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Folk Literature


Folk Literature is generally created by preliterate communities and passed down orally from one generation to another. Though folk literature of one region may have similarities with that of another region, it tends to flourish in a certain geographical and environmental setting. Although composed by individuals, folk literature, by the nature of its composition and preservation, becomes a collective product and assumes the traditions, emotions, thoughts and values of the community. Because folk literature is oral basically, it tends to rely on some devices and patterns of language and style. Nevertheless, it is replete with artistic beauty, wit and joy.

Folk literature, by its nature, is conditioned by the land and its environment. The temperate climate of Bengal, where people do not need to struggle much for a living, tends to make the people easy going. At the same nature attunes them to appreciate nature and its changing faces, to sing about the land and the rivers, about the rain or the lack of it, about the pleasures or pains of the different seasons. The rich folk literature of Bengal includes folk songs, ballads, folk tales, folk drama, rhymes, incantations, riddles and proverbs that draw upon the indigenous culture of this land but which, through the centuries, have also absorbed alien cultures and been modified in the process.

Folk songs are set to tune and passed down orally from generation to generation. Folk songs express the lifestyle of the rural people, with all their hopes, expectations, sorrows and dreams. Everything, starting from individuals to society and from religion to occupations, influences the form of folk songs. Nature, environment, seasonal diversity add to the beauty of folk songs. The baramasi (song of twelve months) describes the joys and sorrows of village women through the twelve months of the Bangla year. The lives of boatmen and the world of rudders, rivers, boats, sails, waves, banks inspire the long-drawn bhatiyali (song of the river), while the vast expanses of the land, the distant horizon, the sun and clouds, tiring afternoons and days inform the bhawaiya (song of the land). Folk songs are also inspired by the search for the perfect being and communal harmony as in baul songs. They are also inspired by the desire to have a happier, more harmonious conjugal life giving rise to the vratagan (song of vows) that accompany vrata puja (vow-taking). Muslim culture added jarigan (the song of sorrow, from zari, Persian for sorrow), which describes the sorrows and sufferings associated with muharram. Other folk songs include the sari, jhumur, ghatu, murshidi and gambhira.

Folk songs may be sung by professional or amateur singers. Gayen or bayati are professional singers who sing in groups, while kaviyals take part in song tournaments. Chhokra in alkap and ghatu in ghatu songs are professional singers and dancers. Udas (ascetic) bauls sing as part of their mystic search, while vairagi and vairagini or bostam and bostami sing while begging for alms. Professional singers called gidal sing at wedding ceremonies, though amateur women singers also take part in wedding songs. Almost every village woman can sing these songs. Farmers, working people, cowherds, boatmen all sing songs while working or resting.

ashutosh bhattacharya classified folk songs under five heads: regional, practical, ritual, work-related and devotional. But taking the subject matter into account, there are seven categories of folk songs: love, ritual, philosophy and devotion, work and labour, profession and occupation, satire and fun, and mixed.

Worldly love is central to the folk songs that describe love between man and woman. Heavenly love is the subject of devotional songs. Bodily love, lust, quarrels between man and woman, and union and estrangement are manifest in songs like alkap, based on the love of radha and krishna, kavigan, ghatu gan, jhumur, baramasi, meyeli git, jatra gan, sari gan, holi gan etc. Some examples are bane kanur banshi bajila re (Krishna plays a flute in the wood, alkap), ki herilam jamunay asiya go sajani (What have I seen here in the Jamuna! ghatu gan), shuna go rai, bali tore (I tell you Radha, jhumur), magha na masete madhava maturay gamana (I go to Mathura before Magh comes, baramasi), tui more nidayay kaliya re (You, my cruel lover, bhawaiya), man duhkhe maribe suval sakha (I will die of infliction, song of estrangement), sundari lo bairaiya dekh, shyame banshi bajaiya jay re (Come out, darling, and see. Here goes Syam playing on a flute, sari gan), nidhubane shyam kishor sane khelba holi ay (We'll frolic in the holi rituals in union, songs of holi), etc. Although replete with words like Radha, Krishna, suval, mathura, jamuna, banshi, etc, these songs do not have any religious or spiritual overtone. They rather deal with humanity and worldly wisdom.

