Folk Music of Bengal
Aditi Banerji (India)
M.A. M.Phil. (Music), Ph. 022-26311414, 26161924, <>

Bengal is very rich in its folk culture, be it music, dance, drama, poetry, etc. There are many variants in the folk music of Bengal, to name some popular forms – Bhawaiya, Gambhira, Baul, Bhatiyali, Chatka and Keertan.

There was something called “poddo gaan” or poetry singing, which was so popular that, old people, while telling stories used to sing in verses in between the story telling – something similar to the singing of ballads in English and other European music. They had limited swar patterns and were based on a taal or rhythm, which created a variation and interesting presentation in the form of singing poetic verses in tune while telling a story, thus used to be called “poddo gaan”. In the village based life of Bengal, the city life did not influence the folk traditions of the village.

The popular “Jatra” – Folk Theatre – music and “Kirtan” – Devotional Song, used to be based on ragas. There were different types of songs, which are for solo singing and others for singing in groups.

Apart from the popular folk songs like Bhawaiya, Gambhira, Baul, Bhatiyali and Chatka, there were other varieties like “Saari Gaan” (which were songs sung by labourers and boatmen), “Jaari Gaan” (mersia songs sung by Muslims of East Bengal now known as Bangladesh), “Jhumur” sung by “Santhal” tribals of West Bengal. These compositions have a difficult format. Apart from these, there were “Karam Geet”, “Patua Geet”, “Gajan Geet”, “Panchali Geet”, “Dhua Gaan”, “Gajir Geet”, “Dehatatva Geet”, “Alkap Geet”, “Bolan Geet”, “Agomoni Geet”, “Baromasi Geet”, etc.

These are practiced by people of different sects, castes and sections of society, which we get in the popular folk songs, sung by different sections of the society.

Bhawaiya songs originated in Cooch behar area of Bengal. These songs are usually based on “Viraha rasa” and describe the feelings of the “Naayika”, who is waiting for her beloved. Traditionally, the dotara – is played alongwith these songs. The word Bhawaiya has originated from the word “Bhav”. The word “Bhava” means shepherd – who takes the cattle to graze. “Waao” means strong breeze – which helps in the musical sound to reach to us from afar. Bhawaiya songs are women centric or themes revolving around a woman’s life. However, these are mostly composed and sung by men. Some musicologists believe that Bhawaiya Geet or song is for the detached person i.e. a “Vairagi” person. These realistic compositions never fail to touch one’s heart.

The “Viraha Geet” or loneliness of separation described in a song in which the tune pattern is in a descending order and are called “Sitaan Bhavaiya”. These rhythmic songs having an ascending order of swar patterns resembling the sound created by the “Dotara” (2 stringed folk instrument) were called “Shirol Bhawaiya”. The song having a long verse, which is sung in one breath is called “Dariya – o – dighaal naasa bhawaiya”.

A song in which a woman narrates her woes is called “Gadaan Bhawaiya”.

A song sung by a shepherd riding a buffalo, in rhythm with the footsteps of the cattle is called “Maisali Bhawaiya”.

The above classification of Bhawaiya songs are as described by Harishchandra Pal.

Bhawaiya songs are mostly based on raga khamaj i.e. they use komal N usually. The structure of some of these songs often resembles the aaroha – avaroha of the ragas Pahadi & Jhinjhoti. The tune pattern is in a broken form and not a constant or a prolonged note. The pronunciation is rough and rustic and the tune pattern is in descending order, i.e. the tunes starts on high notes and descends down to lower notes. This note pattern is similar to Baul & Bhatiyali.

The rhythms of these songs vary from other folk songs, which creates a distinctive identity of these songs. They are usually based on four beats, however we find taals with three beats in a division also in these songs. We find variables of the Khemta Taal in some of these songs. Some Bhawaiya songs are sung without taal in Vilambit Laya, which would suit the theme and the lyrics of the songs.

The songs of the fisherman or the boatman community of East Bengal are called Bhatiyali and the people living on the sea coast sing Bhawaiya songs. Likewise, the fisherfolk of North Bengal (the region bordering Bihar & Bengal) living on the river banks sing Bhawaiya along with the dance.

In the northern part of Bengal a folk festival by the name of “Gambhira” is celebrated in worship of Lord Shiva. There are different opinions about the origin of the festival and its songs.

Some consider it country music or “Deshaj Sangit ”, while others trace its origins to Dravidian, Tibetan, or Chinese origin.

“Gambhari” is the name of a tree which is worshipped through the ages in rural Bengal. The word “Gabhasthi” is referred to Lord Surya or Angi’s wife – Swaha. This is an annual religious festival of Bengal, where dances and music are considered of great importance. The traditional folk music of North and West Bengal differ from “Gambhira”, although it is considered a folk song of Bengal.

