Oral Traditions of Bangladesh: Some Basic Traits

Published : 21 March 2008, 08:23 AM
Updated : 21 March 2008, 08:23 AM

In the USA and some European countries the synchronic method of studying folklore has been a modern trend in recent times. Since this sub¬continent of ours has a history of great antiquity and a perennial backwardness in social development, non-literate culture or oral culture still has an abiding influence. This means the synchronic method in the study of our folkloric corpus will not help us identify the inner significance of many local folk-genres. Therefore, our research paradigm must be formulated integrating both the synchronic and the diachronic methods. Unless we can build a holistic discourse model of this kind, the objective study of our folklore is not possible. A.K. Ramanujan has, as we notice, made an attempt of this kind in his study of Kannada and Tamil folklore1. No such innovative attempt has yet been noticed in the eastern part of the sub-continent, particularly the region comprising Bangladesh, West Bengal etc.

However, it is important to note that the active tradition bearers perform the items of their repertoire keeping in mind the historical continuity of local performance tradition. This is why the performance of a folk narrative or folksong or a ballad cannot be appreciated if it is viewed synchronically.

By ignoring the central authoritarian and hegemonic pressure and studying the ancient scriptures in the minutest detail the rural bards have succeeded in building a liberal cultural worldview of their own which is tolerant of others views and free from the bondage of religious fanaticism and scriptural injunctions. Rabindranath Tagore said, "Bangladesh had always been free from scriptural obsessions. The doctrines of Buddhism and Jainism had always an abiding influence in this country or its neighborhood. Both Magadha and Bengal were treated as outcastes. In other words they enjoyed freedom. One can notice such freedom among the Vaishnavas and the Bauls of Bengal. They always threw off the yoke of ornamentation and high-sounding scriptural edicts from their literature and song. The encumbrance of holy book is not present there but they are liberal, profound and expressive of suggestions free from prejudice2. The Kirtans, Bauls and Bhatiali songs of this country have so very deep meanings that it is difficult to get at them.

The monks, hermits, ascetics, kabials (professional versifiers), Bayatis and Bauls of Bengal have evolved a tradition of humanism after a thorough study of religious scriptures, myths and puranas. The Buddists and Jains of ancient Bengal in their philosophical thought attached importance to man rather than divine power. They refuted the Vedic philosophy and said, "The basic truth of a religion is to create subtle and impalpable sensitiveness of human instinct and purify it." The physical ascetic practice of the Sahajiyas was further added to this thought. During the pre-Aryan age the Nathyogi-Tantriks (the followers of the doctrines taught by the Tantras) used to practice this. The Atharva Veda approved this practice as well. That's why the Vedists (Vedic Brahmins) looked down upon the followers of Atharva Veda as Brattya—the outcaste. In pre-Aryan Bengal, the religious practice of the common people centred round the psalms involving physical ascetic practice. The Atharva Veda further maintains that man is adorable not because of his devoutness but because of his being a 'human being'. It glorifies the world of mortals rather than the Eden above.

During eighth and ninth centuries and in particular during the reign of the Pala dynasty the cultural manifestation of Shahajiya philosophy had an overwhelming influence on the simple rustic people to the grass root level of Bengal. A new philosophy of life based entirely on humanism gradually developed as a result of the synthesis of certain religious practices, namely, the Sahajia of the Buddhists and the Vaisnavas, the Tantrick practice of the Nathyogis, the sufism of Islam and the like. From its very inception Bangla folklore was always vocal against the Aryan ideal propagated by the Vedic authorities and central authoritarian hegemonic power because of its dull and lifeless burden of religious rites. The Baul song, the Jaga song (night-long winter folksong sung especially in northern part of Bangladesh), the Kabigan (a popular and unique folksong genre in which two parties led by their respective chiefs alternately present songs and verses on debatable themes in the form of arguments and counter arguments composed extemporaneously) and the Bichar gan (argumentative folksong) bear testimony of it. Kshitimohan Sen remarks that, 'the Bauls do not hanker after celestial bliss but the supreme ecstasy of emancipation'.

