Folk Music of Bengal
Aditi Banerji (India)
M.A. M.Phil. (Music), Ph. 022-26311414, 26161924, <email@example.com>
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
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
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
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”
“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
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.
Bauls – 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Nowadays even the Harmonium and Mandolin are used as accompanying
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.
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental
- Jan-April 2013)