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

Maijbhandari songs

As mentioned in the beginning, there is a huge production of Maijbhandari songs.[3] What makes these songs noteworthy beyond their numbers is their richness in topics. Many of them, as one would expect of a song tradition around a holy place, are glorifications of Maijbhandari saints or pilgrimage songs. There are, however, also more unlikely ingredients. A subcurrent usually labelled biccheder gān (‘songs of [love in] separation’) conventionally has a female lover as the lyrical self, and betrays the imprint of bhakti traditions, especially kṣṇabhakti which was a dominant field of text production in pre-modern Bengali literature.[4] Another section of Maijbhandari songs comes under the category of dehatattver gān (‘songs on secrets of the body’) and expresses the mystical quest, in parallel to many Baul songs, in tantric imagery and as a path towards the divine lover residing within one’s own body. When explaining these elements, it does not suffice to hint at the fact that there have been Hindu song writers in the Maijbhandari tradition as prominent as Ramesh Shil, even if this well-known ‘folk poet’ has had a great influence on subsequent authors. It is much more reasonable to view them as integral parts of a floating mystical idiom in and beyond Bengal that was not too uncommon before the impact of Islamic reformism made itself felt, and makes the Maijbhandari tradition one of the areas of resilience to this impact.

As regards performance situations of Maijbhandari songs, the ancient-most appears to be the presentation before the living saint or in a circle of co-disciples. There are indications that such presentations took place in the early 20th century and probably before. A more formal setting that also appears to go back to the late 19th century is that of the samāʿ mahfil, the ‘audition’ or, more colloquially speaking, ‘musical session’ familiar from many strands of Sufism and especially in the Chishtiyya order.[5] To these may be added other types of situations, such as the informal presentation at ʿurs festivals in Maijbhandar, or Thursday night meetings at the numerous branches of the Maijbhandari movement in many parts of Bangladesh. Groups of pilgrims or adherents bring their instruments (and of course amplification device these days) and play and sing through the night. A recent additional performance situation is the concert: some singers of Maijbhandari songs are all-rounder professionals who are hired for various occasions and present Maijbhandari songs along with their usual repertoire. Today, however, the most common performance situation is the reproduction of recordings. Audio Cassettes and CDs are constantly played at the handful of music shops at the darbār (Persian for ‘court’, a common appellation of saintly Sufi mausolea and their surroundings), in pilgrimage busses, in private houses etc.

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[3] More than 4,000 songs are available in print at present, and if we count oral traditions as well as texts of recent recordings that have never been printed, unpublished songs, and the steady addition of new songs, it is save to estimate that Maijbhandari songs run into five digits.

[4] I refer to the genre of Baiṣṇab padābalī (‘Vaishnava verses’) to which there were also contributions from Muslim authors. Cf. Yatīndramohan Bhaṭṭācārya, gālār baiṣṇab-bhābāpanna musalˡmān kabir padamañjuā (Kalikātā: Kalikātā Biśvabidyālaẏ; 1984).

[5] For an introduction to the history of samāʿ and the debates about it, see Jean During, “Musique et rites: le samāʿ”, in Les Voies d’Allah. Les ordres Mystiques dans l’Islam des origines à aujourd’hui , eds Alexandre Popovic and Gilles (Paris: Fayard; 1996), 157–72.

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