“Gambhira” songs describe the problems of day to day living, usually. The contents of the Jatras, “Panchali” songs and “Kobigaan” related to Gambhira keep changing from time to time, following the changed life of people. The Gambhira songs can be placed between modern and traditional style of compositions.

“Gambhira” Music Festival is celebrated during the months of March and April, during the period of “Chaitra Sankranti” in the rich and prosperous regions of Bengal, The celebrations comprise of various forms of dance accompanied by a large orchestra. The tune of Gambhira is unique, however, the theme being devoted to Lord Shiva, the compositions are devotional. The singers improvise by adding their own lyrics and tunes, which are usually based on contemporary subjects and themes and set to popular tunes.

In the earlier days, only traditional folk forms of music and dance were popular as Gambhira music. Later on this transformed into Gajon songs and received popularity in south Bengal. In “Gambhira” songs, the shiva stuti is presented in a satirical manner, which we commonly find in the songs of northern and western India and sung during “Shiva ratri”.

Before the partition of Bengal, the people of East Bengal used to celebrate “Kalikak” festival and perform the “Har – Gouri” dance. The song to which these dances used to be performed was a type of “Gambhira” song.

“Gambhira” is sometimes referred to as “gajon”, but the musical form, theme and expression [bhav] of “Gambhira” was different. Amongst the folk traditions of Bengal “Gajon” is considered a very important religious festival, whereas the popularity of “Gambhira” is limited to as far as Malda district of Bengal. Five days before the last day of the month of Chaitra (mid April), people start with arrangements for the Gambhira song and dance festival. Various festivals and rituals comprising of short and long folk musical theatres or like “tamasha” and “Hanuman mask dance” accompany the Gambhira festival. The Dhak or big wooden drum and other folk instruments are usually played. The listeners derive great pleasure from the description of Lord Shiva’s virtues and vices. Lord Shiva is considered the head of the village clan and worshipped and respected. The good and bad deeds of the people of the village are reported to him, in the form of Gambhira songs.

There are some folk festivals celebrated in Bengal called “Shiv gajon” and “Dharma gajon”, which are branches or off shoots of the Gambhira festival. Just like the devotees of Shiva, there were also devotees of “Dharma” (Religion) and prayed to Lord Dharmaniranjan”.

According to the Buddhists, Lord Buddha is considered a form of ancient Dharma. Other gods and goddesses were not included in these folk traditions. In a way – the “Chhau” dance form seems to be an inspiration from the Gambhira folk tradition. People in search of religion and religious beliefs worshipped Dharma – the nirakaar or formless god.

“Adya Shakti” – i.e. goddess Kali emerged from Dharma. In Gajon songs Dharma and Adya are worshipped.
Three styles of Gambhira & Gajon style of music were being created on Adi Buddha, Surya and Shiva - however in the modern times, Gambhira and Gajon styles of music are also being created on other gods and goddesses.

Baul music pertain to a style of music which is spontaneous and reflects the life and circumstance of man in his local surroundings. Baul is a community of people and the songs sung by them are called Baul. The Baul community belong to the Sahajiya Sampradaya of sadhus to which Chaitanya Mahaprabhu belonged. However, they are not from the Vaishnav community and are totally different from the Vaishnavites. They have some influence of Buddhism but are not followers of any particular religion and are somewhat akin to followers of Sufism. After the influence of Buddhism faded away, the yogis of Sahajaya Sampradaya took over, an hence the Baul songs have themes of “Atma Siddhi”, which has two meanings – one is apparently simple, though the other is deep spiritual thought i.e. God being one’s closest friend and who is in one’s heart or Atma. The Baul songs and singers are very popular in Bengal and is practiced in most villages in Bengal, however, the Bauls of Birbhum district are unique and have a distinctive style.

The themes of these songs are mostly spiritual, social and symbolic in their content. Baul singers usually have great presence of mind to act on a situation spontaneously, hence if given a topic by the audience they create a song on the topic and sing it like Aashu Kavi. Along with the full throated rendition of the songs the Bauls dance steps and “Mudras” mesmerize the audience. Baul songs and singers are popular all over Bengal, in particular the Bauls of Birbhum district are special and unique in their style. Bauls seek fulfillment in divine union and for them the satisfaction of their basic vital needs is superseded by their spiritual goal. The knowledge of the Bauls come from the teachings of the Guru, from faith, introspection and intuition. The knowledge that he acquires in the course of his Sadhana (meditation) and the Baul conveys it to others through his songs.

