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Jhumur

The Jhumur folk song is an ancient musical form that belongs to the red-soiled regions on the western frontiers of West Bengal -  Purulia, Bankura, Bardhaman, Birbhum and West Medinipur as well as the state of Jharkhand and parts of Odisha.  Jhumur has been a way of life for communities like the Kurmi-Mahatos, Kumhaar, Rajwar, Ghatoal, Hari, Muchi, Dom etc and tribals like the Bhumij,  Oraon and Munda for centuries.  Since the migration of tribals to the tea gardens, Jhumur can be heard in North Bengal and Assam as well. The Santals do not sing Jhumur.  Known for its lyrical and literary significance, linguistically, these songs are a mix of Oriya, Bengali, and other local dialects like Kurmali, Panchpargania and Nagpuria, due to the contiguity of the states where these languages are spoken and the widespread settlements of the aforementioned tribes in these areas.

There are many theories on the origin of the word Jhumur – probably as many stories as there are experts.  In the words of a Jhumur composer this music “is neither new nor old, it is like a forest tree with roots deeply buried in the past but which continuously puts forth new branches, new leaves,  new fruits.”



The Jhumur folk song is an ancient musical form that belongs to the red-soiled regions on the western frontiers of West Bengal -  Purulia, Bankura, Bardhaman, Birbhum and West Medinipur as well as the state of Jharkhand and parts of Odisha.  Jhumur has been a way of life for communities like the Kurmi-Mahatos, Kumhaar, Rajwar, Ghatoal, Hari, Muchi, Dom etc and tribals like the Bhumij,  Oraon and Munda for centuries.  Since the migration of tribals to the tea gardens, Jhumur can be heard in North Bengal and Assam as well. The Santals do not sing Jhumur. Known for its lyrical and literary significance, linguistically, these songs are a mix of Oriya, Bengali, and other local dialects like Kurmali, Panchpargania and Nagpuria, due to the contiguity of the states where these languages are spoken and the widespread settlements of the aforementioned tribes in these areas.

There are many theories on the origin of the word Jhumur – probably as many stories as there are experts.  In the words of a Jhumur composer this music “is neither new nor old, it is like a forest tree with roots deeply buried in the past but which continuously puts forth new branches, new leaves,  new fruits.”

The Jhumur as a form underwent several stages of development. The original four-line Jhumur songs were songs of the field which tribes would sing as they cultivated their land. These were the early days of jhumur. The women would sing aloud the songs –referred to as Jhumur Hakka, while the men sang songs that were known as Taainr Jhumur – taainr meaning fields. Taainr songs were often of vulgar content and their singing was usually confined to the fields rather than in homes. Cultivators would compose couplets and songs right on the fields while doing their work. These songs, with their lilting rhythm, simple tunes and easily understood lyrics, were songs about love, sorrow, joy and everyday concerns which affected the lives of these ordinary people. The songs were not spiritual or profound in form or content, and were sung in the local vernacular. 

By the middle ages, Jhumur began to be used as ritual music.  There were countless folk rituals dedicated to folk deities and guardian spirits. All these rituals which the common people performed themselves, required chanting of songs, for which the Jhumur was adopted.  Thus folk festivals like the Karam, Tushu, Bhadu, Bandna and even weddings all came to be celebrated using Jhumur songs. Jhumur was sung by tribals, as part of their repertoire at their festivals. Thus Jhumur moved in from the fields into homes and began to be associated with rituals and auspiciousness. Group singing replaced solo performances.

Still later, many of the later Jhumur poets who belonged to a higher caste became influenced by the Vaishnav cult that had swept through Bengal spearheaded by Sri Chaitanya and the Jhumur took a religious and erotic turn. Today Jhumur is best known for the Radha-Krishna motif, their love, union and separation. Episodes from the Ramayana have also been often used in these songs. This genre is hugely popular across castes and classes for its rhythmic pulse, infectious melodies and its theme of erotic love or “sringara rasa”. The sringara rasa could be either devotional (the adoration of Krishna) or about everyday romances between rural men and women. It is the most common rasa used by latter-day Jhumur composers. The  Vaishnav influence on the lyrics melded with Indian classical music to create another form of Jhumur – the Darbari Jhumur – thus moving from a form that was casually sung to an ambit of strict performance rules. It was performed under the patronage of local royal courts before the princely states were abolished by the British. It was also performed for zamindars and other rich patrons at their estates. Composers and performers were often gifted parcels of land by the kings. From the mid nineteenth century, Jhumur  ceased to be an oral form, with Jhumur songs written down and made available to scholars outside the “rarh” region.