Carters, keepers of buffaloes, mahouts, boatmen, merchants, tradesmen, rivers, haors etc are often the subjects of songs as in the following examples: o ki gadiyal bhai, kata raba ami panther dike chaya re (Oh my carter! How long will you make me wait for you, bhawaiya), are geile ki asiben mor mahut bandhu (Will you ever return if I let you go now, bhawaiya), amar badi yan o mor praner maisal re (Oh my keeper of buffaloes, go to my house, chatka), o mor baniya bandhu re (Oh my tradesman, bhawaiya), sujan majhi re, kon ghate lagaiba tor nao (Oh boatman, my friend, where will you anchor your boat? bhatiyali), sundairya majhir nao ujan chalo dhaiya (Oh the boat of a handsome boatman, keep taking an upstream course, sari gan), etc.

Many folk songs are inspired by the emotion of love, often depicted in images drawn from the life of the land: gao tola gao tola kanya he, kanya pindo biyar shadi (Cheer up, girl, put on your wedding sari), ghate dibga lagaiya majhi pan kheya yao (Anchor your boat, and have a betel leaf), kata pasan baindyachha pati manete (How cruel can you be, my husband?), jal bhara sundari kanya jale diya man (Carefully fill up your pitcher with water), lal nil chaur baiya, hate jao re sonar naiya (My prized boatman, row your boat to the market).

Ideas of the body and the soul, the guru and his disciple, of God and the humble devotee inform religious folk songs like baul, murshidi, marphati, maizbhandari etc. Bauls, fakirs, vairagis sometimes pray directly to God, sometimes they pray through gurus or murshids: khanchar bhitar achin pakhi kemne ase jay (How does the unknown bird enter and go out of the cage? baul), manmajhi tor baitha nere ami ar baite parlam na (Oh my mind-boatman, take the oar, I cannot row further, bhatiyali), bhavanadi par kare dao dayal murshid amare (Oh my murshid, help me cross the sea of this world, murshidi), o ki chamatkar, bhandare ek ajab karbar (Oh how beautiful! some wonderful things are taking place in the world, maijbhandari).

All religious folk songs, however, are not seeking union with the perfect being. In fact, many devotional or religious songs ask for boons and blessings from God or the deities. A very well-known song, for example, prays for rain: Allah myagh de pani de, chhaya de re tui (Oh God, give us clouds, rain and shelter). But it is not always to God that people pray for rain, but also to the clouds: megh rajare tuini sudar bhai/ ek jhadi megh de bhijya ghare jai (Oh clouds, come and shower on me, so that I can go back home completely wet). A type of song called hudmar gan is popular among the rajbangshifarmers in rangpur. During drought, the wives of farmers come out onto the fields at night and sing to Hudma, the rain god.

The songs known as bhadu, tusu and jawa of the radha region, on the western bank of the Ganges, are also devotional in nature. Jawa songs are sung at the time of planting of seeds and bhadu at the time of harvest. In folk religion-which continues to underlie received religion-the fertility of the land is associated with that of women. Thus young women observe the vow of bhadu in the hope of a successful married life. Other devotional songs include the gajan and gambhira, sung to shiva, the god of agriculture. The gajan, composed on the family life of Shiva and Parvati, in essence reflects the life of farming families as can be seen in the song dhan lada dhan lada, gori, aulaiya mathar kesh (Spread the rice, oh beautiful lady, spread the rice, forget about your uncombed hair.) Another form of gajan complains to Shiva about family needs and problems, as in the song shiva, tomar lilakhela kara abasaan/ bujhi banche na ar jan (Shiva, stop playing your games, we are almost done). Though originally gambhira was addressed to Shiva, these days the songs highlight various aspects of politics, society, education, economy, natural disasters, corruption etc.

