Thursday, May 6, 2010


by Wing Commander Mir Ali Akhtar (Retired) and David Courtney
The history of the vaoaiya folk song, like the history of most folk arts, is not always clear.  It is believed that the vaoaiya originated in the Rangpur Districts and the Koch Behar.  Many believe that it is traceable back to the 14th and 15th century.
The first scholarly approach to the subject of vaoaiya appears to be the work of Sir Abraham Grierson (1851-1941).  He was a former British Deputy Collector of the Rangpur district.  He collected two vaoaiya lyrics 1898 and used them as an example of the local dialect.  It is published in his book Linguistic Survey of India (1903), Vol-V, Part-I.
The term "vaoaiya" is of uncertain origin.  Due to varying pronunciations, it is also often transliterated as "Bhawaia".  When one looks at the history of the usage of word, as well as the history of the folk-song, many inconsistencies are seen.
Several different etymologies have been proposed.  It has been suggested by late Shibendro Narayan Mondol of Goripur Assam, that the term vaoaiya is derived from the term "bhava"vaoaiya" originated from the term "vabaiya" means "that which inspires contemplation". which means emotion.  This is consistent with the themes of love which are the predominant emotion of this folk-song.  However a somewhat different view was put forward by the Late Dormonarayan Voktishashtree of Kaligonj, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur.  He suggests that term "
These two etymologies may not be as conflicting as they might on the surface appear.  It is certainly possible that there is a linguistic link between the Sanskrit "bhava" and the vernacular "vabaiya".  If so then, both etymologies may be considered to be somewhat related.
The usage of the term "vaoaiya " is not universally accepted.  If one goes to very isolated areas, people may sing the vaoaiya folk-song, but are unaware of the term. (1999/Boidder bazaar; 2003, Roumari).  Even as late as 1903 in Sir Abraham Grierson in his Linguistic Survey of India, he uses some well known vaoaiya lyrics to illustrate dialects of the area, but does not use the term vaoaiya.
In all probability the songs have been in the region for a very long time, but the term seems to have arisen relatively recently.  It appears that these songs were originally referred and named by its subject or main hero of the lyrics.  Therefore a vaoaiya lyric about trapped crane (boga)bogar-gaan (song about he crane), another vaoaiya about (bull-cart driver) would be called gaariaal vai.  A song about the chilmari river port, would be called chilmarir-gaan. such designations are still used by folk musicians today.  However sometime between 1887 and 1903 the term "vaoaiya" came into usage. was famous as
The geographical distribution of the vaoaiya folk song covers much of the Rangpuri (dialect of Bengali) speaking areas of northern Bangladesh.  Precisely vaoaiya is the mainstream folk-song of the Dhorla, Dhudhkumar, Tista, Brahmaputtra river basin area.  The vaoaiya is also found in the Koch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling (Torai), and Goalpara area of Assam where the Rangpuri/Rajbangshi dialect is also spoken.
This folk-song is sung in a rustic dialect of Bengali (a.k.a.  Bangla or Banga Bhasha).  The various dialects of Bengali are part of the Eastern group of Indo-European family of languages.  The particular, dialect in which most vaoaiya folk-songs are found is Rangpuri, otherwise known as "Rajbongshi".  Word "Rajbongshi" is the name of a very powerful race of this once Non-Aryan land.  Rajbongshi dialect was frequently called Rangpuri and derives its name from one of the Districts in which it is spoken.
In 1903 -1878 the following numbers of people used to speak in Rangpuri or Rajbongshi dialect areawise:
  • Rangpur: 2,037,460
  • Cooch Behar: 562,500
  • Jalpaiguri: 568,976
  • Darjiling (Tarai) : 47,435
  • Goalpara : 292,000
The performance of the vaoaiya uses a very stylised and exaggerated use of aspirations.  These aspirations are much more pronounced than the aspirations normally found in the day-to-day dialects of Bengali.  This produces a very characteristic performance style that is much appreciated by the connoisseurs of this rustic art-form.  However, since the use of these exaggerated aspirations carries no linguistic consideration, it is better to consider this to be a musical ornamentation rather than a linguistic characteristic.  As such, we will return to the topic later.
The vaoaiya folk-song must be seen in the context of its rural social environment.  We will look at the social aspects of the vaoaiya from four standpoints.  We will look at the connection with the agricultural work; the performance within the folk theatres, the instruction and propagation of the art form, and gender associations.
