Adapting to new environments: ‘Folk’ performances as contemporary practices

Adapting to new environments: ‘Folk’ performances as contemporary practices

‘Folk’ performances in this sense can be said to have become short showcases or souvenirs of what might be deemed as its longer ritual ‘authentic’ version. However, the question of authenticity in the case of ‘folk’ genres is replete with the issues of larger cultural politics as well as the agency of the performer.

The relationship between people and politics is integral to performers, performances and performance spaces. In the case of ‘folk’ art and performances, the role of people as audiences is intrinsic to the subject, course and message of the performance. The adaptive nature of ‘folk’ performance practices enables the performers to morph the performance with respect to changing venues, tastes and patronages. The earlier royal and feudal patronage systems for these ‘folk’ forms, mostly associated with a rural origin and setting, have now given way to a more urban, cosmopolitan and even international viewership/endorsement. ‘Folk’ performances have shifted from rural ritual contexts to urban festival venues, ‘folk’ fairs, films, television shows and the new media. Long overnight performances or even performances stretching over the course of consecutive days have now been mutated to suit festival schedules, recording studio slots and VCD formats; so much so that, 8-10 hour long performances can now be packaged into a 45-minute to one hour long session still striving to keep the ‘folk essence’ intact for the audience. ‘Folk’ performances in this sense can be said to have become short showcases or souvenirs of what might be deemed as its longer ritual ‘authentic’ version. However, the question of authenticity in the case of ‘folk’ genres is replete with the issues of larger cultural politics as well as the agency of the performer.
The ubiquity and shared repertoire of ‘folk’ genres is perhaps why one form needs to be distinctly segregated from the other within the cultural politics of ‘folk’. In the case of Bengal (before Partition as also the transfer of powers), the institutionalisation of ‘folk’ practices had begun with the endeavours of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. Later, during the decade of the 1940s, the engagement of Marxist Cultural Movement groups like the IPTA with members from both erstwhile eastern and western Bengal helped create a newer appeal of ‘folk’ songs in the form of people’s songs. The institutionalisation of these forms later through the Folk and Tribal Cultural Centre in West Bengal and the Bangla Academy in Dhaka in the aftermath of the Indian Independence and the Liberation War respectively, further solidified what roles ‘folk’ forms played for regional and national entities; the role of ‘folk’ performances as traditional media, entertainment genres, tools of mass mobilisation and that of national cultural identity thus came to be foregrounded through the institutional cultural politics. More recently NGOs have ushered in a more cosmopolitan and global clientele for these forms that has accelerated multiple transformations in the form, content and intent of the ‘folk’ genres. Rather than, however, understanding this transformation as an indicator of decadence and subsequent loss of a pristine nature of ‘folk’ practices, it needs to be taken account as to how and what forces create room for such transformations. Certainly then, the cultural labour of the performer comes into question as s/he endeavours to carry the essence of ‘folk’ forward for audiences while still striving for political voices.


Kobigaan is a song-theatre genre in the form of verse-duelling. In Kobigaan, two performing groups comprising of a lead performer/singer (kobiyal or sarkar), chorus (dohaar) and accompanying musicians are given a topic for impromptu song composition and debating. Archival literature from nineteenth century Bengal underline how such competitions would be held in the parlours of rich Bengali zamindars in Calcutta – the patrons of performing art forms – who would confer the title and award of the winner to the performer excelling in the debate. Modern-day practices of Kobigaan, however, do not follow a strict winner-loser binary and are constantly transforming owing to their representations in different media.
Following the partition of Bengal, both West Bengal and Bangladesh have maintained and developed their distinct styles of Kobigaan practices. A broad and somewhat loose distinction that kobiyals and sarkars maintain in describing these two regional variants is that Kobigaan in Bangladesh is more mellifluous whereas in West Bengal it is more debate-logic oriented. There are however more minute variants of the form as one travels from one district to the other in both the regions. Yet, if one takes rural ritual Kobigaan performances to be the most ‘authentic’ version, Bangladesh does offer a much more elaborate structure than the one in West Bengal. However, contemporary practices of Kobigaan does not only remain confined to village rituals/festivals, but are seen to be

