Hindus and Muslims’ (hence, a strain of secularism runs through these songs). Then he would narrate the story of Gazi’s birth, his wars with the demons and the evil spirits, as well as his rescue of a merchant at sea.

Scroll showing the saint Gazi Pir riding a tiger


Bhawaiya is a musical form popular in northern Bangladesh, especially Rangpur district, and in the districts of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, parts of Darjeeling and North Dinajpur in West Bengal, and Dhubri and Goalpara in Assam. The Kamtapuri language has traditionally been prevalent in these areas and so for the songs also the Kamtapuri language is used. This folk song is traditionally sung by the coachmen of bullock carts, and is sung both as solo and as chorus.

There are various viewpoints regarding the meaning of the word bhawaiya. According to one theory, the word comes from the word bhawa, or low-lying land with shrub and other vegetation, since buffalo-keepers used to sing this type of song while ploughing. According to other researchers, bhawaiya is derived from the word bawaiya which in turn is derived from bao, or breeze. As Abbasuddin, the famous singer and composer of bhawaiya songs, said, this type of song is like the random and pleasant wind blowing in northern Bengal and hence called bhawaiya. Again, according to a survey conducted by the government of West Bengal among the performers of bhawaiya songs, the name is derived from the word bhav. In the context of these songs, bhav refers to a deep feeling of love or melancholy feeling.

There are two types of bhawaiya songs. One expresses the tender feelings of love and separation of a young woman, or a mystic, and draws out the voice in melancholy notes. Popular songs of this type include Oki gariyal bhai (‘Hey, cart-driver’), Je jan premer bhav jane na (‘He who does not know the feelings of love’), Kon dyashe jan maishal bandure (‘Which country are you off to, oh buffalo rider, my friend?’), Nauton piritir baro jwala (‘New love is very painful’), etc. This type, however, can also be about the yearnings of a mystic and be spiritual in nature. Examples include Phande pariya baga kande re (‘The heron cries entrapped in a net’) and Chhar re man bhaver khela (‘O my mind, leave earthly games’),

The other type, called chatka, is comic and fast-paced, and depicts familial relationships. It is about expectations and ambitions, about conflicts between husband and wife as well as about the ups and downs of family life. A few examples are Ore patidhan bari chhariya na yan (‘O dear husband, please don't leave home’), Ore kainer myayar thashak beshi/ byaray shali tari tari (‘The girl who has a superior gait/ Goes roaming’), etc.

Abbasuddin Ahmed popularised bhawaiya songs all over Bangladesh. His daughter, Firdousi Rahman, and son, Mustafa Zaman Abbasi, are well-known contemporary singers of bhawaiya.

Bhawaiya singer Firdousi Rahman


Jhumur is a traditional dance form of Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh. The dance is performed by young girls. They are also accompanied by a few male members, who by and large maintain the rhythm with musical instruments and vocals. The dance is mostly performed in open places. The male members wear long traditional dresses and keep the rhythm with traditional instruments like drums, which are hung on shoulders, flutes and a pair of taal (cymbals). The girls mostly perform the dances, holding each other's waists and moving hands and legs forward and backward synchronously.

The dance gets its name from the cluster of bells worn round the ankles, which make a clanging noise. There are many variations of jhumur. The dance is sometimes performed sometimes as a ritual worship of gods and goddesses, sometimes for courting, and sometimes as a prayer for rainfall. This dance incorporates songs and dialogues, which depict the joys and sorrows, yearning and aspirations of the everyday lives of the common people. It is believed that jhumur was originally a means of recreation between phases of tedious agricultural work. Probably the most entertaining form of jhumur is bhaduria, performed as thanksgiving for a bountiful monsoon.

Jhumur dance


Kirtan is a call-and-response chanting performed in India's bhakti devotional traditions. Kirtan practice involves chanting padas or hymns in verses, taken from the works of the Vaishnava padakartas (verse-makers) to the accompaniment of instruments such as harmonium, tablas, the two-headed mridanga or pakhawaj drum and cymbals (karatalas). It is a major practice in Vaisnava devotionalism. Kirtan is sometimes accompanied by story-telling and acting. Texts typically cover religious, mythological or social subjects.

There are generally four main varieties of kirtan in Bengal, named after the places where they originated. Of the famous older kirtaniyas, as kirtan singers are called, Shibu of Kushtia is most widely known.

A picture depicting Chaitanya singing kirtan

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