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Gajon and Baalaagaan: In Search of the Oral Tradition of Shiva Culture in the 24 Parganas of West Bengal

Shiber Gajon’ or the Gajon of Shiva takes place in many areas of North and South 24 Pargana districts on the occasions of Charak in the month of Chaitra (mid-March to mid-April) and Dharmadel in the month of Vaishakh (mid-April to mid-May). Both these festivals are dedicated to Shiva. The songs are identified by different names in different parts. Gajon Gaan (Gajon songs) and Del Naach (Del dance) are expressions of the religious culture of particular areas of the 24 Parganas.

 

In Diamond Harbour, Joynagar, Kakdwip and Kulpi areas, songs and dances are performed in the houses of the organizers on the occasion of the Charak festival towards the end of Chaitra (called Sankranti). It is called ‘Chaitegaab’ in some places. It is a festival of গাঁ-জন (village-folks) that takes place in the month of Chaitra, hence ‘Chaite-gaab’. The Paalaas[1] which are performed at this time are all inspired by myth, centering on the story of Shiva and Kali. These Paalaas are closely related to the Shiva of the Charak festival. But contemporary issues enter these performances too. These Paalaas represent the lived reality and life practices of the people of these areas, sometimes directly and sometimes in the guise of mythical stories.

 

Gajon is called by the name of Baalaaki or Baalaagaan in different places of Gosaba, Satjelia, Mollakhali, Sandeshkhali and Hasnabad. All day the Shiva Sannyasis roam around the localities and in the evening, gather in the courtyard of some villager or of the deldaar, the person responsible for looking after all the rituals. There they act out the stories, composed in the form of Paalaas, to the accompaniment of drums and other instruments.

 

Some scholars have argued that Gajon is called as such because it is a festival of গাঁ-জন or village-people. But there are many other festivals dedicated to different deities like Hari, Kali, Manasa etc. which are also observed throughout the year and the village people spontaneously participate in them. So this argument does not really answer why the festival specifically associated with the worship of Shiva is called Gajon. However there may be reason to believe that with the passage of time, the wider implication of Gajon has been reduced to the particular context of Shiva worship. In my estimation, though, this argument is not sufficient to point out the actual meaning of the word Gajon. There are specific characteristics inherent in this word which one can observe only during the worship of Shiva.

 

‘Gaa’ implies ‘gaan’ (song) and ‘Jon’ might have come from ‘mahajan’ (the great/noble one). If one goes by this logic, which appears valid in the local, originary context of the word, the meaning of Gajon becomes ‘song dedicated to Shiva (mahajan)’.

 

It is however not true that songs focused exclusively on Shiva are sung during Charak or Dharmadel. Apart from Shiva, many other deities such as Keshta (Krishna>Keshta) and Bishtu (Vishnu>Bishtu) are also praised in the Baalaagaans. Very few religious beliefs have been able to retain their ‘pure’ form in the context of the local belief system of the village people. Similarly, the worship of Shiva in the rural environment of Bengal has also imbibed elements from the worship of other deities, thus becoming a type of mixed belief system. In this kind of situation, Krishna, Kali, Hari-Hara[2] have become inseparable.

 

On the other hand, it is also not difficult to conceptualise the semantic range of the word Gajon if we see it as derived from the Sanskrit word garjan (garjan>gajjan>gajon) or roaring. During Charak or Dharmadel, the Sannyasis together call forth their worshipped deity loudly, through their songs. Thus it seems only appropriate that this song would be called Gajon. Many scholars have argued in favour of such an interpretation of the word. While searching for the ‘folk elements in Hindu culture’, Binoy Kumar Sarkar has observed, 'The literal meaning of Gajan is "festivities held in honour of Shiva", and the word seems to have derived from the Sanskrit word "Garjan" meaning a loud clamour, since the ceremony is performed in the midst of a loud clamour by the shouting and singing Sannyasis and the noisy music struck out by long drums.'

