Return of the Classical Musical Session and the Male Singer Clad in a Sari:
Maijbhandari Songs from Chittagong on Video CD

Hans Harder

What happens when a traditional genre of popular devotional songs is put on Video CDs? Such processes usually go hand in hand with commercialisation. They are therefore often viewed, both by external observers and by exponents of the traditions concerned, as an erosion of the respective tradition’s substance and cultural meaning. This is not necessarily so, I want to argue with reference to a tradition of Sufi songs from Bangladesh. In Maijbhandar, a Sufi shrine complex in rural Chittagong, Video CDs have been produced for about ten years until date. Here, too, signs of a commercialisation are out of the question. At the same time, however, the Video CD is seen to be a medium that helps almost extinct performative conventions to surface again, in our case a specific type of samāʿ mahfil (musical session) and the trans-dressing of male singers.

The new mausoleum of Syed Ahmadullah Maijbhandari at MaijbhandarMaijbhandari songs (māijˡbhāṇḍārī gān) are well-known in present-day Bangladesh but hardly noticed abroad, not even in neighbouring West Bengal. Secondary literature in foreign languages is very scarce and consists in a handful of research articles by anthropologists and folklore researchers.[1] In Bengali, most of the literature on Maijbhandar comes from authors who are themselves associated with that tradition.[2] This neglect is surprising if one considers that Maijbhandari songs number probably more than 10,000 at present and thus qualify as one of the largest Bengali song traditions, comparable to Baul songs about which there is a good amount of literature.

Maijbhandari songs derive their name from Maijbhandar, a Sufi centre some 30 km north of Chittagong, the main harbour city of Bangladesh. Basically a small village, Maijbhandar is the home of a family of saintly personalities, and physically characterised by a number of imposing mausolea (cf. fig. 1-3). Syed Ahmadullah Maijbhandari (1829-1906) first gained the reputation of a powerful and miracle-working saint in the 1880s, and a cult started to build up around him. This also involved the composition and presentation of songs in praise of Ahmadullah. Syed Gholam Rahman Maijbhandari (1865-1937) succeeded him and became a maḥğūb pīr, a spiritual master in permanent trance. Mention also needs to be made of Syed Ziaul Haq Maijbhandari (1928-88), a prominent 20th century saint, and of Syed Shafiul Bashar Maijbhandari, a recently deceased and very popular Maijbhandari pīr. The lasting popularity of these and other deceased saints and many more practising spiritual guides in Maijbhandar today make it one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the region.


The mausoleum of Syed Gholam Rahman Maijbhandari (‘Baba Bhandari’), Maijbhandar

Fig. 03

Maijbhandar is known for, and actively propagates, its appeal not only to Muslims, but to all religious denominations – ‘irrespective of religion and caste/class’ (dharmajātinirbiśeṣe), as the slogan goes. Moreover, Maijbhandaris derive themselves from Qādirī spiritual descent, but started to profess a ṭarīqa or Sufi order of their own in the early 20th century, the Maijbhandari ṭarīqa. Exponents of the movement have been very active, in the span of the last 100 years, in producing a sizeable amount of theological treatises dealing with Sufi doctrine as well as hagiographies narrating the lives of the major Maijbhandari saints. The most popular branch of Maijbhandari text production, however, is to be seen in the songs.

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[1] Lauri Harvilahti, “Divine Yearning. The Folklore of Bangladesh’s Mystics”, Temenos 34 (1998): 41–51; Peter J. Bertocci, Peter, “A Sufi Movement in Bangladesh: The Maijbhandari tariqa and its followers”, Contributions to Indian Sociology 40, 1 (2006): 1–28. Cf. also Hans Harder, Der verrückte Gofur spricht. Mystische Lieder aus Ostbengalen von Abdul Gofur Hali (Heidelberg: Draupadi Verlag; 2004), which focuses on one particular author of Maijbhandari songs but also gives a survey of Maijbhandari songs in general. My recent monograph, Sufism and Saint Veneration in Contemporary Bangladesh: The Maijbhandaris of Chittagong (London: Routledge; 2011) hopefully furnishes a comprehensive analysis of this song tradition, along with other aspects of the Maijbhandaris and Bengali Islam in general.

[2] This applies also to Selim Jahangir, author of two thick books on the Maijbhandari saints and the Sufi culture at Maijbhandar: Selim Jāhāṅgīr, Māijˡbhāṇḍār sandarśan (Ḍhākā: Bāṃlā Ekāḍemī; 1999) and idem, Gāusul Āzam Māijˡbhāṇḍārīr śata barer āloke (Māijˡbhāṇḍār: Āñjumāne Mottābeẏīne Gāuche Māijˡbhāṇḍārī; 2006). His adherence to one of the fractions of the Maijbhandari movement led to his first book being prohibited.

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