Saidur Rahman Boyati and his son Abbasi perform a 45-minute Kobigaan contest on ‘Written vs. Oral Knowledge’ at the Hay Literary Festival 2013, Dhaka Bangla Academy, Bangladesh / Priyanka Basu

showcased in other media as well.
If verbal bricolage and virtuosity can be taken as the forte of a skilled kobiyal/sarkar, elements of satire, comic timing and even belittling the opponent are some of the set devices that underline a Kobigaan performance. Most often, the elements of satire and comic engagement allow the performer to bring in political information, thought and mobilisation for the audience. As a traditional media and mode of entertainment, Kobigaan still functions through religious sermonising, political campaigning and entertaining for its rural audiences. Borderland Matua or Namasudra performers of Kobigaan use the form to underline their marginal caste identity and in order to mobilise community members. Performers from this community even bring out VCD versions of Kobigaan which may be live recordings of a performance or shot in a recording studio with a narrative spliced in the background. Questions arise about the ‘authenticity’ of television and new media representations of Kobigaan, yet performers themselves see these as modern techniques to archiving oral traditions.
In 2013, a Kobigaan performance was organised within the precincts of the Dhaka Bangla Academy as part of the Hay Literary Festival. The performance was 45-minutes long and had boyatis as performers rather than more traditional sarkars. The topic of the performance was ‘Written vs. Oral Knowledge’, and at the end of the performance boyatis urged the international audience to have a look at the Bangla Academy archives and library. Historically, Kobigaan has followed the tradition of adapting itself to the taste of the patron and audiences; although souvenir-like replicas seem to be in vogue, the dexterity of the performer to adapt to changes offers an interesting analysis of Kobigaan as a continuing ‘folk’ form.


Shang derives its linguistic identity from the Sanskrit root word samanga—something that can be likened with the act of rhythmic physical gesticulations in music or caricature. It is a form that can be somewhat equated in a broader sense with forms like the commedia dell’ arte or the Harlequin. Shang or pantomime in the religious-cultural milieu of Bengal appeared with the ritual performance of pujo-parbon. These included the Durga puja, Kali puja, the Bengali New Year, marriages, and every other religious/social ritualistic festivals. However, the festival that was specifically the insignia for the Shang proper was the Chadak/Gajan—observed as a part of the cult of Shiva. In fact, Kaliprasanna Singha’s Hutom Penchar Naksha opens with the very setting of the Chadak festival and the spectacular visual descriptions of the antics and gymnastics by the Shangs. The Chadak and Gajan Shangs exhibited themselves during the months of March-April (the Bengali equivalent for which would be Chaitra). They would form group-processions, accompanied by the beats of the dhaak and the kanshi.
A picture of a Shang in the nineteenth century Bengali newspaper, Basantak, showed the performer in the guise of a ‘saheb babu’, the performance space being entirely rural as is evident from the awe-struck expressions of the crowd and the mention of the fact that it is a ‘saheb-babu’ from Calcutta. This reminds one of the pantomimes of Ardhendu Shekhar Mustaphi mocking Dave Carson. It also traces the metamorphosis of the Shang itself from an entirely ritual performance to that of a more secular and ‘nationalist’ domain. Shangs were employed by the rich babu/bhadrolok households in the city for entertainment in social gatherings, marriages etc. The Shang was also included as an interlude in between the Jatra performances. The Jatra, which was mythological in content, could not always pull the attention of the audience. Hence, Shang performances in between the serious scenes would cater to popular taste. The tropes for such popularity would be banter and fun employed in verbal language as well as bodily gestures. There was, however, a constant attack on such unrestrained show of fun that produced uncontrollable bouts of laughter.

