The Songs of the Jesters
The Muslim men and women of the villages of Bangladesh following strict Islamic rituals perform a variety of ceremonies on occasions like the birth of a child, circumcision or marriage. I had been present at one such performance. This act, called “Padma's Dance”, was performed by the troupe of Hajam Gayen.
After the performance, I went up to the performers. “You are a professional circumciser”, I asked, “so do you sing and dance when you go to perform your duties?” He said that whenever on the job, he first sings and dances around the boy to be circumcised. This reduces the tension and the boy is, as a result, less afraid.
This type of ritual is also practiced in Faridpur. Like the rituals of the Hajams, many of our cultural practices have been ignored in our body of literature and remain largely unknown. One such ritual is the “Shong Utshab” or “Jester Ceremony”.
In the Kushtia-Jhenaidah region, one of the main rituals is that after six days of the circumcision, on the seventh day the boy is given a bath. On the eve of the seventh day, the women who live around the house gather around and dress themselves as different types of jesters or shongs and perform songs and dances. The main idea is to simply have a good time and entertain. The performers also collect some money from the relatives of the boy. It's all part of the show, and the money is, in a way, reward for their performances.
One night, I got a call from my younger brother Mithu from our village Basantapur. His son, Ratan had just been circumcised and he was inviting us. Despite the obligation to go, my interest was towards something else, that is, to see the rituals of the jesters and their songs and dances during the circumcision ceremony in our village. There was a time when I myself used to dress up like a jester along with my mother, performing and collecting. People of the village, particularly the women, thoroughly enjoyed it. However, besides just the entertainment, the songs were like a prayer. I was curious to see whether this sort of thing still happened in the village.
I reached the village at dusk, just the day before Ratan's ceremony. I was freshening up, while my mother was preparing some food for me. Suddenly I heard that the women neighbors, dressed up as jesters come out into the courtyard. I went outside with my camera.
Only one jester had come to the courtyard carrying in her hand a green papaya leaf, on her shoulder was hanging a bag made out of cloth and another bag made out of cement. She was wearing an old sari. The villagers call her as “Chhanar Ma”, but her name is Dalim. She is about seventy. In the first phase, she performs as a Bhangure (someone who is intoxicated on bhang). When she acts like a drunk and rambles, some spectators try to correct her. But the Bhangure does not care at all. She says, “Won't there be a rice ceremony?” In reply, from amongst the guests of the house, the boy's aunt Sakera says, “It's the circumcision ceremony, the circumcision has been done.” Expressing her irritation, Bhangure Chhanar Ma answers, “Am I not telling you! Hey, you listen, the boy's grandmother, even she has the rice ceremony and now I have come from so far to hear that the rice ceremony is for her grandson! I have an old man at home, so please give me some . . ."
After that, Chhanar Ma begins to tear off the green papaya leaf and put it into her mouth as betel. Then she goes in the front of the kitchen verandah, where Ratan's grandmother is sitting and starts singing and dancing while chewing the leaf.
Shuni Bole Chheler Dadi dat thula thula/ dater upor thuey bhang bechbo tula tula/ O bhang bechbo nare noba betire/ O bhang bechbo nare tore betire/ Aage jodi jantam bhang-e emon kori/ dol-doli kore bhang thutam shari shari.
Hey, you, boy's grandma, your teeth are almost gone/ on your teeth I would keep bhang and sell/ I will not sell the bhang to the new girl/ nor to you / if I had known that bhang brings so much money/ I would store bhang in rows and rows.
The song was intended for Ratan's grandmother, whose teeth had decayed from years of chewing betel. Ratan's grandfather was also sitting besides the grandmother. Now the jester in the role of the Bhangure comes to him to collect the money:
Chheler dada bhalo nok, chheler dada bojche shob… shey amare kichu debe…
The boy's grandfather is a good man, he understands everything… he will give me something …
In the meantime, two more women, also dressed as jesters have come into the courtyard. One of them is Altaf's mother and the other is the boy's aunt, Hasia Begum. Both of them go and stand in front of the grandfather and ask him “What has happened to this man?” Hasia Begum replies, “This man is suffering”. Instantly Altaf's mother starts dancing and sings: Oki shundor, burore tumi/ taro kandone moilam re/ kande kande buro boyosher lagi/ shaban gamcha kine re buro/ gosol bhalo kore re/ kande kande buro boyosher lagi.
…Oh old man, how handsome you are/ and I die hearing you cry/ Oh, the old man cries because of his age/ the old man buys his soap and towel/ and bathes in a good way/ but he cries for his old age.
This song and dance around the grandfather was not one to end easily. The grandfather's age, his looks, his dress, beard and behavior, nothing is left out in the songs. At one point, Chhanar Ma comes and caressing the beard suddenly begins another humorous song related to the man's beard where a mongoose tries to build its home and the jester requests the mongoose not to spoil the beard of such a handsome man. The song goes like this,
Chheler dadar dari re / buchi buchi tari re/ oi na dari deke re / beji basha kore re / beji tumi noro na / dari noshto koro na / aina dhore dekho na / darir surot kin are .
During all these events, suddenly Chhanar Ma notices me and announces in a loud voice “listen all of you…” From among the spectators, another aunt of the boy, Rokeya replies, “Yes, speak...” The jester continues, “The boy's poet uncle has come, we will have to take a big amount from him.” I promise them that after the show I will give them some money.
Kuta thika/ ashlore duluttar/ deo taka. Deo taka ki na re / Chheler kaka payere duluttar/ Oi Ore roy bhalo/ O kin a re.
