ओ रे माँझी, ओ रे माँझी
मेरे साजन हैं उस पार, मैं मन मार , हूँ इस पार
ओ मेरे माँझी अब की बार ले चल पार, ले चल पार

Everything about this song: its words, its music, its picturisation and Sachin Deo Burman’s evocative voice mesmerises me. I loved this song’s connect with rivers and used to repeat it over and over, till my (visibly exasperated) husband told me, “But did you not know? Rivers have influenced SD’s music a lot. He has talked about his lone ramblings on the Gumti in Tripura, listening to folk music based on rivers many times." I did not know that.

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Then there was the song in Ritwik Ghatak’s unforgettable Meghe Dhaka Tara, “O Majhi Tor Naam Janina” (Oh Boatman, I Do Not Know Your Name) that cast its spell. Later, as singer-scholar Rongili Biswas would roughly translate the song for me, it meant:

“I cried my heart out, by the river of the mundane
Who is there to help you cross over, o my mind.
I spent my good days
And now I have come to the river
O boatman, I do not know your name
Who would I call?
I do not know your name.”

These songs, and many others added to the list had something in common: Rivers, definitely, but something more. A serenity, a plaint, a contemplation. No chorus marred the beauty of this lonely questioning down the river. The notes were muted, starting with initial high notes, descending and meandering into low notes where the songs were based.

This was Bhatiyali: the song of the river, sung by the river through her boatsmen. Bhatiyali has river in its name itself. “Bhati” means the downstream.

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The phenomenon

All of West Bengal and Bangladesh – the land of rivers – is well-versed with Bhatiyali and it is here that the genre has evolved, but it is relatively unknown to us from other parts of India. Several of my favourite film songs got pigeon-holed here. From "Wahan Kaun Hai Tera" (Guide) to "Sun More Bandhu Re, Sun Mere Mitwa, Sun Mere Saathi Re, both sung inimitably by SD. Salil Chowdhury also experimented with this music of rivers.

SD said: “Bhatiyali is special for me. The sound patterns of Bhatiali, its colour contrasts, its pathos and it’s mirth reminds one of the rivers of Bengal as many of the poems of Tagore do.”

Bhatiyali is sung solo, with little or no instruments, occasionally a stringed dotara. Like most folk music, it defies rigid classification into ragas, although it shows similarities with Bilawal and Pahadi-Jhinjoti-Behag. The river has sculpted the very structure of the Bhatiyali. As Rongili Biswas, daughter of the folk and Bhatiyali maestro Hemango Biswas, said, “The sound of the water brings in a lilting unevenness in the structure of Bhatiyali. The bare nature and the very expanse of the river facing the boatman brings out existential anguishes in him. Bhatiyali often tends to merge with dehatattwa – a genre of music that dwells on the philosophy of the body. In these, the river is typically used as a metaphor for life itself.”

Rongili Biswas, an exponent-scholar of Bhatiyali.
Rongili Biswas, an exponent-scholar of Bhatiyali.

The fact that Bhatiyali is so deeply a song of the river is something it shares with folk music. As Prachi Dublay, exponent and scholar of tribal music and a singer, said, “Tribal music or folk music is shaped, influenced and is in constant dialogue with its surroundings. It is a response of humans to their environment and is a product of that very environment. For example, music of the High Hills has higher lilting notes, contrasted with music of deep jungles like Bastar where tribes sing in much lower, subdued notes and soft rhythm.” Similarly, Bhatiyali starts at a high pitch, like a gurgling river and slowly settles, gently meandering into low notes. Unlike contemporary music, it is not directed at any audience.

The lyrics of Bhatiyali tell us about the lone journey of the boatman down the vast, never-ending river. The songs have a strange character. Because they are born on a living river with all her moods, they are not always full of praise for the river, unlike classical shlokas or paeans. They are honest and real. They also talk of the drudgery of the journey, the treacherous river and its storms and floods. The metaphor of river and search for direction, kinara/“Kul” is interminable.

I asked Biswas if the river is a metaphor for life in Bhatiyali. “For us maybe," she said. "But for the boatman, the river is not just a metaphor for life, it is life itself!”

Bhatiyali songs talk of several rivers: Padma, Ganga, Meghna, Jamuna, Seetlakshya, their sandy shores and fluctuating water levels, animals along the river banks: elephants and fish and crocodiles, Kaas flowers and pools full of pink lotus and water lilies. They talk about the many moods of the river, from the low tide which leaves the boatman stranded on the sandy banks to floods that sweep away the boat: “Oh boatman of the high tide, Can you tell me where this river has gone.”

