Some of the well known folk dances of Bengal include:
Bengal, during the post medieval period, was a divided and closed society. Ruled by religious strictures, Hindus and Muslims led cloistered lives, against which grew a protest that took on the character of a cult. The community of protesters could be identified by the robes they wore (a long saffron-coloured cloak called the alkhalla with a turban of the same colour), the one-stringed instrument or Ektara they always carried and the bells they tied to their perpetually dancing feet. Sometimes the alkhalla would be made of different pieces of cloth patched together. They were the Bauls, the creators of a phenomenal music tradition that has survived and grown despite the ravages of time. Apart from the expected bamboo flute, they developed a variety of musical instruments like the Premjuri and Dotara, the Khamak and Goopi Jantro, the Kartal and Dubki among others.
The Bauls are free wanderers. They are detached from the bondage of society and family. They move from place to place, making a meagre living from the alms given to them by those who can plumb the profound depths of their frugality. The Bauls belong to a sect with a distinctive mystic ideology of their own and their songs spread the message of peace and universal brotherhood. The word ‘Baul’ means mad, the madness that comes out of an overwhelming love for the Infinite Self. The singers describe the transience of mundane existence and the simple means to spiritual upliftment, though the root of their philosophical theory rests in a deeper complex psychological consciousness. Bauls are basically philanthropists, though sometimes satire from day to day life finds a place in their songs. The Bauls have played a major role in Indias freedom struggle when they moved from village to village in rural Bengal with their songs stirring up a feeling of nationalism and pride in our motherland among the illiterate village folk.
Both men and women (Bauls and Baulanis) are a part of this great music tradition. For a long time, the Baulanis performed with the Bauls and they did not have any separate identity. But in recent years Baulanis have carved out their own foothold. The music of the Bauls had a significant influence on Rabindranath Tagore. Today the Bauls’ songs can be heard in many districts of West Bengal as their footsteps dot the muddy village lanes of Bankura, Birbhum, Burddhaman, Nadia, Dinajpur and Murshidabad.
The Chhau dance of Purulia district is one of the most vibrant and colourful art forms. Emerging from martial practice, the Purulia Chhau is a vigorous form of dance drama that draws its themes from the two great Indian epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata.
Masks and elaborate headgear are the ornamental apparels of the Chhau dancers. The dance is believed to date back to over a century, though the specific date of its origin cannot be definitely ascertained. The dance was patronised by the royalty and landlords of the region. Since its inception, the members of the Mahato, Kurmi, Bhumija, Deowa, Bhuama and Dom communities have sustained this dance form. The dance is an essential part of the Gajan Festival, a festival that celebrates the glories of Lord Shiva. Today, the dance is no longer restricted to one particular time of the year. The Purulia Chhau dance has been influenced by many dances of the district, like the Nata Jawaid Dance, the Mahi Dance and the Nachni Dance. Even two relatively sophisticated dance forms like the Jhumur and Bhadra Jhumur have influenced the Chhau Dance in its tune and rhythm. The accompanying musical instruments include the Dhol, Dhamsa and Shenai.
The dance commences with an invocation to Lord Ganesh. Then the movements follow the nuances of the story. In a Chhau Dance the fight between good and evil always culminates in the triumph of good over destructive evil. The elaborate masks, the dazzling costumes, the rhythmic drum beatings and shenai, characterise the Chhau Dance. A distinctive feature of this dance is the acrobatic use of the body and the intricately crafted masks worn by the dancers. Powerful movements, immense concentration and release of energy are the other features of this dance.
In the villages the performance usually starts between 9.00 and 10.00 o’clock in the evening. As the night grows and the dance gains momentum, there is an air of excitement all around. Communication between the performers and the audience is a significant feature of this dance form. In the olden days, the performance area used to be illuminated by torches that burnt throughout the night. Over the years the dance has undergone evolutions in form, stage craft, lighting and use of musical instruments.
The masks help the dancers to portray different characters. There are masks depicting particular Gods and Goddesses, demons and monsters. There are also interesting masks for different animals like the lion, tiger, bear, monkey and so on. These finely-crafted masks are made by the painter artistes of the district. With the face covered by a mask, it is left to the dancers to emote using their bodies. Movements and postures therefore serve both to portray emotions and make the dance lively.
