Songs of Our Soil: Celebrating the Bangla Folk Ballads of Mymensingh

Folk ballads are living archives that represent the imagination, values, ideas and aesthetics of the people to whom they belong. Bengali literature has a rich repertoire of folk ballads. We are, however, quite unaware of this treasure and therefore there is a lack of research on these folk elements.

Czech Indologist Dusan Zbavitel’s The Bengali folk ballads of Mymensingh and the problem of their authenticity can be called a wonderful exception in this regard. It is considered the first literary study of the beautiful folk ballads of Mymensingh. The study was published by the University of Calcutta in 1963.

A brief history of the book may not be out of place here. In 1923, Rai Bahadur Dineshchandra Sen edited a volume of epic songs from the Mymensingh district of East Bengal under the title Maimansimha-gitika. The ballads were mainly collected by Chandra Kumar De, a literary activist from the region. In the following years, Dineshchandra published three more volumes of balladic texts containing epic songs from different parts of East Bengal. The beautiful ballads received enthusiastic response and admiration in India and abroad. However, for some scholars, these ballads were too good and they shared doubts about the antiquity, authenticity and folk character of these traditions. Dusan Zbavitel found this uncertainty “very regrettable” and undertook a study to assign the ballads their rightful place – “one of the highlights of Bengali literature”. Dr. Zbavitel tried to find out: “what makes them so excellent?”

Zbavitel limited his analysis to the study of ballads originating from Mymensingh – 41 ballads containing over 21,000 lines. He endeavored to analyze each of these 41 ballads to prove their originality and, I must say, he achieved his goal with marked success.

A key argument put forward by Zbavitel in favor of the originality of the gitikas de Mymensingh is that these ballads are not collected by a single person and yet there are similarities between the ballads: identical images, similar artistic approach and common inventory of similes and metaphors. These ballads could therefore not be the creation of a modern poet as some detractors suggest.

According to Zbavitel, the most significant aspect of these folk ballads is that they are devoid of any religious implications. They generally show a harmonious coexistence of Hindu and Muslim communities, without religious bias on either side. Zbavitel points to the fact that most Hindu ballads were collected from Muslim singers, which he says shows that these folk poems were enjoyed and enjoyed by both communities equally fiercely. The secular perspective of folk ballads is diametrically opposed to the explicit religious overtones of classical Bengali literary texts such as mangal kavyas and Vaisnava Literature.

Zbavitel discusses the ballad writers’ ideological and artistic approach, verse and rhyme technique, and the use of similes and metaphors in detail in chapters three and four of the book. The most dominant motive, according to Zbavitel, is love. Even historical and heroic epics can be lumped into this category.

As for literary techniques, the writers of ballads, faithful to the characteristics of folk epics, do not try to introduce innovations into their lyrical dictions. They content themselves with the poetic means offered by their predecessors. They want to tell an interesting and touching story in a simple, fresh outfit with country scenes and feelings.

Zbavitel also discusses the mode of preservation of folk ballads – preserved, in most cases, in torsos. Referring to two versions of the same ballad, Maishal Bandhuhe argues, “The ‘original’ ballads [were] sometimes rewritten by another popular poet, or other poets, quite freely, without any scruple; entire portions, as well as individual verses and verses, were taken over, others were replaced with newly superseded passages, and the story itself was often changed. The reasons for the changes, according to Zbavitel, may be an effort to provide listeners with a “better” story than the original.

Due to this oral nature of preservation, it is always difficult to prove the originality of folk elements. If we undertake an effort to study the folklore of Bangladesh, Zbavitel’s book will be an invaluable accompanying guide.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Dinesh Chandra Sen to appreciate the book Maimansimha-gitika“Classical Bengali literary texts such as mangal kavyas are ponds dug by order and at the expense of the rich, but Maimansimha-gitika is a source of exuberance from the deepest level of the heart of rural Bengal, a clear stream of genuine pain. There has never been such a creation of rasa that gets forgotten [aesthetic joy] in Bengali literature. [translation by the author]

While celebrating the Bengali New Year this Pohela Boishakh, may we remember the melody and essence of communal harmony embedded in Maimansimha-gitika.

Shamsuddoza Sajen is a journalist and researcher. He can be contacted at sajen1986@gmail.com.

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