Another type of song is magan song (song for food offering), which is sung by children, cowherds and farmhands when they go from door to door, begging ingredients for shirni, a form of sweetened rice to be offered to Goaila and Goraksnath. It is believed that this offering will please the deities and keep cattle safe. Since cattle are important in farming, people offer shirni to supernatural beings to ensure the safety of their cattle.

The Muslim community also has similar songs, called jag gan, which are sung to ask boons of pirs (spiritual elders). These songs praising pirs are sung throughout the night. Among the pirs believed to hold the power to bless barren women with children, cure diseases, bestow wealth and save cattle are Gazi Pir, Madar Pir, Khwaja Khizir, Manik Pir, Sona Pir and Badar Pir. The songs meant for Gazi Pir are known as gazir gan. It is customary in some places to undertake vows to hold sessions of Gazir gan, to secure the well-being of children, health and wealth.

Jari gan, or mourning songs, based on the tragedy at Karbala, are sung during Muharram by group singers. The note of jari gan is that of pathos, reflecting the sadness of the death of Imam Hussain and his companions, including small children and young men. Of late the subjects of jari gan have widened to include the 'jari of the qurbani (sacrifice) of Islam', the 'jari of Independence Day' etc. Muharram songs also include the mourning elegies known as marsia.

Karmasangit, or songs of work, are sung during ploughing, harvesting, threshing, rowing, thatching, knitting nets, weaving, digging, dragging heavy objects etc. These songs are meant to encourage people during labour and to provide recreation. The words of these songs directly relate to the nature of the work, such as ay re tora bhuni nidaite yai (Come, let's go to weed the field), amra dhan bhanire dhekite par diya (We pound paddy in the dheki) and rabger nao ranger baitha, range range bao (Cheerfully play the colourful oars of the colourful boat).

Hindu painters who draw on paper and paint earthen pots also sing while they work or when they display their wares for sale. The songs of the painters are based on the drawings of Radha and Krishna, ramachandra and sita, Nimai Sannyasi, Gazi pir etc. An earthen pot called Panchakalyani, from mymensingh, portrays Shiva, Krishna, Sita, Nitai and a prostitute.

Snake charmers also have their own songs, which they sing when they display their snakes. One such song calls out to the housewife to come out and see the snake charmer and his snakes: sap khela dekhbi yadi ay re sona bau, emni khela saper khela dekheni to keu (Oh housewife, come out and see this snake dance which no one has seen before). The goddess manasa, and behula and Laksindar also form the subjects of these songs.

Puppeteers who wander from place to place and hold puppet shows sing songs to the tune of panchali, kirtan and Malsi. These songs include narratives and dialogues. Hawkers and beggars also sing while hawking their wares or begging for alms.

There are also songs sung by professional dancing-girls when they perform the khemta dance. Eunuchs too earn their living from khemta dance and song. The subjects of the songs are light and often obscene, the love between Radha and Krishna being a dominant subject. Some other songs like chatka, bolan, leto etc, along with alkap, kavir ladai, khemta, meyeli git, sari and ghatu, are also solely for entertainment. Droll or lascivious, they offer temporal excitement and light humour.

kavigan is a kind of competitive folk song sung by two groups of singers. The chief of each group is called kaviyal or sarkar. The accompanying singers are known as dohars. The two groups of singers sing by turns on stage. In kavir ladai (fight between bards) two groups of bards exchange impromptu questions and answers. Kavigan evolved in Kolkata in the nineteenth century, but later spread to all parts of the country.