– have long flowing hair and beard, and wear a lungi (sarong like) with a long gown. They usually use the instruments like Khamak, Gopiyantra, Ghungroo, – Ektara - the Gubgubbi the Dubdubbi - the Manjira (cymbals) - and the Dotaara . The ektara is most popular in western Bengal, especially Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia districts. The Dotara or sarinda is most widely used in the northern districts of Dinajpur and Malda district. In the eastern districts both the Ektara and Dotara are used.

Dancing to the song is not an essential aspect of the presentation of Baul songs. It is the expression of the theme or the lyrics and poetry which is enacted by hand and foot movements and gestures with a catchy rhythm.

The Baul singers hold the “Gopi yantra” in one hand, tie the “Dubdubbi” on his waist and the “Ghungroos” on his feet. The singer taps his foot to create a sound of the Ghungroos and sing in a full throated voice to express the contents of the song. Some of the songs are based on the Bhairavi raga of Hindustani classical music, which is not very common in other folk songs.

Vaishnav Baul is generally linked to central part of Bengal, where suring the 18th and 19th centuries, saint poets popularized Shyama sangit or Kali kirtans which influenced the Baul songs of the region during that period.

The Baul songs of Birbhum had the following swar patterns – S G M P D P, M G R S, G M D N Œ, N D P M R G S.

The Baul songs were mostly “Uttaranga Pradhan” i.e. it would have prominence of Taar Saptak swars through which its lyrics were emphasized. Bauls keep presenting many songs one after the other without much gap or pause.

Bauls believe in the system of “Adhikari ved” – which means that the Baul will not reveal the mode of his Sadhana or true inner feelings to the masses as the Baul considers it harmful for both the Baul as well as the lay person. The Bauls reveal the true nature and meaning of the symbols to those who are along the same path or those who are sincerely interested in spiritual quests. Others who listen to the songs must remain content with the surface meaning alone. There are many Bauls who visit fairs and festivals and entertain people with their song and even dance. In fact the Bauls have a distinct dance pattern typical to them. The singers gather together in groups and go on singing one after another for days on end stopping only for food and rest. There are two notable festivals in the western part of Bengal where the maximum number of Bauls gather. These are the Joydev Kenduvillau in Birbhum and the Ghospara festival in the district of the 24 parganas. The former is held in the middle of January and the latter during the Doljatra festival in March-April.

The music of the Bauls quest for the one ness with the divine and can be split into three categories.

The language used used by the Bauls are mainly symbolic, and cannot be understood at a superficial level. Their inner meaning can be comprehended only by those initiated to this form. There are a number of symbols that are used quite often. The most commonly used symbols are: Phool-flower, Neer-water, Moner Manus-soul’s companion, Tribeni-confluence of three rivers, Daraza/Dooar-door, Chandra-moon, Padma-lotus etc. The reason the Bauls use such language is that the Bauls do not conform to the rites and rituals prescribed by the Brahmanical texts. In the eastern district, the music resembles Bhatiali and in the north there is an influence of Bhawaiya. In the west the songs are slightly different, with songs being long and monotonous in their tonal character. Many Baul gurus were, and still are, poets, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (13th Century) was the greatest known Baul singer, and he travelled all over India. History counts him as the biggest influence among Baul poets and singers of later generations. One of the most famous poets Lalan Fakir, was a revolutionary and a holy man, who created more than 5000 Baul compositions.

Example of a Baul song –

Tui amarey pagol korli rey –
ore O Gora – Doyaa naa korilei
Anathere dili kul, amare bhashili re
Anathero nath Gora re
Sagorero phena jemon
Phere deshe deshe
Seje emono dorodi naai je
Ke ke jiggaas kore je
Anathero nath Gora re
Gaacher jemon sikad bakod
Maacher jemon paani
Abar doodhe jemon soro noni
Tumi temon amar re
Anathero nath Gora re


It is addressed to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu-

“You have made me insane O Gora
You have no mercy for me?
You have blessed the poor orphans and put them on the safe banks of the river
But, I am still floating on the river aimlessly
Like the foam on the sea waves, I travel from country to country
Yet, I have not found a loving soul like you – O Gora
Like roots are to a tree
Water to a fish
Like cream and cheese are to milk
Gora – I am a part of you.


The word “Bhatiyali” means “Bhata” – a phenomenon of the flow of tides of the sea and the river and means low tide. “Jwar” is the opposite of Bhata i.e. Jwar means high tide. During Bhata or low tide phase the banks of the river become wider. Bhatiyali could have originated from this phenomenon.

