Country tunes




Folk songs, in general, can be lyrical and subjective. They, however, do not convey the psychological intricacies of the sophisticated elite. Nevertheless, they reveal the feelings and sentiments of the common people, their deprivation and struggles, anguish and bitterness, torments and anger in a simple and straightforward manner. The stanzaic form of a folk song is usually four to six lines. The first part moves in a refrain and the musical pattern of a folk song generally consists of verse repetition. This often maintains the pattern of tri-, tetra- and pentatonic scales.

The folk literature and music of Bengal consist mainly of songs. There is a lot of discussion and material on folk-literature, but the music is generally spoken of less. Excepting a few tunes in Bengal folk music, most of the other items are monotonous. Tunes are generally limited to the notes of half an octave, sometimes pentatonic or else confined to two to four notes only.

The impact of various religious thoughts produced folk cult of different types. The Vaishnava cult including keertan, has influenced many folk songs. There is also a remarkable influence of Sakta music, Ram prasadi, Agamam, etc. Islamic faith has also produced quite a member of songs in the villages of East Bengal. Baul is a special musical type which is a mixture of Vaishnavism and Sufism. The two Bengals (East and West) are regions where folk music composition had multi forms, the ideas and patterns of tunes being mostly distributed and exchanged at different levels.

The other remarkable feature is the individual developments of Bhatiali, a type of folk music free from religious and sectarian bias. This particular type of music influenced the various groups of songs of the eastern and northern sectors of Bengal. The original musical melody of the riverine districts of the then East Bengal was spontaneous and melancholic in nature. Bhatiali slowly captured the hearts of the people and spread all over Bengal and even outside. Besides these, devotional songs of various religious sects, songs of folk parties, work-songs and narratives, ceremonial or seasonal community songs, dance and tribal songs are prevalent.

The Folk songs of Bengal may be classified as being:

  • Emotional and Secular

  • Religious or Sectarian like Baul, Vaishnava and Sakta

  • Occasional, ceremonial and occupational, like festival songs (Parvageeta), marriage songs, etc.

The first type is solo and spontaneous in character. The second type, solo or chorus, grew out of religious cults, while the third one, a set of solo or chorus, is generally born of social impact. The first two types of songs maintained distinct development in tune and rhythm. The 3rd type is a medley of tunes. Most of the second and third types of songs are accompanied by percussion instruments.


Musical Patterns in Bengal folk music


The musical structure of Bhatiali, Bhaoaia and Baul are classed as the standard music of the popular type. Songs have been collected and popularised, notations made available and tunes have infiltrated in common music, film tunes and lyrical songs of the poet-composers.

Bhatiali is a standard folk music of urban type popularised greatly within half a century. Its subject matter with specific themes, based on definite form of tune and mode of performance, is familiar to a section of composers and artistes of the urban areas. Bhatiali literally means a song of the boatman going down the stream. It is a music of the wide field where the singer just sings and where the presence of no listener is presumed. He starts at once with an exclamation of endearing poignancy, addressed to his love at a distance in the high pitch-note and gradually descends over the seven notes until the tune stops at a point. A simple and plain voice with full throated ease can create wonder in this type of song. Bhatiali is generally described as a sad tune. Originally it was not supposed to be accompanied on musical instruments. The use of Dotara, the string instrument now played with strokes or strummings, making for a few combinations of notes for accompaniment to Bhatiali, Bhaoaia and other types of songs, is a stage in the evolution of this music.

North Bengal (Rajsahi and Cooch-Behar) music, namely, Bhaoaia, is but a variety of Bhatiali tune. Bhaoaia is sometimes called a song on Dotara. Both Bhatiali and Bhaoaia are free from religious bias. These songs depict longings and pathos of love and some other similar feature like those of relationship of the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law and so on. Therefore, softness and gracefulness are some of the important features exposed in the tune.

One of the most colourful, rhythmic songs of the Bhatiali group is Sari, sung during boat-race in East Bengal. The song is initiated by a leader standing in the midst of a party of boatmen pulling the oar on the water with beats. Series of sounds in water with rhythmic strokes on the flanks of the boat in a quick tempo. They repeat the leader’s loud song in chorus along with beats. Series of sounds in water and on the boat-side get mixed up with occasional yelling. The subject-matter of Sari is a down-to-the earth thing.

