Retired Principal, Jorhat College

Introduction: The name Bargit, popularly refers to a special set of devotional songs, set in classical ragas, composed during the 15th and the early 16th centuries A.D. by Mahapurush Shrimanta Shankardeva and his disciple Shri Shri Madhavdeva, the two chief exponents of Vaishnavism in Assam. Shankardeva and Madhavdeva referred to their songs as git only. The adjectival prefix Bar, meaning grand or superior, must have been a later reverential addition by their devout disciples, which might bear upon the musical grandeur of the songs too.

Shankardeva - The Social ReformerShrimanta Shankardeva (1449-1568), the versatile genius, although chiefly referred to as the exponent of Vaishnavism in Assam, was essentially a social reformer. Upset by the socio-cultural disparity and depravity that had been crippling the society in the name of religion (Barnashram Dharma and Tantrik Buddhism), he upheld Vaishnavism as a better choice before the people. However religion was not his chief agenda. He aimed at reforming the society through a comprehensive cultural revolution by boosting the art and music of Assam and ensuring in the process a refinement of the taste of the people. Hence he gave religion too an artistic form by asserting the superiority of Shravana (listening to) and Kirtana (singing) among the nine types of Bhakti (devotion).

Religion Not the Chief Agenda: Had religion been Shankardeva’s chief agenda, he might have adapted the folk forms of art and music that were in vogue for propagating his religious preaching, which might have made his task easier and perhaps more effective. Instead he shouldered the strenuous task of popularizing classical music and art even among the illiterate masses and surprisingly enough was successful to a great extent in his mission. All his artistic creations, viz., dance, drama, music, art and sculpture, especially the Bargits, bear ample testimony to that.
The BackdropShankardeva’s predecessors, while migrating from Kanauj through Bengal to Assam sometime between the 11th and the 12th centuries A.D., must have brought with them a rich heritage of Indian classical art and music. This hypothesis is supported by Shankardeva’s referring to his father in his RukminiharanaKabya as a Gandharva : “ Vangsateprakhyat, gandharvasakhyat, jagatebakhanejak”. Hence we may infer that Shankardeva was initiated to the latest trends in Indian music at quite an early age. That he could appreciate the musical talent of his father, whom he lost at the age of 8 only, also supports this inference. That initial knowledge of music was theoretically streamlined through the study of the four Vedas, fourteen Shastras (including the Natyashastra) and eighteen Puranas in Guru MahendraKandali’stol, and further enriched and perfected by the practical experience he gathered during his pilgrimages for long twelve years.

Shankardeva established a community centre called Namghar or Kirtanghar for religio-cultural practices like Bhaona and Nam-Prasanga. The concept of the Sattra as a religio-cultural centre developed later on from that community centre. Bhaona is the enactment of the dramatic works, popularly referred to as Anka, by Shankardeva and his chief disciple as well as associate, Madhavdeva. Even these Ankas are full of dances and songs, set in ragas, like the Bargits. A Bhaona is also preceded by an elaborate group performance of percussionists playing the Khol (a barrel-shaped drum) and the Tal (the cymbal). The performance involves not only the playing of the instruments but also singing and varied footwork by the percussionists. Nam-prasanga is the common and the chief religious ritual of the Vaishnava cult in Assam which involves the singing of the devotional songs and verses composed by Shankara-Madhava. The Bargits have been traditionally an indispensable part of this Nam-prasanga.

