The extraordinary media interest generated by the theft of Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan’s seven buffaloes, the investigation into their theft and finally the recovery of the stolen buffaloes prompts me to focus my attention this fortnight on buffalo songs, and on songs focusing on animal life. Music in general receives little or no attention in the media, but thanks to Khan and his lost-and-found buffaloes, there just might be some takers for buffalo songs! The obvious choice would be to recall the comic “Meri bhains ko danda kyon maara…" from the 1970 Hindi film Pagla Kahin Ka, where the great Manna Dey provides the playback voice for Shammi Kapoor under the baton of composer duo Shankar-Jaikishan. But if there were any effort to look beyond Hindi film music and obvious recall, one would be led to the tradition of bhawaiya songs from Assam and parts of north Bengal. The lyrics of many bhawaiya songs revolve around the maishal or buffalo-keeper, and are therefore further classified as maishali bhawaiya.

On the national level, exposure to the folk music of Assam has usually gravitated around the celebratory bihu and therefore bhawaiya songs may be unfamiliar for many and brief background information is appended herewith. Some scholars and experts are of the opinion that bhawaiya gets its name from the term “bhawa" denoting the wetlands where the maishal sing as their herds graze. Separated from home and family for long periods of time in the pursuit of their pastoral duties, many of the bhawaiya songs about the maishal speak of longing and separation, and erotic yearning. It is precisely this element of eroticism that earned bhawaiya songs the disapproval of the so-called elite and respectable. The typical catch or break in the bhawaiya singer’s voice is perhaps symbolic of the heartbreak and longing expressed in these songs and a sample of this can be heard in Ayesha Sarkar singing “Oki maishal re". One of the first artistes to record bhawaiya songs was Abbas Uddin Ahmed of Cooch Behar, and his voice can be heard on this song O ki garhial bhai about the garhial or bullock-cart driver.

Traditionally sung to the accompaniment of the dotara, a two-stringed, plucked instrument, bhawaiya songs also focus on the mahout or elephant herder. Once again, these are songs of love, longing and heartbreak. Often voicing the plight of womenfolk, the lyrics of bhawaiya songs offer many insights into the status of women in the pastoral communities from which these songs originated. The late Pratima Barua Pandey of Assam is remembered for her enormous contribution to the preservation and revival of Goalparia folk songs. In “Tomra gele ki aasiben mor mahut bondhu re" there is a resigned acceptance of the fact that once gone, there is no certainty of when the mahout will return, and that in his itinerant life he may share a bond with other women. There are many a story hidden away in bhawaiya and Goalparia songs that students of music can and should explore. But for the moment, media attention has shifted dramatically from Khan’s buffaloes to actor Anushka Sharma’s reported surgically acquired pout, and I must set forth on a voyage of discovery for songs about pouting lips!

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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