As regards the structure of Bhatiali tune, it may be explained in terms of two modes; firstly, it is in Bilawal That. This means the music starts from the note F (m) of the higher octave with address or exclamination and gradually descends to the lower notes in a drawl. Secondly, the tune starts from the top C (Sa) and D (Re) and gradually descends over the notes of the middle octave in a similar manner to the tonic C (Sa) and then it gradually goes down to the lower octave below tonic C and finally, touching B flat (n) the tune would stop at A (Da) of the lower octave. In the latter case the tune belongs to Khamaj That. For use of the notes below C (Sa) and for some other characteristics the tune is considered to be Raga Jhinjhoti familiar in Bengal. Suresh Chandra Chakraborty refers to the latter as raga Kasauli-jhinjhit.

Thus, the tune on the medium and top octaves represent feature of composition of basic notes of Bilwal and appears to be a blending of ragas like Behag-Pahadi-Jhinjhoti etc. On the whole, it does not satisfy the condition of the structure of a raga. Therefore, Bhatiali maintains an individuality of its own in tune pattern. The alankara-s (graces) include a few groups of trembling notes which look like Taans, may be these are in tune conformity with certain Tappa Taans, spontaneously developed. Sources of these are not know. If the old run of the tune and its local peculiarities are examined, then it would be conceded that Bhatiali was not influenced byTappa or vice versa. A Geetkari, as used in most medieval music, is used in many types of songs as the only decorative element.

Bhatiali has extended its influence on all types of songs of East and North Bengal. Further, its influence on the rhythmic-patterns of various music-types of those regions is manifest. Some rhythmic patterns and stray fragments of tunes are combined to build songs in full. Occassional break in the voice and in syllables of words, pronounced with rhythmic break in tune, make these songs colourful. Bhatiali was brought to the metropolis roughly by 1930s and some songs were composed in the same mould. Later Abbasuddin Ahmed, Sachin Deb Burman, Girin Chakraborty and some other folk singers introduced Bhatiali - Bhaoaia tunes in popular music. After 1947 singers from East Bengal have stationed themselves in Calcutta. All sections of Bhatiali have been widely popularised through commercial records and radio. But personal touch-up on the original tunes by artistes produces distortion in the form. Singers often lack the sense of the need to preserve original of local colour. This is no doubt harmful to the form of music.

Another form of folk music which influenced the general lyrical songs of Bengal was Baul. It is a sectarian type of composition arising out of a peculiar religious faith, which has its principal expression in songs only. The Baul-lyrics attracted the poets of Bengal because of their simplicity of expression, use of common phrases and common imageries. The Baul sects maintain God or the Lord to be the husband of beings with whom one should unite and get supreme satisfaction of revelation, the world and the life being unreal and deceptive. The conception was mingled with Gurubad (master worship) at a later period. This means that there should be a master of Guru who would act as the medium between the Lord and devotee. The poetic language used for this mystic faith sung in common rural tune in swinging rhythmic patterns. Some of the songs which address ‘Guru’ have become popular for the mode of expression, tune and metre. Baul-song is known to have extended its features in songs like Dehatattva (significance of this bodily existence), Marfarti, Murshidya Sariyati and Hakiyati - all a blending of Islamic faith.

Bauls have two sections. The classification is made in respect of their religious faith and the nature of songs:

(1) The Muslim Bauls-the music of the Faqir or the minstrel;

(2) Vaishnava Bauls which are again classified into: (a) Navadwipi group (belonging to Chaitanya-Vaishnavism as at Navadwip) and (b) Radh group (belonging to the western part of the river Bhagirathi).

The types of composition and method of musical performance of these groups differ in nature and colour. The songs are differently influenced by some Bhatiali group of tunes, popular ragas like Behag-Khamaj group and Bhairavi and typical tunes from keertan-music. The nature of presentation, the rhythmic elements and the composition give them a distinctive identity. Some of the tunes and the rhythmic patterns of Baul songs were widely utilised by Rabindranath Tagore in his songs. This attracted notice of other composers of Bengal. Bauls find the most perfect bliss in a complete projection of their thoughts and philosophy in tune and mode of performance in dance style. Tunes, remarkable in their simplicity of devotional expression, are inseparable from the dance movements of a true Baul. Some sections of singers are peculiarity known for their throwing of voice to the top-notes. The tunes utilised in Baul conform to the patterns common with Bhatiali in the first instance. Secondly, there are tunes in ragas Bhairavi and Bilawal type which are also familiar. Bauls are seen to use varied types of instruments like Khamak and Dotara.