Sari gans are songs related to boats and boatmen, but generally refer to the songs sung during boat races. Themes can range from Radha and Krishna, Gauri and Menaka, and Rama and Sita to historical events, and natural events. A range of tunes, tal (measure) and rhymes are found in the songs such as asadiya naya pani aila re bhai deshete/ ay re o bhai ay re sabai ay re dibga baite (Fresh water has flooded the rivers in the rainy season, let's go and start rowing), man pabane beg uththyachhe bhaktir badam deo naukay (The wind has started blowing, put up a sail of devotion), shyam kaliya tor pirite mailam jvaliya/ dibga sajao majhibhai jamunate yai (I'm deeply inflicted by your love, oh boatman, prepare your boat to go to the river jamuna) etc. Sari gan is still a popular form of folk song.

Meyeli git or female songs are sung by women and depict the world of women and their sorrows and joy. Weddings are, however, the main subject of most meyeli git and are sung on different occasions during the wedding. Village women who work the dheki, grind spices or do other household work also sing these songs. There are meyeli gits for ceremonies like garbhadhan (ceremony on a married girl's attaining puberty) annaprashana (the 'first rice' ritual of the Hindu community), upanayan (the ceremony of the holy thread), circumcision, ear-piercing etc.

Gitika form of oral narrative poetry, which, like western ballads, tell a single event or a dramatic story, through dialogue. However, gitika tend to be longer than western ballads. Typed characters tend to predominate in gitika. Characters are generally not named, but referred to as prince, son of the vizier, princess, fairy princess, daemon, sorceress, merchant, gardener, ascetic, pir and fakir etc. They are all inhabitants of some kingdom on earth, but without any geographical specificity.

There are two types of gitika: purbabanga-gitika, which are mainly from Mymensingh and include 'Mahuya', 'Maluya', 'Chandravati', 'Dewana Madina', 'Kabka O Lila', 'Kamala', Dewan Bhavna' etc. Nath Gitika focus on stories of the conversion of Prince Gopi Chandra (Manik Chandra Rajar Gan, Govinda Chandrer Git, Maynamatir Gan, Gopi Chandrer Sannyas, Gopi Chander Panchali etc.) and on the miracles of the Nath guru (goraksavijay, Minchetan).

Gitikas date back to the medieval period and portray the norms, customs, conflicts, crises and religious and caste discriminations of a feudal society. Apart from Nath gitika, they are secular poems, inspired by human life on earth and not by thoughts of the after life.

Folk tales pass from one generation to generation in the folk society. Folk tales are in prose and can be both simple and complex. Based on subject, meaning and form, folk tales may be divided into twelve classes: fairy tales, mythical tales, religious tales, adventure stories, heroic stories, sage tales, historical tales, legends, animal stories, fables, comic stories and exempla. Bangla folk tales depict human life and society. Early marriage, polygamy, dowry, the doctrine of re-birth, hatred between co-wives, the stepmother's envy, repression by the powerful, greed, sufferings of the weak and the poor, uneven distribution of wealth, religious and racial discrimination, aristocracy, conjugal love, fraternity, respect for gurus and preceptors, hospitality, alms and meditation etc.

The heroes of Bangla folk tales are primarily dependent on fate and divinity, rather than on intellect, wisdom, labour, struggle or work. They are at times dependent on magic as well.

Folk drama applies to a variety of performances related to dance, song, music, and acting for entertainment or educational purposes. Some examples of folk drama are bhasan, jatra, pala gan, ghatu, gambhira, alkap, kavigan, puppetry, etc. While some folk dramas emphasise songs, others stress dancing or acting.

Folk drama usually has a two-part presentation. The first part has a preamble, instrumental choir and prayer to the gods, while the second part contains acting, song, dance, narration, dialogue, instrumental music, buffoonery, etc. Subjects that are most common in folk drama are stories of Rama and Sita, Arjun and Draupadi, Radha and Krishna, Nimai Sannyas, Behula and Laksindar, Isha Khan Dewan, Firoz Dewan, Zainab and Hasan, Sakhina and Kasem, Hanifa and Jaigun, Rahim Badsha, Rupban, Baidyani etc. Folk dramas usually have a mythical, historical, religious and political flavour. They contain imaginary events, worldly wisdom and comic elements. Apart from descriptions of joy and sorrow, repression, struggle, conflict, love and greed, etc, folk dramas, in addition to entertaining, also educate people about good and evil.

