The Music of Bangladesh: A Rough Guide | Songlines
Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Music of Bangladesh: A Rough Guide

By Ken Hunt

One of the subcontinent’s richest and most fertile grounds for folk, film, devotional and classical music


An exuberant Purna Das Baul (Jak Kilby)

In the popular imagination, the region known as Bangladesh and West Bengal is known for many things – a lot of them negative, due to disasters such as cyclones, flood and famine. But in cultural terms, it is one of the subcontinent’s richest and most fertile grounds for folk, film, devotional and classical music. Ken Hunt gives finds out more.

Note that this Rough Guide to World Music article has not been updated since it was originally published. To keep up-to-date with the best new music from around the world, subscribe to Songlines magazine.

Appropriately, the act that opened George Harrison’s famous Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971 featured the two most famous Bengali – or Bangla – musicians in the world, though few people in the West would have identified them as anything other than “Indian”. The piece that the sitarist Ravi Shankar and his brother-in-law, the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, performed was a Bengali dhun, or folk air. In the subsequent triple-album set and film, the piece was not given any specific name, simply given the generic title “Bangla Dhan”. That decision symbolized the region’s cultural commonalities rather than political divisions. A shared musical bedrock linked the Indian state of West Bengal and the emergent state of Bangladesh.

The region’s music can sound downright obscure to some listeners. Musicians across the continent are often labelled as “Indian” in a blanket sort of way, and outsiders rarely bother to differentitate between the particular regional roots. Relatively few people assciate the likes of Ali Akbar Khan or Ravi Shankar – and tranches of their music – with Bangla roots. Yet the region’s interwoven musical continuities – the folk, religious and classical traditions – have deeply influenced Bengali maestros of the calibre of Allauddin Khan, Nikhil Banerjee and Annapurna Devi.

Bangla music also permeates some of the most creative periods in twentieth-century film. The Bombay work of S.D. Burman, his son R.D. Burman and Hemant Kumar, and the art films of the celebrated filmmaker and composer Satyajit Ray (1921–92) often drew melodically or lyrically on traditional musical themes. And just as Tagore and Allauddin Khan were influenced by the songs of the Bauls of Bengal, so Bangla music informs the work of acts such as India’s Kailash Kher and Bagladesh’s Habib Wahid, and diaspora acts such as Joi, Zoe and Idris Rahman, State of Bengal, Arun Ghosh and Honey Hasan. Unlikely as it may sound, Bangla music has also shaped the creativity of, amongst others, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, The Band and the Kronos Quartet.

Bangladesh and West Bengal

When the Concert for Bangladesh benefit took place to generate relief funds for Bangladeshi refugees, the breakaway state of East Pakistan was still striving to throw off Pakistani shackles, fighting a war of liberation and singing Azam Khan’s songs of struggle. After Partition and self-rule in 1947, Bengal was divided into provinces along imprecise, though topographically useful, faith lines. The western part went to India and the eastern part joined Pakistan as a province called East Bengal –later renamed East Pakistan. The shared faith of Islam proved to be not enough of a glue for Bangladeshis. In late 1971 a much bloodied independent Bangladesh formally came into being after Indian armed forces intervened to tilt the balance and defeat Pakistani troops.

The word Bangladesh simply means “Bengal country” –much like the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh means “middle country”. West Bengal and Bangladesh have a mainstream culture in common which transcends the faith barrier of their dominant Hindu and Muslim faiths, and which revolves around the dominant language in cultural terms – namely Bengali or Bangla.

This eastern region of South Asia has an enduring and deserved reputation for its folk, literature and cultivated performing arts. Topographically, the region is varied. It has mountain and hill territories, marshland and forest, and many mighty rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Much of its musical character is riverine, with a strong tradition of work songs associated with particular livelihoods, such as those of the fishermen and boatmen – notably the shaari and bhatiyali (boatmen songs). Watery themes appear in Bengali film songs and in the music of the Bauls. Reflecting countless waves of settlement from prehistoric times, this heavily populated region is one of the most linguistically, religiously and ethnically diverse places on the planet.

Praise songs and Patriotic songs

During the twelfth century and thereafter the Hindu Vaishnava movement flourished. Vaishnavism focuses on the worship of Vishnu or his associated avatars, notably Rama and Krishna, and the tradition imbued a particular strain of poetry to Sanskrit and Bangla devotional texts. Out of this movement came Jayadeva, a court poet and composer whose texts focused on Radha-Krishna themes, the so-called Gita Govinda (Songs About Govinda) in which Govinda (like Kanu later) is an alternative name for Lord Krishna.