 

Like Gajan, it is also difficult to find a specific local or dictionary meaning of Baalaaki or Baalaagaan. However, one might infer two contextual implications of the word. These songs might have been named Baalaagaan since they are centred on ‘baalaa’ or young woman/maiden. Men of all ages act out these songs dressed as young women in order to entertain the audience. Besides in some of the Paalaas the poets specifically highlight the sensuously youthful aspect of women. For example, in one instance Shiva describes the nature of Gauri like this:

She is too foulmouthed, at the height of her youth (ভরাযুবতী) and the light of my house

Her face darkens if I am even slightly late for home.

(Paalaa, Annabhikkha/Begging for Rice)                   

 

To take another example, Shiva tells his wife during a fight:

I am too old and you have just come of age

That is the reason why you do not like me.

(Paalaa, Shib-durgar Kalaha/The Quarrel of Shiva and Durga)

Scholars of folk culture in Bengal agree that women once played an important role in this festival of Shiva. Dulal Chowhury opines, 'It seems that women used to participate in this festival at one time. They were called "baalaa". The 53 names found so far include female names like Raay-baalaa, Pratham Baalaa etc. Needless to say, there is some ground in speculating that Baalaagaan or Baalaaki implies the songs of young women.'

 

‘Baalaa’ popularly means bangle and that may also be a possible source of meaning for Baalaagaan. The beginning, middle and end of a Baalaagaan are arranged such that they may be compared to the shape of a bangle, which does not begin and end in the same point but in two points placed next to each other. If a Paalaa begins on a happy note it ends in separation. Similarly, if the beginning contains fights and quarrels the end will be reconciliatory. Thus an analogy can be drawn between the beginning and end of a Paalaa and the two ends of a bangle. One may notice that the stories of almost all Paalaas are arranged like this.

 

Let me substantiate this claim with the discussion of a particular Paalaa. In the beginning of the Paalaa Annabhikkha, Gauri starts a fight with Shiva about the shortage of essential things in her household:

 

How do I express my grief, living constantly with ghosts.

No rice in the house, just some radishes.

What kind of a man you are, sitting all day home.

Go, bring me some rice, Lord, it is already late in the day.

 

These words of his wife enrage Shiva. He leaves home with a begging pot but does not get a single grain of rice even after roaming all over the town. All the household people show him ‘empty vessels’. In this situation, Shiva does not want to return home to be further insulted by Gauri. So he keeps wandering in anxiety until he reaches Kashi. At the climax we see that having understood Shiva’s situation and state of mind, Gauri has assumed the form of Annapurna and is giving away rice to the people. Shiva reaches there with his hands extended towards her and says:

 

O Mother Annapurna, give me rice, I am dying of hunger

I have travelled the three worlds but found nothing.

Having heard Shiva,

The spouse of Shankar smiled and extended the ladle

The Mother of the three worlds gave rice to Shiva.

 

Despite all these possible interpretations, it is necessary to say that from whatever I know and have heard the ‘b’ in Baalaagaan does not exactly sound like ‘b’. Rather, its pronunciation is similar to the pronunciation of ‘bhaat’ as ‘vaat’, as East Bengalis are known for using. So, I think that the peculiar pronunciation of ‘b’ in Baalaagaan has been largely predicated on the tension between ‘b’ and ‘v’. Bholaa (Shiva)>Bhaalaa>Baalaa. Besides it is also a known fact that the people who were associated with the performance of Baalaagaan in the beginning were mostly from Eastern Bengal. So such transformation of sound only seems natural.

 

Another popular name for Baalaagaan is Baalaaki. In my opinion, Baalaaki is derived from baalaarka (বালার্ক). The morning sun is called Baalaarka (বাল+অর্ক). This meaning of Baalaaki has some contextual relevance. After taking a bath in the morning, the Shiva Sannyasis set out for the neighbouring localities, dressed in saffron dhotis and carrying the Shiva-lingam on their head. They return just before sunset. It would not be an overstatement, in this context, to call these Sannyasis messengers of the Sun.

