Bangla music has been evolving in two major streams since primitive times – folk and classical.
The oldest forms of Bangla songs, such as Padabali, Kabigan, Brahmasangeet, Kirton and Shyamasangeet, are essentially folk in nature, with dhols, khols, tablas, banshis and dotaras as music accompaniment. The classical genres, which basically consist of kheyals and thumris, have long had ties with the tanpura and tabla.
Although Rabindranath Tagore shaped music in the Bengal region, he mostly performed his songs without any musical accompaniment. This addition only came when later singers such as Amiya Thakur, Sahana Devi, Sabitri Devi, Renuka Dashgupta, and Shantidev Ghosh began performing Rabindra Sangeets with tablas, khols, esrajes, banshis, saringees and mandiras.
Kazi Nazrul Islam performed his songs only with minimal musical accompaniment from a harmonium and tabla, as did Angurbala Devi (Tepi), Indubala Devi, Komola Bhattacharya and other contemporaries. Sometimes, traditional instruments such as the flute were also used.
Musical instruments truly began coming to the fore during the time of singers such as KL Saigal and Pankaj Kumar Mullick. In this period, Ramkumar Chatterjee’s songs showed a more modern style with faster beats. However, with a tradition of little interlude and no prelude still prevalent in music at the time, and with instruments still largely following singer’s voice, songs were still dominated by the vocals.
It was in the 1950s that music and instruments started holding a brighter and bolder presence in Bangla songs. Lone instruments were replaced with orchestras of accordions, guitars, vibraphones, pianos and congas, among other instruments.
Cinema played a role in this shift, with movies requiring longer preludes and interludes that began dominating Bangla music. Brass instruments, which had already been prominent in western cultures, finally entered the Bangla music arena.
The songs of Hemanta Mukherjee, Shatinath Mukherjee, Shandya Mukherjee, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey and their contemporaries all showed widespread use of modern musical instruments.
This use of modern instruments was popularized at the time by radio channel Bangladesh Betar, then known as Radio Bangladesh. The songs of Mahmudunnabi, Khondokar Faruq Ahmed, Saiful Islam, Nahid Niazi, Probal Chowdhury, Khurshid Alam, Syed Abdul Hadi, Anjuman Ara Begum and many others show the use of foreign instruments such as saxophones and trumpets.
In the early 70s, the emergence of the band and pop culture introduced by Azam Khan, Ferdous Wahid, Fakir Alamgir, and Firoz Shai led to electric guitars and drum kits taking prominence in Bangla music. These days, some renditions of Rabindra and Nazrul Sangeets are performed with drums and electric guitar.
All in all, the classical and folk music roots of Bangla songs combined with the gradual introduction of more and more modern instruments have led to music in the Bengal region becoming similar to fusion music. With equipment such as synthesizers and music editing programs now readily available, this evolution looks set to take the next step.