Bauls opine that this mundane love is much better than the nectar of heaven and that human love is truer than the dull religious scriptures. Lalon, the mentor of the Bauls, speaks thus: "Ache Hindu-Musalman dui bhagey/Thakey Bhester ashay momingan/Hindura dei Shargetey mon/Bhesta-Sharga Fatok saman". This song can be translated thus: the Hindus and the Muslims are having two different ways/the believers in Allah long for entering paradise/the Hindus cherish to go to heaven/But both paradise and heaven are nothing but prisons. So he says, "Kaliyuge manush avatar, meaning man is as good as avatar of the Kaliyuga (the fourth or last age of creation according to the Hindu Purana)". He further says, "Sarva Sadhan Siddha hoi tar bhove manus guru nistha jar" (he who ardently adores human guru accomplishes the ultimate goal or summum bonum).

It is very unwise to establish similarity between the clear manifestation of social revolt and humane qualities of the Bauls, Bayatis and Kavials of Bengal and the partial renaissance of the urban Hindu literate middle-class of nineteenth century Bengal. Both Raja Rammohan Roy and Lalon were born possibly in the same year (1772 AD). Both of them propagated the hjgh ideals of humanism. But this realization of theirs sprang up from two different origins. One originates from the soil of Bengal while the other one is the result of colonial western influence. Both these ran parallel and boiled down to the same conclusion. But we have to bear in mind that it is not the urban humanist but the Kavials, Bauls, Kirton singers and the Vaishnavas who play the most important role as a catalyst of social change throughout vast rural Bengal by imbuing the people with the sense and sensibility which was tolerant of other's views, rational and non-communal. Some of them were persecuted and harassed by the orthodox mullahs or the Hindu fanatics but they held high the banner of humanism. That is why the role of folklore is unquestionably significant in the socio-cultural and intellectual history of Bengal.

Now let us address another significant issue: the depiction of women in our folklore. In the folk-literature of Bengal the role of women is comprehensive, manifold and multidimensional and if we consider 'folklore1 as a whole then we will see that their presence there is enormous and sometimes it is totally feminine affair. Herein lies the basic difference between written literature and oral literature of Bengal. In written literature women are represented as weak, unequal and to some extent as less influential personality. But in folk-literature women are not tongue-tied; rather they are eloquent, creative and innovative. One need not go far to find out the reason. It lies in the very formation of our rural society and its historical manifestation.

The people of the agro-based rural society of this sub-continent of ours have an idea of their own about this life, world and the universe. Because of the co-existence of the aborigines of the country and the outside racial stocks of people of various colour and creed a significant process of synergetic assimilation took place between the Hindu religion and culture, Muslim way of life and many a minor religious and Tantrik and Shahajia practices of Buddhism and Nath religion and thereby developed a pluralistic life-style in Bengal. Though unlettered and fanciful the people of the country are imaginative and practical at the same time. So they design their life style in a way to coexist peacefully. This quality of accommodating different ideals and many other facets of their chequered way of life are reflected in their folk-literature.

Therefore, folk-literature can be considered as a dependable instrument to have a thorough understanding of the way of life of the common people and of their belief, custom, culture, sense of values and morality, aesthetic sense, amusement and recreation.

The non-literate but life-oriented people of the sub-continent lived a life of concerted and densely-bound-populated rural agro-based society for a long time. The 'society1 of such people was so very powerful that their folk-literature, folk-art, folk-drama and folk-song became a medium of their vibrant expression; hence an integral part of the society.

Through these main folk rubrics and minor ones the Bengali society not only quenched its thirst for mundane amusement and pleasure but also for testimony of its love of art and culture, aesthetic sense and deep religious philosophy. And the contribution of women folk in this respect was enormous. They used and practised folk items like fairy tales, rhymes, lullaby, proverbs, songs and dances. So far as rites and rituals and observance of religious vows and festivals are concerned women play the leading role. Womenfolk were also unrivalled in the art of embroidery, alpana, cooking and cake-making. Khana, the lady of ancient Bengal celebrated for uncommon proficiency in astronomy and mathematics, made a great contribution through her rhymed saying that have passed through the ages as valuable guidance for tillage of the soil, plantation, harvesting etc. The aesthetic sense of the womenfolk of Bangladesh has already found expression in their art of embroidered quilts, shikas, embroidered seats, table cloths and many other items of folk-art and this has received world-wide recognition. This contribution of the Bengali womenfolk is uncommon not only in the cultural tradition of Bangladesh but also in the domain of global civilization.

