Music especially ‘Gaan’ or songs have been part of lives of the Bengali speaking people. These have kept people mesmerized for ages. Bengali songs reflect every mood and occasion, sad or festive. These also portray lives of different regions that have been part of Bengal. Ours is a country of six seasons and music has also been composed depicting the specific characteristics of those seasons. The other important aspect of the Bengali music that ought to be mentioned that these have relevance to every occasion and event recorded in history. Bengali songs have played an important role during our Liberation War. These rejuvenated both the common men and the Freedom Fighters during the days of despair and challenges.
The Bengali music has been categorized or classified into different types depending on their specific characteristics. It has also been observed that different types or varieties have originated in different parts or regions of the country. However, many types or varieties of the Bengali songs have their origin or roots in the current day West Bengal. Here it may be noted that the before the partition of 1947 undivided Bengal was a province of the British India. So in overwhelming cases, especially with respect to Bengali music, we have a common heritage. Wherever may be the origin of the song – West Bengal or Bangladesh – these are popular and have universal appeal everywhere among the Bengali speaking people living anywhere around the world.Of the different categories or types of Bengali music, folk occupies a special place. Folk songs have simple musical structure and words. From time immemorial, folk songs were the main source of entertainment in the rural areas performed mostly by local folk singers. Some popular forms of folk music include the Baul songs generally performed by the Baul communities; Bhatiali music of the riverine southern region popular particularly among fishermen and boatman; Bhawaiya common in the northern region; Gombhira originated in Chapai Nawabganj performed with a particular distinctive rhythm and dance with two performers, always personifying a man and his grandfather; Bhaktimulak or devotional songs; Jari songs involving musical battle between two groups and Sari sung traditionally by boatmen.
Most notables among the composers and singers of the different folk traditions are Lalon Shah, Radharaman Datta, Hason Raja, Ramesh Shil and Fakir Shah Abdul Karim – to name a few. Here it needs to be mentioned that the Bengali folk music caries the long tradition of religious and secular song-writing and sung and loved by all irrespective of religion and cultural and regional backgrounds.
Besides the folk music, songs of five poets have special place in the world of the Bengali music. Among them, the leading proponent was poet Rabindranath Tagore. He was a prolific composer with around 2,232 songs to his credit. His songs merge fluidly into his literature, most of which are poems and they reflect the entire gamut of human emotion. The tunes of his many songs were revamped with selected Western, Hindustani, Bengali folk and other regional traditions. These were quite new and different from traditional culture. He has the unparallel unique credit of composing the national anthems of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Most of his musical poems are detailed in two series of books – the Gitabitan that contains texts of the poems and the Swarabitan includes the poems and their musical notation. However, there are several other poems of his that are set to music, and not mentioned in either of the above. The tradition of Tagore’s songs is handed down from his students to their students and so on. It is said that his songs' appeal which is a combination of emotive strength and beauty surpass even his poetry.
Kazi Nazrul Islam, the National Poet of Bangladesh, made unique contribution to Bengali music. Popularly known as Nazrul Sangeet or Nazrul Geeti reflect the revolutionary notions as well as more spiritual, philosophical and romantic themes. He wrote and composed nearly 4,000 songs which are widely popular. Here it needs to be mentioned that Kazi Nazrul Islam is credited to write and compose music of the highest number of songs in Bengali.
Dwijendralal Roy, the other prominent poet composed about five hundred songs. The themes of these songs are the beauty of nature, a romantic agony, devotion to God and patriotism. Atul Prasad Sen was also one of the major lyricists and composers of early-modern period. He is credited with introducing some Hindusthani styles in Bengali music. His songs centred on patriotism, devotion and love. The last of the Panchakobis, Rajanikanta Sen with his songs made notable contribution to Bengali music. These contained some unique characteristics as well. Most of them are inspired by his devotion to God. In addition, his patriotism forms another important theme of his songs. The surge of patriotism at the beginning of the twentieth century inspired Rajanikanta to compose songs.
The demise of the poet Rabindranath Tagore in the early 40’s of the last century may be considered as the beginning of a new trend of Bengali music which could be termed as modern songs in the current day sense. The lyricists and composers of the modern songs continued and still continue to add to the rich collection of Bengali music which are loved and kept people mesmerized with the lyrics and compositions.In recent years, Bengali songs composed and rendered in different western styles have also become very popular especially among the younger generations. I many cases, old and traditional songs are also been rendered in western tunes and styles.
However, Bengali music is evolving with time and adding new colours to the already enriched varieties of different types and forms. But there are certain unique characteristics or traditions of Bengali music that deserve mentioning. Most important among those is that the songs of the five poets particularly those of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam are being rendered by innumerable singers of outstanding qualities and reputations. This is also true for the folk songs. The singers generally follow the standard notations. However, in recent years, these are rendered in many improvised versions and forms as per the going trend in the world of music. But the most important aspect that needs to be mentioned that these songs are still immensely popular among the music lovers. It may be so that nowhere in the world the same songs are rendered for about close to one hundred years by different performers with their specialties are equally popular among the people for ages.
Many of the folk songs are even older than those. These have not lost their appeal even after the lapse of so many years of their first composition. These songs kept mesmerized Bengali music lovers from the very beginning of their composition and are still being loved by all. In all likelihood, these songs will retain their appeals and keep the people mesmerized for many innumerable years to come particularly because of the richness of their lyrics and wide variety of tunes.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude).
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh.