Dr Sukhbilas Barma (Courtesy: Soumik Datta)

In Conversation with Dr Sukhbilas Barma: Bhawaiya Songs of North Bengal

in Interview
Published on: 24 December 2019

Soumik Datta

Soumik Datta is a musician, writer and independent researcher in the field of traditional folk music. He has research/documentation and performative experience with the baul-fakirs of Bengal. A literature, culture studies and films scholar by training, he sings and plays the piano, guitar, mandolin and dotara.

Dr Sukhbilas Barma is an eminent historian, scholar and performer of bhawaiya music.

He has authored numerous books and essays on different aspects of the sociocultural history of North Bengal as well as ethnomusicological studies of bhawaiya songs. He is also a retired IAS officer and currently an elected representative of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. 

In this interview, Dr Barma discusses the various aspects of the bhawaiya songs of North Bengal. Through six topical sections, he elaborates on the deep sociocultural investment in a primarily lyrical form that has made bhawaiya a mirror for the lived realities of the people of North Bengal.

Dr Barma speaks about the matriarchal ritual origins of these folksongs and their role as the major sociomusical expression of the Rajbanshi people. He goes on to discuss the development of the modern solo bhawaiya form from the tradition of theatrical interludes or dhuya/khosha songs, and expands on the various aspects of bhawaiya including the women’s perspective from which the songs are sung and the influence of nature on the song tradition. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Soumik Datta on November 18, 2018, at Dr Barma’s residence in Kolkata.

Why do you cry o doiyol bird [magpie] in the darkness of the night

My heart cries out o doiyol bird hearing your cry / O why do you cry

I. Ritual Roots
Herein we discuss the origins of bhawaiya and the various preceding ritual musical forms such as the songs of Shaitol, Kati, Hudumdeo, Sonarai.

Soumik Datta: When would you say that the kind of bhawaiya songs we get to hear today starts to emerge within the culture of North Bengal? 

SB: The kind of bhawaiya songs you get to hear today in various programmes and functions are all solo songs. Individual artists come and present solo numbers and are followed by other artists presenting more solo numbers. Such a setup, quite obviously, did not exist in the past. The social order in the past was entirely community-oriented, and there was no space for solo performances. Not only in North Bengal, but anywhere in India, possibly even the world over, the songs that existed in these early communities were associated with rituals and worship.

Thus, in North Bengal, we had songs in this vein like the songs dedicated to Manasha, Shaitol or Kati. From Manasha, the snake goddess, the main gift people asked for is protection from snakes. Shaitol was a variant of the goddess Shasthi, and childless couples asked for the blessing of fertility from her. Kati was also a god of fertility. The funny thing is, people say Kati himself did not marry, but people prayed to him to have a child. 

The origin of [bhawaiya] music lies in these acts of worship and rituals, and women played the most important part in this. At least in Bengal, such rituals were always the domain of women, as was the case with Shaitol or Kati. Another significant instance of matriarchal fertility rites was the worship of Hudumdeo. ‘Hudum’ is derived from ‘udom’ which means ‘naked’. At the dead of night, womenfolk of the village would plant a banana tree in the middle of a field, become naked and sing and dance around the tree to invoke Hudumdeo [a variant of Lord Varuna] and pray to him for rain. During long spells of dry weather, fields would dry up and crack open; there was no irrigation in those days.

So, this way people would invoke different gods and goddesses for protection and prosperity. And for this purpose their primary offering was music. There were some chants and mantras too, but music was the main aspect. 

SD: Even such mantras would often be sung. 

SB: Exactly. So, songs were the main aspect of these rituals. Another such form was the songs of Sonarai. Since these northern plains at the foothills were densely forested, there was ever the threat of tigers. While people down south in the Sunderbans refer to the tiger as Dakhinrai, up north in our land they call it Sonarai. ‘Sona’ refers to the golden hue of tiger’s coat, and the songs dedicated to Sonarai were for protection from tiger attacks. Cowherds and their flocks were most at risk, therefore Sonarai had to be placated.

During winter, young children were sent to different homes on a mangan [ritualised seeking of alms] asking for offerings in the name of Sonarai. They would take the outer husk of a banana trunk, decorate it with marigold blossoms, and go on the mangan. The rice that was collected would be offered in worship to Sonarai. So, they went from house to house on Sonarai’s mangan, and what did they sing? 

How good that if one should fail to give an offering to Sonarai

I shall get hold of her husband when he takes his cattle to the fields

Sonarai would take his revenge when men take their cows to graze—that is the threat of the tiger-god, so people give some rice or money as offering during the mangan. These songs thus reflected customs and rituals that were integral aspects of the social order of those times. 

II. Community Roots 
Herein we discuss bhawaiya as the music of the Koch-Rajbanshi people and the origins of the Koch, Mech, Rava and Rajbanshi communities.

