Minstrels to mantras: the music of Bengal

  • Author: Jahnavi Harrison

Do you know your Bangla music? If you can’t wrap your head around Rabindrasangeet and thought a Baul was something you eat cereal out of, never fear! All is explained below...

Situated in the far north east of India, Bengal was formerly a large state bordered by the ocean and criss-crossed by tributaries of the Ganges river. In an attempt to avoid Hindu-Muslim tension, it was divided in 1971 into the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh, a separate country.

Though the region of Bengal has produced a huge number of classical music greats: Ustad Allauddin Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta, and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, to name but a few. But its distinctive musical forms are less well known outside the Bengali diaspora.

Traditional Bengali music spans a wide spectrum from folk to classical genres. Perhaps its most famous export are the musical works of Rabindranath Tagore, the 19th-century polymath, collectively referred to as Rabindrasangeet. With an output of over 2000 songs, Tagore’s evocative works are sung by housewives, scholars, politicians and illiterate villagers alike.

Whilst Tagore was heavily influenced by Indian classical music, he was also inspired by traditional Bengali folk forms as well as the popular European music of the British colonial era. His songs have inspired generations of artists, and two - Jana Gana Mana and Amar Shonar Bangla were even chosen as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh respectively.

The spiritual home of Rabindrasangeet is ;Santiniketan, a small Bengali town where Tagore resided and wrote much of his work. Today Tagore’s songs are being sung by a new generation of young artists such as Kamalini Mukherji (USA), Sounak Chattopadhyay (India) and Shreya Guhathakurta (France/UK). Each stay true to the rich poetic tradition, whilst experimenting with format, instrumentation and presentation to bring the genre to new audiences.

Equally symbolic of Bengal’s musical heritage are the Bauls. This spiritual community of wandering minstrels are renowned for their unconventional appearance, provocative songs and driving belief - that God is hidden within the heart of man and neither priest, prophet, nor organised religion will help one to find Him there. Their music, influenced both by the Sufi as well as Vaishnava Hindu traditions explores the search for Moner Manush - the man of the heart - a theme that also greatly inspired Tagore.

Ami kothai pabo tare, amar moner manush je re.

Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?

(He is lost to me and I seek him wandering from land to land.

I am listless for that moonrise of beauty, which is to light my life,

which I long to see in the fullness of vision, in gladness of heart.)

The most famous instrument of the bauls is the ektara, a one stringed ‘plucked drum’ made of bamboo and goatskin, that provides a rhythmic drone accompaniment. Other folk instruments used include the dotara, a fretless lute reminiscent of the sarod. Percussion instruments include the duggi, dhol, and khol, and khartal cymbals and manjira foot bells. The music of the Bauls has become more well known throughout the world due to a few pioneering members of the community. Paban Das Baul, a Baul born and raised, is a frequent collaborator on the international stage with artists such as Susheela Raman.

One less obvious Bengali musical export may be its most widely exposed. In fact, many people worldwide have already connected with aspects of traditional Bengali music without realising it. The Hare Krishna Movement - happy looking people in saris and orange bedsheets that sing in the streets - follows the ancient Gaudiya (Meaning, ‘of or from Gauda, Bengal') tradition of Vaishnava Hinduism.

In the 1500s, while Europe was experiencing a renaissance in art and culture, India was captured by a spiritual renaissance led by Shri Chaitanya, one of the most impactful spiritual reformers in the country’s history. His message was that all beings can experience freedom and happiness by reawakening their relationship with God, by singing his names.

Travelling throughout India, people of every background, including untouchables, to sing the names of God. This practice is known as kirtan, meaning ‘to glorify’. His non-violent social reform aggravated many, but also influenced great spiritual leaders of the time, like Guru Nanak and Sant Tukaram.

Whilst previously the mantra and music of worship was kept exclusively within the temples, and usually performed seated, Shri Chaitanya invented the lightweight clay-bodied khol drum that could be played whilst walking and dancing. Associates of his developed distinct kirtan gharanas or styles, such as Garanhati, Manoharshahi and Reneti. These styles are still performed today in Bengal, in grand gatherings that draw crowds of many thousands, and the khol gives a unique flavour to even contemporary Bengali music.

The essence of Chaitanya’s all-singing, all-dancing kirtan movement was brought to the West in 1966 by a Bengali expat named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who started out teaching it to the young hippies of New York, then spreading all over the world.

To this day, in any major city, the Bengali khol and karatal cymbals can be heard being played in the streets, accompanying the traditional singing of the ‘Hare Krishna’ mantra. The US-based band The Mayapuris are Florida-born, Bengal-raised young men who perform kirtan all over the world reaching increasingly mainstream audiences.

As far as classical music, Bengal continues to turn out stellar musicians such as vocal virtuoso Kaushiki Chakrabarty, a rare female torchbearer of the Patiala gharana.

Listen to the music A Rabindrasangeet sung by Tagore himself.

A Baul song performed at Santiniketan. 

Paban Das Baul.

Traditional Bengali village kirtan festival. 

Kaushiki Chakraborty of the Patiala gharana sings solo in Kolkata's Botanic Gardens. 

Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta teaches Soumik Datta Raag Gujri Todi.

Jahnavi Harrison is a multi-disciplinary artist, specialising in vocal music, Kirtan meditation, and Indian devotional dance.

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