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Ganesh Debbarma: Tripura’s veteran tribal musicologist trying to preserve traditional music in face of onslaught from popular Bollywood tracks

🔴 Tripura is home to 19 tribal communities, comprising nearly 30 per cent of the state’s 37 lakh population. While all these communities have their own distinct dialects, Kokborok or the language of the Borok tribes is widely spoken by the tribal groups in the state.

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala |
December 21, 2021 8:00:23 am
Ganesh Debbarma (Express)

At a time when trendy film tracks rule the music scene in the country, 79-year-old Ganesh Debbarma is trying to preserve Tripuri tribal music and its tunes with his pension money.

The tribal musicologist has published a notated treasure trove of traditional Kokborok (lingua franca of most Tripuri tribes) songs – perfectly metered with taal (beats) and classified according to ragas and raaginis of Hindustani classical music, translated iconic songs of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and famous music director Sachin Deb Burman, published a series of books, shelling out over Rs 3 lakhs so far, all from his pension funds.

Born on December 31, 1945 in Mudipara village of West Tripura district to Nanda Ram Debbarma, who was a traditional music enthusiast himself, Ganesh Debbarma played traditional tribal instruments like sarinda, sumuwi and chongpreng from a young age.

The now-septuagenarian musicologist joined the College of Music and Fine Arts in Tripura as an accompanist and demonstrator in 1971, after the state government took over the college and renamed it Sachin Deb Burman Memorial Government Music College. Debbarma was an empanelled artist of the All-India Radio (AIR) and performed classical, Kokborok and folk songs. Ever since he retired in 1999, he has been busy working on his dream project of propagating “original tribal music” and forming the base of institutional academic teaching of tribal music through standardized Hindustani classical musicological parameters.

Speaking to indianexpress.com, he said his mission is to preserve the traditional tribal tune that withstood the wrath of time for over hundreds of years but is finding it hard to survive the onslaught of Hindi film tracks.

“There is so much influence from Bollywood songs that our own traditional tunes are getting lost. My work is to preserve those great tunes that our forefathers envisioned. These are the tunes that talk about our roots and we should go back to them”, Debbarma said.

Tripura is home to 19 tribal communities, comprising nearly 30 per cent of the state’s 37 lakh population. While all these communities have their own distinct dialects, Kokborok or the language of the Borok tribes is widely spoken by the tribal groups in the state.

Ganesh Debbarma’s first book, ‘Tipra Barat: Rwchab Mungni Swaralipi’, published in 2005 first categorized Kokborok songs sung in daily life according to seven raaginis or melodic compositions.

Ganesh said the tribal life is replete with songs and dances celebrating daily chores. These songs are about love, sorrow, harvest, festivities and so on. His collection comprises Jadu Kalija (songs of love and sorrow), Tangyiei Chamani (songs of busy work life), Waing Khilimani (lullabies), Maiyani Kamung (laments of the mother), Khafang Syilikma (pangs of the heart), Mamita Ryimani (worship) and Reser Khagyira, which is a traditional song sung to worship Goddess Ganga – one of the most important goddesses in the Tripuri divine pantheon.

The Hindustani and Carnatic classical musicology have over 300 taals and anga taals, which are essentially metric patterns that embrace the time dimension of music by means of musical rhythm and expression. Out of these, Ganesh Debbarma has used seven taals – Dadra, Khemta, Ektaal, Teentaal, Tilwada, Jhaaptal and Keherwa – to set the songs in his collection to metric patterns. He reasons these will increase Tripuri songs’ chances of being popularized among music students and enthusiasts.

Many of these songs were arranged to specific raga or melodic structures. Mamita Ryimani was set to Raga Bhoopali while Waing Khilimani was set to Raga Durga.

“I believe this will help many students and enthusiasts to learn about Tripuri music. Since our music is not exactly standardized in metric phrases and progression in the way music is taught everywhere, people who don’t have previous exposure to our music, can’t readily grasp its spirit. My effort was to preserve the authentic music, tune and give it a shape so that it can become comprehensible to music students across the country”, the musicologist said.

Notably, the majority of tribal musicologists refer to Uttar Raagini and Dakshin Raagini as the two main standardized ragas of the melody structure. Ganesh classified these songs according to ragas and raaginis of Hindustani classical music – something that was never done before.

While many tribal experts and musicologists argue tribal folk songs were born free of meter and melodic phrases or progression parameters and should be retained that way, Ganesh Debbarma and a few others like him feel that tribal music should be standardised in a way that it becomes acceptable as an academic discourse so that it can be taught and learnt like it’s done in the case of Hindustani or Carnatic classical music. Veteran writer and tribal expert Chandra Kanta Murasing recently published a similar work with popular modern songs notated in Hindustani classical style.

Debbarma’s other works include two books on songs of SD Burman, one book on Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and a second part of ‘Tipra Barat: Rwchab Mungni Swaralipi’ – all translated to Kokborok and notated as per metric phrases and melodic compositions.

Ganesh Debbarma said he chose Tagore’s songs since they have a universal appeal and songs of SD Burman since he was a prince of Tripura’s royal Manikya dynasty and an inspiration to musicians and musicologists of Tripura.

Recounting the days when he was working on the books, Ganesh’s wife Gouri Debbarma said, “He would stay up for days and nights after he retired. Usually, retired life means relaxation to many but we knew his case was different. He had this mission and he succeeded in it.”

His wife rued that the previous Left Front-led government did not show much interest in Ganesh Debbarma’s works.

Ganesh was honoured with the Sachin Deb Burman Smriti Puraskar and the Dasharath Deb Award by the state government. He also received awards from the Agartala Municipal Corporation and Tripura Rabindra Parishad for his works.

He said his books were inaugurated by the government-run Tribal Research and Cultural Institute and the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs (ICA). He was also approached by the authorities to serve as a guest lecturer at the government tribal folk music college after it was established in 2010, but the administration did not follow up the proposal.

“My dream was to form a tribal music board and see tribal music being taught to children in educational institutions. I did my part. Now it’s up to the authorities to make a decision,” Ganesh said.

A few other veteran tribal musicologist like Nanda Kumar Debbarma feel that while it’s undesirable to succumb to the onslaught of film music, it’s also unwise to use the parameters of classical music in folk music, which was originally designed without standardized taals or ragas, as it would erode its genuine character.

“An adapted folk music might lose its genuine character. For example, Jaduni is a Tripuri folk song and doesn’t have taal in it. Tradition has to be loved, copying others can never be the way forward. I feel tribal music should be preserved the way it is,” he said.

Veteran violinist Pandit Subal Biswas echoed a similar tune saying that while research into preserving traditional tribal music should be encouraged, tribal music should be preserved in its own style and not be adapted to classical forms.

Speaking to this website, the minister for information and cultural affairs, Sushanta Chowdhury, said the state government is careful about preserving art, music and culture.

“We always promote artists and cultural persons. Our government recommended Beni Chandra Debbarma and Thanga Darlong for the Padma Shri award. We keep looking for people doing genuine work in such fields. It might be that Ganesh babu’s works were not properly assessed and recognized by the previous government. If he places them before us, we shall surely see what can be done”, he said.

Pradyot Kishore Debbarman, the chief of TIPRA Motha party, which now runs the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), said the ADC administration would like to discuss Ganesh Debbarma’s works and retain the Tripuri sense of tune he has worked on.

“It is very important not to lose identity to popular forms of music and retain our sense of tune. We will be more than happy to sit with Ganesh babu if he is willing and see what can be done to preserve our culture”, he said.

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