The term folk song implies spontaneity and simplicity. It brings to mind a shared human desire to give expression to his feelings and emotions through musical forms. The folk songs of Bengal are a reflection of both the spiritual and vital emotions of the common rural people. With rituals, social customs and dialects varying widely from region to region, Bengal’s folk songs are as rich as they are varied in theme, tone and colour.
The topography and the geophysical conditions of the land have also played a role in shaping the cultural pattern of this state, including its music. Essentially a sub-tropical terrain, this is a land of green fields and rivers, bounded by hills and mountains on the west and north. The lyricism is reflected in its folk music. The most important feature of folk music in Bengal is that it is not confined to any cultural group but to cultural areas, where it is practiced by different groups of people. Thus the cultural areas of Bengal may be broadly classified as : Bhatiali of the then East Bengal (present day Bangladesh); Bhaoaiya of North Bengal and adjacent districts of Assam; Jhumur, Tusu and Bhadu in the western part of Bengal (tribal areas of Bardhaman, Bankura, Purulia, Medinipur and Birbhum districts) and Baul-Fakir of some East Bengal districts and Birbhum, Nadia, Murshidabad.
The diverse forms of folk music in Bengal can be classified as those which are related to particular occupations; those that are related to ceremonies, rituals or social activities; those that are an expression of spiritual beliefs; songs about love and separation; songs about historical and heroic figures and songs about struggle. Occupational songs express the emotions of such people as farmers, fishermen, boatmen, weavers, potters and blacksmiths, who often sing or hum as they work. Sung either in solo or chorus, they communicate the mode of the life of the people, their trials and tribulations, their hopes and aspirations without pretense. Ritual based folk music has been more the domain of rural women and is usually specific to religious festivals, auspicious days, births, deaths, weddings etc.
Folk songs have transformed in several ways over time. With no formal system of notation and largely in absence of literacy, these forms have been handed down orally over generations. Thus many songs have been forgotten or have disappeared with the passage of time. Moreover, where communities have migrated, they have carried their music with them, possibly absorbing the influence of their newer surrounds. Or, alternatively, locals have been influenced by the culture of migrants to their land or have drawn from newer styles of music. For instance many tribal areas, in closer proximity to the dominant Hindu culture around it, have over the centuries, imbibed Hindu cultural influences. In newer cultural expressions, tribal gods have given way to or exist side by side with the Hindu pantheon. Tribals living in more secluded terrain still appear to retain their traditional customs and culture.
It must be mentioned however that though we speak of West Bengal here, any reference to the folk music of Bengal remains incomplete unless we include the many forms that continue to exist in present day Bangladesh which was once a part of undivided Bengal.