The third group of the songs may be classified as folk music based on mere recitation in tune. These are sometimes partial exposition of some notes in monotonous rhythmic design. It may be observed that Tala or rhythm makes the basic support of the recital of these tunes. Somewhere drumming and metal percussion accompaniment constitute the major show with vocal recitals. Ceremonial music is sometimes covered by a few continuous notes presented in a singsong manner. Lullaby of every country gives the same impression of solo hum-music.

Of all other types, Gambhira is a group-song of Malda district consisting of some dance elements in it. It takes place during Chadak festival in the month of March-April. The big durm Dhak is sometimes used as the principal accompanying instrument and the song, sung in eulogy of Lord Siva, produces an unearthly atmosphere. Tunes are loud and coarse having no variations. Jhumur of Purulia is a peculiar musical expression influenced by Vaishnava faith and some external tribal features are found to be combined with it. Some swinging notes, two or three together, make it colourful. Bhadu, more or less a ceremonial distinction to a story of popular appeal. It combines some of the peculiar tunes imported from Bihar. Similar is Tusu, festival-song of the western part of the river Bhagirathi sung by womenfolk in December-January. The tune-patterns in fragment are joined together making these a complete whole.

For comprehension of folk music of Bengal the different aspects of tunes to be noticed are the models of some phrases simply formed by a combination of a few notes of almost similar nature as utilised partially in ragas like Bilawal, Behag, Khamaj, Behag-Khamaj, Jhinjhoti, Pahadi, Maund, Bhairavi, Piloo, Kafi, Kalingada, Bibhas etc. We refer to these ragas for proper understanding of the nature of phrases. It should be remembered that these phrases, similar to those of base parts of Bilawal group, upper part of Khamaj group and middle portions of Kafi and Kalingada groups, do not indicate the true character of the ragas in any way. It is not also of any use to connect musical forms of these folk songs with raga sangeet excepting some references to That-s or portions of ragas as appear in the songs. As folk song is plain and spontaneous, it is futile to discern in it an element of direct connection with ragas. Influences, if any, were sporadic.

A Prabhati-sangeet or a rural morning-hymn may represent a few phrases from the Bhairav That or raga Kalingada performed in a monotonous manner, but such individual composition should be considered as an item of sporadic type having nothing to do with the conception of these raga frames. It might be that there was same influence of a raga somewhere in the past. Similar is the case of raga Bibhas often referred to be in use in folk song. A raga does never take shape in a few fixed and monotonous patterns. As a raga delelops, it moves, it creats variations. Combinations of some group-notes do not make a raga. A folk singer is generally ignorant of raga forms. The name of the tunes goes by the type of the songs which represents a locality or a sect or grup. So, for folk music, it is idle to established any relationship with raga music, as is often done. 


Musical instruments used in Bengali folk music


In most of these songs the use of percussion instrument has beeen a predominant feature and the nature of these accompanying instruments differ in size, sound-production and nature of music. It is observed that Tal and the rhythmic swing of different types produce a phase of musical satisfaction in rural people. The mode of the use percussion instruments is the most significant feature of folkmusic.

The biggest drum, Dhak, one of the oldest instruments of Bengal is made of big wooden-shell having two parchment heads tightened by leather straps, and is hung on the shoulder slantingly when played. Its peculiar use in Bengal denoting the festivals of Saiva and Sakta type perhaps justifies the tremendous volume of sound befitting such uproarious occasions. The instrument is thus as old as the Sakta festivals. Therefore, its loud play by two light and thin sticks on one side has developed a technical method imitating all possible Tals of quick tempo. When it is played, the accompanying strokes on a metal plate, known as Kangsya or Kansar, reinforces the Tal with an equal effect of a metallic pitch. Dhak is used in major Sakta or Saiva religious ceremonies even today. In the olden days, the master-Dhak (Dhak player) used to be sumptuously remunerated during the worship of Goddess Durga. Dhak players would decorate the Dhak with features and make swinging dance-like movements while playing. This percussion instrument is hardly used with vocal music excepting in cases of dance-cum-vocal recital like Gajan of Malda and such other items.