Sree Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar and Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen have depicted female characters who are pregnant with humane qualities and high spirit in their popular series of folk-literature as against the high ideal of the classical character of womanhood prevailing in the sub-continent. It is said that the characters like Kanchanmala, Malanchamala, Mahua, Malua, Sakhina, Kajalrekha, Kamala, Leela and Chandravati are but flowers of the same garden. It has further been remarked that they can be compared with Behula, a character found in our old mythological literature. Such soft-spoken, gentle but highly spirited female characters are hard to find in the written Bengali literature of the middle ages.

Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen has identified the geo-political cause that enabled the folk-poets and bards to portray such freedom-loving female characters. He says, "Now if we take a bird's-eye view of the tract of land covered by Susunga and Garo hills on the north, run over by the rivers Someswari and the Kangsa, and gradually passing to the south-east, glance at the sub-divisions of Netrakona and Kishoreganj, and then wend our course to the south-west up to the limits of Bhowal including Kapasia, Tangail and some portions of Savar and Manikganj, now forming the northern limits of the Dacca district, we have a well-defined boundary-line of a large country which had once formed a part of the old province of Assam under the ways of the Rajas of Pragjotispur, and which never bore any sign of the priestly influence, that has marked Bengal proper under the domination of Brahminic revival. The nickname given to this part of the country by the Brahmins of the Renaissance is baju which is derived from the word barjita (prohibited). It is a prohibited area, because the Rajas who reigned there were found too formidable for the Sen Rajas to cope with, and the Brahminic canons with their 'Kaulinya' and stringent marriage rules could find no access into it. But this tract of land, ruled by a different society and a different standard of moral and communal life, is extremely interesting to us; as its culture is indigenous, and far more natural and fresh than that of the Renaissance3."

This was how the traits of the female characters of folk-literature of that region have been shaped. Herein lies the difference between the female characters of Bengali folk-literature and those of the classical text of the Ramayana pertaining to the other regions of India. Prof. A. K. Ramanujan says, "Folklore (where ethos, aesthetics and world view meet) is an excellent place to examine such notions. For instance, classical texts like the Ramayana and Cilappatikarm present no unchaste woman", or where they are presented, they are chastened by unchastity (ahalya, etc.). But folklore is full of ingenious, promiscuous betrayers of the ideal. In legend, woman saints break every rule in Manu's codebook, disobey husbands, take on liaisons, walk the streets naked4". This contrast between classical and folk literature presents us women of different traits. The women of folk-tradition are protesting and out to express their freedom.

In Prag-Jyotispur (ancient name of Kamrupa) there was a matriarchal society. That's why in the songs, we come across, depict freedom-loving woman characters. In this region women could indulge in love-affairs before marriage and they had the liberty to choose their life-partners. But it is hard to find an example of this in the written Bengali literature of the middle ages. Which is why the modern outlook of the folk poets about womenfolk simply surprises us. They have vis-a-vis this truly portrayed the lasciviousness, wickedness, diplomacy and cruelty of male characters. They have also depicted the characters of women who are fallen and unchaste. For example, Chikan Goalini, a character of folk-drama 'Kamala', is both crooked and a messenger but she is nevertheless a human being of flesh and blood.