At the same time, the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism arrived and spread. It found favour to the extent that, right up to the present, the faithful may follow and accommodate twin Hindu and Muslim practices, much like how, in the northwest of the country, Sikhs may also have Hindu shrines in their households.

The next development was the evolution of another genre of kīrtan (Hindu devotional songs) on similar themes of love, surrender and devotion. Baru Chandidas created a devotional song-drama called Shri Krishna, a spiritual song “portfolio” dating back to the second half of the fifteenth century. Its importance is heightened by the fact that it constituted a major work in Bangla literature, as opposed to the Sanskrit canon. It brought about a flowering of devotional lyricism, a poetry that used music to take flight.

Cartwheeling down the years came a succession of Bangla musical forms based on praising Hindu deities and Sufi pirs (holy men). Notable among these musical forms were padāvali kīrtan, which concentrated on themes such as Radha-like everlasting love (Radha being the principal consort of Krishna) and shāktapaga sangeet, songs devoted to divinity symbols of the female creative force, especially the Goddesses extraordinaires Kali and Durga. Kali, whose name is at the root of Calcutta and Kolkata because of her famous temple in Kalighat, is, as Balraj Khanna points out in his book Kalighat: Indian Popular Painting 1800-1930, “a living presence” in the city.

Vaishnava themes also coloured the region’s folk entertainments such as putul-nāch (puppet dance), now in decline but a popular rural entertainment well into the second half of the twentieth century. In tandem with this, there was a number of popular manifestations of religious themes in folk-drama – jatra or yatra – themed on particular deities such as Candi (or Chandi), the serpent goddess Manasā and Kamala Kamini. Candi is a divinity that is an amalgamation of several mainstream Hindu and local deities, and that blurring pattern is repeated throughout this region with Hindu and pre-Hindu gods, summed up in the Bangla saying that in Bengal there are thirteen religious festivals for every twelve months of the year.

In contrast to the prevailing religiosity of previous musical forms, a wind of secularism blew in with the classical vocal form tappa, which re-visioned divine love through a romantic mortal prism. The tappa composer-musicians Nidhu Babu (a.k.a. Ramnidhi Gupta [1751–1839]) and Kalidas Chattopadhyay (1750–1820) showed the way forward and many others followed. New musical genres which emerged in the wake included Brahma sangeet (Brahma songs). During the period 1905 to 1911 an independence movement for self-rule blossomed and a genre of patriotic songs called swadesi gaan became massively popular. New urban musics arose in which fixed composition rather than extemporised spontaneous creativity, of the interpretative raga kind, was favoured. By 1868, India was being portrayed as a weeping woman under foreign rule in a Dwijendranath Tagore song.

Songs of the “Madmen” – the Bauls

One of the most remarkable of all the subcontinent’s folk traditions traces its roots to the time of the de facto Hindu Reformation. Like the Christian Reformation, the Bhakti (Devotion) movement unfurled over centuries. Fundamental questions about faith and religiosity, Brahminical doctrine and malpractice were asked. Tantric Buddhist and Sufi thought provided fresh angles from which to view Hinduism and its practices – whether to do with varna (Hinduism’s four castes and the bulk of humanity beneath them) or the control-freak aspects of Brahmanism. This melting-pot of ideas created the Baul philosophy of how to behave, how to view life and how to ponder greater truths and dominions beyond the sword. And in its utter, unapologetic “Bengaliness”, it profoundly coloured the greatest Bengali writer and thinker of historic times, Rabindranath Tagore.

The Bauls are a mystical brotherhood of wayfaring minstrels, at pains to sidestep society’s conventions and religious orthodoxies. Theirs is a syncretic philosophy: they borrow from mystical Hinduism, Islam and Tantric Buddhism. They search for maner manush – the “man of the heart”, or the ideal within us – and strive for ecstatic communication with the divine while dispensing with any need of God or gods. With a typically contrary logic, the Bauls describe their path as ulta, meaning “reverse” or “the wrong way round”. They have no scripture or doctrine in any conventional sense. Baul philosophising is in many ways as patchwork as their garb.

Parallel and interchangeable bodies of song reflect their mystical Hindu or Sufi origins and often the historical faith allegiances of the individual Baul. In this last respect, the quip goes, in a riot a Baul knows which direction to run.

The Bauls’ name is said to derive from batul, the ancient Sanskrit for “wind” or “mad” from which, incidentally, English ultimately obtains the word “aubergine”. The unorthodoxy of the Baul faith is not dissimilar to Sufism; the Bauls describe themselves as “mad about the soul of God within [themselves]” and seek mystical union with the divine through ecstatic singing and dance. Female Bauls sing and dance in public alongside the men, indicative of their equal status.