One of the most popular presentations of the Purulia Chhau Dance is Mahisasur Mardini. Oppressed by the tyranny of the Mahisasura, the Gods pray to Goddess Adyashakti Mahamaya who takes the form of Goddess Durga, Durgatinashini and after a fierce battle with Asura, finally slays him.
The Santhals are an integral part of the folklore of Bengal. The Santhali dance form is seen in the districts of Birbhum, Bankura, Malda and Burddhaman. The Santhals are born dancers. Dance is an integral part of all festivities of the Santhal community. Musical accompaniment is provided by instruments like the Madol, Flute, Dhamsa, Jhanj, Kartal and occasionally the Shenai. The songs are typically based on Taal Madol Chhanda. Dances are usually performed on a fullmoon night and are connected with the celebration of certain rituals. A notable feature of the Santhal dances is the unison in movement. The dancers stand in a line holding hands and move to the rhythm of the madol. Usually the women take part in the dance and the men provide the musical accompaniment. This is reflected in the words of a song, which accompany the Dang Dance, a dance performed as a part of marriage rituals. The boys carry two types of drums, the Madal and the Lagra. They sing to the girls telling them: “Though the drums are heavy, we carry them around dancing all the time”. The girls reply, “As we hear the beat of drums, we cannot stand still. We lift our feet and begin to dance”.
Simplicity of theme and language is what makes the Santhal dances so endearing. Nowadays, Santhali men also take part in the dances, most of which are seasonal and reflect the ritualistic life of the Santhal community. Each dance form has its own distinctive rhythm and dance style. Some of the popular dances include the Sohrai, which is a harvest dance, inviting all the village folk to come out of their homes and join in the festivities, and the Dasai, a dance performed just before the Durga Puja, when the Santhali men go out to the neighbouring villages, where they sing and dance to collect donations of rice and alms.
The Santhal dance reflects the beauty of rural Bengal and adds colour to the palette of the folk culture of the state.
The members of the Mundari community perform these dances on different festive occasions, most of which are related to agriculture. The main festival of the Mundari community is the Karam Puja. The dances of the Santhali and Mundari communities are very close in style and form. The musical instruments used by the two communities are also common.
Gambhira, a popular annual festival of Malda District comprises songs and dances closely related to agriculture and mythology. Performances depict on one hand, the success, failure or annual production of crops, and on the other tell stories about mythological figures. Depending on the theme, dancers perform solo, duets or in groups, stepping in tune with the beat of dhaks. Colourful masks representing Gods and Goddesses like Kalika, Chamunda, Rama, Hanuman, Shiva and even animals and birds, make the performances both charming and entertaining, while retaining the authenticity of this primitive dance form.
The word Gambhira means ‘Devalaya’ or House of God. This festival is very closely associated with Shiva Puja. In the different rituals associated with Gambhira Puja we find an amalgamation of different religious thoughts like Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Shaktiism. In Malda district, where this festival is immensely popular, Shiva is also known as Gambhir, and hence the festival associated with Shiv Puja is known as Gambhira. The Bengal Drum or Dhak and the Gong or Kanshi are main musical instruments accompanying this dance. Dancers tune their steps to the different beats of the Dhak, the intricate patterns of their dance blending into the pulsating rhythm of festivity and celebration. Over the years, poverty and social changes are forcing this dance, which was once synonymous with grandeur, into oblivion. The Gambhira festival begins with Agamani songs. The second day of the festival is called the Choto Tamasha and the third day the Boro Tamasha. These days are devoted to Shiva and Gouri Puja. Other popular dances of the Gambhira tradition include the Baan Nritya (Arrow Dance) Bak Nritya (Stork Dance) Tapa Nritya (a dance performed by the fishermen and fisherwomen using a special kind of bamboo basket known as the Tapa which is used for catching the fish) and Kali Nritya (the dance of Goddess Kalika).