Bhatiyali songs are those sung by the Naviks or Mallahs the boatmen of the river. They sing Bhatiyali songs while crossing the rivers in Bengal. Bhatiyali is usually sung solo and not in groups. Even farmers tilling their lands sing Bhatiyali songs and take prolonged notes in open full throated voice. Shepherds returning home after grazing their cattle also sing a form of Bhatiyali. These songs vary, depending upon the cattle they have been grazing. Bhatiyali song variations with subtle changes have influence of the Bengali “Tappa”.

Bhatiyali is the origin of many folk songs of Bengal which are related to the workmen community. Bhatiyali songs are not very rhythmic but have prolonged notes to express a feeling and touch the heart of the listeners. Bhatiyali songs usually start with the Taar Saptak or high pitch notes and slowly come down to the lower notes or Madhya & Mandra Saptak.

Bhatiyali originated in East Bengal or Bangladesh and spread al over Bengal. The Bhav or theme of these songs are expressed with different words like – Na, No, O, No, E, Si, O re, Aa re, Haye re, lo, go, etc. – all colloquial Bengali words and phrases.

These songs are mostly sung by men and most of which are based on Bilawal thaat as well as Khamaj thaat. In the middle octaves (Madhya saptak) and higher octaves (Taar Saptak) these songs have similarity to ragas like Pahadi, Bihag, Jhinjhoti. They are not based on a particular raga and therefore Bhatiyali songs have their distinctive style and tune. The Baul singers have also been influenced by Bhatiyali and have incorporated the Bhatiyali styles to express different themes or thought process in the lyrics.

Example of a Bhatiyali song:

Sujon majhi re
Kon ghaatey lagaiba tomar nao
Ami paarer ashay, boisha achhi,
Amay loiya jao
Kon ghaatey lagaiba tomar nao
Ei parete Dorodi naai
Oi parete jaai cholo jaai
Hoi naa amar paare jaoa,
Hoi naa amar tomay paowa
Jal choliya bohiya jaai
Kon ghaatey……


O good boatman,
which side of the river
will you anchor your boat?
Please take me with you,
as I am waiting to reach my destination
On this side of the river –
there’s none who understands me
I plead you to carry me
to the other side.
Often have I failed
to reach the other side,
often have I failed
to find my beloved
Thus, my life sails
along with the flow of the river.


Chatka - is a type of Bhawaiya folk song, which is commonly sung in North Bengal and the “Goalpara” district of Assam. Chatka songs are satirical themes which criticize social evils, or it is sung by Nayak – Naayikaa or Gop – Gopi – i.e. expressed as love songs.

In Hindustani Classical Music, the way one sings a Chhota Khayal or Drut Khayal after a elaborate Bada or Vilambit Khayal, similarly a Chatka song is sung after a Bhawaiya. The Chatka songs are fast paced in Drut Laya like a Drut Khayal. There is a strong influence of Vaishnava sect in these songs which often describes the loving teases between Radha and Krishna which the audiences enjoy immensely.

The Chatka folk songs are sometimes in the form of prose or a dialogue between two characters – where the dialogue is carried out in the form of question and answer between two characters. The duration of these songs are not fixed since the conversation in the form of song can go on for a long time.

Chatka is popular due to its fast paced rhythm with accompaniment with a Dotaara. Chatka is essentially a form of folk music popular in the villages and its rustic nature is not appreciated by the educated city dwellers, as the educated class considered the lyrics of Chatka as obscene and of low standards.

The folk music of Bengal has inspired poets, musicians, composers, artistes and has reached all over India through film music.


In the medieval period the devotional songs on Radha Krishna– which used to be sung in Bengal were call Kirtan. The songs describing the greatness of God or God’s creations are called Kirtan (i.e. Bhagwaan Ki Keerti)

Bhajon i.e. Bhajan consists of one complete verse, whereas Kirtan is the repetitive singing on one word or phrase or a line, e.g. the repeating of the name of Lord Krishna – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare. Kirtan is therefore also sometimes called Naam Sankirtan.

Soon after the decline of Charya geeti a new and significant form of singing took shape in the form of Padavali kirtan in Bengal. Padavali kirtan was in existence in pre Chaitanya era also. It was composed by maharajas like Jayadev, Chandidas, Vidyapati, Jnandas, Govinddas, etc.

Amongst them, the most remarkable composer of the period was Jayadev.

The Padavali kirtan we hear nowadays is a creation of Sri Chaitanya and post Chaitanya era (latter part of 15th Century). His principal contribution towards the spread of the Bhakti movement was Naam Sankirtan and Nagar Kirtan.

