It was in the winter of 2016, a winter which was chilly with the feel of the cold wind blowing across the balcony gave one a feeling of deja vu – remembering the times when we experienced the pleasure of cold winters in Kolkata. I was in Raghunathganj, Murshidabad at that time with my family. One of the pleasures of the winter evenings in semi-urban Bengal that I experienced, besides the winter chill, was of the soothing sound of kirtan being performed in the vicinity. It made me feel at home, a strong connection with my Bengali roots, something which I miss back in Kolkata.
Kirtan, which is the very essence of the Bhakti movement and is sung to pay obeisance to Sri Krishna and Radhaji , was popularised in Bengal by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu during the 16th Century BCE. The Vaishnavite movement was pivoted around the kirtans, or reverences to Radha and Krishna.
The devotees dancing with both their hands up in the air chanting praises to Sri Krishna and Radha provides impetus to the movement and creates a magnetic attraction drawing more and more devotees to the movement. Kirtan singing is also an integral part of many Hindu religious functions including the Sradh ceremony or performing the last rites of a departed relative.
Kirtan performances and Jatra (the traditional folk art of Bengal) was a regular feature during winter evenings in Kolkata, with troops being brought in from different parts of rural Bengal to perform in front of huge and enthusiastic crowds thronging the arena in the neighbourhood where it was performed. Kirtan performances were regular even during the 1970s.
With the advent of the Left era in Bengal during the late 1970s, kirtan performances, which were so typical of Bengal’s indigenous culture and heritage, started dwindling. They were replaced by Jalsas or musical evenings in most neighbourhoods, organized by the local leaders or ruffians, who were patronized by the ruling political party in Bengal. Such Jalsas featured performances from both budding artists as well as well as well-known faces. The song and dance performances include popular film and peppy numbers from both hindi and Bengali films, which was enough to lure the audience towards such performances.
The Kirtan and the Jatra, which were once the most sought after winter evening entertainment, was soon relegated to lowest rung of human memory. The Left was successful in making the quintessential urban Bengali easily discard their original cultural ethos which was also integrated with their Sanatani identity, replacing the same with doses of soft erotica and pompousness.
This was ingredient enough to convert Bengalis into a pseudo-secular lot, who cared less for their roots. With the change of guard at the state in the early 2010s, such Jalsas became even more popular and all the more erotic, which acts as a natural human magnet, thus weakening the Bengali even further. As a consequence the kirtan artists are living in a sorry state, somehow eking out a living by other means, which are difficult to come by in a job-starved Bengal.
Even when the intellectually inclined Bengali elites and the current and the previous ruling dispensations of Bengal have proclaimed themselves to be the safe-keepers of Bengal’s culture and heritage, in essence what they have done is in actuality creating a distance between quintessential Bengali, the urban populace in particular and the Sanatani hindu culture and traditions of Bengal, like the regular kirtan performances in winter.
However, the pomp and the loudness of the Jalsa culture and that of the films and web series, which constitute the regular source of entertainment for the Bengalis, have left a bitter taste in their minds now, such forms of entertainment have become fat too clichéd and routine, causing us to miss the softness, beauty and the soothing nature of the kirtans. So much is our longing for the same that we lap up any such performance if we witness it in a television show or in any Hindu festivity here, which again, is few and far between. This longing really has given rise to a craving and demand amongst us to go back to our roots and revive the kirtan culture in Bengal – not only for our merriment but also for the sake of these artists’ survival.
By Ranita Indic
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