Gajan is a very popular festival in some parts of Bengal. Gajan songs are sung in praise of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati in the Bengali month of Chaitra. Singing and dancing is an integral part of this celebration. The dance is performed with great devotion and austerity. The dancers sometimes dress up as Hara Parvati and move around the village, dancing to the accompaniment of the Dhol, Kanshi and Flute. In Malda and Murshidabad, the celebration is known as Bolan. The dancers undergo penance with a view to attaining salvation and becoming free of worldly sufferings. This celebration is observed during the latter part of the month of Chaitra. Being a festival of austerity, the dancers often fast before a performance. The performance of this Puja involves some harrowing rituals and is usually performed by the lower castes. The involvement of the upper castes is limited to bowing down before the lower castes for just this one time in the year.
Durga Puja Dhak
Utsav is Bengal is synonymous with Durga Puja. The Bengali waits all year round for the arrival of Devi Ma. It is a time for celebration and festivity, and it is the sound of the Bengali Drum or the Dhak that joyously announces her eagerly awaited arrival. It is the sound of the Dhak that captures the many moods of the Devi, frenzied, calm, plaintive and nostalgic, and it is the sound of the Dhak that also tells us it is time for her to return to her heavenly abode. Every beat of the dhak is different and each of them holds a special place in every Bengalis heart.
The Dhol (a variation of the Bengali Drum) is an indispensable musical instrument of the different festivals of Bengal. The musicians dance and play the Dhol simultaneously.
Bratachari – Raibense
The Raibense dance which is performed by a group of male dancers is a part of the repertoire of the ‘Bratachari’ tradition of West Bengal. The Raibense dance of ancient Bengal, is a significant and authentic reminder that the Bengalis were once renowned for their military prowess. The dance belongs to a living tradition of the war dances of ancient Bengal. Rai means royal, kingly and bansh or bansha means bamboo. This was used by the infantry soldiers in the middle ages. This vigorous dance form includes mock fighting and acrobatics. It speaks volumes about the valour of the people of ancient Bengal. The Dhol and Kanshi are the main instruments used. The strident rhythmic notes of the Dhol and the clanging of the Kanshi generate courage and daring in the hearts of the dancers. No songs are sung or verses recited during this martial dance. Instead, vigorous yells mark the various sectional movements. The simplest costume, a dhoti (which is the traditional dress of Bengali men) is worn with a strip of red cloth signifying spirit and valour. Shri Gursasaday Dutt, ICS, was responsible was resurrecting this ancient group dance and modifying it to its present form.
The Bagdi, Bauri and Dom communities of Burddhaman, Birbhum & Murshidabad districts, perform the dance.
Stick Dance or Laghur Nritya
The Stick Dance or Laghur Nritya is another interesting martial folk art form of West Bengal. The stick, which has from time immemorial been used as a weapon of self-defence, is used in this dance. The long sticks not only keep the beat of the dance, but are also used for the acrobatic feats, which are an integral part of this dance form.
The Ranapa is another martial form of dance, where the artistes walk and dance on stilts. As the dancers display mock fights, they exhibit their skills of balancing on stilts.
Dhali & Paika Nritya
These two dances are heroic war dances and are performed by a group of dancers. The dances are evocative of the valour and prowess of the people who took part in the wars.
The Dhali Dance, as the name implies, is the Shield Dance. It was the war dance of the Dhali (Shield man) troupes in the armies of the ancient potentates of Bengal. In the Dhali Dance, the spectacular movements are formal and are more in the nature of athletic exercises. It is a dance of high aesthetic value by virtue of its intricate manoeuvres and ordered formations. Being a war dance, it is not accompanied by any songs. This dance form originated and flowered during the reign of Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore. After winning a battle, the fatigued and exhausted solders starting dancing with swords and shields in the cantonment to inspire themselves for the next war. It is believed that Raja Pratapaditya maintained an army of highly skilled Dhali soldiers. Over the years, the dance form has been modified extending to women dancers as well.
Natua, an ancient dance form, features in the Shiv Puranas. The word Natua, may have been derived from the name of Lord Nataraj. It is believed that Nandi and Vringi, the associates of Lord Shiva were the first to perform this dance during the time of Shiva’s marriage with Durga. This highly acrobatic dance form involves many tricks with fire and is usually accompanied by the beats of a Jai Dhak, the instrument which is said to have been created by Lord Shiva. The dance is performed during the Charak Puja and occasionally during marriages.
