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Bhawaiya

Bhawaiya is the most popular folk song genre of the Rajbongshis of North Bengal and Western Assam, a region that was once part of ancient Kamrup. In fact, it is the primary melodic pattern of this region.  In North Bengal, it is mainly prevalent in the vast area spread over Cooch Bihar, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts and in Assam,  Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Goalpara districts. It also prevails in the Rangpur and the northern part of Dinajpur district  in Bangladesh. The songs are in the Kamrupi or Rajbongshi language of this region. Simple in tune and theme,  these lyrical songs have a carefree spirit and  speak mostly of love and loss. A recurrent theme is forbidden love.  In fact, in an earlier time, the lyrics of these songs were looked down upon for their erotic overtones and thus recitals of these songs were all too often, clandestine. But generally speaking, the themes covered by Bhawaiya relate to every aspect of Rajbongshi life. 




Bhawaiya is the most popular folk song genre of the Rajbongshis of North Bengal and Western Assam, a region that was once part of ancient Kamrup. In fact, it is the primary melodic pattern of this region.  In North Bengal, it is mainly prevalent in the vast area spread over Cooch Bihar, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts and in Assam,  Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Goalpara districts. It also prevails in the Rangpur and the northern part of Dinajpur district  in Bangladesh. The songs are in the Kamrupi or Rajbongshi language of this region. Simple in tune and theme,  these lyrical songs have a carefree spirit and  speak mostly of love and loss. A recurrent theme is forbidden love.  In fact, in an earlier time, the lyrics of these songs were looked down upon for their erotic overtones and thus recitals of these songs were all too often, clandestine. But generally speaking, the themes covered by Bhawaiya relate to every aspect of Rajbongshi life. 

Composed mainly by unlettered, unknown poets,  these pastoral songs were mainly centered around the lonely  life of the poor buffalo keeper (maishal). The poets drew liberally from the scenic beauty of the region and the deep understanding of the intricacies of human relationships. Thus the lyrical syntax of the songs embody an intimate relation between folk life and nature.  These simple melodies, full of longing and pathos and lyrical beauty, always transmit a feeling of unbearable sadness and have traditionally been sung by such people in the course of their daily work, far away from home and their loved ones. The protagonists  of the songs later became itinerant elephant minders (mahout) or the bullock-cart drivers (garial) who moved from one place to another leaving behind or carrying along their tale of love and separation. It is possible that some of these young men were the poets themselves.   Often, the songs convey a young woman`s tender feelings of love and separation.

These songs, sung by wandering herdsmen had been orally transmitted over generations up to the 1930s. In the `30s, folklorist Harish Chandra Pal of Cooch Behar took it upon himself to archive  many of the popular songs on gramophone records. However, the first attempt at compiling these songs took place in 1904, when GA Grierson, compiled many Bhawaiya songs when collecting samples of local dialects for his Linguistic Survey of India in 1904 (Vol V, Part I).  Numerous lyricists have composed Bhawaiya songs since, but these did not always meet up to the standards set by the traditional songs.

The term Bhawaiya is a modern construct - probably coined sometime in the 19th century or so. It was earlier known as Bhawoan gaan, the root word being Bhawo - the grazing lands of the buffaloes.  However, there are differing views on the origin of the word Bhawaiya; many feel that the root word is Bhab or Bhav or Bhao which means feelings or emotion. Thus, according to these people, Bhawaiya or Bhaoaiya is he who is emotionally charged - it is the song of the emotional one. But some researchers opine that the word Bhab or Bhav or Bhao has Sanskrit roots, not Rajbongshi.
 
