Bhawaiya is an iconic genre of folk song practised throughout the sub-Himalayan belt of northern West Bengal, southern Assam and north-western Bangladesh. There is an approximate consensus that the origins of the form may be dated back to at least the sixteenth century, during the reign of Raja Bishwa Sinha, who established the kingdom of Koch Bihar. Since then, bhawaiya has developed as a folk form across the plains of the districts of Koch Bihar, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and parts of Uttar Dinajpur in West Bengal, Goalpara and Dhubri in Assam, and the Dinajpur and Rangpur districts of Bangladesh. In the course of evolving into its modern forms, bhawaiya has come to represent a unique discourse on love, womanhood and social realism within the folk musical vocabulary of Bengal. It has embraced the lighter, faster and more socially observant form chatka as an equally integral part of the bhawaiya idiom. However, the popular image that the term bhawaiya still conjures up is a form of plaintive ballads that speak of love and loss and endless longing within a woman’s heart.
Bhawaiya songs speak mostly in a woman’s voice, and this has to be seen in the larger context of its social evolution. The form has been practised by the different communities—Rajbanshis, Koch, Mech, Rava, Khen, Jugi, etc.—who traditionally inhabited this region. But essentially, bhawaiya developed as an integral cultural expression of the Rajbanshis, and these songs are composed in Rajbanshi (or Kamrupi or Kamtapuri), the most widely spoken Bengali dialect across this belt. Despite the influence of Brahminical Hinduism, Islam and Vaishnavism over the preceding centuries, the popular culture of these communities have retained matriarchal influences, evident from the many extant folk rituals and practices. The scholar-performer Dr Sukhbilas Barma observes:
Agrarian folk communities come to worship the mother figure as the source of fertility and reproduction, hence the abiding presence and influence of local female deities like Shaitol, Subachani, Tistaburi and Manasha in Kamrup’s social life, which has given rise to many musical forms that provide a priceless bedrock for the Bhawaiya idiom. [Translation mine]
Bhawaiya is thought to have developed from earlier theatrical musical forms, pala songs, that were once the mainstay of rural entertainment and are still performed in these regions today. While some major forms like the dotora pala and kushan songs involve historical, scriptural and mythical themes, other pala forms like bishohora (addressing the goddess Manasha) and ritual songs dedicated to Shaitol, Teestaburi (deifying the river Teesta as a goddess) and Hudumdeo (involving ancient female fertility rites) pay obeisance to local matriarchal deities and associated practices. Bhawaiya-chatka as a form seems to be an antecedent of the dhuya or the khosha songs that were introduced into the pala forms as lighter musical interludes in order to bring a degree of social realism and humour as relief within their mythical and ritual content. So even in its origin, while being influenced by the pivotal role of women within the social fabric of the community, bhawaiya came to provide a pragmatic counterpoint to explicitly religious concerns, which helped nurture and develop its later vocabulary of passion and lyricism.
Another primary source for the lyrical content of bhawaiya is the lush natural splendour cradling the culture and the socioeconomic existence of the people of North Bengal. These districts of North Bengal and Assam are washed by the many rivers and streams, such as the Teesta, Torsha, Jaldhaka, Raidak, Kaljani, Korotoa and Gadadhar, coming down from the Himalayas. They form a distinct terrain of forested but oft-flooded rolling, undulating plains, and this topography has historically determined the living practices, cultures and livelihoods of the people living there, and has naturally informed their music as well.
