Evolution of Bengali music
  by Dr. Karunamaya Goswami

The earliest form of writing in Bengali when the language was just evolving is a kind of song known as Charya geeti: Charya song. The text of such songs contained in an elaborate commentary in Sanskrit was discovered by Haraprasad Shastri, a great Bengali scholar in a manuscript preserved in the Royal Nepalese Library only in 1907. These songs together with some other collections by Shastri from Nepal were published in the form of a book in 1916 by the Literary Association of Bengal, Calcutta. Haraprasad Shastri collected the text of 46 songs in full and that of one song in part while a 14th century Tibetan translation of the Nepal manuscript of the songs and the commentary contained the full text of 50 Charya songs. But this number formed only a fraction of the numerous songs that were composed abundantly by generations of poets.

The Charya songs are believed to be composed by and large by Buddhist mystic saints. The writers of these songs were generally known as Siddha charya: the spiritual masters. The kind of language they used was very highly symbolical or a ‘code language’, as has been described by Sukumar Sen in his History of Bengali Literature. The spiritual masters intended to speak about the intricate ways of mystic practice leading to siddhi: final spiritual goal.

The songs always carry a double meaning, the outward meaning guarding the inner sense, and this double entendre was known as ‘sandha vachana’ i.e. code language. The outward meaning of the songs has indeed a literary flavour, for the songs really followed a traditional pattern, but the outward sense was intended only to disguise the inner meaning which recorded the mystic practice, experience and emotion of the masters in their process of self-realization. The outward meaning gives a view of ordinary life as if in play-acting. So the name Charya was given to these songs.

According to these mystics, the human body and mind form a microcosm and the outside universe, the macrocosm, is only its replica. When a person succeeds in controlling his body-functions, when he stops his breath and has a perfect command over his vital and mental operations and when he has attained the blissful state of complete neutrality or equilibrium (technically called innate ‘sahaja’) by liquidating volition, he becomes really immortal, in the sense that life and death are equated.

It has not been exactly known when these mystical songs were first written. Scholars differ on the time-frame. It is, however, widely believed that Charya songs flourished profusely in old Bengali at a period extending from the ninth century to the twelfth century A.D. In that respect Bengali musical literature is 1100 years old.

Whatever may be the lyrical content or whatever may be the mode of symbolism employed by the poets, from musicological point of view, Charya belonged to the mainstream classical music of medieval India. It was a renowned member of a large and varied family of prabandha sangeet: classical musical compositions. This medieval family of prabandha sangeet was the inheritor of the vedic and the post-vedic marga sangeet: well-ordained musical tradition of the ancient India and formed the basis for the evolution of modern classical forms of Hindustani or northern Indian music like Dhrupad, Kheyal, etc. which are totally relevant to the growth of classical and classico-modern music in a region known today as Bangladesh.

We get an authentic discussion on prabandha sangeet, their principal forms and variations, in a great book of Indian music written in the first half of the 13th century named Sangeet-Ratnakar by Shrangadeva. Essentially enough, Charya, then a popular form of prabandha sangeet, had been included in this discourse. Discussion on Charya had also been incorporated in a 12th century treatise on music called Manasollas. It appears from the narration of Shrangadeva that Charya represented a highly stylized form of singing both in solo and chorus under an well-ordained rhythmic pattern. Like all the other medieval classical songs, Charya lyric carried through a devotional spirit.

We can only make conjecture as to the singing pattern in prabandha sangeet method. Because there was no system of preserving music in India other than transmitting the singing style through generations of singers. Writing down music with notation was only a late nineteenth century phenomenon in Bengal and in the rest of the subcontinent it was introduced a little later. Haraprasad Shastri, the discoverer of the Charya songs, called the songs kirtan or sankirtan and believed that they were put to some form of Vaishnavite kirtan style. But this hypothesis does not appear to stand to fact, because padavali kirtan style in Bengal grew up much later. Sukumar Sen found a similarity between Charya songs and the songs of Geeta Govinda composed by Jayadeva. He says:

The structure of the Charya songs follows the pattern of Jayadeva. The name of the melody is always indicated at the top and that of the poet usually occurs in the last couplet. The second couplet generally was repeated as the refrain. The songs usually consist of 10 verse lines and only three have 14. The scheme of metre is moraic, leaning towards the syllabic. There are only two metrical varieties. The bulk is composed in the verse line scheme of 15 (16) morae with a caesura after the eight syllable. This scheme, practically the same as of the chaupai of Hindi-Rajasthani-Gujrati, easily slipped into payer, when the moraic unit was fully changed to the syllabic, the final caesura absorbing one mora or syllable. The other scheme, which later developed into tripadi, the other characteristic metre of Bengali, has verse lines of 25 (26) morae with a caesura each after the eighth and the 16th syllable.