The Kirtan Dance is the most widely practised folk dance form of Bengal. The democratic nature of the dance, which unites people of the whole village, irrespective of their caste or social standing is its most striking feature. The dance is performed to the accompaniment of the Dhol and Mridanga. The great spiritual leader, Shri Chaitanya Dev gave the dance a national character.
The women of the Rabha Community perform the Rabha Dances, popular in the Northern part of Bengal. The men provide the musical accompaniment, playing the Barangshi (a bamboo flute), Hem (a drum with two faces), Dandi & Barding, (idiophones made from bamboo) and Karnal (a rare tribal instrument made of bamboo and buffalo horn). The Rabha women have different dances for different occasions, like the “Fai Nang Ning Mein” or Welcome Dance, the “Braisar Pridan” or New Year’s Dance and “Larai Lunge” or War Dance. The dancers depict the daily life of the community and embody the merriment that enlivens all their festivals.
The Chaibari Nritya, as the name suggests, is a dance mastered by the tea garden workers of Nothern Bengal. The dancers, with their intricate costumes and jewellery make for a picture perfect sight in the breathtaking backdrop of the verdant tea gardens. The melodious music adds to the charm and beauty of the dance.
The Domphu is a musical instrument used by the Nepali community settled in North Bengal. The Domphu Nritya takes its name from this traditional instrument. The dances give expression to the joys, hopes and aspirations of the community through this colourful folk dance.
The Kukri Nritya, also from North Bengal, is performed by the girls of the community, as they ceremoniously hand over their traditional weapon, the Kukri, to their brothers, before they set off for the war.
The Mech Dance is another popular dance form of North Bengal, the land of forests, mountains and turbulent rivers. In this dance form, which originated in Jalpaiguri district, we see and feel the inner rhythm which pervades the simple life of the tribal people living in harmony with nature. There are several variations of the Mech Dance.
Bagroomba is performed by the Mech women at spring festivals, The colourful costumes used by the dancers are evocative of butterflies.
Chal Jhumgre Gele Nai is a war dance which is rhythmic and martial in character.
In the Mesa Glang Nai dance, performed by the Mech women, the youth of the community is exhorted to be industrious and hardworking. The young members of the community are reminded that they must always retain the purity of their minds and bodies. This dance is performed as the women pluck flowers for the ‘Kherai Puja’. They carry small bowls in their hand to collect the flowers.
The Rajbanshi is one of the many tribes of North Bengal. The lives of the people belonging to the Rajbanshi tribe revolve around the Teesta River, which they worship as a Goddess. The Teesta flows down the snow-capped peaks of Darjeeling, through the dense forests of Jalpaiguri. It then charts a turbulent course through the lush scenery of Coochbehar, finally meeting the Bharmaputra River in Bangladesh. This graceful dance is performed to invoke the blessings of the River Goddess. The Dhol, Kanshi, Kartal and Mukhabanshi are the instruments that accompany this invocatory dance.
The Jhumur Dance is one of the liveliest folk dances of Bengal. Several variations of this dance have emerged from Purulia, Birbhum, Bankura and Burddhaman. This is an elaborate dance, choreographed and performed by professional artistes. Here lies its essential difference with forms like the Santhal Dance. The dance is performed by girls while the boys play the Dhol and Madol. This entertaining dance is performed on stage and during road shows. Heavy make-up and ornate jewellery form part of the costume of the Jhumur dancers. This secular dance form is accompanied by fast-paced and cheerful Jhumur songs.
The sensuous Nachni is an offshoot of the Jhumur Dance, depicting the love of Radha (Nachni) and Krishna (Rasik).
