River, Boat, Boatmen and their Songs – A Spiritual Coexistence

Posted by Kaahon Desk On August 4, 2019

Bengal, if demarcated by the language, comprising of West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh, has an enduring myth, that it is the land of the rivers. To be more specific, Bengal is characterized by having not only rivers and the sea, but various kinds of water retaining structures, for example, lakes, canals, estuaries, large ponds, ox bow lakes and what not! As flowing water is an intrinsic part of the life and struggles of the people of Bengal, Boat since civilization has evolved from human discovery for transportation to representing their perception, visualization, imagination of life at large.

Previous Kaahon Folk Update:

Starting from Shamanistic rituals to fight back the uncertainty and fear of death when Boat carried men into the rivers or sea, the boat has entered into the emotion centric family life leaving aside its non-living entity. There are numerous types of Boats alone in Bengal, depending on the density, water current and the geographical location of the water in which they are supposed to be used. Surprisingly, in West Bengal, there are two entire villages which have drawn attention as almost all the inhabitants of those villages are involved in boat making business. They are Balagarh (Hooghly district) and Nurpur (South 24 Parganas District). Through generations after generations, they have been making boats. It’s an indigenous craft that they have mastered not through any formal academy but through their senses about the physics behind the boat-movement on water. They do consider the types of water which the boats will sail on and the purpose of the boats while designing and making them keeping in mind that a slight mistake might invite a boat wreck. The boat makers and the boat users are so still dependent on their physical and emotional relationship with the uncertain nature, that they all treat the boat as a deity who has been adorned and imbibed into the family as the most precious daughter. The boat is imagined symbolically as that strength of the family structure within a community being, who will bring fortune, protect against evil forces or the uncertain harsh waters again will bring emotional peace to the family as a symbol of the fertility cult. She is worshiped with flowers, incense sticks, garlands. The front section of the Boat, which is imagined to be the head of the deity, is never stepped on by the human foot, and almost all boats have an eye drawn in that part by its owner. When she first steps into the water body and are ready to set sail for the high waters, many shamanistic rituals are followed, which oral history says, even smashed the living human skull and then touched the first water. It is believed that it symbolically represents as if she has crushed evil forces and possess the power to do so, hence all the evil spirits wandering above the water bodies should abide by her powers. Later this practice is just been replaced with vegetables and fruits as icons representing the same believes. Boats have been such an intricate part of human existence at least in Bengal.

This journey has found its concrete shape in the artistic expressions of the people of Bengal, through paintings, performing arts, architecture, but most importantly in their musical expressions. This man-boat and their togetherness in a journey through the rivers or the sea have developed a genre or a form of music which is very particular to Bengal. If we divide Bengal’s music which bears its origin from the riverine structure of Bengal, then we probably get three categories. Firstly, let us consider Bhatiyali. During the low-tide and as in Bengal the rivers are sloth in their lower course, the coxswain leave the oar and rely on the strong winds to direct his journey. At this stage both physically and mentally, the philosophy of a music genre that is formed indicates as if the life is surrendered into the hands of the Almighty and it is that cosmic force, which determines the destiny. Thus, the tune of the Bhatiyali is slow paced and elongated almost without any rhythm which matches the slow ebbs of the river. Songs are generally sung solely. The lyrics sometimes speaks about the secured stable life embraced by his love, family that he has left behind in his village, or he calls his spiritual teacher to guide his life or a call for the Almighty to direct his life. Second type is called Sari, and is totally antagonistic to the Bhatiyali form of music, both in philosophy and also style wise. Sari is collective songs of all the boatmen, when they need to flow against the course of the river. In high paced rhythm, the music is sung to encourage the men not to surrender to the harsh nature, but to tame it in order to survive in the struggle for existence. Sometimes, Sari is also sung in Baich or boat race as a symbol of using entertainment for upholding the collective being. The third form is when the boat and its physical organic structure is used as a metaphor to explore spirituality through the human Body. Mostly the Baul and the Fakirs of Bengal, who use Dehotatta as their philosophical foundation, have often used boat as an allegory in their music.

Apart from all these three forms, boat is so much enmeshed in the philosophy of life of the people of Bengal, that in any kind of musical expression, boat inevitably has been coming as a rhetoric.

Unfortunately, this genre of music which bears the musical identity of Bengal is no more in the process of formation. No new songs are written or produced. The main reason for such a degradation is because of the loss of the sails being replaced by machines, spending less time in the rivers by the fishermen, and most importantly the lack of quest of spiritualism from the common mundane life of men. The environmental; pollution and its degradation are other factors which has spaced away the rivers from human dependency for livelihood and enjoyment. This video explores the rich history of boat dependent music repository of Bengal, and related issues, challenges, and prospects.

Srijayee Bhattacharjee
A postgraduate in film studies from Jadavpur University, Research Project Assistant in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, a thespian, creative producer and a writer.


Related Updates


Follow Us

Show Calendar

Message Us