 

I must confess, however, that all these interpretations of mine are speculative in nature and may not be considered as authoritative. Since there is little authentic information available as to why the songs centered on Shiva were popularized in the Bengal delta as Baalaagan and why these started to be called Baalaaki at a later point, logically grounded speculation was the only option left to me.

 

The subject matter of the Baalaagaans is almost always mythical. The composers, called baalaadaar, present the mythical stories before the audience through words and music. Once a Paalaa has been composed, it is handed down from one generation to the other. A disciple first chooses a baalaadar as his master and memorizes the text of a Paalaa from the handwritten manuscript of the latter. He also accompanies his master during the performances and tries learning the performative techniques. Sometimes, a talented artist who has been associated with the Baalaagaan performances for a long time acquires the ability to compose a Paalaa himself.

 

The Baalaagaans containing mythical stories are composed in the form of a Paalaa. The length of the Paalaas varies depending on the subject. Paalaas which are 10, 20 or 30 minutes long are generally performed when the Sannyasis go from one house to another in the village. But the Paalaas which take an hour or even longer are always performed in the courtyard of the deldaar or the organizer in the evening, after the Sannyasis return. In the longer Paalaas which are performed in the evening, it is the agile presence of mind of the performers, rather than the original composition written in a particular format, that plays the most crucial role. In such situations, the performers consider as their main objective the entertainment of audience through the use of amorous jokes and clever witticisms. Therefore, one can notice here an over-abundance of local words and expressions alongside standard bookish expressions. This is the reason why, despite the length of the composition and the time it takes for it to be performed, the audience remains engrossed in it and comes back for the next ‘evening gathering’ (সান্ধ্য আসর).    

 

The composers draw stories from Ramayan, Mahabharat, Shiva Purana, Mangal Kavya, Shivayan Kavya etc. and present them in the simple form of a Paalaa, replete with local expressions. Alongside Shib-durgar Kalaha ('The Quarrel of Shiva and Durga'), Shankha Paridhaan ('Wearing the Conch-shell Bangle'), Shiber Chash-paalaa ('Shiva’s Farming'), Annabhikkha ('Begging for Rice'), Shiber Biye ('Wedding of Shiva'), stories not directly related to Shiva are also to be found as themes in many Paalaas, like Naukabilas ('Travelling on the Boat'), Radhikar Sarpadamsan ('Radhika Bitten by a Snake'), Nani Bhakkhan ('Eating Butter'), Krishna Kali, Subal Milan ('Reconciling with Subal'), Kaliyanag Daman ('Suppression of Snake Kaliya'),  Ruhidaser Sarpadamsan ('Ruhidas bitten by a Snake'), Shaktishail etc.

 

Every Paalaa contains a refrain of one or two lines. The theme and language of these refrains are drawn from available local expressions of the villages. The refrain used in one Paalaa is generally not repeated in another. Hence an experienced listener can easily identify which Paalaa is going to be performed from the refrain used in the beginning. This is analogical to the ‘Gaurachandrika’ in Vaishnava Padavalis. The refrains do not vary much from composer to composer or from singer to singer (গায়েন). Below is a list of refrains and the Paalaas they are associated with:

 

 

Refrain (ধুয়ো)

Paalaa

1

Poribo sadher shankha ami poribo re

('I will wear the conch-shell bangle of my choice')

Shankha Paridhan

(Wearing the Conch-shell Bangle)

2

Jao jao Shib grihe esona,

O Shib ami tomare chai na

 

('Go go Shiva, don’t come back home

O Shiva I don’t want you any more')

Shib-durgar Kalaha

(The Quarrel of Shiva and Durga)

3

Mon amar chanchala re/Amar mon re

('My heart is restless/O my heart')

Annabhikkha

(Begging for Rice)

