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Loss, longing and rivers – songs of Bangladesh

The Third Pole travelled across Bangladesh’s river basins to record stories of hardship and displacement of local communities, told through music

Music has always played an important role in the lives of people in Bangladesh. Here, the visions and rhythms of hundreds of rivers and rivulets of the Bengal Delta permeate most folk songs. These river songs are not always full of praise for the rivers or nature; they also narrate the pains and sorrows caused by floods, erosion and other environmental extremes.  

Editor’s note

This is the second of two projects documenting the songs of communities displaced by flooding. Listen to songs recorded along the Brahmaputra in Assam here.

From the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, around 700 rivers form the world’s largest delta, shaping the physical and musical landscape of the region. The songs heard in the upstream or mid region, hailing from the Jamuna and Padma (Ganga) river basins, use higher notes with a fast tempo. In contrast, the music of the hill region, sung along the Sangu and other small basins, use subdued notes with soft rhythms. Rivers in deltaic Bangladesh are vast and fierce, while the rivers in the lower hills are small and calm – the music reflects the difference.  

The Third Pole travelled to different regions of Bangladesh to record how local musicians capture environmental and climate change impacts on their lives and livelihoods.  

Song of pain and pleasure  

Bondhu dhan, dhan re, etoi gosha ki tomar shorire / Dekhite dekhite gabur honu / Robibarer dine Naior genu

O dear friend, why are you so angry (at me) / We grew up together as the days passed by / On a Sunday, I went to my parents’ house…

The Third Pole travelled to northern Bangladesh, the land of the popular music form Bhawaiya, to meet folk singers. On our way to Thakurgaon district, we met singer Mustafizur Rahman at a tea stall. He agreed to sing a popular song from North Bengal. We were not familiar with the lyrics, but could understand that the song was telling the story of two passionate lovers. “Here in North Bengal,” Rahman said, “we express our pain and pleasure through song.”

The song is in the traditional Bhawaiya genre, a name that comes from “bhava”, emotion in Bengali. Bhawaiya songs have two different styles, the singer explained. One has a melancholic note, expressing spirituality or sadness, and the other has a vivacious beat, like this one.

Song of separation

O ki gariyal bhai, koto robo ami ponther pane chaiya re…

Oh dear bullock cart driver, can you tell me, how long shall I wait for (him) to come back to me

This is one of the most famous Bhawaiya songs of Bangladesh. Bhawaiya music is rooted in the hardships of the working class, the lyrics expressing pangs of separation, expectations and ambitions, as well as the ups and downs of family life.

In this song, a woman has been waiting for a long time as her husband left her to travel upstream on the Brahmaputra, where the famous Chilmari Port is located, some 20 kilometres from the Bangladesh-India border.

Bhawaiya songs are sung with a two-stringed musical instrument called a dotara, popular in the northern part of Bangladesh, especially in Rangpur division and in adjacent parts of India: Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, North Dinajpur in West Bengal and Dhubri and Goalpara in Assam.

Enamul Haque, the singer of this song, explains that “the marginalised people living in the Brahmaputra or Teesta basins bear the brunt of displacement in their everyday life – we move from one place to another twice, thrice or more when the mighty river brings flash floods.” Then again, he says, “we are often separated from our families twice, thrice or more in search of better livelihoods.”

The never-ending journey of the char dwellers 

The Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna are the three large river systems forming deltaic Bangladesh. The average flood discharge of each of these rivers ranges between 14,000 and 100,000 cubic metres per second. The braided, meandering river system destroys hundreds of villages every year and routinely drowns and recreates short-lived river islands, known as chars.

The Third Pole went to Gaibandha, another district in northern Bangladesh, where we met a group of folk musicians who sang authentic Bhawaiya songs for our camera. One song was called “O ki ore pagla nodi” (Oh mad river). This song personifies the river as mad and explains how displacement along the river (the Brahmaputra or the Teesta) has broken many relationships.

O ki ore, pagla re nodi / eiglai ki tor riti re bidhi / Boshot bhangiya korlu re chharachhari…

Oh mad river / is this your true nature / You have destroyed our homes and forced us to live apart

The ephemeral chars, a feature of the riverine ecosystem of Bangladesh, are difficult to access and have little infrastructure. They are prone to frequent and intense flooding and erosion that gives the dwellers no option but to settle down on another accreting char elsewhere.

Muhammad Rezaul, now a resident of Kaunia in Rangpur district, told The Third Pole that in his 48 years, he has had to shift to new places several times with his family.

Video: Masud Al Mamun / The Third Pole 

The Brahmaputra enters the plains of northern Bangladesh through the Chilmari sub-district of Kurigram. One of the largest sand-bed braided rivers in the world, the Brahmaputra, known as Jamuna in Bangladesh, erodes thousands of hectares of land every year, leaving thousands of people homeless. A study used satellite and population data to calculate that between 1981 and 1993 more than 728,000 people were displaced by riverbank erosion.

The song of the vastness, fear of missing out

The traditional folk songs of riverine Bangladesh are always about the forces of nature, or Prokriti-tatwa. The lyrics, rhythm and melody of each song portray the waters and the lives of people who are connected to the wide rivers.

Shorbonasha Padma Nodi” (Oh the catastrophic river Padma) was originally sung by Abdul Alim, a legendary folk singer of Bangladesh. The song is a classic example of a river song through which a boatman personifies the river as malevolent and destructive. The verse “Paerer ashay taratari, shokal belay dhorlam tori re” narrates the boatman’s journey, starting early in the morning as he sets out to cross the river, but it quickly gets dark, and the destination remains distant.

Carrying floodwaters from upstream, rivers in Bangladesh often become destructive as they near the Bay of Bengal. Every year the Padma River erodes hundreds of villages on the chars and riverbanks, making thousands of people homeless. Many boatmen and fishers go missing as they are caught by storms in the middle of the river.

Asma Begum, from Majher Char in Chandpur, spoke about life amid repeated displacements.

Video: Masud Al Mamun / The Third Pole 

In an interview, Indian singer Late Hemango Biswas, famous in the region for his powerful interpretation of folk songs, especially the Bhatiyali, a form of music popular in Bangladesh and West Bengal, said that “the bare nature and the very expanse of the river facing the boatman bring out existential anguishes in him.”

The river chimes in the hills

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is home to dozens of ethnic communities and languages with a rich cultural heritage. Many small rivers and streams flow in the highlands. Music has been an integral part of the lives of the indigenous peoples of Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachori districts in the CHT.

This song, “Karnaphuli duli duli”, has been passed down through generations in the Chakma community. The people of the CHT region faced years of instability due to political and environmental challenges. In the early 1960s, the country’s first hydroelectric dam was built, forming the Kaptai Lake and displacing thousands of people from their homes and fertile land.

Prerona Roaza, a young singer from Rangamati, explains: “Our music and arts are influenced by the green hills, rivers and the rain. Our songs are a medium of storytelling, an expression of our feelings and emotions.” In this song written by Salil Roy, she is making an appeal to the dancing river Karnaphuli to take her along. With her melancholic strain, the singer urges the river to help her discover the rest of the world, as she believes that living in the hills and forests has disconnected her from all that is out there to experience.

All illustrations: Vipin Sketchplore