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Kobi Gaan

Kobi Gaan or Kobir Lorai (a verbal duel among poets) was an urban reincarnation of a popular rural folk form in nineteenth century Kolkata, though its arrival in the city can be traced back to the middle of the eighteenth. In search of an identity and a root in their new urban spaces, rural migrants gradually reinvented these folk forms in consonance with their present urban life.

Incorporating elements from the mythological themes of Torja as well as the erotic themes of Kheyur, Kobigaan was an extempore debating contest in verse, between two minstrels (Kobiaal) and their troupes (Dohars), to the accompaniment of music.  



Kobi Gaan or Kobir Lorai (a verbal duel among poets) was an urban reincarnation of a popular rural folk form in nineteenth century Kolkata, though its arrival in the city can be traced back to the middle of the eighteenth. In search of an identity and a root in their new urban spaces, rural migrants gradually reinvented these folk forms in consonance with their present urban life.

Incorporating elements from the mythological themes of Torja as well as the erotic themes of Kheyur, Kobigaan was an extempore debating contest in verse, between two minstrels (Kobiaal) and their troupes (Dohars), to the accompaniment of music.  

Torja was an old and traditional form of Bengal where rival village poets engaged in a duel in verse, which was mostly impromptu, on a range of topics from mythology to local politics. The poets were accompanied by musicians and their apprentices. This was a very lively form of entertainment for the rural masses.

Kheyur was popular in the seventeenth century urban centre of Krishnanagar under the patronage of Raja Krishnachandra (C.E.1710-1783). The themes of Kheyur were mainly erotic, often narrated metaphorically. The story of Radha and Krishna with their incestuous passion for each other was very popular with these poets and among the audience.

The Kobiaals, the poets of the Kobigaan genre, were not educated, but they knew the Vedas, the Puranas (a genre of important religious texts, notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography), the Koran and political history. The idiom they used was that of the urban folk society comprising artisans, traders, shopkeepers, buyers etc. The verses contained symbolic embellishments, riddles and questions. The mythological figures in these Kobi Gaans were made to speak in the language of the masses. The love themes of Radha and Krishna or the conjugal life of Durga and Siva no longer belonged to a distant mythical world but were situated within the everyday life of the people. And often the world of the traders and shopkeepers entered into this mythical world, providing lively entertainment to the audience.

The Kobiaals depended on ready wit and skills in versification to defeat their rivals in these poetic contests. The musical instruments that accompanied Kobi Gaan also evolved over the years. The traditional Dhaak , the large barrel like drum played with sticks was replaced by the smaller dhol (a variation of the Bengali drum), played by hand on the left side and by a small stick on the right. The noise and tempo of drums and other percussion instruments like  kansi and mandira rose and fell in tune with the debate. Kobi Gaan is still performed in Bengal and instruments used today include the harmonium, drums and even at times, the keyboard!

The Kobiaals did not always compose their own songs, but hired professional help to do so. In fact, a Kobiaal was not just an artist, but also had to act as an impresario. He needed managerial skills to coordinate his team of composers, dohars and musicians.

Some well-known Kobiaals in nineteenth century Kolkata were Horu Thakur, Bhola Moira, Ram Basu and Netai Bairagi and Hensman Anthony, better known as Anthony Phiringi (phiringi means a foreigner in Bengali). Portuguese in origin, Anthony had arrived in Bengal in the middle of the nineteenth century and reportedly married a Hindu Brahmin widow. Deeply influenced by Bengali culture and language, he began to compose devotional songs in Bengali and later became an active participant in Kobi Gaan.

Kobiaals were patronised not merely by the masses, their erotic songs were also very popular with the nouveau riche Bengali.  However, the rich patrons themselves were often the butt of their satire. Bhola Moira, for example, was once invited to a rich but stingy patron’s party where he composed and sang an impromptu song making fun of the man’s miserly nature.

Guptipara in Hooghly district is the birthplace of the sweet maker, Bhola Moira, who was more famous for his Kabi gaan than his sweet making skills. The famous musical duel of Bhola Moira and Antony Firingi has been made immortal in a Bengali film, Antony Phiringi, which had the great Bengali matinee star, Uttam Kumar, in the title role. In a famous a duel between Anthony Phiringi and Bhola Moira, the former made a pun on Bhola’s name (Bholanath being a name of Lord Siva), addressing him as the Lord. In an impromptu reply in verse, Bhola denied being the Lord and made an elaborate reference to his own profession, providing a lively account of his life as a sweetmeat maker.



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