Kobi Gaan – The Dying folk Musical Format of Bengal

Bengal, the hub of cultural nationalism, boasts of a wide variety of folk music and art forms that add to its cultural wealth. Unfortunately, the powers that be in Bengal, though claim to be the keepers of Bengal’s culture and heritage, have played little or no role in encouraging and propagating such art forms, particularly those of the performing arts.

One such form of folk poetry and music is ‘Kobi gaan’, which was an extremely popular mode of entertainment, especially in the realm of the elites and the zamindars in nineteenth-century Bengal. In this musical format, two performers or two groups of performers compete with each other through poems composed and sung on the spot, each trying to outdo the other in satire, sarcasm, irony and knowledge base. The themes chosen are generally from our history and mythology, at times touching upon the socio-political scenario of the current era.

Often ‘Kobi gaan’ performances would be organized in the mansion of the zamindars during festivals or to honour distinguished guests, which included even the British officers of the era as most of the zamindars tried to keep the British colonial rulers in good humour. The Kobi gaan, at times, digressed from a fun event to that of a serious battle of prestige and superiority of one individual over the other or one group over the other with the winner of the musical duel going on to become the most coveted and sought after voice in such future duels.

Whenever we think of Kobi gaan or Kobir larai (the fight between bards), the first image that comes to mind is the famous musical debate between the legendary nineteenth-century folk artists of Bengal, specializing in Kobi gaan, Anthony Firingee and Bhola Moira. Anthony Firingee, born Hensman Anthony, was a Portuguese national who made Bengal his home.

He was a poet and singer-composer, who learnt Bengali to master the nuances of Kobir gaan all by himself when he was refused to be tutored by the renowned Kobi gaan artist of the era, Bhola Moira or Bholanath Nayak of Guptipara, Hooghly, whose passion was singing and composing, while his profession was that of sweetmeat maker and seller. The famous musical duel between Anthony Firingee and Bhola Moira, which established the superiority in the instant folk art form of the former over the latter, was immortalized in the Bengali Magnum Opus, Anthony Firingee, released in 1967 with Uttam Kumar in the lead role.

The above sequence, unfortunately, is probably the quintessential Bengali’s only connection with Kobi gaan, a folk music format, which is so essentially Bengali, since performances of the same are scarcely seen in the modern era. Our next generation is not even familiar with this musical format. Out of the handful of singers, who specialize in Kobi gaan, even to this day, a prominent name is that of Kabiyal Ashim Sarkar, whose performances have been appreciated by most on television.

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A member of the most talked-about community these days in the wake of the CAA, the Matua sect of the Hindus, Ashim Sarkar has now made his foray into politics, being nominated as the BJP candidate from Haringhata in the Nadia district of West Bengal, for the upcoming Assembly Elections in the state.

His decision to take the plunge into politics could be to help revive this beautiful yet dying musical form, which is one of the pillars of Bengal’s ancient culture and heritage, which in all probability can be done with political patronage and in BJP, the political wing of the Sangh Parivar, he might have found an ideological partner to further the cause of cultural nationalism. The ardent connoisseurs of performing arts in Bengal sincerely hope that the entry into politics by such artistic luminaries would, in all sincerity, revive Bengal’s glorious cultural ethos.

By Ranita Ch

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