Jatras generally based on myth, history, and folk tale, are a blend of melodrama with song and dance. They are popular across the country. Earlier, boys would play the parts of women, but now have been replaced by actresses. The gambhira of Rajshahi and Maldah regions is a short, two-character play of a man and his grandson, acted out with dialogue, song, dance and music. The alkap, the ghatu, and the leto involve song and dance, meant for popular entertainment. In these performances boys dressed as women act women's roles. These performances have a note of eroticism and gay culture and appeal to their all-male audiences.

The jarigan on the tragedy in Karbala, which is performed mainly at dargahs (shrines), is accompanied by songs, dance and acting. On the occasion of Muharram, a group of ten to twelve young men form a jari gan team and roam around dancing and acting. The group has a main singer; others just chant the refrain and clap their hands. Because of the acting, jari gan is also known as jarijatra in the Rangpur region. Palagan are similar to jatra and include both dancing and acting. Popular palagan include Baidyanir Pala, Gazir Pala, Banbibir Pala, Sakhinar Pala etc.

Rhymes or poetical compositions provide entertainment as well as education. Based on their subjects, rhymes may be classified into nursery rhymes, play rhymes, social rhymes, historical rhymes, satirical rhymes, occupational rhymes, educational rhymes, rhymes for rituals, and magical rhymes.

Rhymes that are recited or sung to pacify and entertain children are called nursery rhymes. Sometimes children themselves recite nursery rhymes. Some rhymes are play rhymes, recited by young people during games such as hadudu (game of tag), kanamachhi (blind-bee) etc.

Many rhymes are recited for fun. Others educate people on ethics, morality, mathematics, astrology etc. Some rhymes originated in historical events and preserve the memory of these events in seemingly innocuous rhymes. Thus, the rhyme chhele ghumalo, pada judalo/ bargi elo deshe (When the children fell asleep, silence set in, the Maharatha cavalry attacked our country) speaks of Maratha inroads into Bengal. Another rhyme recalls the activity of Christian missionaries who converted people, while indigo-planters starved farmers who were not allowed to cultivate crops other than indigo: jat marle padri dhare/ bhat marle nil bandare/ bidal chokhe handa hemdo/ nilkuthir nil mamdo (The Christian clergy make people lose their caste, the indigo planters make people starve, the cat-eyed indigo planters, who live in indigo bungalows, look like blue goblins). The rhyme brsti pade tapur tupur nade elo ban/ shiva thakurer biye halo tin kanya dan (Patter, patter goes the rain, flooding the river/ A Brahmin named Shiva is married to three sisters) indicates that polygamy was in practice at that time.

mantras are rhymed incantations pronounced to ward off danger or bring some boon. When people want rain, they recite ay brsti jhenpe, dhan diba mepe (Oh rain, come down on us, we'll pay you with rice); and when they want the rain to stop, they say lebur patay karavcha, ei meghkhan ude ya (I put a sour fruit called karancha on the lemon leaves. Hey clouds, fly away).

In vrata rites as well, rhymes are recited. In a vrata ritual of Dashputtur (ten dolls), when people ask the gods blessings for a healthy, happy life, or in the vrata of bhai-fonta, when Hindu girls wish their brothers a happy, prosperous life, or in the vrata of Laksmi, when girls wish their fathers and brothers safe journey and good business, they recite various rhymes. All these rhymes have one thing in common: worldly happiness, not bliss in the world beyond.

Some mantras are chanted to bring misfortune to others. For example, a mantra is recited to prevent someone from making cakes: aola chal baker pak/ yeman pitha teman thak (Foul rice and bad cooking/ Let the cake remain as it is). Other mantras are to ward off misfortune and the evil eye. Thus people sprinkle water on arable land and say: jio jala, jio/ hat dhuiya dilam pani/ dhan hais poda khani/... amar kset dekhya ye najar lagay/ tar ma-pula bhate mara yay (Wake up, Spirit, wake up, I sprinkle water after washing my hands, let rice grow as in a mine85 Cursed be he who casts an evil eye on my fields. May his mother and sons die).