Typically they accompany their songs with the dotara lute, the khamak (a hollow tension drum with one or two strings attached that allows the pitch to be changed whilst playing and slithery percussive effects), the ektara (a one-string drone instrument often played by mendicant holy men) and assorted percussion such as the trademark napur (ankle rattles). They promenade with sashaying steps, pirouetting or dancing in tight, concentric circles as they sing.

Actually, many Bauls have long adopted settled lifestyles with generations living in villages or following the more meditative tradition of the akhra (religious centre) which by its very nature implies a sedentary rather than an itinerant life. This reflective Baul approach is reflected well on Shāhjahān Miah’s highly recommended Chants Mystiques Bâuls du Bangladesh (1992).

With free abandon Baul repertoire takes from historical, reforming poet-philosophers such as Kabir and Lalon Fakir as well as adding and updating as they go. Songs with many levels of meaning are handed down from guru to shishya (student); they come cloaked with the deceptive simplicity of nursery rhymes or children’s songs. Prosaic images conceal aphorism and present paradox. “I am blind, I cannot see the darkness”, goes one song. In another, a light bulb refers to deeper illumination. An airport’s runway is used as a metaphor for a spiritual path; the jackfruit’s sticky juice stands for higher love. For those who don’t understand the words, it’s the music that connects. To appreciate the Bauls’ non-conformity – at least on a surface level – you need only see a live performance.

Rabindranath Tagore

One of the people whose life was transformed by Baul thought was Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). The Bard of Bengal, he became Asia’s first Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1913 and composed songs that were adopted as national anthems of both India (1911’s “Jana Gana Mana”) and Bangladesh (1906’s “Amar Shonar Bangla”). For Tagore, the Bauls were a culturally rich signpost to the true path. Although Tagore grew up in a privileged family, he also grew up in questioning era in which the arts played a huge role.

In many ways, Tagore was the modern age. When the singer Pankaj Mullick (1905–78) tentatively contacted him about including his work in a film – it included a setting by Mullick of one of Tagore’s poems – Tagore responded enthusiastically. He proffered further material for inclusion and even suggested the name for the film. It became Mukti (1937), in which Mullick also sang, acted in and was director of music. Mullick’s work in Mukti presented Tagore’s lyricism to a new cinema-literate generation and, with the magic wand of technology, Tagore’s influence expanded exponentially in pre-Partition India. Then and now, Tagore represents something more. He is the living breath of Bangla nationhood and even has a song form named after him – Rabindra sangeet. Tagore is an icon about as core to the Bengali experience as it is possible to imagine.

Bangla Music for Modern Times

Tellingly, Tagore was open-minded enough to really listen to Narbani Das Baul sing and talk at Santiniketan near Bolpur, about 180 kilometres north of modern-day Kolkata. He used Narbani Das Baul’s Baul melodies too, setting new words to old tunes. In so doing he transformed perceptions and Bangla arts. His acknowledgment of the cultural importance of the Bauls was transformative, a vindication of Bengal’s folk traditions and a signal that it was perfectly in order to treat Baul songs and dhuns as worthy.

Narbani’s son, Purna Das Baul (Purnachandra, or “Full Moon”, in full) was born in Ekchakka village, near Rampurhat in West Bengal during the springtime Holi mela – the Festival of Colours – in 1933. Nobody ever did more to further the acceptance of Baul culture in the wider world. The Indian government officially anointed Purna Das Baul the Baul Samrat (Emperor of the Bauls). Around 1967, thanks to nudging by Allen Ginsberg, awareness of the Bauls blossomed. Purna Das was one of the two Bauls – the other was his brother, Luxman Das – flanking Bob Dylan on the cover of John Wesley Harding, while an ecstatic image of Nabani Das appeared on the cover of Bengali Bauls at Big Pink, a recording by Garth Hudson of The Band. The family’s musical lineage is unbroken today – Purna Das’ son Bapi Das Baul is creating new music in a traditional Baul vein with his group Baul Bishwa, as well as DJing.

Diaspora acts have revisited Tagore’s material, such as the paean to the Bengali motherland “O Amar Desher Mati”, that clarinettist Arun Ghosh (of Bengali and Sindhi ancestry) performed on his 2008 album Northern Namaste. Brother-and-sister piano-and-clarinet team Zoe and Idris Rahman (of a Bengali and English family) have reinterpreted Tagore’s “Auld Lang Syne”-like “Purano sei” and Gauri Majumder and Hemanta Mukherjee’s “O Nodi Re” on their Where Rivers Meet (2008). It’s no wonder Messrs Khan and Shankar were perfectly at ease beginning that concert at New York’s Madison Square Gardens all those years ago with a simple Bangla folk air.

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