The history of women and their quality of outspokenness have been interestingly depicted in the works of the women themselves. In the western world the expression of feminism does not date back to the hoary past, rather it originated almost in the recent past. But we are taken aback when we see that Chandravati, a sixteenth century folk-poetess hailing from Kishoreganj district of our country has uniquely depicted in her tale of Ramayana women's character from a feminine perspective. This reflects her deep feeling and farsightedness. This effort on her part in a patriarchal society is exceptional and historical. So she deserves to be held in high esteem. Two woman writers5 of Bangladesh and West Bengal have in their recent writings delineated this pioneering role of Chandravati,

By evaluating the role of womenfolk in Bengali folk-literature we have tried to draw an outline of Bengal's culture and intellect and understanding of her people. But we have to elaborate it further to understand the spiritualism as practiced in folklore of Bengal, the concept of creation, the Puranas, myths, cosmologies and so on. The culture of the Bengalis has its origin in the Austric-Dravidian-Mongoloid-Chinese elements. The Sankhya system of philosophy, Yoga and Tantrik practice, tribal anthropomorphism, pantheism and witchcraft all had a pervading effect on it and this has strengthened their firm belief in gods of trees, gods of birds and beasts, goddesses and local deities. Moreover, the customs and rituals of the Koles, Veels, Santhals, Onrao, Koach, Rajbamshi and others have also influenced the way of life, religious and cultural practices of the Bengalis. Though Bengal came under the Muslim Rule, the monotheistic religion and the way of life of the rulers did not have any serious conflict with local culture. The reason is that the Hindus and the Buddhists of the lower caste embraced Islam. Though they were Muslim they could not give up the age-old culture, belief, rituals and the way of life of the lands6. They just expand the indigenous cosmologies to accommodate new superhuman beings introduced by the Muslims. As a result, their religion too had its influence on it. This is how cultural blending in Bengal came into being. So, Islam here has turned into a form of local nature. The converted Muslims gave up worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses but they tried to find their alternative in their newly accepted religion. This trend had been reflected in myths and mythology and folk-protagonists and even in historical characters. For example, the heroism and the skill in archery of Hazrat Ali have been compared to those of Visma, Dronacharya and Asatthama. Amir Hamza and Rupa Banu have been compared with Shiva and Parvati. 'Iblish' (Satan) has been compared with Narad Muni. We also notice this trend in Satyanarayan/Satyapir, Bano-Devi/Bano-Bibi, Olaichandi/Olabibi, Manikpir-Gorachandpir and so on.

The predominence of woman (goddess) as an emblem of strength in Bengali Hindu religion and culture is absolute. The Muslims of Bengal too have attributed this quality of strength in Fatema, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (SM). Poet Syed Murtaza of the Middle Ages named Fatema as Viswamata (Mother of the world) and this tribute became a central point of Bengal's religions and cultural practices and efforts were made for its parallelism. Folk-poet Pagla Kanal compared/Maa Fatema" with "Maa Tara or Tarini7".

This is how Bangla folklore has created its worldview with the hopes and aspirations of the common men and women and their philosophy of cultural synthesis and peaceful co-existence. At the beginning of a Mymensing ballad performance the formal invocation (bandana) is a fine example of cultural integration. Richard Eaton wrote: "Clearly, the religious culture of the area in which this ballad was sung included a broad spectrum of super human agencies, ranging from nearby pirs and rivers to the distant Himalayas and even the sublime Absolute of Indian Philosophy. Above all, the invocation illustrates how easily Islamic super human figures could be included in what appears to have been a fluid, expandable cosmology"8. Social dynamics of rural Bangladesh is rooted in this syncretistic cultural tradition and religious tolerance.

SAARC Folklore Seminar, Delhi (6-9 December 2007)


১. Ramanujan A.K.: The Relivance of South Asian Folklore: Indian Folklore voM.P. 89, 1980.

২. Sen, Kshitimohan: Banglar Sadhana: P. 7, 1965.

৩. Sen, Dinesh Chandra: Eastern Bengal Ballads, Mymensingh vol-1 Part-1, (Introduction P. XXIX) Calcutta University 1923).

৪. Ramanujan, A.K-lbid P. 82.

৫. Sen, Navanita Dev, and Chakravarty, Sushmita.

৬. Eaton, Richard, M. The Rise of Islam and The Bengal Frontier, Oxford University Press, P. 275, 1994.

৭. Roy, Asim, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal P. 94, 1983.

৮. Eaton, Richard, Ibid. P. 272