Sound of music

Folk songs

Sound of music

Partners: Folk songs are an inseparable part of folk dances.The hall was packed to capacity, consisting mostly of young people. What surprised me was the fact that apart from their own compositions, they often broke into traditional folk songs – baul, bhatiali, wedding songs et al – with the audience joining in enthusiastically. I had previously seen Usha Uthup doing it in her shows. But folk songs appeared to be the prime favourite of Kolkata rock bands too. What had given forgotten folk music this fillip? Was it because it was, in fact, ‘unforgettable’, being so close to the heart of the common man? Because of its simplicity, spontaneity and all-time appeal? I decided to find out some basic facts about the evolution of our music to which I had never given a thought before.

Did you know that the saman hymns mentioned in the Vedas are believed to be the earliest forms of music in India? There are many references to saman singing in the Rig Veda, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. Saman singers were called Samaga or Chandoga. The singing consisted of seven different parts — Hinkara, Prastava, Udgitha, Prathihara, Upadrava, Nidhana and Pranava.

And there were seven musical notes on which the compositions were based.


Our entire music lore has been derived from Gandharva Veda, a part of Sama Veda. Unfortunately, the text of Gandharva Veda was lost. So the earliest treatise we now have is Bharata’s Natya Shastra, where music is referred to as a part of dramatic performances.

The Vedic Era also had akhyanas or ballads telling a story. They were sung by two minstrels in marga or classical style, to the accompaniment of the veena. Ramayana has several references to the singing of ballads. But, apart from Sanskrit compositions, there were songs in Prakrit (language of the commoners) too. These were dhruvas, songs sung by the chorus that gave the audience a general idea of the context, place and characters in a particular scene.

But folk music, which came much later, is completely different from Vedic music. Folk music in India was created primarily because non-Brahmins were not allowed to sing or chant Vedic hymns. The desire on the part of the common man to express himself through music led to the birth of a distinctive style that was very simple in form and spontaneous in nature. These songs could be sung by anybody, even simple village folk. They are our earliest examples of folk music and were often called gramya gaan or village music.

Our folk songs had a huge variety to start with. There were songs meant for festivals, for worshipping a special deity or for performing a ritual; songs for weddings, engagements, births and other social occasions; songs about planting and harvesting; humourous songs meant to entertain gatherings; songs relating to palmistry and astrology; songs about herbs which spoke of their usefulness for curing illnesses. And, of course, songs depicting the common man’s joys, sorrows, hopes, fears and aspirations.

There were songs related to various occupations, such as the boatman’s song, fisherman’s song, builder’s song, ploughman’s song, mason’s song and so on. In Bengal, you even had chat petar gaan, songs sung by the roof makers at the time of constructing it! The popular bihu songs of Assam were specially sung during the harvest festival. Karnataka was known for its field ballads or bayalu lavani and the mela lavani, which narrated through songs mythological, historical and social incidents. Some folk songs were sung mainly by the womenfolk, such as the kolattam of Andhra Pradesh and dandiya raas of Gujarat.

Some folk songs were accompanied by dances, such as the kolkali, cherumokkali and kaikottikkali of Kerala. And the popular bhangra and gidda of Punjab, to which people always danced and sang. Folk songs in Hindi, belonging to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan include, among others, the biraha, chaiti, poorvi and banna.  
A special art primarily based on folk songs sprang into existence when singers took on the job of teaching right values to the masses by illustrating from our religious texts.

Harikatha, a famous folk art from the South, is based on both music and oration to glorify the ideals of virtue and righteousness. It grew out of the old pravachana art of Tamil Nadu and the Maharashtrian keertan tradition introduced in Thanjavur during the Maratha rule.

Kathakata of Eastern India, especially Bengal (undivided), also followed the same tradition as Harikatha, teaching moral values to the masses through music and stories. The abhanga and ovis songs of Maharashtra are religious in nature too, as are the baul songs of Bengal, sung by wandering minstrels. In Karnataka, religious folk singers comprise kamsale, neelagaru, chowdike, gorava and gane who mainly sing about their chosen deities, pilgrim centres and temples.

Folk instruments

The earliest folk instrument was the drum, used for songs as well as dancing. Some of the common ones were the dholak, poong, khol and chimta. The earliest string instruments used in folk singing (such as baul and lavanis) were the bana and the ektara. Neelagarus played the tamburi, a long four-stringed instrument, while field ballads were sung to the accompaniment of dappu. Other folk instruments commonly used were the dakke and sambala.

We can be justifiably proud of our rich tradition of folk music, more so, because ours is a land of cultural diversity with each region having its special features. Folk music is something people — high and low, rich and poor, rural as well as urban — have grown up with, something that comes naturally, without having to learn it. That is why even the pop culture of today has embraced it so whole-heartedly and we have bhangra, bihu, baul, lavani and other folk music and folk dances in films as well. It only proves that an art that projects eternal human values, however simple, lives on forever.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
Comments (+)