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Bargit : the Last Reminiscence of Prabandha Gana from Admin's blog

by Dr Pabitrapran Goswami

Prabandha Gana:

        Dhrupadaand Kirttana or Kriti are the earliest forms of music extant today in the Hindusthani and the Karnatik systems. The Prabandha Gana evidently represented a stage in the evolution of Indian music prior to that of Dhrupada and Kirttana, a stage till which perhaps the ragas and the talas enjoyed uniformity in almost all parts of India.   sarngadeva, the 13th century scholar cum musician, in his encyclopaedic work Sangita Ratnakara, speaks of three chief types of Prabandha, viz., Suda, Ali and Biprakirna and of two chief sub-divisions of Suda-Prabandha : suddha-suda and Salaga-suda

            Conceived as a living body, a Prabandha is said to have possessed six limbs (anga) such as Svara (the tune or the raga), Biruda (the eulogizing of the god or the person worshipped), Pada (the lyrics), Tena (the words suggestive of Brahma or Paramatatva), Pata (the bols of the drums), and Tala (rhythm). sarngadeva places the Prabandhas in five groups in accordance with the number of limbs: Medini(6 limbs), Nandini (5 limbs), Dipani (4 limbs), Bhavani (3 limbs), and Taravali (2 limbs).

            sarngadeva also speaks of four principal Dhatus or music parts of a Prabandha: Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva and Abhoga. Another dhatu called Antara, which comes between Dhruva and Abhoga, is also said to have been present in Salaga-suda and Rupaka type of Prabandhas. The presence of at least two of these dhatus was essential in any kind of Prabandha, and the dhatu called Dhruva was indispensable everywhere.

        A piece of instrumental orchestration used to prelude the actual singing of a Prabandha, and that instrumental part figures in sarngadeva’s  Sangita Ratnakara as Udgraha :

                                    Adau vadya Prabandhanang suddha kutadi nirmitah.

                                    Yah khando vadyate prahurudgrahatang mahattamah.1

            Melapakawas the dhatu that established the link between Udgraha and Dhruva. As Dhruva stood for what is called Sthayi or Tek in modern times, Melapaka, the linking dhatu between Udgraha and Dhruva, must have been the counterpart of modern Alapaka or Alapa, as the word Melapaka results from a blending of the two words: Mela and Alapaka. The dhatu called Abhoga is known to have given completion to the Prabandha and hence may be understood to have referred to the last part of a song containing the composer’s name. The dhatucalled Antaraseparated the Dhruvafrom the Abhoga, its position being in between the two.

            The Bauddha Caryagits, mentioned earlier, are categorized by both sarngadeva and Vyankatamakhi as Biprakirna Prabandha of the Taravali class.2 It is noteworthy that in the Caryagits, as found in the printed editions available so far, only the ragas are mentioned, there being no mention of any tala. This, quite in conformity with their inclusion in the Taravali class of Prabandha, indicates that the Caryas were perhaps not accompanied by any drum like instruments (anaddha vadya) and sung without rhythmic beats (tala).

The Astapadis of Jaydeva’s gita-govinda, on the other hand, besides being set in ragas, were accompanied by certain talas too. In fact the different verses of an Astapadi are known to have been sung in different talas, a practice still in vogue in the traditional style of singing the Bargits. The tala mentioned atop a song therefore might have indicated the first or the chief tala to be played with it. It may be remembered that in most of the ancient manuscripts and printed collections of Bargit per se, talas are not mentioned with the songs. In the few manuscripts where talas are mentioned along with the ragas, generally one tala is found attached to each song as is the case with the Astapadis. But, fortunately enough, the musical tradition of Bargit being alive till date in the sattras of Assam, we know how each line of a Bargit is sung in more than one tala.


Traditional Style of performing Bargit:

It has already been observed that right from the days of Sankaradevathe Bargits have been forming an indispensable part of Nama-Kirttana. In most of the sattras and village Namghars the regular performance of Nama-Kirttana (nitya prasanga) is done by a single person (nam-lagowa). In such solo performances the nam-lagowa first sings just the outline of a raga (variously called the ghar, the sanchar or the ugar) suitable for the hour of the day, and then sings a Bargit or an Ankar git set in that raga without maintaining any beat3 repeating the burden marked as Dhrung (accepted by the scholars as the abbreviation of Dhruva) after every couplet of the padas (subsequent verses). Such a rendering of Bargit is popularly referred to as an instance of singing in Bak-sanchar (sheer voice-manipulation) or Melan (freedom from rhythmic restriction).

            In the Manjira-prasanga (performance of Nama-Kirttana accompanied by the Manjira or the Khutital) of early dawn or the Tal-kobowa prasanga (performance done by playing the Bhortal) of both morning and dusk, however, the Manjiraor the Bhortal, as may be the case, is played even with the Bargit. But, in neither case, the rhythm thus maintained conforms to that of any of the talasof Khol. Hence, even such performances are essentially at par with the one in Bak-sancharor Melan.

