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Sunday, June 02, 2002

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CULTURAL AND FOLKLORE HERITAGE

Bangladesh Sangbad Shangtha

The definition of folklore might look long and tedious if we say "Whenever a lullaby is sung to a child; whenever a tongue twister or a riddle or a countingout time is used in nursery or school; whenever sayings or proverbs are told; whenever a mother shows her daughter how to sew, spin, weave, embroider, bake an old-fashioned pie; whenever a farmer on the ancestral plot trains his son in the ways long familiar; whenever a village craftsman, carpenter, carver, shoemaker, blacksmith trains his apprentice in the use of tools; whenever in may callings the knowledge, experience, wisdom, skill, habits and practices of the past are handed down by examples or spoken world, by the elder to the new generation, without reference to books or print, then that is called Folklore." However, in Bangladesh, there is an enormous amount of influence of folklore in our old and modern Bengali literature. Therefore, to analyse and understand our culture and literature, we must be familiar with the folkloric heritage of Bangladesh and how it was collected over the years. Being a Bangladeshi, it is good to learn something about our rich heritage.

     If one is to make a historical survey of Bengali folklore, covering all branches of formalised folklore, such as tales, songs, ballads, proverbs, riddles, charms, superstitions, myths, legends and similar traditional materials, he must be acquainted with social and ethnic conditions of the country.
The folklore of Bangladesh is heavily influenced by different races which were present years ago. The abundant folklore of the present-day Bangladesh, therefore, contains a variety of elements, which is partly to be explained by the historical forces.

     From the third century AD onwards, the Mouryas, the Guptas, the Palas, the Senas and the Muslims came one after another to rule the land. As a result, they grafted their ways of life and cultural traits on the indigenous population. Subsequently, Portuguese, French and English ships anchored in the harbours of Bengal. They left not only their merchandise but also their customs. Of these foreign traders, the British became the most powerful. They were able to consolidate their authority at the expense of the fading empire of the Mughal rulers. The battle of Plassy in 1757 ended with the defeat of the Nawab of Bengal. The British victory ensured the supremacy of the British East India Company over the entire sub-continent, which included Bangladesh, for nearly 200 years. As a result, the folklore of Bangladesh presents an interesting variety, both anthropological and sociological.

     Since a number of races established in Bengal, it only naturally follows that each race left its own mark and it was not only physical but also cultural, which collectively formed the basis of the future higher culture. There is no denying the fact that the first phase of folklore collecting was started by the British rulers of India, though the purpose behind it was obviously political and administrative. As soon as the British East India Company became ruler of Bengal it requested the British civil officers to learn about the people of the land through their culture and customs. Consequently, under the directive of the Company, scholars like William Jones, a judge of the old Supreme Court, Calcutta, established the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in the year 1784. This Society promoted the study of the humanities, including the materials later recognised as folklore.

     Under the British initiative, the study of folklore was advanced primarily by the British civil officers and European missionaries.

     After the Sepoy Revolution of 1857, there followed more congenial atmosphere to investigate folklore. In 1858, by a proclamation of Queen Victoria, the administration was transferred from the East India Company to a Viceroy, the representative of the Queen of England. From then on, the English officials before leaving England, were instructed to mix with the Indian people to try to gain their confidence, and also to respect their religions, culture and customs. The officials who came to India were clearly familiar with the anthropology, ethnology and of course, folklore. The officials launched many journals and publications, which richly contained enormous quality of folklore materials.

     Along with the civil servants, the missionaries of Great Britain, Europe and the United States made important contribution to the folklore collection and publication. Since their aim was to preach Christianity among the natives, it was incumbent on them to know the native customs. Among the missionaries, William Carey was remarkable. He served in Fort William College from 1800-1831 and with the help of native munshis he published a series of Bengali books, edited newspapers and encouraged the translations of Sanskrit folktales known in oral traditions.

     Other missionaries, such as Caleb Wright and Right Rev. Reginald, on the other hand, were causal travellers who kept excellent information in their books about the customs and traditions of our country. The missionaries were followed by the ontique collectors such as Kanailal Ghosal, Rajendranath Benarjee and many more.

     The second phase of the folklore movement was introduced by Bengali scholars of nationalistic tendencies. Rabindranath Tagore was the pioneer during the period. From 1885 to 1899, he published four essays showing the importance of Bengali folk literature. 'These four essays were compiled in his book Loka-Sahitya (Folk Literature) in 1907. Tagore patronised others and he himself collected a large number of folklore materials from his vast estate of East Bengal, including Bangladesh. He himself wrote : "When I was at Selaidah, I would always keep close contact with the Bauls (mystic folk singers) and have discussion with them, and it was fact that I infused tunes of Baul songs into many of my own songs". Many people say that 'Tagore used numerous folklore themes in many of his poems, songs, dramas, novels and short stories. Other scholars, who made important contribution to folklore were Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury : Toontooni Pal (1910 Book on Toontooni) and Mitra Majumder Takore: Thakur Mar Jhuli (1906 Grandmother Stories), Monsur Uddin (collector of Baul songs), Jashim Uddin (who was famous for his folklore themes in dramas and poetries) and Abbas Uddin(who made folksongs popular).