It is difficult to pin down the period in which Bhawaiya songs became popular. However, Bhawoan songs have probably been sung in the region for more than 500 years since the formation of the Koch kingdom. These were assimilated into  the various folk songs of the region. Thus, we find that in the Khosha element of various folk songs of the Rajbongshis like Shaitol Bishohori, Shonarai , Gorakhnath, Madan Kaam and other Palli geeti or even the Kushan pala, Bhawaiya songs are sung. The Khosha song is a device that  acts as a monotony breaker. It could deal with any other topic, completely unrelated to the main theme of the song or play. Once the audience`s interest has been reestablished during a folk play performance, the main theme is resumed. In folk songs, Khosha songs are sung as a matter of tradition and as explained above, many of these use the 6 and more recently, even 7 notes of the Bhawaiya melody. The songs are usually sung in a very high pitch.   

A special characteristic of bhawaiya style of singing involves the use of yodelling in special places. The reason for this, according to some researchers, is to mimic the break in the driver`s (garial) voice that may be caused by a jolt to his bullock cart, or by a bumpy ride on a bullock`s back by a buffalo keeper (maishal). But this reasoning is not accepted by all. At any rate, the yodelling is closely linked with the mode of pronunciation of the Rajbongshi dialect. It is employed whenever the "H" sound is incorporated into a word. For example, "Aki o bandhu mor kajol bhomora re" will be sung as "Ahki ohhh-h-h bondhu mohrh kahjohl bhohmorah rehh". Whatever be the reason for it, the yodelling brings out the melancholy in the lover`s lament and is intrinsic to Bhawaiya.  

On the basis of style, rhythm and tempo, Bhawaiya songs are separated into three sub divisions : Dariya, Khirol and Shoari Chal or Maishali. It is the subject matter of the songs that cause the variation in tempo. In the Dariya type of Bhawaiya, sorrow and pathos reigns supreme and the yodelling makes the melancholy situation even graver. Dariya is further subdivided into Dighalnasa, Chital and Garan, representing subtle differences in the use of the octave and the pattern of notes as well as of the lyrical content. 

The Khirol songs also deal with separation and tragedy. They start low and ascend to a higher pitch. Khirol is also the name of a particular rhythmic stroke on the 4 stringed dotara, which traditionally accompanies the Bhawaiya song. 

The Shoari Chal or Maishali are typically the songs that have been sung by the buffalo keepers. These songs are identified by a particular tempo and rhythmic pattern, reminiscent of a buffalo keeper or Maishal riding on the back of a buffalo. 

The Chotka is a fast paced, rhythmic variant of the Bhawaiya - it is light and lively as against the grave and emotional Bhawaiya.  The subject matter for Chotka songs varies widely - expectations and ambitions, ups and downs in family life, social ills, local scandals  - all find expression in chotka songs. There are however Chotka songs which deal with grief and sorrow as well.  The Khemta dance of the Bhawaiya region is often performed with the Chotka. 

Traditionally, the dotara (a folk stringed instrument) has been used as the sole accompaniment in a bhawaiya performance. Now instruments like the harmonium, flute and percussion instruments like tabla, dhol, khol  are also used to support its presentation. 

The performers of Bhawaiya belong not just to the Rajbongshi community, but also those who have lived in close association with them for hundreds of years and therefore nourished by the Rajbongshi culture. Abbasuddin Ahmed (CE 1901-1959), born in Cooch Bihar, but who later migrated to East Pakistan after the partition of the sub-continent, was one of the foremost Bhawaiya exponents in Bangladesh. His daughter, Firdousi Rahman, and his son, Mustafa Zaman Abbasi, are well-known contemporary singers of Bhawaiya. In Assam, Pratima Barua immortalized Bhawaiya songs like Hastir Kanya, though she called them Goalpariya songs. In West Bengal, well known Bhawaiya exponents from the past include the late Nayeb Ali "Tepu", Dhaneshwar Ray, Abhay Roy and Pyarimohan Das among others.

The lack of support and patronage has always plagued the practice and performance of Bhawaiya. At a point of time the performance was even banned within certain limits of human habitation. Yet Bhawaiya has continued to gain popularity as the melody of North Bengal. It has also been promoted quite vigorously by the local government, much to the dismay of other folk performers who find their art taking a back seat to Bhawaiya.