The most common situation in which this folk-song will be performed is within the context of agricultural labour.  These songs are commonly sung while farmers are at work, during breaks, and to relieve the monotony and loneliness at night when they are off in the fields, or otherwise away from home.  These working class villagers are always on the move due to the nature of their jobs, therefore, it is a form of entertainment that is well suited to their lifestyle.
The connection between folk-song and agricultural labour, is very strong.  For instance some types of songs have completely disappeared as the particular form of labour disappeared.  For instance the dolabarir-gaan (songs of low-land cultivation), vuinira-gaan (weed-picking songs), gatar-gaan (songs of communal cultivation), have completely disappeared as these particular jobs disappeared.
This folk song may be closely associated with labour, however in the not too distant past, the vaoaiya broke out of its traditional agricultural setting and found a new home in the folk theatre.  It became very important for three types of theatre.  These were the kushan, dotora-gaan and poddopuran.  Of these three dotora-gaan is no longer extant.
There is a new setting which is beginning to emerge.  Due to a renaissance in Bengali culture, urban dwellers are now beginning to attend concerts and performances of folk music.  Today the vaoaiya and other Bengali folk music may be seen and heard on stages and in theatres in the cities. 
There are a number of positive aspects of this new form of consumption of the art.  There has been the positive effect of giving traditional folk musicians additional sources of income.  It serves to preserve forms of folk-song that might disappear due to changing social, agricultural, and economic conditions in the villages.  It also raises the awareness of folk art-forms in areas outside of the districts where they have traditionally been performed.  However we must also remember that taking the folk music outside of its traditional environment begins to alter its fundamental nature.  For the same reason that zoos are not a substitute for preservation of natural wildlife, in the same way, the rise in popularity of folk theatre in non-traditional; urban settings is not a panacea for the loss of rural cultures.
For any art-form to thrive, there must also be a vibrant system for its instruction and propagation.  The instruction for the vaoaiya folk-song is typical of instruction of folk music throughout South Asia.  It is strictly an oral tradition.  However unlike the formalised systems of training which are typical of the classical traditions, (e.g. Hindustani Sangeet), this oral tradition is significantly less formalised.  As such, you occasionally find material transmitted from teacher to student within the confines of a moderately structured theatre group, but it is more likely that the folk-songs are simply absorbed organically in the same way that other aspects of culture (e.g., food, languages, religious beliefs) are transmitted. 
There are strong gender associations in the vaoaiya.  Although the themes of the songs often were those of the feelings of women, the vaoaiya were usually composed and performed by men.  It is interesting to look at this fact from the standpoint of women's rights.  Where the urban Bengali male only became vocal concerning women's rights after mid 20th century, the performers and composers of this folk-song were showing these same concerns at least a century or two earlier.  In someway those folks may be considered to be pioneers in this movement.  Can this be considered to be a proto-feminist movement?
It must be noted that simply being concerned about the condition of women is not the same as the empowerment of women.  The fact that women originally did not sing the vaoaiya, does raise questions about it feminist credentials.  However in recent years, there has been a rise in of feminist school of thought which actively embrace the concept of essentialism.  The non-participation of women in the performance of the vaoaiya may be merely a rural acknowledgement of this basic essentialism, specifically in regards to the division of labour.  With the ever widening definitions and scope of feminism, it is arguable that the traditional vaoaiya may have elements of essentialist feminist thought.
Ultimately these discussions of whether vaoaiya may be considered to represent a form of essentialist based feminism is of absolutely no importance for several reasons.  First, I believe that most people would praise the efforts and sentiments of the pro-women stance, but would balk at its inclusion into the relatively narrow definitions of feminism.  Secondly it is a mere academic exercise attempting to force an element of Bengali folk culture into a largely irrelevant Western intellectual cubby-hole.  Finally, the conditions have totally changed since the 1950's.  From that time on, women have been singing and performing the vaoaiya; therefore the non-participation of women has been a non-issue for half a century.
The social settings are certainly important for the production and consumption of this artform, but this naturally leads us to some other topics.  We have already alluded to the fact that these settings are reflected in the subject matter of the songs.  It is therefore appropriate for us to take a much closer look at the themes and subject matter of these songs.
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