On special occasions like the death anniversaries (tithi) of the ancient religious preceptors including Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva or the sattradhikaras, the Janmastami  of sri Krishna, the Falgutsava, the three Bihus, and during the whole month of Bhadra,4  Nama-Kirttanahappens to be a choral performance. In such performances the singing of a Bargit is preceded by an orchestral recital of Khol, Tal, Negera etc., which is variously referred to as Yora-prasanga, Khol-prasanga or Yogan-gowa. Several Khols, Tals and one or two pairs of Negera are played in unison in the orchestra. The bajanas or the rhythmic compositions played in the orchestra comprise several parts such as Jorani (the prelude), Cahini, Gurughat (the ghat played in honour of the Guru), Rag Talani etc. All these parts may not be played in all the sattras, but the Gurughat and the Rag Talani are played everywhere. The Rag Talani part is also known by many other names, such as Rag Tal, Carcari, Rag-pani, Jun-dhara, Ghelani etc. in various sattras.

            The first part of the orchestra up to the Gurughat serves as a pure instrumental prelude to the actual singing. The moment the Rag Talani is started, the chief gayan of the group initiates the singing of a raga of Bargit suitable for the hour. Subsequently the group joins the chief gayan in the singing and there follows a choral elaboration of the raga. The various parts of a raga thus elaborated are known by different names in different sattras. Thus while some call them Ghar and Tolani, others call them Bhujanga and Apluta. Again some sattras split a raga into three parts bearing the names Bahani, Urani and Ghurani, while some others have the convention of splitting a raga into as many as five parts, such as Ukar, Hukar, tar, Ghor and Marddan.

            There is a practice among quite a few sattras of uttering some words like Krishna, sankara, Guru, Hari, Rama, Govinda etc. in the raga portion, while some sattras prefer to utter such meaningless sounds as ta, na, ne, ri, hereri, hauri etc. instead. Again in some other sattras we notice the use of both the sets of words and sounds. Now, without going into the controversies among the orthodox circles as to which of the above practices is correct, we may conclude that from the musical point of view the differences involved are quite immaterial. If we concentrate upon the tune of the raga, the words like Krishna, sankaraetc. will cease to connote anything and appear, like the sounds ta, na, ne, ri etc., mere vehicles for elaborating the raga. The names of sankara and sometimes even of Madhava may however be safely concluded to be the later incorporations reflecting the great esteem in which their devotees have been holding them through the years.

            With the completion of the singing of the raga (rag diya) the Rag Talani part of the Yora-prasanga is concluded. There follows an interim break in the percussion, when the chief gayan sings the first line of the burden of a Bargit, marked as Dhrung, set in the raga already sung, very much in the style of Bak-sanchar. The group repeats the line in the same style. This is done twice and on the second repetition of the line by the group the percussionists5 make their entry with the ghat of the tala in which that particular Bargit is conventionally started. The same tala is continued through the second line of the burden. In fact the ga-man of the tala is first played from where the second line of the burden begins. This line is repeated as many times as required for the full play of all the three parts of the tala, viz., Ga-man, Ghat andCok. This requires proper understanding between the gayans and the bayans. Then the singers together proceed to the padas (the subsequent verse couplets) line by line without repeating the burden in between as in the Bak-sanchar style. Several talas are played with the padas. In fact there is the practice in quite a few sattras of playing at least two talas of different length and rhythmic pattern (such as Bar-Bisam and Saru-Bisam; Rupaka and Athtala; Dharam-Yati and Dasbari) with each line of the padas. Some Bargits on some occasions may however be sung in one or two talas too. The closure of the git as well as of the Yora-prasanga or Khol-prasanga itself is marked by a bajana called Thela, played with the last line of the git. The Thela bajana does not exhibit the characteristics of other talas played with Bargit. It is a long rhythmic composition comprising several parts through which the last line of the Bargit, usually containing the name of the composer, is repeatedly sung, gradually fastening the tempi towards the closure. On occasions like the death anniversaries of the Gurus or the Sattradhikaras generally two Bargits are sung. In such cases an interim break is given after the first part of thethela played with the last line of the first git. Then the chief gayan initiates the singing of the second git in very much the same style as the first. It may be noted that in some sattras, when the two Bargits, thus sung, happen to be of two different ragas, both the ragas are sung, one after the other, in the Rag Talani part. The second raga is normally started not by the chief gayan but by his chief helper (Dohariya). Sometimes the second git is substituted by two or three selected couplets from Madhavadeva’sNam-ghosa. Interestingly enough the couplets of ghosaare then sung like a Bargit in a raga (usually in the same raga as that of the Bargit already sung) and with the accompaniment of talas played with Bargit.

            The Bak-sanchar style of singing a Bargit cannot be projected as an ideal style, since it is not properly musical, being not accompanied by any rhythm. Indeed a few sattras, affluent in man-power, or with strict adherence to tradition, have been maintaining till date the practice of accomplishing even their routine rituals of Nama-Kirttana with Khol-prasanga. After all, the traditional style of singing a Bargit that starts with the Gurughat and ends in the thela bajana is unique in all respects and not to be found in any other tradition of Indian music extant today.


