Singing The Boatman: Hemango Biswas and the ‘Bahirana’ in Folk Music

On November 10, 2015 by admin


Rongili Biswas

As part of the legendary folk singer Hemango Biswas’ birth centenary celebration,the first volume of his collected works came out which contained among others, his writings on folk music. As one of the editors of that volume (Hemango Biswas Rachanasangraha,  vol 1, Pranab Biswas and Rongili Biswas ed., Deys Publishing, Kolkata, 2012), I had to read his theories and critique on folk music closely. His theorization is complex, multi-layered and geared towards achieving a purity in folk singing. He firmly believed that folk singing is non-codified. Its sensibility is defined by the specificities of physical ambience, language, tune, rhythm of labour, styles of articulation as well as geographical, historical and cultural contexts of a particular region. In that sense, it cannot have a school or gharana as found in the classical musical tradition. If it has something that is construed and shaped by the parameters I just mentioned that would better be termed as bahirana, a mode of learning that draws upon the traditions of a particular region, and is firmly entrenched in the cultural specificities of the same.

The compulsions of market economy constitute too strong a force working against the traditional modes of such pure performances. Artistes often present corrupt versions of traditional songs with accompaniments that are far removed from the purpose of preserving them. Urban and sometimes even rural audiences, whose perception has been moulded by the corrupt versions, do not desire anything better than those versions. Even serious artists often succumb to such demands. Hemango Biswas was a strong and often a lonely critic of such distortions in folk singing.

As a student of his classes on folk singing and as his daughter and close associate, editing the volume made me share his anxieties, anxieties that get deepened in today’s context. One way of responding to that, I thought, would be to build up a musical archive where his own recordings, those of the artistes he thought as genuine representatives of the original styles and the songs collected by him sung in his preferred styles could be preserved. This is urgently required to minimize the loss that his own collection in the house has already undergone.

boi chhobi

The archive contains several notebooks containing the lyrics of songs collected by Biswas from various Indian provinces. These range over bhatiali, bhaoaia, kamrupi, bongeet, sari, jari, jhaore, ghumor, murshidi, jhumur, gambhira, bhadu, tusu, kajri, choiti, dhamail, lullaby, hori, bihu, etc. Within this repertoire, only a chosen few have been recorded in Biswas’ own voice (in the album Surma nadir gangchil), which gives a fundamental idea about the extremely nuanced and ornate style of bhatiali and dehatatwa he represented.

Bhatiali is essentially the song of the boatman on the river. Bhatiali relates to the slow downstream movement of the boat while sari relates to the vigorous upstream journey. Since rivers constitute an integral part of the terrain of the two Bengals (West Bengal and  Bangladesh) these songs are often considered to be one of the principal representative forms of folk songs from Bengal.

Solitude in a way constitutes the core of bhatiali.  On the one hand, the sound of the water brings in a lilting unevenness in the notational structure that calls for a specific vocal timbre for rendering it properly.  On the other, bare nature and the very expanse of the river facing the boatman brings out an existential anguish. And bhatiali often tends to merge with dehatattwa– a genre of music that dwells on the philosophy of the body. In these, the river is typically used as a metaphor for life. Where to get anchored and how to attain transcendence (siddhi) avoiding the enticements of life (presented through the motifs of lights, markets, colours) are questions asked perennially. ‘Dehotori dilam chhario’ is a famous song of this genre. Here is a typical Hemango Biswas style.


“ I unfasten the boat of my body in your name, o guru.

If I drown, your name will be tarnished.

Traders trade goods in the market

Colourful lights dazzle the shop windows.

They rob people in full glare

On the principal street,

Taking your name.

I unfasten the boat of my body in your name, o guru.

I am puzzled to see the market.

Perhaps I am luckless,

Fallen into trouble.

I left Narayanganj to walk

The path of Madanganj.

Taking your name.

I unfasten the boat of my body in your name, o guru.

If you go to Madanganj

The alligator of desire will catch you.

Pass through the town of Siddhi first

In order to reach the perennial abode.

Taking your name.

I unfasten the boat of my body in your name, o guru.

This is a form of bhatiali that is extremely ornate in nature.  Its classical, rambling, nuanced style of rendition is rare, nearly extinct nowadays. The names of the places act as metaphors, as is the norm for this mystical mode of communication. Madanganj, Narayanganj, Siddhirganj exist as place names and they also stand for symbols of desire, abstinence and transcendence.

I am tempted to quote an artiste who hails from the same region as Hemango Biswas – Sylhet in Bangladesh – and is considered to be the master of a certain style. His rendition follows a mild beat and a different scansion:

nouko 1

I cry my heart out

By this worldly river.

O my mind, who will help you cross over.

