Music and Mysticism in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, the majority of the population is deprived of literacy. However, a rich oral tradition has evolved over time as a powerful means of creative communication. One of the major examples of this intricate oral 'literacy' is vocal music. Folk songs have a place as a critical component in all popular art forms, such as poetry, theatre, and film. Even in painting, such genres such as 'Patachitra' or 'Gazir Git', which appear in scroll form, are displayed in combination with narrative songs. Many of the popular musical traditions are theatrical in presentation, and likewise, most folk theatre forms are musical in structure. In film also, the main genre of popular cinema in Bangladesh is known as 'folk fantasy', which incorporates song and dance within a fantasy story structure. In all of these various art forms, the central and unifying factor is their oral and narrative nature.

Orality also forms the base of the Bengali mystical tradition as well. In contrast to the written tradition of Sufism in Iran, based on poetic texts, in Bangladesh, mysticism took on the oral and musical forms of rural Bengali society. Although in the stricter sense of Shariah music is forbidden, in Bangladesh, mystical vocal music has become a powerful, yet subtle, form of protest. The lyrics of mystical songs are suggestive and restrained, and highly metaphoric in nature. This genre of local folk music is a confluence of Muslim Sufism, Hindu vaishnavism, and Buddhist mysticism. The mystic singers, who are often authors and composers of their songs, are known as 'Bauls'. They live a life of simplicity and detachment from the trappings of material life, perpetually traveling from one mystical gathering to another. As in their lives, their songs also travel from singer to singer and place to place, and the 'texts' continue to evolve and change. Although Bauls live like Buddhist monks and refuse to sing professionally, they attract large followings in the villages. Inspired by the timeless lyrics and tunes of Baul songs, thousands of professional mystical singers, known as boyatis, have popularized this spiritual music. Boyatis have taken the mystic tradition to a more polemical plane through their 'bahas' debate-songs on theosophical themes. In more recent times, many of the most popular boyatis have been women singers, adding a new dimension to the evolving and ever-dynamic oral musical tradition of Bangladesh.

Selected Song Texts from the Film >>

Audio Clips from the Film:

Anu's Return

Boat Festival

Madrasa Classroom


Pakhita Bondi Ache



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