Within the Jhumur tradition, there are specific melodies and rhythms that are unique to Jhumur and in fact, one of the special characteristics of the Jhumur song is its strong rhythmic component.  The rhythmic cycles (talas) though apparently simple are actually complex patterns with a great deal of variety and subtlety. There are various kinds of Jhumur songs, usually named according to the time of the year they are sung or the characteristics of the composition, dance or rhythmic pattern that they have. But broadly, Jhumur is divided into two categories - Bhaduria Jhumur and Darbari (court) Jhumur, also known as Nachni  Salia or Zamindari Jhumur.

The Bhaduria Jhumur songs belong to the pure folk variety – sung mainly in the month of Bhadra, (mid-August to mid-September). The songs are generally very short with a repeated refrain. Pathos predominates in the Bhaduria Jhumur songs. There are many types of Bhaduria Jhumur, like   Jhingaphulia, Udasia, Rosrosiya, Kamaria, Khemta etc, so named after specific characteristics. For example, the flower (phul) of the Jhing creeper blossoms only in the evening, as the sun is about to set and it is this time of the day that sets a background to the lyrics of the Jhingaphulia.  Kamaria is a style of Bhaduria Jhumur sung by the Kama tribe; Khemta is a Jhumur so named because of the dance movements that it accompanies; Udasia Jhumur carries a mood of detachment while in Rosrosiya , the theme of erotic love abounds.   

Forms of Jhumur performed at other times of the year, include Chait Jhumur and Danrshalia Jhumur. According to Salabat Mahato, Jhumur has few rules and therein lies its popular appeal: the songs spontaneously evolve from the heart with little regard to form and structure, and anyone can sing it. The songs also do not indulge in double-meanings or twilight language (sandhya bhasha) like Baul songs and this simplicity also endears it to its followers. Usually, the instruments used are combinations and permutations of the dhol – a percussion instrument made of hollow wood and goat skin stretched over the sides, the harmonium, tabla, mandira, madol and flute.

Although the influence of Jhumur can be felt across a wide regional expanse, it is in Purulia  that it is at its strongest. Purulia is the land of Jhumur. Jhumur is the only musical form that is employed by multiple dance forms of Purulia – the Chho, the Natua and of course, the Nachni - a sensuous solo dance performed by a class of professional dancing girls know as Nachni. The songs that a Nachni sings are Darbari Jhumurs and are based on the divine love of Radha and Krishna. Songs of renowned Jhumur singers like Bhobopritanondo, Dina Tanti, Ramkrishna Ganguly, Binondiya Singh, Uday Kumar, Chamu Kumar, Akhu Kumar, Bipinbihari are sung in  such gatherings.

Salabat Mahato credits the survival and relative popularity of Jhumur to the nachnis without whose graceful and sensuous dances, he thinks, Jhumur would have long fallen into oblivion. Nachni dance is high in its entertainment value for the masses, with the dancer dressed to the hilt and with heavy makeup and ornate jewellery. But nachnis have been shockingly mistreated by their own community, much like the devadasis of the temples in south India. Treated like objects, and held in contempt in both life and death; their art was considered a ‘low’ form and reviled for its sexual content. Taint notwithstanding, the late Sindhubala, and performers like Bimala and Pastubala are held as great nachni performers. Sindhubala was recognised with the state’s Lalon Purashkar award.

Deprived of royal or zamindari patronage, (a zamindar was sneered at by his peers if he hadn’t ‘kept’ at least two nachnis) these dancers are now reduced to being at the mercy of their Rasiks, their trainers. These men have been known to buy girl children from impoverished parents, and support and train them until they are full-fledged singers and dancers. Any income they bring in henceforth is a ‘return on the Rasik’s investment’. However, many others are born into traditional musical families and are drawn into musical careers as a matter of course. These dancers are looked upon with equal amounts of fascination, adoration and social stigma much like cabaret dancers in the West. They also almost always hail from the lower castes and are not allowed to marry their Rasiks if the latter are from a higher caste; regardless of whether they are living like a married couple. These are women who while being talented artists and remain the best bet in rural entertainment despite the invasion of the video in these places, are forced to stay childless and deprived of all property rights.

The male musicians of this genre, however, do not suffer such social stigmatization. On the contrary, Jhumur musicians and singers consider it an honourable profession and are respected by their community as such. Apart from Salabat Mahato, other important performers of Jhumur songs or Jhumurias, are Dhiren Sardar, Bankim Karmakar, Biswanath Sahis, Amulya Kumar, Kuchil Mukherjee and Phanibhushon Mahato.