SB: Basically, these are songs of the Rajbanshi people. Rajbanshi are the most numerous ethnic community in North Bengal. Along with them, there were Mech, Rava and other groups. 

SD: What about the Koch people? 

SB: Well, this is why the term Koch-Rajbanshi is employed. Much earlier, before or around 1510, the Koch community had become the majority community. Basically, the society at that point was a collective of different tribal groups. With Sanskritisation and Hinduisation, the dominant tribal group came to be called the Koch people. This is the opinion of most scholars, be it Acharya Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay or foreign academics who have worked on this topic. Then in 1510, Biswa Singha set up the Koch kingdom of Koch Bihar in Kamrup. Gradually the Koch people came to call themselves Rajbanshis. The name Rajbanshi originates from those earlier periods but gradually gets accepted and established by the second decade of the twentieth century, around 1912–13. Even in the 1911 census, the majority community was designated as Koch. But the term Rajbanshi gained greater currency with the Kshatriya movement under Raisahib Panchanan Barma, which followed right after. The primary claim of the movement was that the Koch people had actually descended from a line of Kshatriya kings, and due to that royal lineage they claimed the name Rajbanshi. The census authorities did not accept the claim of Kshatriya lineage but granted recognition to the term Rajbanshi.

These Rajbanshi people inhabit the entire North Bengal in addition to western Assam [in what used to be the Goalpara district], Rangpur district in Bangladesh, Dinajpur, Bagura. Indeed, the Kshatriya movement had started in Rangpur. So, Rajbanshis live on a wide stretch of Bangladesh—the whole of Rangpur, Dinajpur, parts of Maimansingh—also the Purnia district in Bihar, Jhapa and Morang districts in Nepal. Thus, this music is the music of the people living over this huge stretch of land. Every cultural aspect of this ethnic community is reflected in bhawaiya songs. 

Herein we trace the origins of bhawaiya in theatrical pala forms such as the bishohorakushan and dotora-pala songs and the development of ‘solo’ bhawaiya songs from ‘pala’ interludes—dhuya or khosha songs.

SB: Along with the ritual songs, there evolved another kind of music purely for the sake of entertainment and to celebrate community occasions. These were the theatrical palatiya songs and were commonly organised by the more well-off householders in the village—the jamindars [zamindars] and jotdars [wealthy farmers]. Thus, developed the various plays or pala forms—dotora, kushan [based on Ramayana] and bishohori or bishohora [dedicated to the snake goddess Manasha]. Bishohori palas were a very popular custom. In North Bengal, bishohori songs were not just a matter of protection from snake bites, but a custom to mark every auspicious occasion. Mother Bishohori would be invoked in prayer for good fortune in a judicial case, people would pray to her for a good harvest; worship of Bishohori was common in every household. 

The most popular form of entertainment, however, was the dotora-palatiya form where a gidal [lead vocalist] would lead a troupe of actor-musicians equipped with other instruments like khol and kartal. Dotora-palas would involve a wide variety of subjects from the Puranas, Mahabharata, fairy tales and myths. There would be stories like Karim Badshah’s pala or the story of Raja Harishchandra. Dotora-palas would serve the purpose of public education and raising public awareness, and would often involve contemporary social content—perhaps dramatising some recent social incident that merited popular interest. 

Now, there was another aspect to these palas. If we take Harishchandra’s pala, there the main narrative would progress as the main gidal would expound on the story and others participate in their different capacities, and there would even be jokes and comic interventions. Even so, sometimes monotony would creep in. It is at such points within the play that someone would break in and provide a completely tangential interlude—a dhuya. 

O Shyam Kala, O Shyam Kala

Let go of the loose end of my sari, it is late in the day

O Shyam Kala

People would start dancing with this song too. These were called dhuya songs, and it is speculated that later modern bhawaiya evolves from these very dhuya songs. These songs were in a solo format, and it is from these that the solo bhawaiya form starts to develop. 

SD: In connection with dhuya songs, I have come across another form called khosha songs. 

SB: Oh yes. Khosha, in colloquy, means to add or insert something. So, these songs were inserted into a main narrative. Hence the term ‘khosha’ songs. 

SD: So dhuya and khosha songs are one and the same? 

SB: Indeed, dhuya and khosha songs are the same thing. 

IV. Bhava Songs
Herein we discuss the development of modern bhawaiya as solo lyrical songs and the voice of women in bhawaiya captured through these tales of love, loss and social inequities.

SD: The term ‘bhawaiya’ itself has been said to have different meanings, and scholars have suggested different etymological roots for the word. In your writings, you have  discussed these different theories, especially that of [bhawaiya singer] Suren Basuniya. 