There are also two other variants of Kirtan – i.e. Padavali Kirtan and Leela Kirtan, which give more importance to verses, poetic or thematic content. In Bengal, the golden period of Kirtans was during the time of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu when it became extremely popular in Bengal.

In the 16th century Sri Narottam Goswami popularized Padavali kirtan. This form of Kirtan by Sri Goswami later became popular as Leela kirtan and later was also termed as Gauder haati and Goran haati Kirtan.

Later, newer forms of Kirtan were popular, such as – Manoharsaahi Kirtan, Reneti Kirtan, Mandarini Kirtan, Jharkhandi Kirtan, etc.
The Manoharsaahi Kirtan compositions comprised of Leela gaan in praise of The Lord in Drut Laya (fast tempo) and Madhya Laya (medium tempo), both of which were faster than the songs sung earlier.

Later, the Kirtankaars or Kirtan singers started improvising by changing the rhythm pattern (Chhanda) according to the poetic verses and capability of the singers which had more appeal with the audience. This also had an effect of increased devotional trance in the singers as well as the audience.

Other forms Kirtans and Kirtan singers were also created, like the Katha Katha Dal, Kathaar Taan and Aakhar. The present day Kirtan has gradually changed and has become a style by itself. No doubt, most of the Pala Kirtans are based on ragas with a mix of folk tunes. More importance is given to the lyrics than the ragas it is based upon. The accompaniment of Khol and Manjira is an essential aspect of Kirtan. Rhythmic patterns played on Khol, are different from traditional taals.
The taals on Khol with Kirtan are:
Das Kushi, Das Peari, Do Thooki, Lofa, etc.

The Kirtans sung in the rural and regional dialects of Bengal in praise of Lord Krishna in the form of a Stuti (prayer) were called Dhap Kirtan. In Dhap Kirtan villagers incorporated influences of other folk songs of Bengal to suit their tastes.

In the mid 19th century Brahmo Dharma became popular in Bengal and had a lot of followers. This influenced the Kirtans of Bengal. Niraakaar Brahamavad or universal or oneness of God, became the theme of Kirtans replacing Radha Krishna bhakti. With the increased popularity of Kirtan, concerts were organized in every part of the city (Nagar) and got the name of Nagar Sankirtan. The presentation of Nagar Sankirtan started in a Vilambit Laya (slow tempo) and went on to Drut Laya (fast tempo). Musical instruments like the Khol Jhaanjh (cymbal), Manjira or Kartaal are used as accompaniments to Kirtans according to the requirement of the song.
Kirtans can easily be incorporated in any tune or raga and can be sung solo or in groups without any restrictions.

Example of a Kirtan by Govinda das– pre Chaitanya era

Taal – Lofa - Six beats
Sokhi chikan kala, golay malaa,
Baajono nupooro paaye,
Taar chudaar phoole bhromora bule
Terochho noyone chaaye.


This Kirtan gives a beautiful description of Lord Krishna
Sri Radha is telling her friend
Sakhi – HE is dark in complexion with a garland of flowers on his neck,
Trinklets or Nupoor tied to his ankles.
There is a flower on his hair, tied on top of his head,
This attracts the Bee. He turns is beautiful eyes for a glance.

Musical instruments that accompany folk music of Bengal

Since ancient times people express their feelings through music, dance and by playing musical instruments. The language and form of dance and music vary from place to place and from region to region as well as from communities to communities. There are different song and dance forms for different occasions, like marriage, birth, religious, social ceremonies and even death.

The instruments used as accompani-ment to folk music of Bengal are
– Ektara, Dhak, Maadal, Khamak, Gopi Yantra, Tabla, Baajon, Ghungroo, Jhaanjh, etc.

Nowadays even the Harmonium and Mandolin are used as accompanying instruments.

Amongst the Tat Vadya (stringed) instruments which accompany the folk music of Bengal, there is the Ektara (a one – stringed instrument) which the Baul singers play while singing.

Dotaara – (two stringed instrument) which accompanies the Bhawaiya, Baul and Chatka singers.

Among the Sushir Vadya (wind instrument) category the Shaankh or the Conch Shell is used in Gambhira and Gajon songs. Nowadays, flute or bansuri is used to accompany Baul and Kirtan singers on stage.

Ghana Vadya – The Manjira or Jhaanjh is played with Baul, Gambhira, Kirtan. The Ghungroo is tied to the feet of the Baul singers.

Avanadh vadya – or Drums – the Khol is extensively used for Kirtans, Baul songs and Bhatiyali songs.

The Dhak is used for Gambhira songs with Bauls and the Gubgubbi or Dubdubbi is used. The Dubdubbi is the Bayan of the Tabla set.

© Author

(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2013)