Sukumar Sen, as it appears from his account, tries to relate the metrical character of the verse line of Charya with that of Geeta Gavinda and more broadly, with the metrical behaviour of Bengali poetry. But if we look into the musical perspective of prabandha-sangeet preceding or contemporary to Jayadeva, we see that the commonness of music if there was any, between Charya songs and songs of Geeta Govinda followed from an universally acknowledged style which stood very near the dhrupad genre in present-day sense.

We understand from the musicological studies that the name Charya was given to those songs which were composed in Charya musical model, although the critics of Bengali poetry believe that the word should be etymologically understood and the songs are Charya because they speak of what the yogis should or should not do for attaining the final goal of their spiritual life. Whichever way the name may mean, Charya songs marked the beginning of musical compositions in Bengal. Its classical character and music of a particular level of sophistication left musical discipline exemplified before the later poets and composers and this phenomenon is historically very important. With their sonnet-like length, the lyrics of Charya set before Bengali poets an ideal for the lyrical structure.

As a song form of classical tradition Charya were composed on some raga. The name of the raga used to be mentioned at the top of the text and bhanita: mentioning the name of the composer, was usually made in the concluding section of the song. The compilation made according to the Nepal manuscript does not include the name of tal: measure or time. But there is the mention of tal only in one case. The 24th song in the compilation made by Prabodh Bagchi from the Tibetan translation of the Nepal manuscript preserves the name of a tal, called Indra tal. It therefore appears that the name of tal was also there, but for a reason not known to us the mention of it was left out. Moreover, there is no reason why tal would not be there. It is very much in the definition given by Shrangadeva that Charya was composed in tal-like dwitiya and others. In Bengali songs coming up later than Charya the name of tal had been compulsorily mentioned. So there could be no Charya without a tal, as there could be no Charya without a raga.

One important aspect of the Bengali Charya must also be mentioned here. It appears that Bengali Charya did not strictly adhere to the musical or lyrical norms prescribed by musicological studies like Sangeetratnakar and others. There was a little regional about it. Matanga, a notable musicologist of India who flourished in the ninth or the 10th century made an interesting enlistment of regional variations of some prabandha sangeet belonging to the mainstream classical compositions. He called them deshi. The name of Charya was not there. But the fact remains that of the 48 types of regional prabandha, the names of the four such prabandhas are missing in the book. Charya may be one of them or the hypothesis remains that the information about the regional deviation in Charya musical form did not reach him from the far flung areas of Bengal. But it is important that Bengali lyricists and composers tried to do something of their own in deviation of the mainstream classicism.

Charya composers employed ragas like Patamanjari, Gavra, Aru, Gurjari, Devakri, Deshakh, Bhairabi, Kamod, Dhanosi, Kanhu-Gurjari, Shibari and Bangal. The names of ragas also suggest of some regional innovations. The impact of Charya on the later Bengali musical compositions is immense. In many ways the mystic composers paved the ways for art musical developments in Bengal. Swami Prajnanananda, an eminent critic of Indian music believes that Charya songs acted as guiding factors for all the later musical developments in Bengal. Particular mention he makes of the sophisticated musical forms like Geeta Govinda padagan, Krishna Kirtan, Mangalgan, Nam Kirtan, Padavali Kirtan and other forms of devotional music. To the best of my judgement the influence of Charya songs was not limited to developed and sophisticated compositions alone. Their influence on the folk music of Bengal is immense. There are streams of Bengali folk music which distinctly appear to be related to the symbolism of language and occult spiritual practices as exalted in Charya songs.

Natha GeetiNext to charya songs we come to natha geeti: natha songs, a kind of composition which uphold the spiritual values of a religious sect called Natha. The sect is so called because the names of almost all the founding spiritual masters of the sect ended with the word ‘nath’ which again was coined from the expression Adi Natha, meaning Lord Shiva, the abiding deity of the sect-cult. Although predominantly Shaivite, the cult also combined some Buddhist Tantric elements. Nath songs describe the spiritualism of the Natha sect and the high achievements of their spiritual masters. Instead of geeti, the word geetika meaning ballad is also used, because the songs were rendered in the form of stories. The Natha cult is believed to have originated in Bengal and then spread in various parts of India. Natha songs were therefore composed in some other Indian regional languages. It will be apt here to quote a portion from what Sukumar Sen wrote about the Natha Pantha:

The Natha way.