Musical Significance of Bargit: The traditionally popular ideal style of singing a Bargit with the accompaniment of instruments like Khol, Tal, Negera etc. as a part of Nam-prasanga exhibits the musical characteristics which establish Bargit as a reminiscent of ancient Prabandha Gita. All the five parts of a Prabandha Gita, viz., Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva, Antara and Abhoga as described by Pundit Sharngadeva in his SangitaRatnakara, may be observed in such performance of a BargitUdgraha in a Prabandha Gita referred to the instrumental recital that preceded the actual singing. In the traditionally ideal performing style of Bargit, a similar instrumental recital called Gurughat precedes the actual singing, which may be compared to the Udgraha of Prabandha.  The Gurughat is followed by another instrumental composition called Ragtalani, with which the raga as such is elaborated. This elaboration of the raga along with the Ragtalani may be compared to the Melapaka part of Prabandha. The first two lines of each Bargit are marked by the symbol Dhrung, which must be an abbreviation of Dhruva of a Prabandha. The remaining verses of a Bargit are marked as Pada. But the difference in the singing style distinguishes the last line of a Bargit from the rest of the Pada. While each of the other lines of the Pada portion is sung with the accompaniment of two talas, played one after the other, the last line is sung with the accompaniment of a separate instrumental composition called ThelaBajana, a long rhythmic composition, comprising several parts, having no resemblance with the other talas played with Bargit. The Abhoga part of a Prabandha indicated the closing of the song and the Antara portion, with its characteristic singing style had its place between the Abhoga and the Dhruva. Now we may also mark the last line of a Bargit, repeatedly sung with the ThelaBajana, gradually increasing the tempo towards the climax indicating the closing of the song, as Abhoga, and the rest of the Pada as Antara. The Dhruva and the Antara are also distinguished from each other by their singing styles. The Dhruva is sung in a single tala, while each line of the Antara is sung in two different talas. Moreover, the first line of the Dhruva is first initiated by the chief singer (mulgayan) of the group without rhythm, repeated in the same manner by the group. This is done twice and on the second repetition of the line by the group, the instrumentalists make their entry with the ghat (concluding part) of the tala to be played with the Dhruva. The second line of the Dhruva is also sung in the same tala. On the other hand the singing of the Antara is choral from the beginning and the accompanying talas begin from the ga-man  (main body. The Dhruva  or  the  burden  is  never  repeated  and  the  singers proceed from one line to another. Such a complex and musically rich style of performance establishes Bargit as reminiscent of the ancient Prabandha style of music. Unfortunately, however, while adopting Bargit for stage performance, we simplified and modernized its singing style, so much so that Bargit has been relegated to the position of light classical Bhajan or Bhakti Giti.     
The Talas of BargitBargit exhibits its significance through the uniqueness of its talas. There are talas from 6 matras to 32 matras, all comprising three parts of proportionate length, viz., Ga-man, Ghat, Cok. These talas are different in structure, rhythmic pattern and playing style from the talas now played with Hindusthani and Karnatik music. A few of the talas  like Rupaka, Ektali, Yati, Bisama etc. are mentioned not only in the Sangita Sastras  like Sangit Ratnakara but also in Gita-Gvinda  of Jaydeva. In the context of such talas not tallying with their modern counterparts either in Hindusthani or in Karnatic system, it is indeed very significant that some of them should resemble their counterparts once played with the Astapadis of Jaydeva’s Gita-Govinda.

The Ragas of Bargit: There are altogether 36 ragas of BargitAhir, Asowari, Basanta, Barari, Belowar, Dhanasri, Mahur, Syam, Kou, Kalyan, Purbi, Bhatiyali, Gouri, Bhupali, Kanara, Saranga, Suhai, Sindhura, Sri, Gandhar, Tur, Nat, Mallar, Kedar, Kamod, Lalit, Mahur-Dhanasri, Tur-Bhatiyali, Tur-Basanta, Sri-Gouri, Sri-Gandhar, Nat-Mallar, Karunya-Kedar, Sri-Payar, Syam-Gera, Kou-Kalyan-Sindhura.

Out of these a few like Gouri, Kamod, Kedar, Kanara, Saranga, Mallar, Nat,Barari etc. are known to have originated in between the 5th and the 11th centuries A.D. The rest are also mentioned in the Sastras and not unheard of in Hindusthani and Karnatic traditions too. However, the ragas of Bargit do not tally with their modern counterparts in the North or the South. The difference is in both structure (raga-rupa) and singing style.

The peculiarity of the singing style as well as the accompanying talas establishes Bargit as reminiscent of the ancient tradition of Prabandha Sangita. Hence the ragas of Bargit  must  also  be  the  older  forms of their modern counterparts in Hindusthani and Karnatic music. It may be noted that the ragas of Bargit have been preserved by a more than five hundred years old tradition, away from any external influence. On the contrary, the Hindusthani ragas have undergone tremendous changes ever since the 15th century. In that context it would not be justified at all to use the Hindusthani ragas as yardsticks for measuring the ragas of Bargit. Instead Bargit deserves to be recognized as a separate trend reminiscent of a special stage of development in the evolution of Indian classical music, viz., Prabandha Sangita. Moreover, in view of the practice of Prabandha Sangita becoming obsolete elsewhere in India, we may be proud of preserving in Bargit an ancient form of Indian Classical music.

About the author: Dr. Pabitrapran Goswami, former principal of Jorhat College, Assam, is an academician, researcher, litterateur, translator and musician. He is a renowned Bargit scholar and singer, specialized in the classical music of Assam. He has remarkable contribution towards spreading Bargit with relevant theoretical discussion. In the academic arena, under his research guide and consultancy services...[Read More]

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