In the meantime, another jester dressed as a crippled came in. The jester in the role of the drunk or Bhangure, Chhanar Ma changes her role and becomes the companion of the crippled beggar. She starts by saying, “Oh, dear sons, this woman is crippled, she has to be taken to the civil surgeon doctor, I request you to give some money for her …”
Rehana's mother, one of our other neighbors has come dressed up as the crippled jester. When everyone was laughing at her acting as a crippled person, Ratan's aunt with the anklets around her feet starts to beat her feet to make sounds. Noticing her, I saw she has a golden rakhi (a piece of thread which one ties around the wrist of another in order to safeguard from all evils) around her wrist and a golden garland hanging around her neck. To excite her Ratan's Aunt, Rokeya said, “Hey you with the anklets, dance!" It seemed Hasia Begum found out a new life, she immediately started to sing and dance by making sounds with the anklets. She sang,
Chhoto khato badeni tumi lamba matar kesh o re/ banshi bajaiya re thulo na thulo na konya ghore.
Korlo amar baula jhula re / Banshi bajaiya re? khaiyo na khaiyo na tumi amar kolosher pani re…
With the song and dance of Hasia Begum, the other women jesters began to dance around her. With the enjoyment of dancing together, Hasia Begum then changed her song into a new one with a new tune. The words and the tune of the above song had been taken from Nosimon Pala. While singing and dancing, Hasia Begum now turns to Ratan's uncle to ask for money. Putting one hand on her forehead and the other at her back, she dances and begs. The other three jesters also stand behind her. So, Ratan's uncle is bound to give some money. He after much thought brings out some money. But the jesters are not that happy with the amount and so continue to dance in front of him. But it does not change anything.
At one side with the light rhythm of the anklets, Hasia Begum continues to sing while on the other side Chhanar Ma continues to plead with convincing words for money. Like this jesters continue their show until one of them is unable to make any more money. Bhangure shouts: “Please all of you stop, be quiet and let me talk… It's your father's mistake, if he gives something then it is solved... songs and dance will continue.”
“Yes, yes, he should give” comes the reply.
Now, the youngest daughter Rokeya, taking the side of his father tells the woman jesters with an impish smile that, her father should be spared.
“No, no, that cannot be done, he is an elder person and must give something...”
To divert the situation one of the spectators suddenly says to the only jester, Altaf's mother, “Alam Shadhu, are you unable to compete with the others?”
“Yes, yes, I have to compete.”
The spectators again fall into an uproar. Bhangure Chhanar Ma then shouts at a louder voice and says, “Listen, listen, do you know what your father has done? He is mixing everything together, the leaf of custard-apple, the fruits of tall trees, the soft left hand, tooth, everything…”
Now, Altaf's mother, Hayatunnessa becomes quite active and starts singing,
Jabo lo shoi toder bari pakha bechite/ amar pakhar emoni gaan owar chole chotukgaan/ Jabo lo shoi toder bari pakha bechite meaning I will go to your house, my companion to sell hand fans/ my fans have such qualities for which they have demand/ I will go to your house, my companion.
After the song about selling hand fans, Hayatunnessa then goes back to the most humorous part of songs, dance and acting of Gazir Gaan. I was astounded with the vibrant performance of this sixty-year-old woman. She performs in the role of two characters simulaneously and answers those questions. In this way, she performs the humorous part of Gazir Gaan first and then continues to the sad part where the mother expresses her pain through songs as Gazi and his brother Kalu bid farewell to her to become a saint. These songs show the doubt that had arisen in their minds regarding being saints, but in the end their determination wins. Then, Hayatunnessa in the role of their mother sings again to express her pain of parting with her sons. The solo-actress at a time becomes too tired to perform all these three roles and so suddenly in the middle of a song cries out, “No, more of this, now something different.” Yes, yes please go on,” cheered the audience, as they continue to enjoy the performance and wish to listen to more songs. But Hayatunnessa, being tired begins the concluding songs.
To get “one paisa” means that the jester's ceremony is at its end. They began to sing songs requesting money from me. I took a hundred taka note from my pocket and gave it to them. They took the money held it up to their forehead. Then they started singing about me not just my name, but also my family heritage, the name of my village, my father's name, everything. They sang,
Basantupurir Tuta Ali Mullah go / Ore re re he/ Aksho taka korlo dan o re/ Doyal Allah re/ Doshe mane doshe chene taire go / Ore re re / Basantupurir Shukur Ali Mullahr chhele go/ Ore re re hey.
Aksho taka korlo dan o re/ Doyal Allah re/ Doshe mane doshe chene taire go / Ore re re hey.
Tai amra mannyo kori re / Doyal Allah re meaning
O Tuta Ali Mullah of Basantapur, he has given hundred taka/ O kind and merciful God/ Many people respect him and know him/ O son of Shukur Ali Mullah of Basantpur, he has given hundred taka/ O kind and merciful God/ Many people respect him and know him/ And so we also respect him/ O merciful God.
I thought that with this song the show would come to an end. But it did not. Altaf's mother, Hayatunnessa again began yet another song. In her personal life, Altaf's mother's husband has two wives. The Bhangure jester Chhanar Ma's husband also has two wives. Then, they started to make some clever satire involving family life and multiple spouses.
The whole experience was indeed a memorable one and something quite unlike anything I've experienced recently. Beneath the apparent simplicity of their shows, was a complexity that would be all too easy to miss.
Translated by Zakia Rahman
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