As the rains pour down on the red earth of Bengal, voices rise in praise of Bhadreswari Ma, invoking her blessings for a good harvest. Originating from the districts of Bankura, Purulia, West Burddhaman and Birbhum, the Bhadu Dance is performed mainly during the Monsoon. The dance draws its name from the Bengali month of Bhadra, when the monsoon showers drench the earth. The Bhadu Festival celebrates the transformation of Princess Bhadreswari into a cult figure. Legend has it that the Princess was the only daughter of Neelmoni Singh Deo, the Kashiraj of Panchakot. She was dearly loved by the villagers of Panchakot and even worshipped as Bhadu – the Goddess of Crops. Tragedy struck as the princess waited for her marriage to the Prince of Burddhaman. As she waited for her groom, dressed in her bridal finery, she received the tragic news that the prince had been killed in an encounter with dacoits on the way. Unable to bear her sorrow, she takes her own life. During the festival, Bhadreswari or Bhadu is invoked by the villagers, seeking her blessings for an abundant harvest. The women of the community, both married and unmarried perform the Bhadu Dance. The unmarried girls pray for a loving husband while the married women pray to Mother Earth to be blessed with children.
The Bhadu festival is also celebrated in Chota Nagpur, where it is known as ‘Karam Parab’.
When we think of harvest songs in Bengali folk culture, we think of Tushu. Tushu songs, originating from the districts of Bankura, Purulia & Midnapore have similar features. The daily lives and relationships of the villagers form the theme of this genre of songs. Family rows between rival co-wives, and between wives and their sisters-in-law find a place in Tushu songs.
Tushu songs being associated with harvesting, always refer to the householders wealth – ‘ghee of 32 cows’, ‘rice of fine paddy’, ‘pots of ghee and gur’ are some of the expressions used. The villagers pray to the Folk Goddess Tushu for prosperity. They ask for the Goddess’s blessings so that their homes and the homes of their sons may overflow with wealth.
Dhamail is a folk dance performed by the married women of rural Bengal. The women arrange themselves in a circle, around a certain object of prayer, clapping to the beats of the song. While praying to the Sun God, a lit diya, symbolising the sun, is kept at the centre. The clapping brings a rhythmic element into the otherwise slow-paced dance.
Nabanna is a ritualistic dance performed after the autumn harvest. It is part of a religious ceremony associated with cultivation and harvesting. The dance is an expression of the happiness of the farmers’ families after a successful harvest. A special religious ceremony is held on the day the new rice is eaten.
Farming is an integral part of the lives of villagers in rural Bengal. After a day’s toil, the villagers often sing and dance as a welcome break from their daily routine of labour and hard work. In most parts of rural India, agriculture is still dependant on the rains. Noila Broto is a traditional ode to the Rain Goddess, “Megh Kanya”. This prayer dance, involving rituals and offerings, celebrates the arrival of the first monsoon clouds. The farmers and their wives pray for a good monsoon that will bring forth an abundant harvest of crop, ushering in prosperity and happiness.
The Bengali community is known for the warm hospitality it extends to visitors. When a guest arrives unannounced at a Bengali home, he is greeted warmly and made to feel welcome, while the host makes every effort to ensure a comfortable stay. The Baromashya songs and dances describe this endearing quality of the simple folk of rural Bengal.
This is a part of the traditional Badhubaran ceremony of Srihatta. Bou Nritya enacts the custom of asking a new bride to dance, a process of helping her shed her inhibitions. The dancers wear ornaments typical of this region and drape the sari in a different way. The distinguishing feature of this dance is that the dancers never lift their feet off the ground during the entire performance. Through this dance of initiation, the new bride is welcomed into her new family.
Ganga Baidya is a dance of the snake charmers or Bedes of Bengal. The dance gives expression to the daily lives, customs, hopes and aspirations as well as the pains and tribulations of this sect of people of rural Bengal. The Bedes were a nomadic tribe who moved from place to place, earning their living by singing their songs and displaying acrobatic tricks – with fire, knives, sticks and ropes. These worshippers of Ma Manasha use snakes for a variety of tricks. Through their songs and dances, the fearless Bedes sold snake venom and talismans to the villagers, promising them that these would keep evil away.
The fisherman community of rural Bengal pray to Ganga Devi in the month of Chaitra. Through their prayers and dances, they appease the Goddess, so that she bestows blessings on them throughout the year.