Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Bengali Improvisators

Kalipada Mukherjee

The work of some of our improvisators is highly interesting even today. Some of them delighted at times in the scurrilous and the obscene; but certainly most of them were true to the tradition of the great Vaishnava and Shakta lyrists of Bengal. If, as has been said by Mr. Basabendra Nath Tagore before the India Society in London, in the early days of Bengali Literature, whereas the Spanish people used to find amusement in bull fighting and the Romans in chariot-racing, Bengal amused herself in a more artistic game known as the fight of the poets, such poetic contests have even now been taking place in Bengal on the occasion of religious festivities held every year in honour of one or other of the popular gods and goddesses.

The earliest of these Poets were known as ‘dand kabis’–(poets who stood up while improvising)–simply because they composed their verses off-hand standing in open spaces or in the halls attached to temples serving as auditoria. They, however, go by the general name of Kabiwalas or makers of ‘kabis’ or improvised songs.1 The earliest probably of these were Raghu, Matey (Moti), and Nanda, all belonging to the eleventh century. Some have said that Raghu was a Muchi (shoe-maker); while others have held that he was a Kayastha by caste.

It is to the credit of these professional song-makers and makers of mirth that some of them have found a place in the history of Bengali Literature. This is certainly owing to their intrinsic merit, because some of them possessed genuine poetic powers. One such improvisator, Ram Bosu, is justly famous for his songs about Radha and Krishna. One such song contains a charming picture: Radha stands infatuated, gazing upon the beauty of Krishna reflected in the waters of the Jumna, and, so to continue her enjoyment, she begs of her companions, with folded palms and melting into tears, not to make ripples for that would distort the impression. Here is a favourite and well-known farewell scene. Says a Bengali wife: "When he smiles and says, ‘Then bid me adieu,’ I burst into teats at the sight of his smile." She cannot let any one know of her great grief at parting. Then she confides this secret to her confidante: "Seeing his face I hid mine own, and wept for sorrow of heart. But my well-graced beloved went abroad with great ease." In another song, Radha says to Krishna, "Stand a while, O Lord of my life, do not go away hiding your face.....Do not give me pain by shutting your eyes."

This Ram Bosu was also a great master in the art of using apt alliteration, as is seen in some of his verses which have a haunting melody.

Born in 1738 at Simulia, Calcutta, Hare Knshna Dirghangi died in 1813. He learnt verse-making from a carpenter Raghunath Das by name. Haru Thakur, as he was popularly known, once charmed Maharaj Nabakrishna Bahadur so much that the Maharaja gave him a pair of rich shawls as reward. But he felt insulted, and at once threw the shawls on the head of his drummer. Though not endowed with the genius of Ram Bosu, Haru Thakur was a writer of sweet diction. Ram Bosu was very skilful in delineating the sorrowful aspect of the lover’s mind while in separation, but Haru Thakur was equally successful in songs of the class of ‘Sakhi-sangbad.’ In one of his songs he sings,

The soft breeze blows; the night is terrific,
Yet where is my love, O my friend?
I hear the rumbling of dark rain-clouds.

There were many such sweet writers, of whom Krishnachandra Charmakar (shoe-maker), Lalu Nandalal, Nityananda, Bhabani, Nilmoni Patuni, Krishnamohan Bhattacharya, Satu Roy, Gadadhar Mukherjee. Jaynarain Banerjee, Thakurdas Chakravarty, Rajkrishna Banerjee, Gorakshanath, Nabai Thakur, and Gour Kaviraj are the most famous.

About 166 years ago there lived in Chandernagore two brothers, Rashu and Nrishingha, who became very famous for their songs called collectively ‘Sakhi-sangbad,’ songs of Radha’s friend Brinda before Krishna at Mathura telling Him of Radha’s sorrow in separation. In one of their songs, they thus delineated the character of the Divine Lover: "Shyam. Thy character is like that of a traveller who, after resting in the shade of a tree, leaves it and never looks behind," Another Kabiwala, Gonjla Guin, who lived more than two hundred years ago, wrote many such songs. Another Chandernagore man was Nityanandadas Bairagi who lived from 1751 to 1821. Some songs of the party of which he was the leader are Very sweet. One is like this:

The flute of my Lover sounds in the wood:
It must be the flute of Shyam.
For otherwise my body would not be listless;
And nectar would not flow into the ears.
Ah, why else are the birds sitting entranced on the trees?
Why does the Jumna heave with waves?
And why do the trees bend down though no wind blows?

The Kabiwalas come from all the strata of society: many of them are low class people, men in the street and poor villagers, as has been noticed before. Some have been shoe-makers

even. Some too were Mahommedans. It is interesting to note in this connection that one Portuguese gentleman, Antoni Feringhi by name, the remnants of whose garden-house can still be seen at Gariti, became famous as an improvisator. In those days there was no very marked difference between Europeans and Bengalees in social matters. With his hat off and his body bare, this European Kabiwala sang before large Bengali audiences, adding mirth to the humdrum life of the average Bengalee. He became Hinduised because of his love for a Brahmin woman. He joined Hindus in their great festivals and finally got up a company of improvisators, himself as leader. The leader of the opposite party once began the contest with:

Say, Antoni, this I want to know; you have come to this country, and yet you are without your national dress.