SB: Yes, I have quoted these various theories. But I have come to accept the theory posited by Suren Basuniya and Abbasuddin [Ahmed, the folk singer] that ‘bhawaiya’ is derived from ‘bhao’ or ‘bhava’, which is to say, feelings or deep emotions. In fact, I have written about this that many say there are so many musical forms based on ‘bhava’, but were these forms extant in those times?

SD: Indeed, if we go by the history we were discussing—how bhawaiya develops from dhuya or lyrical solo interludes within the context of community-oriented theatrical or ritual songs—then such lyrical interludes can naturally be singled out in their social context as songs distinguished by their priority on bhava or feelings. 

SB: Exactly. That is how they became bhava songs. Later on, the lighter form of chatka developed from there and social comedy got added. But before that came lyrical songs sung with profound and meditative depth of emotions. 

Why do you cry o doiyol bird in the darkness of the night

I used to hear this song a lot when I was a child. My grandma used to sing this song. She had a beautiful voice. And even farmers used to sing this while tilling the land. So, this song has become imprinted in my mind. Where would you find such a profound expression of the depth of longing in a woman’s heart? Such simplicity in expressing deep feelings. Even every complexity of one’s sexual urges and relationships finds expression here. 

O sangna

 Why did you beat me up

Sangna is a man with whom a woman would be in informal cohabitation, perhaps only grudgingly tolerated by society. In those days, often a young widow would have to go and live with another man. So, such a woman would sometimes sing: 

Well alright, you have beaten me up

But why did you lay hands on my child?

Maybe the young widow has also brought a child into this setup. For what fault does this child suffer the same treatment as her mother? Then she would sing:

That deity of your daily worship

Will have to do without any food, o sangna

What is the meaning of this, that the deity who is worshipped daily will have to fast today? Today, she will not fulfill his daily sexual needs. This is her retribution. And it is expressed in such a forthright but evocative way. Such songs clearly address what it finds necessary to address in the Rajbanshi society of those days. Indeed, such things must have been there in every society. 

SD: Of course, such customs were there in many cultures, but to be able to articulate the problem so evocatively is remarkable. 

SB: Truly, you do not find such expressions everywhere.

V. Nature and socioeconomy
Herein we discuss bhawaiya as songs of the northern rivers and how the socioeconomic order revealed through them were determined by topography of North Bengal.

SB: I keep saying that there are many unique things about our bhawaiya music of North Bengal. Where else would you find such rich songs about gariyals [bullock-cart drivers], moishals [buffalo keepers] or mahouts? 

SD: Would you say that one reason for this was the distinctive economic order in North Bengal—that farming was less widespread to start with? 

SB: Yes, the prevalence of moishal songs and suchlike are largely determined by the nature and topography of North Bengal. We have to then discuss our northern rivers. Even eastern Bengal and Bangladesh is riverine, but those are tidal rivers of the south. But riverine North Bengal is distinctive, since the rivers there have just descended from the mountains. So, when they reach the plains at the foothills, they are narrow but extremely swift. Then they reach immense proportions in the monsoon months. But in winter and through the following summer, you could easily walk across them. 

O lover Kala Chan does not know about love

O Kala, my heart remains heavy with grief

Who knows when I shall get to see my beloved

O beloved

Your home is across the river

It takes a long time to come and go

Should I go, or should I stay

I am ever beset with doubts

As I walk across the river, the water makes many sounds

It goes khaklang or khuklung, or khalau-khalau

Oh alas, my beloved, my life

Here, you can cross the river on foot. And what wonderful descriptions of the sounds of water as you wade through. ‘Khaklang’ or ‘khuklung’ as your feet splashes into the water, and when you walk a bit quicker, the water goes ‘khalau-khalau’!  

So, the nature of these rivers, their different character in different seasons, has led to the frequent changes in their courses. If a river floods and breaks down one bank in the monsoon, one finds a vast low floodplain on the other bank when the waters recede. Now how are these low plains put to use? Here we come to a sociopolitical discussion. What were the demographics in those days? Most people were landless labourers or sharecroppers on the lands of others. There were only a handful of landlords or propertied householders who owned most of the lands. They needed to keep large stables of buffaloes and cows for agriculture as well as dairy farming. And who would look after these flocks? Cowherds or moishals, naturally. Just as an agricultural labourer would sing as he worked in the fields, these moishals would sing while working or in their leisure time. They would let the cattle graze on the riverbanks, and they would play dotoras and sing bhawaiya songs or even pass the time playing a flute. Womenfolk from nearby villages would go to bathe in the river or to fetch water and would hear the moishals’ songs and become enchanted by them.  

SD: The gariyals too were in employ of these landlords. 

