The folk songs of Assam are so rich that Assamese musicians have time and again drawn inspiration from them.
All great musicians of the land from Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika, Pratima Barua Pandey, Dipali Barthakur, Khagen Mahanta and Beauty Sharma Baruah to the currently popular Zubeen Garg and Anagaraag (Papon) Mahanta have engaged with the huge folk repertoire. Even Bollywood has a few songs inspired by Assamese folk music like Ghon Boroxun Pisol Mati ringing in Naushad’s popular Dukh Bhare Din Beete Re Bhaiya for Mother India (1957).
“In Assam, there is a folk song for every stage of life,” tells me 56-year-old singer and composer Rumi Goswami. She has been researching the folk music of the land, working on blending Bihu with the other folk songs of India for the last 25 years. “There are songs to be sung when a child is born, when one is getting married, etc. All these folk songs are spontaneous, inspired by the music in nature.”
The folk music of the land is varied. “Goalparia songs are about people’s lives. The mahout friend was made famous by Pratima Barua Pandey in her immortal songs Hastir Kanya and Mur Mahout Bondhure,” says Goswami. A mahout is one who rides an elephant usually assigned to him early in life. These songs are a part of the Rajbongshi community of lower Assam and were slowly disappearing from public memory as the history of the land changed with geo-political alterations and communities in the periphery set about acquiring new identities. Pratima Barua Pandey revived these songs and saved them from disappearing into the oblivion.
“The songs prevalent in the Kamrup region of Assam are known as Kamrupia folk songs,” informs Goswami, “And they are mostly either religious compositions or based on social themes and values. Rameshwar Pathak was highly accomplished when it came to Kamrupia folk songs.”
Lower Assam also has the Baramahi Geet folk songs that depict the sorrow of a woman whose husband is away on work. They are, in fact, songs of seasons in which the seasons are described along with the pathos of the women, the hopes and hopelessness of their lives, and the social and religious rules that bind them.
Biya Naam, Goswami adds, are marriage songs sung by women in the various ritualistic events in a wedding. They are about the life of the bride in the village where she was born and brought up, her relationship with her brothers, sisters, mother and father. Goswami elaborates — “At the time of the wedding, when the bridegroom arrives at the house of the bride at night, the women sing songs criticising the bridegroom and the best man. The women accompanying the bridegroom respond by criticising the bride”
“One of the most ancient folk songs of Assam is the Aai Naam,” relates Goswami. People in the pre-literate days worshipped Aai, the Goddess of smallpox. It was believed that the one suffering from smallpox was possessed by the goddess, and Aai Naam was performed. The women of the village performed this ritual and sung these folk songs which describe the goddess, her qualities, and legends about how she cures patients.
“Then there are the Nichukani Geet,” Goswami goes on, “Lullabies that describe fearful characters, or talk about how good the child should be so that a jackal or whatever would not come and steal it. These songs also dwell on the stories of Krishna’s childhood.”
Goswami talks about other forms of folk songs like Garakhia Geet and Nao Khelar Geet (songs of boat races). Songs sung in the praise of garakhias (cowherds) as well as those sung by garakhias are called Garakhia Geet. “Nao Khelar Geet is usually sung at the time of boat race in Barpeta.”
The origin of the popular folk songs Zikir can be traced to the 16th century Muslim religious reformer Shah Miran, also known as Azan Peer, who preached unity among all castes and religions. He came to Assam from Baghdad and was a disciple of the celebrated Chisti saint, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya. The devotional songs, or Zikirs, composed by him, have been influenced by the other Assamese folk songs like Ojapali, Bihu, Biya Naam, etc., and often have resemblances to Tokari Geet. Tokari Geet, Goswami says, touches upon the concept of the soul and the Supreme Being, and is accompanied by the single-stringed musical instrument, Tokari.
The most popular of folk songs in the region, of course, is the Bihu Naam originating in upper Assam. Sung during the Rongali Bihu festival in April, it is a celebration of spring and the Assamese New Year. “These songs are mostly based on youth, love, hope, nature and romance,” points out Goswami.
Cutting a long story short, music is intrinsic to the land and to the essence of the Assamese spirit. Those who have lived in Assam know that the huge reservoir of folk songs carry a whole world of wisdom and heritage in them.