The Dhol happens to be the most important of the percussion instruments used in folk music as well as the oldest of the useful percussion instruments of Bengal. Dhol has developed a brilliant technique of its use in different types of items - loud or moderate. The wooden-shell or medium type has two parchment-heads as played by hand on the left side and by a small stick on the right. The two sides are tightened by leather straps and a heavy tope helps it to be hung around the neck. Dhol is not a mere accompanying instrument of the music of the villages. It has been widely used with song and music of Panchali-parties and other narratives since the early days. Dhol was raised to the status of a skilled percussion instrument of technical type played with the Kavi songs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Often Kansar (Kangsya) is seen to be used as accompaniment for metallic rhythm of Tal. Connoisseurs of music used to take a fancy to expert Dhol-playing in their parlours. It is a singularly prominent solo-playing instrument in the rural areas and was accompanied to the rural imitation - Shehnai, especially in marriage festivals of East Bengal mainly.

Khol, widely used in a variety of folk songs, was originally borrowed from keertan. Bengal hols are clay-shells of cylindrical type, laced all around the body by leather straps, the head parchment being pasted with heavy vellum of iron filling. Khol of Manipur is known as Poong. Its shell is made of wood. As we know, the metal instrument (plates) utilised mainly is Kartal or cymbal, though cymbals of different size and shape are also in use. It has been claimed that Khol is basically a non-folk percussion instrument though used in folk music and light music of today (see earlier Padavali keertan). In Tagore music and in some other modern devotional music Khol is extensively utilised.

Khanjari is one of the handy instruments of high round wooden frame with jingle-plates attached to the frame like miniature tambourine played by hand, popular all over India esecially with Oriya and Hindi devotional folk songs and less utilised in Bengali folk songs.

Gopi Jantra or Ananda Lahri is a most peculiar instrument used for swinging rhythmic patterns with various vibrations produced by strokes on a string fixed on the parchment at the base. It produces vibrations and sound effects in drone by pressing of fingers on the bamboo body fixed on gourd shell. Similar is the instrument named as Khamak or Gubguba which does not contain the bamboo top, instead the string tied to a tuning peg on the upper end is held by hand the string is plucked when strokes are produced on it. It gives similar resonating effect of rhythm. The two are most useful instruments of the Bauls.

Ektara, the one-stringed popular instrument of different size made of gourd-rind or wood with one side open-some-what fork shaped or Vina-type, produces a drone of the base-note in songs.

The Bauls of the western bank of the Hoogly river play Banya by one hand suggestively. This scene is considered to be of a relatively later origin. They tie it with the waist-line and dance softly for expression of rhythmical feeling contained in the songs, rhythm being on Banya.

With every percussion instrument, as already mentioned, use of cymbals of different sizes (named Kat-kartal, Jhanjhar, Kansar, Mandira, Gini) is a common practice for providing accompaniment. On the whole, folk music (excepting the original Bhatiali and some indoor items and narratives) is incomplete without an accompaniment of instrument for Tal.

In most places the tunes are even neglected because people are primarily interested in the zest of the rhythm. Thus the usage of accompanying string-instrument like Dotara and other types was devised in course of the development of the sense of melody. Dotara is made of a single wood with a hollow that is covered by a skin (maybe,  the skin of an iguana) and a bridge is placed on it, over which four strings run from the top-peg to the bottom. It is played with a plectrum at the bottom and strummed on the extended-flat by the left-finger-tips. The quivering tonic note along with stroke on 3rd or 4th or 5th note is produced along with rhythmic-patterns. This instrument must have originated in the eastern part of East Bengal and and must have later been carried to North Bengal.

Sarinda, the instrument facing extinction now, is an indigenous imitation of Sarangi-cum-Violin and is played with a bow made of horse-tail hair. It is a short sized instrument made of a single wood, its belly being hollowed and covered partially by a skin. The three strings of Sarinda with three notes, tied to the top-keys over the extended thin-flat upwards and placed on a bridge down, are played at a high pitch.

As for wind instruments, bamboo flutes and wooden flutes are very commonly used by tribal and hill people. Accompaniment on flute to songs was a rare practice. It has now been taken up as a major instrument for accompaniment with folk songs produced by experts as a piece of finished music. Spectacular dance with music of Santals on flute and accompaniment to songs was perhaps a later feature. Various types of Madal, the percussion instrument used by Santals and other tribes, have also been in use in some folk songs of West Bengal.

The influences of raga music from a distance had helped people ultimately to choose Sarinda, flutes, Dotara, Tabla and Banya for accompaniment. The atmosphere of folk music is primarily produced by the various rhythmic expressions of particular type. So far as the rhythm patterns are concerned, Khemta, Dadra, Dothuki, Karfa, Thumri (rural type) and Lofa with different types of swings constitute the most popular form of Tal. There are also combinations of bars composed of 5 and 7 beats (Jhamp tal and Jat) as used in keertan.

S Sowmya


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