There are incantations to protect wealth from theft and body from the evil influence of ghosts and goblins. There are mantras for protection from fire, snakes, tigers, elephants, wasps, flood, venom etc. Some mantras, known as bashikaran mantra (mantras which bring people under someone's control) are believed to possess the occult power to bring a woman under a man's control. Some incantations are recited while others are sung as hymns.

Riddles short compositions that pose problems to be solved. At least two persons are required to play the game of riddles. One asks the question while the other finds the answer. A very common riddle is sagarete janma tar lokalaye bas/ maye chhunle putra mare eki sarbanash (Born out of sea water, it resides in human habitat; it dies when the mother touches her son); the key to the riddle is 'salt'. In the riddle, the words 'sea', 'human habitat', 'mother' and 'son' are used as metaphors. Salt is made from seawater, but it melts as soon as it touches water.

Riddles may be composed in prose or verse. Riddles in prose are usually contained in one sentence, while riddles in verse have at least two to four rhyming lines. Verse riddles include the following: Ektukhani gachhe/rabga bauti nache (A bride in red dances/On top of a tree) - red chilli; Hay tarmuj karba ki/ bonta nai tar dharba ki? (What to do with the watermelon? There is no stalk to hold) - egg; Kather bera chhaner chhauni/ erai madhye puskanni (Made up of planks, covered with hemp, it holds a pond within) - coconut.

There are a considerable number of riddles in prose: Kathay achhe, kaje nei (It exists in words, but not in deeds) - a horse's egg; Khulle ghar, bandha karle lathi (It makes a house when it unfolds, and a stick when folded) - umbrella; Kon dhane chal nei? (Which dhan' [paddy] yields no chal' [rice]?)- dictionary, punning on the Bangla words abhidhan (dictionary), dhan (paddy) and chal (rice).

Proverbs are the shortest possible compositions for wit, learning and entertainment. They span from pithy sentences to rhymed couplets. But however short, they are composed on the basis of human experience, pragmatic consideration, and wisdom. Some popular proverbs are anek sannyasite gajan nasta (Too many cooks spoil the broth); chor palale buddhi bade (One becomes wise after the theft); jor yar muluk tar (He who is mighty rules the land, or, might is right).

Proverbs dates back to the distant past. They are found in the vedas and the upanisads as well as in the charyapada, the oldest specimen of bangla literature. Bhusukpad (11th century) used the proverb apna mase harina bairi (The flesh of a deer is its enemy) in the Charyapada. baru chandidas in srikrishnakirtan used the same proverb in the 14th century, while mukundaram used it in Chandimabgal in the 16th century.

Though many of the different forms of folk literature seem to be threatened by modernization, there is a growing interest not just in preserving these forms but also in reviving them. Drama groups, for example, stage palagans on modern stages and folk tales, transformed into dance dramas, reveal the perennial interest in these homely tales of good and evil, of virtue rewarded and evil punished. An educated mother will recite a proverb to remind her child that one becomes wise when it is too late. [Wakil Ahmed]

Bibliography Dineshchandra Sen, Maimansingha-Gitika, Calcutta, 1923; Purbabanga-Gitika, 1926; ME Leach ed, Standard Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Legends, Vols. 1, 11, New York, 1949; Ashutosh Bhattacharya, Banglar Lokasahitya, vol. 1, Calcutta, 1963; Antti Arne and Smith Thompson, The Types of Folktales, Helsinki, 1964; Shila Basak, Bangla Dhandhar Bisaybaichitrya O Samajik Parichay, Calcutta, 1990; Ashraf Siddiqui, Lokasahitya, vol. 2, Dhaka, 1994.