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Bena

The Bena is a fiddle-like, single-stringed, ancient folk instrument. It is native to the culture of the Rajbongshis, one of the earliest settlers in the region that came to be known at various times in its history as Pragjyotish, Kamrup and Kamatapur - a territory that now comprises North Bengal, most of present Assam, adjoining parts of Bihar, and various parts of North Eastern India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The Bena folk instrument is intrinsically associated with their Kushan- pala or Kushan-Gaan. Pala gaan is a folk theatre format which employs song, dance and dialogue while telling a story and all such folk theatre forms always carry a suffix of "pala" (theatre) or "gaan" (song).  Kushan and Bena are in fact, firmly intertwined. One cannot take place without the other. The tune and the rhythm of the Kushan songs are such that it is only the Bena which is a suitable accompaniment.  



The Bena is a fiddle-like, single-stringed, ancient folk instrument. It is native to the culture of the Rajbongshis, one of the earliest settlers in the region that came to be known at various times in its history as Pragjyotish, Kamrup and Kamatapur - a territory that now comprises North Bengal, most of present Assam, adjoining parts of Bihar, and various parts of North Eastern India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The Bena folk instrument is intrinsically associated with their Kushan- pala or Kushan-Gaan. Pala gaan is a folk theatre format which employs song, dance and dialogue while telling a story and all such folk theatre forms always carry a suffix of "pala" (theatre) or "gaan" (song).  Kushan and Bena are in fact, firmly intertwined. One cannot take place without the other. The tune and the rhythm of the Kushan songs are such that it is only the Bena which is a suitable accompaniment.
  
Variants of the Bena are to be found in Manipur, where it is known as the Pena. There also seems to be a similarity with the Huka Banam of the Santals. But, generally speaking, the Bena is little known to the outside world. 

The Kushan Pala is an open-air folk drama where song, dance, narrative and dialogue come together. This ancient form traditionally draws its theme from the Ramayan, narrations of which had become very popular in the region about 500 years ago.  The Rajbongshis believe that the origin of the word Kushan is from Kush, or straw, that was brought to life, by sage Valmiki, in the form of the second son of Ram. It is held that Kush along with his brother Lav,  would wander around singing ballads from the Ramayan, as taught by their guru, the sage Valmiki, with Kush playing the Bena. This they believe is the reason why the Bena has been traditionally used as an accompaniment for Kushan Pala, being the instrument held  (and played) by the principal storyteller or Geedal. Legends from the Mahabharat are also known to have been used.  
  
Kushan pala had its origins in the erstwhile Koch kingdom of Kamatapur and was once vastly popular among the Rajbongshis. But today, it has undergone varying degrees of decline in the area of its birth - Cooch Behar in North Bengal, West Assam (undivided Goalpara) and parts of  Bangladesh (erstwhile greater Rangpur). 

The name Bena is possibly a corruption of the word Veena (Beena) - which is mentioned in the Ramayan and other ancient texts. Though the veena is a plucked instrument, the word was probably a local generic for any stringed instrument, whether bowed or plucked.  

About 18" long, the Bena is traditionally made almost entirely of bamboo, there being a strong affinity for this medium that is found abundantly in North Bengal and its neighboring areas. The native of Cooch Behar is a born artist in bamboo and wickerwork. Almost every article of daily use is manufactured from bamboo, which largely replaces wood. The Bena comprises a sound box, a neck and a head, the last mostly being carved from wood. 

Traditionally, the sound box is made from the stump of a larger, tougher variety of bamboo known locally as Boro Bnaash (bnaash being the Bengali term for bamboo) while the flute like hollow neck is crafted from the slimmer Makla Bnaash. After the bamboo is cut, it has to be allowed to dry out under the sun before being carved into a conical shape and then hollowed out.  

The crafting of the bamboo sound box is very laborious, given the hardness of the Boro Bnaash root, and thus coconut shell (Huka) and in recent times, wood from Neem and Gamar (Gmelina arborea) trees have been easier, less cumbersome substitutes. Once the bamboo root for the sound box and the stem for the neck have dried and are ready for use (over 10-15 days), the process of crafting the Bena takes less than a week. 

Stretched across the wider end of the hollow sound box is monitor lizard skin, though this has gradually given way to goat skin, ever since the Indian monitor lizard was declared an endangered species in 1972. The skin is kept taut with the help of (usually) leather lacing that passes through two slim bamboo circlets wound tightly against the upper and lower rims of the sound box. 