Current practices of Shang Jatra or Shang Khela in Bangladesh can be found in the Tangail region. The Shang practitioners perform in troupes and the performances, like Kobigaan, are impromptu with dialogues, music, acting and dancing. The longest duration for a Shang performance is 3-4 hours with as many as 3-4 scenes and 3-5 characters. Rarely are there any women performers in the troupe and the female roles are executed by male impersonators. Shang performances employ the regional dialect and are governed by comic intent often in the vein of erotic or obscene. In a sense, however, the Shang performances often seem to lose their essence of a rural entertainment/educative medium by focussing on caricature and repetitive banter as quick means of satisfying modern audiences.


Gambhira, similar to the contexts of Kobigaan and Shang Jatra, developed in the rural ritual set-up although its connection to the more local religious cult of the Hindu deity, Shiva, sets it apart from the other two forms in terms of origin. Gambhira is a song-narrative genre which is still performed during the months of April-May as per the agricultural calendar. Malda in West Bengal and Rajshahi in Bangladesh are the two regions which are well-known for the Gambhira performances. Originally, Gambhira performances were divided into primary and narrative components, however modern day practices of the form focus more on the narrative part. Like Kobigaan and Shang, Gambhira is performed by male practitioners and is dialogic in nature. Instead of understanding the modern Gambhira performances as a decadent form and as remnant of the earlier versions, it needs to be speculated as to how this form retains its relevance as a political platform post-Partition.
The exodus of performers and patrons of Gambhira during the Partition ushered in some new changes in the form that help set the context for modern-day Gambhira practices. In Bangladesh, the narrative component of Gambhira became much popular as the form became detached from its earlier Hindu religious ritual context. In its present Gambhira performances in Bangladesh involve a dialogic performance between two male characters who pose as an old (grandfather or nana) and young (grandson or nati) man. Interestingly, in the Kobigaan performances of West Bengal (especially the Bardhamman, Birbhum and Murshidabad regions) a common topic is that of ekaal-sheykaal (modern vs. olden times)—a rather abstract subject which the kobiyals personify in the form of grandfather and grandson. Not only is this a popular topic of entertainment for the rural audience, it also allows the performers the scope to include examples from scriptures, news, social media, technology and social

Kobiyals perform at the Poush Mela (winter fair) in Santiniketan, Birbhum in West Bengal / Arnab Ghosal

issues within the fold of the debate. Given the ubiquity of these ‘folk’ genres, it can be analysed that forms like Gambhira, Kobigaan and so on exist through a shared repertoire and local itinerant knowledge networks.
In terms of humour and comic disposition, Gambhira seems to borrow both from Kobigaan and Shang. Social vices and problems are represented through song and dances, while the verbal virtuosity forms the mainstay of the debating logic. Even in the primitive Gambhira which spoke mainly of Shiva, the deity, a common performative device was to demystify the gods in order to make them more human, more accessible to the audience. One can trace back the efforts of such demystification in the scroll paintings or patachitra of Kalighat in nineteenth century Bengal. ‘Folk’ genres like Kobigaan, Shang and Gambhira oscillate between bodily and verbal gestures of humour. Scatological references, erotic overtones and personal attacks often subject these forms to vexations, which was also the reason why many of these forms faced proscription during the colonial times. However, the adaptive nature of these ‘folk’ forms have allowed them to find different platforms of representation where the question of ‘authenticity’ remains relevant as part of the larger cultural politics.

Dr Priyanka Basu is the Bengali Cataloguer/Researcher on the AHRC-funded digitisation project, ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ at the British Library. She is also a Teaching Associate at the Department of Drama, Queen Mary University. She finished her PhD on ‘Bengali Kobigan: Performers, Histories and the Cultural Politics of “Folk”’ from the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia, SOAS on a Felix Scholarship. She has published her work in journals and edited volumes, including the Journal of South Asian History and Culture. She is trained as an Indian classical dancer in Odissi and has performed in Japan, India and UK.

December 2017

‘Folk’ performances in this sense can be said to have become short showcases or souvenirs of what might be deemed as its longer ritual ‘authentic’ version. However, the question of authenticity in the case of ‘folk’ genres is replete with the issues of larger cultural politics as well as the agency of the performer. The…

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