The Natha cult is so called as the names of almost all the gurus end in the word natha. It is an esoteric yoga cult based on strict celibacy, austere self-negation and complete control over the vital, mental and emotional functions. In its original form it was like early Buddhism. But it came under the influence of Saivite asceticism and Tantric yoga. In the original story Gorakshanath seems to have been the first Natha guru and his guru Minanatha originally belonged to another tradition. The two came to figure together in the same story after the influence of Siva worship had seeped into the Natha cult. Insinuation of Tantric yoga was responsible for the acceptance of Kanha and few other historical persons among the early gurus of the cult. There is no doubt that Natha cult originated in Eastern India, probably in Bengal, long before the 14th century when we first get a reference. From Bengal the cult and its legends spread out in all directions. The split-ear (kan-phat) yogis are known all over India––in the Punjab, in Rajputana, in Maharashtra and elsewhere. In the traditional verses of the non-Bengali yogis, there are sufficient linguistic indications of their Bengali origin.

It is widely believed that Nath cult originated in Bengal in the nineth century A.D. Amulyacharan Vidyabhushan, a reputed Bengali scholar supports this view. Haraprasad Shastri, the man who discovered the manuscript of charya songs, is of the opinion that nath cult marked its beginning during the later decades of the eighth century.

Charya songs and Nath songs are almost contemporary. It is evident from the fact that some saints in the charya cult and the Nath cult are the same persons. Although contemporary, charya songs and natha songs differ in a big scale musically. We don’t know how the natha songs were sung. We don’t even exactly know how the charya songs were delivered. But we have some authentic account about the musical formation of charya songs included in reputed musicological works of the past. We don’t have any such information about the natha songs. Some casual references in some early nineteenth century written materials say that natha songs were sung in a very simple form, not conforming to any kind of organised classical or semi-classical singing pattern of medieval prabandha sangeet.

The lyric was stanza-wise set to a kind of simple music of repetitive and rectitative character. Songs from nath ballads were sung in our country during some ceremonies even in the early fifties. I still remember that those songs followed a simple design of path sangeet: recitative music. The story of path sangeet is very old. It originated in the vedic age. It can easily be presumed that the tradition of path sangeet fell out of the scope of prabandha sangeet and was carried by some narratives written for singing. The musical model of nath geeti is, in this sense, older than that of charya. But it does not obviously form an integral part of the art musical developments in Bengal, although it appears to possess a strong link with the musical pattern of patha sangeet as employed in puthipath.

Geeta Govinda: JayadevaThe musical and poetical tradition of charya songs was still very alive when Jayadeva appeared with his renowned book of songs which he called Geeta Govinda: Songs on Govinda (Krishna) in the second half of the twelfth century. This slender volume of twenty four songs played an exceptional role in shaping the growth of poetry and music in the urban as well as the folk streams of culture in Bengal for several hundred years to come. In a much wider sense, Jayadeva stood as an abiding source of inspiration for the growth of various art forms all over India, particularly poetry, drama, music and dance. If there was anyone from Bengal or from any part of India to mould the creative faculties in the sub-continent in such a diverse way and in such a huge scale, mention should only be made of Jayadeva. Songs and ideas of Geeta Govinda still remain an integral part of the major Indian classical dance forms. Sukumar Sen only makes a partial appreciation of the contribution of Jayadeva when he considers Geeta Govinda "to be the main fountain head of not only Bengali but also of the other New India––Aryan lyric poetry."

It is very widely believed that Jayadeva was born in a village called Kendubilva under the district of Birbhum now in West Bengal. An annual congregation of Vaishnava devotees is still held in this village in his memory. Any reliable account is hardly available on the life of Jayadeva. Sketchy information has been given in the Geeta Govinda songs by Jayadeva himself. From this we come to know that Bhojdeva was his father. His mother was Bama Devi and Padmavati was his wife. Jayadeva has described one Parashara, a singer as his friend. One important sheet of anchor about the historicity of his life is that he was the court poet of Lakshman Sena, a Sena King of Bengal who ascended the throne in 1178 or 1179. The life of Padmavati is also shrouded in myths.