I wasted my time when times were good,

I have come to the river at the bad hour

Boatman, I do not know your name

Who would I call?


The boat is there, but not the boatman

There is not a soul on the banks

Boatman, I do not know your name

Who would I call?


Idam the lesser mortal says

‘ Who knows what awaits me’

Sitting at the dargah of Hazrat Shah Jalal

Idam Shah cries.

O my mind, who will help you cross over.

This song was used in Rittwik Ghatak’s film ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ at a poignant moment. And a genius uses the form like:

Although bhatiali’s status as a folk form is unparalleled, it is also somewhat endangered unlike bhaoaiabaul or jhumur. This partly stems from the fact that thematically speaking, it is more difficult to sing and therefore, singers try their hands at it less frequently (singing even diluted versions of it could be difficult). But the other side of it is that singers with the capacity to do justice to this form tend to remain unrecognized and perish along with their collections. This is why collecting and archiving the bhatiali – in its authentic, original versions seems to be an urgent task at hand.

One of the most important aspects of Hemango Biswas’ theory on purity harps on using proper instruments in folk singing. He believes choosing wrong accompaniments, deliberately or otherwise, is the easiest way to achieve distortion in folk renditions. Using synthetic chords, keyboards, synthesizers, loud effect instruments even when someone is singing in a traditional style is by now an all-pervasive phenomenon. Added to that is the problem of a lack of comprehension about the significance of genre-specific instruments in creating the proper ambience. Since specificity is one of the most important characteristics that demarcates folk songs from others, even different variants of the same instrument might be completely unsuitable in bringing out the proper mood.This is even more true about bhatiali which by of its very nature calls for a minimalist musical intervention. Flute, ektara, dotara – one and four stringed traditional melody instruments from Bengal- are the few ones that go with this genre.

Here is a bhatiali that I sing in the ornate style of Hemango Biswas. This is a famous song composed by Radharaman Dutta, one of the most celebrated composers from Sylhet, Bangladesh.  Many singers including Ranen Raychaudhuri have sung this song in their own styles, But, again, here is a unique Hemango Biswas way of rendition.A single metal-stringed dotara played by Laxman Das Baul accompanies the song (performance recording).

The idea of authenticity or the bahirana mode of learning, then, is inextricably related to the cultural specificities of the genres and of the particular regions from which the songs originate. Hemango Biswas believed that unless the singer internalizes that particular core through her very being – body and soul – she cannot re-create and relate it to the audience. The mystical mode deeply embedded in such music and the ‘worlding’ that comes with it also create an emotive space that, ideally speaking, should be shared equally by the singer and the audience. Hemango Biswas writes :‘the style originates from the air and water of the terrain, the soil, the hills and the valleys around. Guru is not one individual but an entire community.The tunes, with their own paintbrush strokes, create the images of the life of that community before one’s eyes. You cannot realise one without the other. Therein lies the basic problem……when I sing bhatiali my mind’s eye visualises the tableaus of that nature and its people. But would the urban audience ever be able to participate in that projection of images,fully alienated from that life that they are?’

The next question that arises, therefore, is: can this non-codified ‘pure’ form be practiced and performed? What would that signify for the uninitiated urban (or for that matter, a part of the rural) audience? How would it confront such purity in folk music? Going by my own  experience of performance, even the most uninitiated audience (that comprises the relatively younger generations, for example) does get drawn into that emotive space, even if momentarily. Of course, much depends upon the performance quality and the artistic investment.  Hemango Biswas himself did not believe this music should be preserved as a show-piece in a museum.  He would even welcome changes or evolution in folk music as long as those changes were not imposed from outside or made by the people who were fully alienated from that musical core. Needless to say, in this era of globalization, even changes brought about by the people belonging to that core may be suspect. But that is a different domain of argument altogether.

In a forthcoming album of Bengali folk songs (Aphula Kadam, Girona Entertainment), I sing some Bhatiali/ Dehatattwa from East Bengal. The other songs are from the genres bhaoaia, bicchedi, fakiri (Lalon),dhamail,lullaby, marriage songs from Northern Bengal etc. and I sing them to the accompaniment of traditional genre-specific instruments played by the musicians belonging to the specific regions. But I feel more specific attention towards bhatiali is needed and to do justice to the archive as well as to the genre itself, my next job is to bring out a series of river song collections including bhatiali, dehatattwa, sari and boat racing songs of Bengal.

Hemango 6








Rongili Biswas is an Associate Professor of Economics in West Bengal Education Service. She has published widely in the fields of political, public and development economics. An acclaimed author, Rongili has been the recipient of ‘ Katha’ and ‘Bangla Academy’ prizes for her works of fiction. She is also an accomplished folk singer and for the past few years she is engaged in building up an archive of her father, the singer, composer and cultural activist Hemango Biswas.







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