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Bargit : an Introduction from Admin's blog

By Dr Pabitrapran Goswami

The name Bargit is popularly ascribed to a special set of devotional songs composed during the late 15th and the early 16th centuries A.D. by Srimanta Sankaradeva and his disciple Sri Sri Madhavadeva, the two chief exponents of Vaishnavism in Assam. According to the Carita Puthis1, Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva referred to their songs as git only. The adjectival prefix Bar2, therefore, must have been a later reverential addition by the devout disciples of the two Vaishnava priests, which might bear upon the musical grandeur3 of the songs too.

Sankaradeva is known to have composed as many as 240 such songs. But the sole manuscript4 containing the songs was unfortunately lost in the wild-fire that burnt the house of Kamala Gayan5 who had taken it for memorising. Being highly aggrieved at the sad incident, Sankaradeva declined to compose any more and asked Madhavadeva to compose some songs. According to the Carita Puthis, Madhavadeva composed some 191 songs, of which we now get only about 157. On the other hand, out of the 240 songs by Sankaradeva, lost in fire, only 34 could be recovered from the memory of the disciples. Thus the total number of Bargits does not exceed 191.

The songs composed by the followers of Sankara and Madhava, the chief among whom were Purusottama Thakur, Gopal Ata, Yadumonideva, Aniruddhadeva, etc., are not called Bargit, although in the sattras6 established by such post-Sankaradeva preceptors generally no difference is maintained between the Bargits and the lyrical compositions of their progenitors. Even the songs of the Ankas7 by Sankara and Madhava themselves are not generally incorporated with the Bargits and are referred to as Ankar git (songs of the Ankas) or Natar git (songs of the plays).

Right from the days of Sankaradeva the Bargits have been forming an indispensable part of Nama-Prasanga or Nama-Kirttana8 in the sattras and the village Namghars9. The ritual of Nama-Kirttana, whether choral or solo, is invariably initiated with the singing of a Bargit10. The Bargits are set to certain classical ragas (tunes) mentioned in the Sangita-Sastras11, and are sung with the accompaniment of scientifically measured talas (rhythmic compositions).

The difference between the Bargits and the Ankar gits is essentially thematic. The Bargits, being originally designed as prayer songs or hymns, are generally written on comparatively more serious and grave themes, the chief appeal of which is bhakti (devotion). On the other hand, the Ankar gits have contextual relevance in the Ankas and as such are written on a variety of themes having different types of appeal often of lighter vein than that of bhakti.

Another point of difference between these two sets of songs is that while against the Ankar gits certain talas are specified, that is not done in case of the Bargits in most of the extant manuscripts and printed books. This allows the performers the liberty to choose the talas to be played with a Bargit, while the Ankar gits have to be accompanied by the talas specified against them. It is however interesting to note at this point that quite a few of the Ankar gits are sung out of context as a part of Nama-Kirttana too like the Bargits. In so doing hardly any difference is maintained between a Bargit and an Ankar git, and the specification of the talas with the latter is also ignored. Indeed there is little musical difference between the Bargits and the Ankar gits, both being set to the same sort of ragas and sung with the accompaniment of the same sort of talas. Hence, a purely musical approach may ignore the differences between the Bargits and the Ankar gits and allow the name Bargit a broader connotation to incorporate the Ankar gits too. In fact the name Bargit should be used to refer in general to the special trend of Indian classical music that Sankara-Madhava consciously tried to popularise in Assam through all of their lyrical compositions.

References and Notes :
1. Ancient biographical accounts of the two Vaishnava priests and even of the preceptors of the succeeding period.

2. The adjective Bar in Assamese means big, large, senior, elder, superior, great, noble etc.

3. Dr. Birendranath Datta; Asamiya Sangitar Aitijya; Asam Sahitya Sabha; Jorhat; 1977; p.16.

4. Comprising folios prepared through a strenuous process from the bark of the Agar tree, and written with an indigenous herbal ink.

5. The title gayan was given to an expert singer. Kamala was such a gayan of Sankaradeva’s time.

6. Religio-cultural institutions established by Sankara-Madhava and their disciples for fostering the religious and cultural activities ofThe Vaishnava cult.

7. The 12 extant dramatic works (6 ascribed to Sankaradeva and 6 to Madhavadeva) are popularly referred to as Bara Anka (Bara means twelve) or Ankiya Nat ( plays having no division of acts or Ankas).

8. The chief musical ritual of the Vaishnavas of Assam, choral or solo. The routine performance of Nama-Kirttana in the sattras is called Nama-Prasanga, as it forms a part of other prayer services too.

9. Vaishnava prayer-halls which also serve as open theatres for staging the Ankas as well as the plays by the post-Sankaradeva playwrights, the performance thereof being called Bhaona.

10. There are many other non-religious occasions too like the funeral procession of a sattradhikara (head of a sattra), the welcoming of a bridegroom etc. where the Bargits and the Ankar gits are sung. But our chief concern is with their primary religious use that exhibits the musical tradition properly.

11. Authoritative musical treatises of ancient India.
]The author is Retired Principal of Jorhat College and Visiting Professor of Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva Vishwavidyalaya. His contact number is 9435051642]

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