She is said to have been born in the Deccan and her parents made good arrangements for her training in music and dance. They wanted to dedicate Padmavati to the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa as a Devdasi: a dancing maid of a deity. On her completion of training in dance and music when Padmavati was being led by her father to the Jagannath temple, there was revelation on the way that she was destined to be married with poet Jayadeva of Bengal. Accordingly she was married to Jayadeva. It was a happy marriage indeed and they together performed and preached the music of Geeta Govinda and its dance form. Jayadeva was poet, musicologist, singer of a high order and a choreographer. He created a dance form in persuance of the essence of his music and taught this to his wife which she ably performed in the royal court and elsewhere.

As we have already said, Geeta Govinda consists of twenty four songs and the song-book is divided into twelve cantos. Each canto has been given a title. The songs are not evenly distributed in all the cantos. The first canto includes four songs, the second canto two, the third canto one, the fourth canto two, the fifth canto two, the sixth canto one, the seventh canto four, the eighth canto one, the ninth canto one, the tenth canto one, the eleventh canto three and the twelfth canto includes two songs. As prelude to all the compositions Jayadeva places his famous Dasavatar Stotra: Hymn to the ten incarnations of God in the first canto.

Geeta Govinda belonged to the medieval family of prabandha sangeet. Critics are not sure as to which prabandha it actually was. Some believe that Geeta Govinda is an offshoot of chhanda prabandha. But some critics say that Jayadeva followed the model of dhrubapada prabandha sangeet. Dhrubapada was a much later development in domain of prabandha sangeet and it stood fairly close to the dhrupada form in modern sense. It can therefore be easily presumed that the compositional style of Geeta Govinda was more developed, elaborate and intricate than that of charya songs. Swami Prajnananda calls Geeta Govinda a collection of astapadi songs. This diagnosis principally relates to lyrical structure. He makes this observation from his examination of the stanzaic formation. Because music was never written in India in notations until the second half of the nineteenth century, the singing style of Geeta Govinda remains a matter of hypothesis.

The charya composers mentioned the name of raga and that of tal: measure or rhythmic structure appears to be missing. But in Geet Govinda the names of ragas and tals in which the lyrics were set were unmistakenably mentioned. Gurjari is the most widely employed raga in Geeta Govinda. The next place goes to Desbarari. The third place is jointly occupied by Ramkiri and Vasant. We get five songs in Gurjari, four songs in Deshbarari and three songs in Ramkiri and Vasant each. Raga Malavgauda has been employed in two songs and one song each has been composed in raga Kamat, Deshakh, Gondakiri, Malava, Bhairabi, Baradi and Bibhas. As tals we get the use of Rupak, Nihsar, Jati, Ektali and Asta. Some of the ragas and tals employed in Geeta Govinda are still in the popular sway of classical music.

The language of the songs of Geeta Govinda was not Bengali but Sanskrit. But the language was so easy, sweet, musical and made up of such many words as are commonly found in Bengali that it did not stand on the way for the appreciation of Bengali readers and listeners. Moreover its language being Sanskrit, Geeta Govinda could assume a nonregional character to inspire art forms throughout the sub-continent.

The songs of Geet Govinda are written in Sanskrit but their diction as well as rhythm and rhyme belong to loukika poetry. By imparting tenderness and mellifluence of the popular musical lyric into the compactness of Sanskrit poetry Jayadeva made the last attempt at the latter’s resurrection. The poem of Jayadeva served to establish the theme of the love of Radha and Krishna as one of the main subjects of Indo Aryan vernacular lyric poetry for several centuries.

The question of the theme was very important, perhaps more important than the question of music. True, Jayadeva brought about a change in the musical tradition of Bengal which issued from the musical pattern of charya geeti. It must have been welcome after three hundred years and meanwhile charya music must have been left with nothing to inspire and invigorate. It must have been exhausted. But then the new music of Geeta Govinda came from the same family of prabandha sangeet differing not very largely in content and style. But the theme was absolutely new. The charya songs repeated the same kind of occultism communicated in a kind of code language understandable and appealing largely to spiritual learners through the generations of composers. They had nothing to do with the imagination, emotion and aesthetic aspirations of those people who form the bulk of music lovers.


Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka, March 23, 2002


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