The Bengal-Bronx analogy

Folk Art seldom finds expression in mainstream media, at least not in the subcontinent. The gap between rural and urban has become so wide that the village folk have now become ‘marginalised’. Bauls (mystic minstrels) of West Bengal are perhaps one of those few folk artists who have been able to capture the imagination of westernized urban folk.

If more such ‘marginalised’ artists and art forms could make inroads into mainstream, it could perhaps bridge the gap between urban and rural and by default other divisions pertaining to class and caste among other things. The film Jatiswar triggered this thought-process.

Jatiswar literally means someone who can recall his/her previous life. It tells the story of one Anthony Firingee, a proponent and practitioner of Kobi Gaan (Battle of Poets), through the eyes of his present-day self, a nondescript librarian. The film is about the individual, by and large. Hensman Anthony (aka Anthony Firingee) was born a businessman’s son of Portugese origin but was a Kobiyal (poet) at heart.

More than the individual, I was intrigued by the musical form Firingee came to love so much. Prior to watching the film, I had no idea about Kobi Gaan, a popular form of folk entertainment (and no I have not seen Anothony Firingee, the film).

Interestingly enough, I find an uncanny resemblance between the Kobi Gaan phenomenon of 18th Century Bengal (India) and the Rap culture of 20th Century which originated in the Bronx area of New York city!

According to historians, Kobi Gaan flourished between circa 1760 to 1830 although its origin dates back to the 17th century. Two Kobis (Poets) were pitted against each other. They had to come up with instant rhythmic creations – much like a war of words – and challenge the opponent. Over time, two individuals singing simple verse songs became a little too bland, so they started having their own groups (or bands if you please). The group members came to be known as Doharer Dol and the main poet was the Kobiyal/Sarkar. The contests used to take place in royal courts but were also a form of mass entertainment.

Initially, the verses were overtly religious in nature. With time, it became much more mass oriented and hence expletives, slangs, day-to-day life found its way into Kobi Gaan. Forms of expression were topical in nature. Kobi Gaan was as much popular in Kolkata as it was in Rural Bengal (particularly Birbhum District) although it lost much of its sheen in the city during later years.

Anthony Firingee was a second generation Kobiyal; singing his much talked about devotional (and other typical) verses during the golden era of Kobi Gaan. Besides, he was social reformer of sorts. Other than him, there were the native Kobiyals, most notably Bhola Moira, Haru Thakur and Nitai Bairagi among others. These poets belonged to the lower rungs of society, an obvious reason for them to be adored by the masses. Socio-economic realities found a voice through the Kobiyals.

Now, is that not too much of a likeness with Hip Hop?

I will go backwards. Hip Hop/ Rap is associated with African-Americans, who usually do not belong to the privileged class. The trend started during 1970s particularly in the Bronx area of New York. In the city itself, Hip Hopping was a popular source of entertainment with the advent of block parties (a crowd gathering on streets). It spread across other parts of USA gradually. According to WikiPedia, Hip hop music in its infancy has been described as an outlet and a “voice” for the disenfranchised youth of low-economic areas, as the culture reflected the social, economic and political realities of their lives.

If one takes a look at the specific sub genre called Battle Rap, the resemblance is even more obvious. Two Rappers indulge in braggadocio (a form of bragging with a healthy dosage of insult and foul words). Rappers do not have ‘groups’ per say but they do have loyalists cheering them on. Battle Rap is usually performed within enclosed spaces with a large audience (much like royal courts) rather than on streets. The lyrics have to be improvised on spot. 8 Miles starring Eminem throws light on the Rap culture quite a bit, particularly Battle Rap.

By the 1990s Hip Hop had found its way in mainstream with popular artists such as Public Enemy, MC Hammer and Snoop Dogg. Come to think of it, Eminem (the ‘White Guy’) is to Hip Hop/Rap what Hensman Anthony was to Kobi Gaan! Hip Hop is still a major Musical force with new breed of artists such as 50 Cent and Nelly.

Sadly, Kobi Gaan has hardly any takers, either in the rural or urban scape these days. Folk-theatre or Jatra has evolved into a rather elitist and refined intellectual platform over the years. Bauls have retained their rustic charm even though they perform for/with westernized crowd from time to time. In recent times, Chau Nritya (Masked Dance) made its way into popular culture, thanks to Barfi. But it hardly caught on.

Moner Manush told the story of Lalon Fakir and Just Another Love Story was predominantly about the Jatra exponent Chapal Bhaduri (though it focused mostly on his private life). Other parts of India ought to have tales about folk artists and art forms.

Films are indeed a powerful medium. More films about the life and times of personalities associated with folk art, past and present, could most certainly do a world of good.



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