SB: Yes, they would have to carry produce to and from different markets over long distances. Also, they would have to carry harvest back to their landlord’s house, or carry manure from the house to the fields in their carts. In affluent households who could afford it, how would their womenfolk go visit their parents? In a bullock cart, a buffalo cart driven by a gariyal. Thus evolved the naior songs [songs about married women going to their parents for a visit]. 

Set out with the naior, o my friend

Please let us set out now

Another unique tradition in North Bengal was the songs about the elephants and the mahouts. In the forests of North Bengal, in Goalpara in western Assam, in Jalpaiguri and in Bhutan, elephants were captured and trained to perform different tasks, and subsequently sold off to various places. The Maharaja of Gouripur, a big jamindar, was famous for this trade. He was Prakritesh Barua, the father of the famous bhawaiya singer Pratima Barua, and an expert on elephants as he used to capture and train elephants for the Maharaja of Koch Bihar. During the period of training of these captive elephants, the mahouts would sit in their forest camps in the evening and sing songs by the fireside. I have heard the recollections of Niharbala Barua [an archivist of bhawaiya songs] and Pratima Barua. Pratima Barua told me that she had herself gone to such elephant camps. And in these camps, the evening singing sessions would take place simultaneously with the training of the elephants. And it would almost seem as if the songs were integral to their training. 

VI. Formal Considerations
Herein we discuss certain structural aspects of bhawaiya including the characteristic aspirated vocal delivery, classification of bhawaiya into dariya and chatka and certain recent changes in the form.

SD: Now if you would say something about the characteristic vocal delivery of bhawaiya, especially the aspirated breaking of the voice. 

SB: This characteristic delivery is an asset of North Bengali culture. Only artists from the bhawaiya heartland can do it, others cannot. Of course, there is not much use of this delivery in chatka [performative category of bhawaiya] songs. This is primarily the feature of bhawaiya proper— dariya, chitan and such idioms. Even in the case of khirol, the pace becomes a little quicker and this delivery is not that pronounced. 

SD: What I have heard from most practitioners is that khirol specifically refers to the distinctive fast trill on the dotora. 

SB: Yes, that style of dotora playing is called khirol. And this results in a chalanti form, where the pace gets a little faster. Take, for example, this kind of a song: 

O my moon, o my golden sun

Do not leave me today for some foreign town

The day my moon you shall appear

That day, the water too shall blossom with your reflection

And my heart would take wing to the sky

O my golden sun 

This too employs the breaking of the voice. You will notice that there is an aspiration in pronouncing the words. 

SD: And there is an accompanying shift in pitch too. 

SB: This is an unique feature of bhawaiya. And I have found that only those who have grown up singing bhawaiya in North Bengal or have lived and trained there for a long time can reproduce this. I am not sure why this is so. It may be due to our typical ethnic facial structure or our typical manner of speaking. Possibly our local diction or intonation has a degree of expiration ingrained in it. It is difficult to explain. 

SD: I have heard it said that it has something to do with the rocking rhythm of a moving bullock cart or a buffalo. 

SB: Oh, people say a lot of things. It could be the rhythm of a moving cart or a river coming down from the mountains or a moishal riding his buffalo. It could be a lot of things. But I am not convinced that these theories are much more than speculation. All I can say is that it is an unique asset of our music. 

And the funny thing is, even a legend like [music composer] Sachin Dev Burman told Abbasuddin that he did not sing bhawaiya songs for he had not managed to pick up that characteristic breaking of the voice. Amar Pal, the famous folk singer, had told me many a times that he regretted not being able to execute that vocal delivery. He used to sing bhawaiya for he loved the songs, but he felt he could not achieve the delivery as he would have liked to. 

SD: Nowadays, this aspirated delivery is getting somewhat diluted among recent recording artists. 

SB: These are the days of somewhat faster chalanti songs. Tell me, how many people today sing in the traditional slow bhawaiya idiom imbued with feelings?  

SD: You speak of the various idioms or styles of bhawaiya—chitan, gorandighalnasa. However, at state-level bhawaiya competitions these days, we find there are only two basic categories—dariya and chatka. 

SB: It was I who was instrumental behind this. Indeed, I was part of initiating the competition in 1989. 

SD: But would this not lead to the dilution or lack of dissemination of these slower traditional styles? 

SB: No. You see, even dariya and chatka, these two broad categories—a lot of people cannot even sing these distinctly. At the time when this competition started, Dinesh Dakua [a former minister of Bengal] had said to me, ‘Sukhbilas, we have heard that there are 16 different styles of Bhawaiya.’ I told him that the people who are talking about 16 different styles would barely be able to perform three styles distinctly. It is better to leave such detailed classifications alone and stick to the two broad categories of dariya and chatka. Be it chitan, goran or dighalnasa, they would all come under dariya, and chatka would remain distinct—a lighter, faster idiom.