People’s ways of living and their natural contexts find frequent description in Bengali folk music, but often as metaphors for the actual subjects of the songs, which is evident from the many Baul songs that use forests, rivers, hunting, fishing, etc., to speak in codes about spiritual and bodily praxes. In bhawaiya, however, nature seems not only to provide metaphors for expression, but is allowed to come into its own and become an inextricable part of the discourse. In certain songs, the riverine landscape is a way to express the depth of a woman’s almost erotic sensation of grief, but equally the very vehicle of her beloved’s absence and a wild, tangible presence by itself:
Torsha nodi uthal pathal
Kar ba chole nao
Sona bondhur bade re mor
Kemon kore gao
The river Torsha keeps tossing and turning
Whose boat can sail through these waters
My thoughts are of my beloved
And I can’t describe how my body feels [Translation mine]
Nature here is neither a discursive trope nor subsumed within a wider spiritual framework. In this context, Dr Barma refers to the words of the late folk music singer and collector Hemanga Biswas: The folk songs of North Bengal are far more attuned to lived realities than those of East Bengal. There, the Torsha River hasn’t become Yamuna, the town of Chilmari hasn’t been transformed into Vrindavana, there has been no such submission to the dictates of normative cultural control. [Translation mine]
The landscape of these regions have changed with urbanisation and development, but bhawaiya songs often bear testament to living practices that have all but vanished to this day. The central theme of these songs is the mortal love between man and woman and the ineffable longing and agonies of separation that must accompany such love, more so for the woman than the man. The male protagonist in such songs is often a moishal (buffalo-keeper), gariyal (cart-driver) or mahout (elephant-minder)—men whose professions mandated that they could not stay in one place for long. Though not numerous, there are some songs that deal with the moishal or gariyal’s own predicament, as in this well-known song by the legendary singer Abbasuddin Ahmed:
Baokumta batash jemon ghuriya ghuriya more
Oi moton mor garir chaka ponthe ponthe ghore re
Like a swirling storm, forced to spiral on to its death
The wheels of my cart have to keep travelling these roads [Translation mine]
The meagre livelihoods of these men depended on the existence of a class of extensively landed, propertied employers who needed to keep large stables of domesticated animals or had use for teams of carts to ferry their goods to distant markets. While the society’s functioning has changed, bhawaiya songs, telling their tales of love and loss, carry traces of that earlier way of life in these northern plains. In fact, one theory regarding the origin of the term bhawaiya refers to bhawa as fallow, riverside tracts left behind by the changing course of a river, overgrown with shrubs and kashiya (kash) grass that used to be ideal grazing lands for buffaloes.
Another theory traces the term back to baudiya or a vagabond minstrel who could often be a moishal or a gariyal, singing as he travels or rests, writing songs where the woman he had loved thinks of him and tries to find expression for her loss and unfulfilled longings. His sole possession is his dotara, a four-stringed lute whose cadences form the structural basis of bhawaiya.
The topography of the northern plain also plays a vital role in shaping the formal aspects of the genre. In an early but seminal scholarly entry on the folk genre, Dr Ashutosh Bhattacharya observes:
A boatman in northern Bengal plies his trade on swift waters, a boatman in eastern Bengal rides slower tides . . . As the rivers grow more sedate on the low floodplains in eastern Bengal, the pace of the Bhatiyali songs of the boatmen become all but imperceptible...But Bhawaiya has that forward pulse in its rhythms...Even its long, sustained lines move forward in distinct folds unlike the linear melodies of Bhatiyali. [Translation mine]
The ‘folds’ that Dr Bhattacharya refers to are best exemplified by the characteristic voice breaks and aspirated notes in bhawaiya singing, which help express the depths of longing. People often speculate that such vocal techniques may have originated from singing while riding a boat or on the back of a buffalo, sometimes while playing the dotara.
In approaching these narratives of love, bhawaiya songs mostly adopt the perspective of the woman. The narrator is a lone woman, ever-haunted by the forebodings of approaching solitude and grief, even in the embrace of love. This feeling of inexorable separation can even undergo transference on to the baudiya’s dotara that has won her over:
O mor moishal bondhu re
Na bajan toman khuta re dotora
Narir mor mon korilo re ghorchhara
O my moishal friend
Don’t go playing that dotara
My woman’s heart, you’ve made me leave my home [Translation mine]
The staccato of the fabric strings of a North Bengal dotara does not have the sustain of its steel-strung southern counterpart, and is perhaps better suited to evoke the ephemeral sweetness men and women come to share between them. As in this most iconic of bhawaiya songs, the gariyal or the moishal remain the object of longing, mostly absent and unattainable as such itinerant men would have to be:
O ki gariyal bhai
Koto robo ami ponther dike chaiya re
. . . Ki kobo ar dushker jwala
Gathiya chikon mala re
O ki gariyal bhai
Koto kandi mui niduya pathare re
O brother gariyal
How long shall I keep looking at the road for you
. . . What shall I say of my burning grief
I’ve woven it into a wreath around my neck
O beloved gariyal
How long shall I cry in this heartless, barren land [Translation mine]
The songs delve deep into the intricacies of passion in the hearts of those women who had come to love or marry such men and had to deal with their prolonged or permanent absences. The most popular theory regarding the origin of the term bhawaiya, in fact, traces it to the word bhava which means ‘deep emotions or feelings’ in Bengali. And this love in a woman’s heart that is at the soul of bhawaiya is not a love that has been socially mandated. It is the inescapable passion arising unplanned and unbidden in the hearts of two people thrown together by the vagaries of a marginalised socioeconomic existence.