Like a true Kaviwala Antoni retorted:

I live here in Bengal in great joy, dressed as a Bengalee. I have given up my national dress as I have become the son-in-law of Thakur Singh’s father.

He meant to say that he had married the sister of Thakur Singh–a very pungent remark!

Ram Bosu now began his charge with:

Sahib, it is all for nothing that you have dedicated yourself to the worship of Krishna.

Your vicar will reprimand you if he hears of this.

The Sahib replied:

O brother, there is no difference between Christ and Krishna.

It is not a little surprising that people are befooled by names only.

He Who is my ‘Khoda’ is the ‘Hari’ of the Hindus.

See, there stands Shyam–

My life will be fruitful if only I can attain to His red feet.

This European was not really a convert: he sang, dressed like a Bengali, simply to enjoy fun. Once he sang:

I, a mere Feringhi, know nothing of devotion or worship, Mother.

But if Thou be merciful to me, it will be only for Thy great kindness, O Siva Metangi.2

Of the Mahomedan Kaviwalas, Mirza Hussain Ali and Sayd Jaffar Khan, both having lived more than a century ago, were the most prominent. They had faith in the Shakta cult, and composed songs in honour of Siva and Durga.

Another Kaviwala whose songs are very well-known was a Bhola Moira born either at Guptipara or at Simulia. That he was a confectioner at Baghbazar in Calcutta he himself sang in many of his songs. "I am no Kalidas: I live at Baghbazar." So he sang in one such song.

He knew slightly Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi, and had some knowledge of the Scriptures also. Though the dates of his birth and death are no longer known, it is known that he lived to be seventy three. He was a great wit. Before he formed his party, he had composed a song which reads thus:

The Betel Leaf.

The betel leaf is called ‘tambul’; ‘parna’ it is called in chaste Bengali.
It reigns in plantations, and is the great hope of farmers.
Old men and old women, young men and young women all chew this leaf and grow more amorous.
The Munshi Babu like a buffalo in colour, dyes his lips red and looks graceful.
As the fruit of penance in former births, we gain the privilege of enjoying this luxury.
He who cannot buy betel leaves is indeed unfortunate and is like one lying uncremated after death.

Bhola was an outspoken, yet a facetious, man. Once he went to sing in the house of the Zamindars of Jara in the Midnapore District. Close by was the village Manikkundu, well- known for its radishes, 3 to 4 cubits long, and 10 to 12 seers in weight. At the ‘tournament’, Jaga Bene was the opponent of Bhola. In order to gain the favour of the Zamindars, Jaga extolled them to the skies and compared their village with Golok, the heavenly home of Sri Krishna, and Brindabon where Sri Krishna passed His early youth. This infuriated Bhola who shamed his antagonist openly with the retort,

How could you have the face, Jaga, to compare Jara with Golok and Brindabon?
Here the landlords are Brahmins and the tenants are farmers.
See, it is surrounded with clumps of bamboos on all sides.
Where is that Shyamkunda, where again is Radhakunda? 3

Ahead of you is Manikkundu: go and see its radishes.
Sing ‘kabi’: you will get your fee.
Why indulge in fulsome flattery?
This is a very well-known morceau of mordant sarcasm.
He added to the above:
It is not easy to talk of one as Krishnachandra;
For it is He Who alone can help us to cross this sea-like world.

Bhola was not a lover of flattery. Whoever flattered him was sure to meet with a sharp retort. He was never lifted up with pride and could not brook pride in any one. He improvised many songs against social abuses–songs full of good-humoured raillery. It is therefore that the venerable Pundit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar once said, "To keep alive the social life of Bengal, the birth at intervals of speakers like Ramgopal Ghosh, writers like Hutom Pencha 4 and improvisators like Bhola Moira, is absolutely necessary."

So great was the fascination of these poetical contests that even the great dramatist. Girishchandra Ghosh, the Father of the Bengali Stage, himself joined many such contests from which he came out with flying colours. Once he sang a song of which the subject was the worship of Prakriti (Nature) as in ‘Rashatantra.’ The contesting party could not improvise a reply. The drummer, no less a person than the elder brother of a Judge of the Calcutta High Court, thrice beat the drum; but yet no reply came. In disgust he threw over the drum. Girishchandra himself then gave the reply. After this, Girishchandra sang the words of the wife of Jayadratha to her husband after his humiliation by the Pandavas. The opposing party gave a reply that was irrelevant. Girishchandra’s party were preparing to give the reply, when the opposite party beat their drum to declare that the contest was over. It is said that the opponents became so very furious that they made ready to attack Girishchandra who, however, managed to escape unhurt.*

1 Wife of Siva in the vocative case.

2 One of the many names of the goddess Durga

3 The word ‘kunda’ means a tank dedicated to Some deity. Shyamkunda and Radhakunda are two such tanks dedicated respectively to Krishna and Radha.

4 A pseudonym assumed by the well-known Bengalee scholar and writer. Kali Prasanna Singha, for writing some sketches to satirise the Bengali society of his times.

* A full discussion of the work of the Kaviwalal is in Dr. S. K. De’s ‘History of Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1800-1825)’ published by the University of Calcutta.

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