Story of Christian devotional music in Bangladesh
Through the proliferation of Hollywood, most urban educated people are familiar with famous American Christmas songs like ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’. The sounds of a more traditional Gospel music, be it a choir or jazz rendition, wouldn’t be alien either to a Hollywood film watching Bangladeshi audience.
Even though not commercialized and well known outside of the native base like its American or Western counterpart, Bangladeshi Christian music has a long and noteworthy tradition that goes back to few centuries. ‘Khrishto shongeet’, as it is known in Bangla, started about 450 years ago with the arrival of missionaries. “But Bangla Christian music started to take its modern form when the British missionary and scholar William Carey translated some of the traditional Anglican Church songs into Bangla,” said Clement Partha Ghosh, who has been participating in his local Church music service since childhood. Partha is also a Christian music history enthusiast.
“Carey translated a lot of English songs into Bangla. His translation of a classic in the Western world ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ is still widely sung to this day. The Bengali title for it is ‘Nirob raat, Punyo raat’,” Partha Ghosh said. William Carey’s translations stood the test of time, hence, they are still very much alive today, said Partha.
But along with William Carey’s educated and scholarly approach to instilling the message of the Christ in the Bangla language, a parallel tradition grew that took elements from the native folk and devotional music. Songs declaring the greatness of god and Jesus Christ were composed in kirtan and bhajan forms and sung in the local ‘prarthana shabha’ or congregations.
“Some raag based music were also written and composed. There are a lot of songs based on the Bhairabi raag for example,” Partha said. “One of the notable composers that used the classical Hindustani music was Priyanath Boiragi. These songs are still being sung by Bangladeshi Christians,” he said.
Roots music forms like the bhatiyali and others were also adopted. Traditionally local musical instruments, such as gol, dhol, tabla, mandira, naal, etc were used to accompany the songs. But later on, with globalization creeping into every facet of life, Western instruments like the guitar and drums started to get introduced. “Although, piano was present during the time of the missionaries. But drums and other Western instruments started to become more common after the 60s,” Partha said.
One of the composers that helped introduce modern elements in the devotional music was Smith R Adhikary. Samar Das and his wife Dipika Das were two other composers who shaped the modern Christian music from the 60s onward. Peter P Sarkar composed ‘Khrishto shongeet’ during this period in the contemporary Bangla music style, or what is known as ‘adhunik shongeet’. He also incorporated a lot of folk elements, Partha said.
“Before them the songs were in the old, traditional format. They introduced new styles and news songs,” Partha said.
Traditionally, young people living in the cities would go back to their native towns and villages from the beginning of December, when winter vacation would start. In the evening they would go to all the houses in their ‘mondol’ or congregation within the locality and sing the devotional songs with the traditional instruments. This would go on up to December 23 to 24, right until Christmas.
“But now,” said Partha, “people only know big parties in five star hotels as the image of Christmas. That’s not a true picture. Most people can’t go to those places,” said Partha. He feels their Christmas stories are being ignored.
“There is a pre-Christmas ceremony which used to be held on December 16, on the Victory Day. We observe the Victory Day with utmost reverence and it has been so with Bangladeshi churches since the independence,” Partha said. During this event children would get gifts like coin boxes, tiffin boxes, flasks, etc. And songs from the old days to the more modern period would be sung, which continues to be an integral part of these gatherings. The gifts are given to the children by Santa Claus, who was traditionally known as ‘Christmas father’ in Bangladesh. The name is still used, but the younger people might not be as familiar with it as Partha’s generation.
Traditionally, denominational divide was not reflected in the devotional music and everyone from Catholics to Protestants shared the same songs. But after the 60s, the differences started to show up in the songs and their messages because of Western education.
As a result of a renewed understanding of the religion coming from modern Western education, Catholics, Protestants and others started to create new songs to represent the theological nuances in their beliefs. But there are still many songs that are common across the different denominations within the small Christian communities in Bangladesh. And these songs still signify the Bangladeshi Christian experience and identity.