Fitted to the sound box through two holes burnt into it, is a slender length of bamboo. The Makla bamboo neck is slid over this and held firmly in place with the help of a bamboo tack tightly wedged in. Towards the end of the neck is a single tuning peg (kaan) made from either wood or bamboo. A single string, usually made out of a bunch of horse tail hair, is stretched from the tuning peg to the sound box, passing over a bridge (Ghora) placed at the centre of the sound box. Use of a steel string has also been observed in recent times. Atop the neck is attached a decorative wooden head usually that of an elephant.

The instrument is played with a bow made of bamboo and horse tail hair. However, since horses are not found as easily in the region any more, substitutes such as fibres from plants (Sansevieria - Chakro Bora) or trees (Fishtail palm or Caryota urens - Chaoa and Betel nut or Areca palm or Shupuri) are often used. Unfortunately, the melodiousness suffers greatly in comparison. Where horse hair is used for the bowstring, it is essential to use rosin to help the strands adhere together, thus providing greater friction on the Bena string. This along with proper tuning are essential for a tuneful Bena performance. Finally, for a performance, the bamboo of the bow is wound with colourful strips of cloth and tinsel and the head of the Bena adorned with ribbons, beads, leather laces,  etc. 

The scale of the single stringed Bena is set by tuning it with a flute or harmonium. Individual playing styles also vary as does the ability of a Kushani or Geedal to play a Bena well. Some use it as a kind of rhythmic accompaniment, while some pick out a tune. 

Though a simple enough instrument, Bena making requires specific skills and it takes an accomplished instrument  maker to make a good instrument. For instance, the holes that are made on the sound box and the neck follow specific measurements  - any error in measurement would affect the sound.  

Though Bena making is usually a Rajbongshi activity, it is not unusual to find non Rajbongshis, who have lived in the region and therefore absorbed the culture, being associated with the Bena or Kushan pala.  Denatullah Mian, for instance,  was a well known instrument maker who also made Benas.

Demand for the Bena has always been minimal. For one, Bena making has always been a need based activity and was and is often made by the Kushani (Geedal) himself - unlike the construction of a Dotara or Sarinja. The materials used are inexpensive and easily procured. However not all Kushanis know how to make a Bena and it is usually the artisan or instrument maker who is assigned the task. Secondly, the Bena is a very sturdy instrument and rarely needs to be replaced, excepting perhaps for a change in the skin. This reduces the demand even further. As a result, the Bena has never been made commercially and there have never been any established master craftsmen of the Bena. The decline of the popularity of the Kushan pala has rung the death knell for this ancient instrument. 

Against this dismal background, there are very few Bena makers left in Cooch Behar and just a couple in Jalpaiguri. The surviving Bena makers say that they have not had to make more than four to seven Benas in their entire working lives. To make matters worse, the Bena has become more of a prop in the new avatar of the Kushan pala - the Kushan jatra. 

A Kushan jatra now begins with (mostly) a short Bondona (invocation) reminiscent of the earlier pala form, but soon gives over to the main jatra on usually a totally different theme. The simplicity of a story well told by just the simply clothed Geedal and his onstage partner, the Doari, who provides the comic relief, with the assistance of dancers and musicians, has been replaced by a costumed, jazzed up, crowd pleasing, entertainment piece, replete with songs from Hindi or Bengali movies - much like the jatra form of theatre. Modern Kushanis may or may not know how to play the Bena or even sing all the traditional Kushan songs for that matter - but it is no longer important. There are now women Kushanis on the scene as well, most of whom do not know how to play the Bena.  Holding the Bena and perhaps strumming it for a bit is quite literally a token gesture.  Yet, the Kushan jatra,  it appears, is  quite popular.
 
For the Bena to survive or escape its death throes, Kushan pala needs to be resuscitated first, in all its former glory. Meanwhile, efforts ought to be made to organise Bena workshops, led by existing makers recognized for their prowess, before it is too late.  Finally, just as practically every mela (fair) held in West Bengal displays Baul instruments for sale, it is about time that similar initiatives were taken for the dying instruments of North Bengal.  
 

The documentation for this article was made possible by a grant from the Ministry of Culture, Govt of India under their Scheme for Safeguarding the Intangible Heritage & Diverse Cultural Traditions of India, 2013-14. For the full report, click here.

 

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