The third phase of folklore movement began in Dhaka, then East Bengal, in the year 1938, when the Eastern Mymensingh Literary Society was established. This promoted the collection and study of folklore. Folklore activities were, however, much accelerated when the then government established the Bangla Academy in Dhaka in 1955 to promote research work on Bengali language and literature and collected, preserved and published folklore materials. Folklore candidates, appointed by the academy, worked in regions rich in folklore. As a result, folklore materials of high quality poured in on an unending stream. So far, the Bangla Academy has published many books on folklore.

     Bengali ballads which are called Gatha or Geetika in Bengali are one of the earliest variety of folksongs. The dates of origin of Bengali ballads will safely go to up to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. Divergent opinions have been expressed as to the origin of ballads. There are two contending groups : (1) communalistic, and (2) individualistic.

     The first group saw in ballads a continuing traditions from the primitive ages and thought that these were made by a kind of communal improvisations for communal recreation. Later, critic suggested that people were too indefinite, too disorganised for such concerted efforts, and that ballads were composed under the direction of a leader who brought the necessary discipline in songs and who functioned as the main organiser and guide. According to the critics, after an individual ballad was composed, it passed on from people to people, community to community through oral traditions. In the process some were changed, improved and sometimes even deteriorated. This individualistic theory has been accepted by the scholars at both home and abroad.

     Behind ever art is a man, behind the man is the race and behind the race is the social and natural environment and these influences are sure to be reflected on folklore. Bengali ballads give us an idea of the Bengali society in the Middle Ages, its joy and sorrows, laughter and tears. Bangladesh is the land of rivers -- almost all villages are linked with rivers. There is a proverb which says, "There is not a single village without a river or a rivulet and a folk poet or a minstrel".

     The struggle for existence was not as hard in Middle Ages as it is today and the minstrels and folk poets had ample opportunity to enjoy nature and pass care-free-time in composing songs and stories. Moreover, they were always patronised by the local feudal lords.

     It was, of course, Islam that gave the highest acceleration to the development of the Bengali ballads. The Turks conquered Bengal at the beginning of the 13th century. Muslims brought with them a huge store of Persian literature. The low-caste Hindus for the first time in their life had the opportunity to talk and mix with the conquering race. They saw that there were no barriers to caste and creed among Muslims and that all men were equal in Islam. In due course, the influence of the Persian romances reached the remote corner of the country. Gradually, the Hindu society also came to know of this and humanism like the south wind blew over the literature of Bengal. Even though these stories and songs were composed earlier, they were unfortunately collected from the oral tradition only by the second decade of the 20th century. It is quite obvious that these stories underwent a great change. Earlier the poets were patronised by the feudal lords, but in the later period probably when the poets lost their patrons in the British period, they became the "property of the masses rather than the classes". May be, for this reason the quality of the folk stories and songs, composed in the later period, deteriorated.

     Many stories and songs have been collected till now. The ballads are usually sung in accompaniment with tabors, drums, and other folk instruments. Ballad stories are sung by a leader who is called "Gayen' and he has a group of associate singers called 'Paile' who join in the chorus in illustrating the episodes.

     There are innumerable varieties of folk songs in the riverine Bangladesh which are sung by different cultural groups in different parts of the country. The most popular variety of songs can be divided into many different classes.

     The first class of songs can be divided into "Work songs" or "Occupational songs". These songs include harvest songs, which are sung at the time of harvest or cultivation; songs of the bullockcart drivers or palan-quin-bearers sung at the time of carrying passengers from one place to another; songs sung by labourers when they built roofs of a house; 'sari-gaan', sung by boatmen in the month of monsoon, at the time of boat race, etc.

     Kavi, however, bases mostly Hindu myths and legends and is also sung by two rival singers. They are usually sung at the time of Hindu festivals. Kavi, like Jari, may also be sung throughout the year for pure entertainment.

     Both Kavi and Jari sometimes go beyond the limit of their particular subject and in the course of singing introduces modern topics or amusing national and local events. Sometimes when ritual singers indulge in personal attacks through the exchange of sharp wits, the audience bursts into laughter. We see that all the folk songs and stories of Bangladesh inform us about the then society. It depicts clearly how the people used to think, their customs, and what the principles they used to follow. Through all the folk materials collected over the years we can learn more about our country's history and tradition. We learn that Bangladesh has rich cultural and folklore heritage, which may be compared with any other country of the world rich in folklore. Since folklore has already been accepted as a social, cultural and ethnic study, Bangladeshi Folklore will also have a distinct place in the study.

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