The Place of Bargitin the Evolution of Indian Music :

        The traditional style of performance with khol, tal, negera etc., described above, exhibits in Bargit all the characteristics of Prabandha Gana as described in Sangita Ratnakara.The songless initial part of Jora-prasanga or Khol-prasanga may be compared to the first of the five dhatus of Prabandha, viz., Udgraha. The next part of elaborating the raga as such with the accompaniment of the Rag Talani part of the percussion may rightly be compared to the Melapaka dhatu of Prabandha Gana, which connects the purely instrumental prelude called Udgraha with the first part of the song proper called Dhruva. The elaboration of the raga of a Bargit, accomplished through certain fixed steps, as seen earlier, hardly allows the singer any scope for creative imagination, as in case of the alapa or bol-alapa of the modern Kheyal type of music. The utterance of the various names of Lord Vishnu such as Krishna, Hari, rama, Govinda,etc. and even the names ofSankara-Madhavaalong with such meaningless sounds as ta,na,ne,ri,etc. in the rendering of the raga of a Bargit is also significant. It is noteworthy that the Omkara as the symbol of the cetana nada (animated sound), and such meaningful phrases as O Ananta narayana, Tuhi Ananta Hari etc. as the abridged forms of Devabandana or Gurubandana (hymns in praise of the Lord or the Guru) were resorted to in the alapa part of ancient Indian raga sangita too, prior to the influence of the court singers of the Moghul period.6

            The symbol Dhrung found at the beginning of the lyrics of the Bargits and theAnkar gits has been accepted by the scholars as suggestive of the dhatu called Dhruva. The word Dhura popular among the traditional artists, must be a colloquial form of the word Dhruva itself. The presence of the other parts like Antara and Abhoga may also be clearly observed in the traditional singing style of a Bargit. Although the lyrics of a Bargit, like those of Jaydeva’s Astapadis, are split into two chief parts called Dhruva and Pada, the Pada part may again be split into two more dhatus called Antara and Abhoga on the basis of some differences in the style of singing.

        There is clear distinction between the singing style of the Dhruva and the Antara marked as Pada. The first line of the Dhruva is first sung without any tala or instrumental support. It is repeated in choral voice by the group only after being initiated in solo voice by the chief singer. Moreover, the percussionists make their first entry by playing the Ghat (the concluding part) of the tala with which the Dhruva part is meant to be sung. To the contrary, the Pada or the Antara is sung by all together. In this part the tala also begins from the Ga-man (the main body of the tala). The most important characteristic of this part is the practice of playing more than one tala with every line of every verse.

On the other hand, the singing style of the last line of a Bargit distinguishes this part from the rest of the song. This last line that usually contains the name of the author is popularly known as bhanita. Now this bhanita part of a Bargit, sung with the accompaniment of the Thela bajana, may be compared to the Abhoga dhatu of Prabandha Gana that indicates the completion of the song, and the rest of the Pada part, showing clear distinction in singing style, may be termed as Antara.

Thus the traditional performing style, described above, exhibits in Bargit, the characteristics of all the five dhatus (musical parts), viz., Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva, Antara and Abhoga, and six Angas (limbs), viz., Swara, Tala, Pada, Tena, Biruda andPata, of Prabandha Gana. Hence Bargit may be categorised as Salaga-suda Prabandha of the Medini Jati, like the Astapadis of Jaydeva’s Gita-govinda. Being the creation of a fully developed stage of the Prabandha type of music, the Astapadis were also Salaga-suda Prabandhas of the Medini Jati. Written in Sanskrit, the Astapadis were the last and probably the best specimens of Prabandha Gana in the general Indian context. No other musical composition is available today anywhere in India comparable to the tradition of music represented by the Astapadis of gita-govinda save the Bargits by Sankara-Madhava. More than that, the musical practice of the Astapadis being no more seen anywhere, the Bargits of Assam may, with justification, be projected as the only living reminiscence today of the ancient Prabandha type of music in entire India.


References :

1.       Quoted in Kagendranath Das; Bharatiya Sangitar Paramparat Sattriya Sangskritir Ruprekha; Manasjyoti Prakashan, Barpeta, 1995,


2.       Swami Prajnanananda; Historical Development of Indian Music; op.cit.; p. 313.

3.       Even the Tal is not played, which accompanies only the subsequent phases of singing the Ghosa and  the Kirttana  in a special sort of rhythm of six to eight matras.

4.       Bhadra, the 5th month of the Indian year, is considered the most sacred month by the Vaishnavas of Assam, as it accommodates the death anniversaries of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva and also the Janmastamiof SriKrishna.

5.       The Tals are played by the singers themselves. Even the bayans playing the Khols  and  the  Negeras  often take part in the singing.

6.       Bapcandra Mahanta; Asamat Marga Sangit Aru Manasa-git; Mahanta Prakasan, Jorhat; 1997; p.32.

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