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Some talk about how Padma brings absolute destruction with her floods, “Sarbonasaha Padma Nodi”.

Or this one, by the much-loved Jasimuddin, a Bangladeshi folk musician and scholar of Bhatiyali, “Amay Bhashaili re/ Amay Doobaili Re, Okul Doriyare buzi Kul nai re

You have set me adrift, You are drowning me,
This endless river which has no shores…
Steer it cautiously, boatman, this tattered boat of mine with its broken rim..”

Manna Dey has sung this song beautifully.

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Many Bhatiyali songs also celebrate rivers:

Ganga amar maa
Padma amar maa
o amar dui chokhe dui joler dhara
Meghna Jamuna.”

While some talk of how limitless river is, they also talk about the unity in this limitlessness. Like rivers, Bhatiyali defies boundaries. It is sung and celebrated from Bangladesh to West Bengal to Tripura to Pakistan. Each region adds its own colour, its own tunes and idiosyncrasies to the genre, enriching it further. Biswas talks about “ornate Bhatiyali” from Sylhet region which can be identified easily. The limitlessness reminds one of Jasimuddin’s “Nadir Kul Nai”: the river has no boundaries: no boundaries in the spiritual sense as well as the very physical, political sense too.

A 'work song'

I may have miserably fallen short in conveying the uniqueness and magic of Bhatiyali. I have always repented not learning Bengali, but this time I am truly exasperated. All translations have been through generous help of friends: Bengali and otherwise, who tried their best to show me light. Nor have I heard Bhatiyali enough to understand its nuances. I only know that here is a unique and beautiful song of the river: in its form, its music, its words and in spirit.

In one sense, Bhatiyali is a “work song” a melodious accompaniment to monotonous or tiring work. But while other kinds of work songs, even those based on boats and rivers, are aimed at the group “forgetting” the tiring task at hand, Bhatiyali, a solo quest, delves deep into the river itself.

In that sense, possibly Maharashtra’s ovees, work songs which women sing while grinding heaps of grains on grinding wheel or while doing their household chores, come close. The songs are not directed at any audience, are sung solo without accompaniment and are not meant to “rouse”, but only to contemplate. The rhythmic motion of the grinding wheel and the body rounds and smoothens the song beautifully. Water, rivers and women are inextricably linked and many of these ovees revolve around these themes.

“दुबळं माझं घर नाही, दुबळा माझा नूर, समोर अंगणात पाणी, पन्हाळी तुळशीवर.”

It is not my home that is weak:
I have water in my garden and on my Tulsi.
I am veritably rich!

(This ovee is from Kavita Mahajan’s beautiful collection of folksongs.)

Or

“काय पुण्य केले तुमी नाशिकचे लोक, गंगेची आंघोळ दर्शनाला गायमुख.”

“What punya do you have on your side, you people of Nashik? You bathe in Ganga and can worship the Gomukh!”
(From Anuradha Kharude)

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“नदीच्या पल्याड बेट फुटतं लव्हाळ्याचं, माझ्या हुरुदात फुलतं माह्यार जिव्हाळ्याचं.”

“Across the river blooms an island on Kaas, just like my beloved Mother’s homes blossoms in my heart”.
(From Mrinalinee Vanarase)

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The common thread running through other work songs is a strong rhythm. States like Kerala, Andhra and Maharashtra have a vast and rich repository of boatsongs of fishermen or sailors. These songs follow the rhythm of the waves and the sea.

Songs of strength

Songs of Chuanjiang Hauji in China on rivers like Yangtze, Min Jiang and Yellow have mesmerised travelers for centuries by their synergy. They seem to have a specific purpose: to synchronise rowing rhythm and to go ahead in unison. The melody is held by a lead singer and others join in at various times. A form of folk music in Bengal called Sari (meaning upstream), often sun at boat races, is also somewhat similar.

Chinese boatsmen along Yangtze, Yellow and other rivers sing the Haozi as they haul the boat upstream. Photo: www.sccnt.gov.cn
Chinese boatsmen along Yangtze, Yellow and other rivers sing the Haozi as they haul the boat upstream. Photo: www.sccnt.gov.cn

One of the most famous and rousing boatsongs is the Song of the Volga Boatman, of the toiling barge haulers of the gain strength from each other, calling to “Mother” Volga.

Here too, not all worksongs are full of praises. In fact, Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River, which influenced our Bhupen Hazarika enough to pen his classic Bistirno Dupare (later translated in Hindi as Ganga Behti Jo Kuyon) was actually written and performed as a work song of the toiling black dock labourers on the Mississippi. Not a paean to the river, it is in fact a plea to get away from the unresponsive, alien Mississippi.

Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from the white man boss;
Show me that stream called the river Jordan,
That’s the ol’ stream that I long to cross.
Ol’ man river,
That ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.

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My Assamese friends are quick to point out that any discussion on river songs is utterly inadequate without the mention of the “Bard of the Luit” Bhupen Hazarika who sang about so many rivers of the beautiful Assam. Biswas puts it, “In the rich Assamese musical tradition, Luit (Brahmaputra) is a character in itself. It’s always there, ever-present.”

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Hazarika sang about the Brahmaputra (Bistirno Dupare) and the Kopili (Kopili Kopili Rangadhali Suwali) and the Lohit/Brahmaputra (Luit poriya deka bondhu). He was so much in love with the rivers and rambings that he called himself “Ami Ek Jajabor”, a term which even Gulzar could not explain fully!

Gulzar says: “जाजाबोर का सही त्तर्जुमा मुसाफिर भी नही, बंजारा भी नही, आवारा भी नही…लेकीन सबसे करीब है आवारा; बिना मंझिल चलते रेहना, बेहते रेहना इस पुरी जमीन पर, जिसे वो अपना समझता है.. सभी जगह का आवारां… या आवारा कहीं का नही!”

These lines can refer to the mighty meandering Brahmaputra as well.

Hazarika sings:

हां आवारा हूं… हां आवारा हूं
यहां का ,वहां का कहीं का नहीं हूं, दिशाओं का मारा हूं.
कभी लोहित किनारे से मीसीसीपी होके वोल्‍गा की बात सुनी
ऑटोवा हो के ऑस्‍ट्रीया होते पेरिस की रात चुनी.

His brother Jayanta Hazarika also sang several river songs in his tragically short time. Some of these, shared by my college roommate and old friend Swagata Kotoky, include: Ei Lohit Kaberi, Luitor Balit, Luitar Boliyan Baan, Luitor sapori kore naoria.

Bhupen Hazarika.
Bhupen Hazarika.

The essence

This was meant to be a short write-up mainly on the link between folk songs and rivers, but a cautious venturing into this vast floodplain of music shows the strong and beautiful links between our lives and our rivers. These are not classical, decorated sholkas or texts which reside firmly inside ancient books. These are living songs of the people: brought to life and adorned by the people themselves, with organic links to their rivers and nature.

I ask Biswas if Bhatiyali will survive without her rivers. She said, “Like the rivers are shrinking, the Bhatiyali is shrinking too. It is not a piece of music isolated from its surroundings. Like a plant, kept away form water will die, Bhatiyali will wither away without its vast canvas of the Rivers of Bengal, which breathe life into it. It is endangered now also because of hasty rendering. It is not a song to be sung in a hurry or for fame alone. It is a result of a lifelong quest.”

It is possibly Jasimuddin, a much loved poet and musician from Bangladesh, who captures the essence of Bhatiyali:


“A long time ago, when man did not obstruct rivers to suit his petty needs, the river channels served as goodwill ambassadors to extensive geographical areas – a river originating in one country flowing through another, joining another river, forming a filigree of merging and diverging rivers – with the social and cultural heritage of one region blending into another, each drawing on the rich yet varied perspectives in the whole process of cultural evolution."  

This is perhaps most apparent in Bengal’s rich and enviable variety of folk songs. Rivers form an integral part of the topography of Bengal: “Bangladesh is the land of rivers. Ganga, Meghna, Dhaleshwari, Shitalakshya, Gadai – in so many names and in such myriad forms these rivers encircle Bangladesh.

Playing on the silvery strings of the rivers, an invisible musician has with his delicate touch composed the song of its heart – the Bhatiyali. Several areas remain submerged in rainwater for almost six months in a year, with the boat the only mode of transport... separated from their families for months on end, they have for their companion only the river on which they row their boats, with the waters merging into the horizons, and the azure heavens above.”

— -Jasimuddin, Murshida Gaan, Dhaaka, 1977

From West Bengal to Bangladesh to Pakistan, from Kashmir to Maharashtra to Gujarat to Assam to Kerala, we are held together by rivers in many ways. Rivers are integral to life, not just limited to water, dams, irrigation, hydropower and sewage treatment. It is as much about beauty, art and a living culture.

As rivers are silenced, as their song is muted day after day, we are losing not only “ecosystem goods and services”, we are losing this part of us too.

Let us hope our rivers (and we too) have more River Songs to sing.

Parineeta Dandekar is an Associate Coordinator with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

This article first appeared on the SANDRP website.