The woman lover in a bhawaiya song has often reached the fullness of youth without a loving husband or has been widowed at a young age. Numerous bhawaiya songs bear witness to the struggles of a woman’s life and the deep disappointments she has had to suffer in silence. In a chatka song written by Shymapada Barman, we find a typically telling description of the inadequacies of familial life:
Kanchaa khori bhija chula—phokaite na dhore—
Ore, bhat andhite hoiche deri— sheo dosho ki more—
Golam dangalu re—
The tinder is unready; the oven is soaked—I can’t blow a fire into being
Now that I’ve been late in cooking the rice—is that any fault of mine
My husband has beaten me up— [Translation mine]
When this woman finds a helpful friend in the moishal who is living by the river—staying near the village, working for some landed master—the contingencies of their difficult lives pull them together, as in this song:
Aji khori katibar de re moishal
Bojha bandhibar de
Haat dhoron, minoti koron re moishal
Mathato tuliya de
Chop some wood for me moishal
Tie them up for me
I hold your hand and plead to you moishal
Lift that bundle on to my head [Translation mine]
It must also be noted that the woman’s voice in bhawaiya is predominantly a male construct. It is said that the baudiyas, the cattle herders and cart drivers, would sit down at the end of a hard day and compose such songs on their dotaras. These expressions of female desire and grief for her absent male lover can, therefore, be construed as the wishful dreams of lonely men leading harsh, solitary lives. They were hoping that the women they long for are pining for them equally in their absence. However, a case can be made that the social marginalisation of these men allows them to be more sensitive about the injustices meted out to individuals. It is perhaps their own travails that equip them to write about the plight of a woman caught within the limits of communal norms on one hand and her heart’s desires on the other.
The history of bhawaiya as recorded music since the 1930s would indicate that there were very few female recording artists singing it for the first few decades. A notable exception was Pratima Barua, whose social background within the Gouripur royal family (in Goalpara, Assam) allowed her a position of privilege beyond the reach of rural singers. As a cultural scholar from Gitaldaha (Alipurduar, West Bengal), Aminur Rahman pointed out during field interviews for this article that it was only in the 1970s that iconic high-pitched female voices like that of Ayesha Sarkar became a staple of recorded bhawaiya music. But as Sarkar herself pointed out, she was just a 10-year-old girl when she was selected by male recording artists and producers and taken to Kolkata to make the first of the many records that would go on to make her famous. So, when she sang her well-known and typical songs about a woman’s loneliness, she was still singing songs written and produced by men, designed according to their notions. For example, this song below was produced by the popular bhawaiya collector and scholar Harishchandra Pal and written by another famous veteran male artist Gangacharan Biswas:
Aji na kandis na kandis kurua re
. . . Bichhinar doshor nai re kurua
Bhora joibon kale
Joiboner ki jwala re kurua
Mor se mone jane re
Don’t cry, don’t you cry today my songbird
... I don’t have my partner on my bed, o songbird
And my youth is in full bloom
O the pangs of being a young woman
My heart knows what they are [Translation mine]
As in the song above, the litmus test of an evocative narrative of love in the bhawaiya idiom is not just the articulation of a woman’s grief or a man’s circumstantial bondage but how these are grounded within the tangible realities of people’s lives. A union of timeless nature and temporally defined culture as the core of a love story becomes apparent in the best of these songs:
Phande poriya boga kande re
... Uriya jay re chokora ponkhi, koya jay re thare
Tomar boga bondi hoichhe Dhorola nodir pare re
Ei kotha shunia bogi pankha meliya dilo
Dhorola nodir pare jaiya dorshon dilo re
Bogiko dekhiya boga kande re
Bogako dekhiya bogi kande re
Caught in a trap, boga (a male egret) keeps crying
. . . A chokora bird flies out, and calls out in code
Your boga has been captured by the side of the Dhorola River
Hearing this, bogi (a female egret) spreads her wings
She goes to the Dhorola River and appears in front of boga
Boga keeps crying on seeing bogi
Bogi keeps crying on seeing boga [Translation mine]
As evident here, the soul of a woman’s love within the scope of a romantic bhawaiya song resides within the tears of bogi. The practical futility of their union at the end is made even more acute by the ecstasy of their yearning. The abiding feeling is one of entrapment within social circumstances, wherein a sense of loss and non-fulfillment may become the inescapable fallout of every decision, and the consequent longing and passion remain the only means of transcending such earthly circumstances. Thus, in its adherence to the day-to-day secular realities of love, the discourse of bhawaiya can attain profound spiritual discernment.
 Barma, Bhawaiya-Chatka, 254.
 Ibid., 258.
 Bhattacharya, Bangiya Lok-Sangeet Ratnakar, 1566.
 Barman, Bhawaiya Geetisangraha Swaralipi, 25.
 Aminur Rahman, in conversation with the author, September 2018.
 Ayesha Sarkar, in conversation with the author, September 2018.
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