Shamsuzzaman Khan is a Professor, folklore research scholar, editor and author. He studied in Delhi University, and has held different academic and non-academic positions of eminence in various universities, organizations and government departments in Bangladesh and other countries. He is winner of many prestigious awards for Folklore research and for his literary and cultural contribution, including Bangla Academy Literary Award.
Oral Traditions of Bangladesh
In the USA and some European Countries the synchronic method in studying folklore has been a modern trend in recent times. Since this subcontinent of ours has a history of great antiquity and a perennial backwardness in the social development, non-literate culture or oral culture still has an abiding influence. This means the synchronic method in the study of our folkloric corpus will not help us identify the inner significance of many local folk-genres. Therefore, our research paradigm must be formulated integrating both the synchronic and the diachronic methods. Unless we can build a holistic discourse model of this kind, the objective study of our folklore is not possible. A.K. Ramanujan has, as we notice, made an attempt of this kind in his study of Kannada and Tamil folklore. No such innovative attempt has yet been noticed in the eastern part of the sub-continent, particularly the region comprising Bangladesh, West Bengal etc.
However, it is important to note that the active tradition bearers perform the items of their repertoire keeping in mind the historical continuity of local performance tradition. Which is why the performance of a folk narrative or folksong or a ballad cannot be appreciated if it is viewed synchronically.
By ignoring the central authoritarian and hegemonic pressure and studying the ancient scriptures in the minutest detail the rural bards have succeeded in building a liberal cultural worldview of their own, which is tolerant of others views and free from the bondage of religious fanaticism and scriptural injunctions. Rabindranath Tagore said that Bengal had always been free from scriptural obsessions. The doctrines of Buddhism and Jainism had always an abiding influence in this country or its neighborhood. Both Magadha and Bengal were treated as outcastes. In other words, they enjoyed freedom. One can notice such freedom among the Vaishnavas and the Bauls of Bengal They always threw off the yoke of ornamentation and high-sounding scriptural edicts from their literature and song. The encumbrance of holy book is not present there but they are liberal, profound and expressive of suggestions free from prejudice2. The Kirtans, Bauls and Bhatiali songs of this country have so very deep meanings that it is difficult to get at them.
The monks, hermits, ascetics, kabials (professional versifiers), Bayatis and Bauls of Bengal have evolved a tradition of humanism after a thorough study of religious scriptures, myths and puranas. The Buddhists and Jains of ancient Bengal, in their philosophical thought, attached importance to man rather than divine power. They refuted the Vedic philosophy and said, “The basic truth of a religion is to create subtle and impalpable sensitiveness of human instinct and purify it.” The physical ascetic practice of the Sahajiyas was further added to this thought. During the pre-Aryan age the Nathyogi-Tantriks (the followers of the doctrines taught by the Tantras) used to practise this. The Atharva Veda approved this practice as well. That’s why the Vedists (Vedic Brahmins) looked down upon the followers of Atharva Veda as Brattya–the outcaste. In pre-Aryan Bengal, the religious practice of the common people centred round the psalms involving physical ascetic practice. The Atharva Veda further maintains that man is adorable not because of his devoutness but because of his being a ‘human being’. It glorifies the world of mortals rather than the Eden above.
During eighth and ninth centuries and in particular during the reign of the Pala dynasty the cultural manifestation of Shahajiya philosophy had an overwhelming influence on the simple rustic people to the grassroot level of Bengal. A new philosophy of life based entirely on humanism gradually developed as a result of the synthesis of certain religious practices, namely, the Sahajia of the Buddhists and the Vaisnavas, the Tantrik practice of the Nathyogis, the sufism of Islam and the like. From its very inception the Bangla folklore was always vocal against the Aryan ideal propagated by the Vedic authorities and central authoritarian hegemonic power because of its dull and lifeless burden of religious rites. The Baul song, the Jaga song (night-long winter folksong sung especially in northern part of Bangladesh), the Kabigan (a popular and unique folksong genre in which two parties led by their respective Sarkers (chiefs) alternately present songs and verses on debatable themes in the form of arguments and counter arguments composed extemporaneously) and the Bichar gan (argumentative folksong) bear testimony of it. Kshitimohan Sen remarks that, ‘The Bauls do not hanker after celestial bliss but the supreme ecstasy of emancipation’.
Bauls opine that this mundane love is much better than the nectar of heaven and that human love is trurer than the dull