Article Bengali

Dhananjay Mandal's documentary Maagoner Gaan sheds light on West Bengal's beggar folk music

The film explores each age-old school of maagan, which is essentially fading away into obscurity.

Shoma A Chatterji

We all know that our society is spilling over with those whose very survival depends on the alms they can gather from better-placed families across the length and breadth of India. But very few of us are aware of the fact that there are different ‘schools’ of such individuals who have their own folk music that has been handed over from their forefathers to entertain their benefactors. These singers of different parts of West Bengal have been captured by filmmaker Dhananjay Mandal in his documentary Maagoner Gaan.

Mandal, a filmmaker who lives in the suburbs and has been making both documentaries and feature films over decades, struck upon the idea of making this documentary while he was travelling across the state of West Bengal in search of a subject. To date, his films have won four International, two National and five other short and documentary awards.

Mandal’s USP as a filmmaker is that he digs out extremely unusual subjects from the back of beyond and places them on film with good aesthetics. He made a film on the crow eaters of Bengal exploring a group of tribals who migrated to this state from Tamil Nadu many many years ago to settle here. Their occupation is begging and for a living, they hunt down crows and eat them. They lead a nomadic existence and do not have proper settlements.

The word “maagon” is drawn from a colloquial term that translates to “begging” as the only way these folk artists eke out a living is through their songs.

Though the exact number of the kinds of maagon songs is unknown, Mandal has been able to capture not less than 20 of these artistes along different points of West Bengal. “Interestingly, these folk artistes do not ask for money. They ask for alms in kind such as raw rice, flour, beaten rice, puffed rice, a few raw vegetables and so on. They also ask for a free lunch before leaving. And the village homes they visit in each area, offer their singing an appreciative response. The film shows groups of smiling men, more women and children standing to watch them perform leaving their chores aside.

On his travels to research the subject, Mandal met folk singer and lyricist Kalipada Samai, who is a scholarly researcher on this subject and is trying his best to rescue this rare form of folk music that is disappearing fast for want of an audience and also proper infrastructure and funds. He has approached the Eastern Cultural Centre with his project also. Gauri Basu, the director of the Centre along with Gautam Majumdar, agreed that the best way to preserve these artistes and their art would be through audiovisual presentations.

“They asked me to make a documentary focussing on the maagon songs of Medinipur as Samai’s research was concentrated in this area. But I discovered that other districts of the state are also filled with different kinds of maagon singers and I spread my canvas much wider by capturing maagon singers from other areas as well,” said Mandal.

The film has a running time of 110 minutes, which somehow, might restrict its entry to film festivals where the running time for documentaries might not permit this long a film. But it is not only filled with information and education but it is also quite entertaining for those interested in this rare art. It took Mandal around two years to make the film from start to finish.

This folk art was born out of the desperate poverty among groups of people whose sole source of survival was begging. But the reception was poor because the audience also came from the lower-middle class. So, they devised songs to entertain their clientele each one specializing in its form of begging and this is how maagon songs originated according to Samai without whom Mandal maintains it would not have been possible for him to make this film. Others who were of great assistance were the lyricists of Akashbani and of course, the Eastern Cultural Centre. They are also trying to revive some of these folk song forms that have disappeared into oblivion.

“The reason why maagon songs have sustained for a long time is that the places they performed in were villages where other forms of entertainment such as theatre, cinema and television had not stepped in at all. But once these modern forms of entertainment began to make inroads into remote villages, this sort of signed the death warrant of maagon folk singers,” said Mandal.

Among the kinds of maagon songs recreated in the film, the first and foremost is the Bharatiya Gaan which had disappeared completely from its place of birth – Pathar Pratima and 24 Parganas. Songs of this sub-genre were recreated for this film by one of its stalwart performers, Abed Chitrakar, who tells us all we need to know about this school of music.

Ajoy Ghorai and Shakti Ghorai of the Beni Putuler Gaan [the doll songs] school, which originated in East Medinipur, state that this style survives only in functions. Haru and Shakti, singers of the Mukshkil Ashaan school, lament the disappearance of this form from its original place – 24 Parganas and Medinipur, formerly known as Midnapore by the British.

Fakirer Gaan from Shiuri, Birbhum is explained by its masters Mannan Janser, Mihiral Sahani and Naushad Chhaddan who are happy that their school is still alive and kicking.

The Kaak Marar Gaan (crow hunters' songs) genre is native to East Medinipur. Its exponents Dukhaaa Singh, Kakoli Das and Bappa Das state that this school has faded away completely.

Some of the other sub-genres covered are songs sung in temple precincts, Hari Sangkirtan; Bohurupir Gaan; Patha Bhikarir Gaan and more.

Maagoner Gaan documents and critically reflects upon the artistic, socio-economic and cultural significance of maagan with all of its variations and classifications. The film showcases individual performers and artistes who represent their unique craft in sequential order. In terms of motif, the film intends to evaluate the relevance of this music while reinvigorating a sense of appreciation for these art forms which are essentially fading away into obscurity.