4

Ballukay chollen deb pashupati

('God Pashupati started for Balluka')

Shiber Chashpaalaa

(Shiva’s Farming)

5

Subal jay jay ayan bhabane

('Subal is going to Ayan’s house')

Subal Milan

(Reconciling with Subal)

6

Sonar manush anek mele, moner manush melena

('Men of gold are to be found in plenty, not men of heart')

Nani Churi

(Stealing Butter)

7

Amar surer banshire Radha bole ar dekona

('Don’t call my flute Radha any more')

Radhikar Sarpadangshan

(Radhika Bitten by a Snake)

8

Majhi baiya jao re okul doriyar majhe amar bhanga nao

('O boatman, keep sailing my broken boat amidst the endless sea')

Naukabilas

(Travelling on the Boat)

9

Ruhidas keno sorpaghate mo’lo

('Why did Ruhidas die of snake-bite')

Ruhidaser Sarpadangshan

(Ruhidas bitten by a Snake)

10

Bone jay Ram raghumani

('Ram, the jewel of the Raghu dynasty, is going to the forest')

Lakshmaner Shaktishail

 

However it has also been found that the same Paalaa is sometimes sung with the refrain and sometimes without it.

 

Though the main thematic core of the Paalaas is always mythical, many contemporary social tensions find their way into them either as metaphors or in the form of short dialogues. Those who act as Shiva, Parvati, Narada, Radha, Krishna etc. are the vehicles through whom such topics are presented before the audience in the form of sarcasms or witticisms. The main purpose of introducing these elements into an overwhelmingly religious performance is of course the entertainment of the present audience. For these reasons, the divine and the human, the ethereal and the ephemeral, the urban and the rural seem intricately intermeshed in Baalaagaan. Here Shiva sometimes appears as a poor farmer, sometimes as sexually obsessed, paying regular visits to the brothel, and sometimes as a beggar.

 

Baalaagaan is a collective performance. The direct and indirect contribution of many individuals goes into the final performance of a Baalaagaan. Those who are directly involved in the performance are:

  1. One or more Baalaadaar (singers)
  2. One or more dancers dressed as women, who enact the roles of Parvati, Radha, Barai or Kali
  3. One or more dancers dressed as men, who play the roles of Shiva, Krishna, Ram, Lakshman etc.
  4. A drummer
  5. The person who plays the kansi (a bell-metal instrument used in rituals)

 

Though Charak or Dharmadel as well Baalaagaan performances are part of a particular ‘religion’, caste divisions do not play an important role in this context. Therefore, while Brahmins and Kayasthas are allotted the roles of singers and dancers in a Baalaagaan, people of the so-called lower castes such as the Bagdis or cobblers, marginalized at other times of the year, play the drum or the kansi alongside the higher castes.

 

It perhaps does not require reiteration that among all the deities only Shiva has appealed to and been accepted by people of all castes across all ages. The Shiva Sannyasis, who wear the sacred thread in his name, provide an exemplary case. There is no place for caste animosities in Charak or Dharmadel or Baalaagaan.   

      

References

Chowdhury, Dulal.  2004​. Banglar Lokasamskriti Bishwakosh. New Delhi: Akademi of Folklore.

 

Kamilya, Mihir Chowdhury. 2000​. Anchalik Debata Lokasamskriti. Burdwan: Burdwan University.

 

Sarkar, Binoy Kumar. 1972​. The Folk Elements in Hindu Culture. New Delhi​: Orient Books Reprint Corporation.

 

 

[1] The word Paalaa carries multiple meanings. Most of the time, it is translated as ‘ballad’, but Paalaa does not always mean narrative rural literature. Paalaa is omnipresent, from kavi, tarja, kheur, panchali to drama divided into acts and scenes. The song that the patuas sing with their performance is also Paalaa.

 

[2] Hari is another name of Vishnu and Hara of Shiva. Hari-hara is a very popular expression in Bengal and still enjoys popularity as a proper name.