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Diametrically opposed to this was the response in which the path of devotion was preferred to that of knowledge or action. This found expression in the Gaudiya Vaisnaua dharma or the Bengal school of Vaisnavism founded by Caitanya (1486-1534) in the sixteenth century. Though this cult of devotion to Krisna and Radha was not given any formal shape by its founder, and schism soon broke out after the master's death, Gaudiya Vaisnavism was enormously popular in Bengal for three centuries. It went a long way in its revolt against arid formalism and the caste-system, provided a personal god to the devotee, declared the pre-eminence of Man, treated the sexes equally, and laid another basis for syncretism. While smrti and navyanyaya writings were in Sanskrit, Bengali was the vehicle of expression for the Vaisnava. So great was its appeal of love and devotion to the exclusion of all, that some scholars have held Vaisnavism "responsible for the intellectual black-out, and the emasculation of national life, in pre-British Bengal".4

Of the several genres of Bengali literature produced during the period, mention has already been made of the translations of Sanskrit epics and Puranas. Another was the translation of mystic and romantic tales from the Persian, and also from other Indian languages. Generally speaking, the translations were the product of urban areas, under the patronage of the courts or of high officials. These were in no sense a faithful rendering of the original, but a recounting of the story in Bengali verse-forms which were standardized by the fifteenth century. The ancient world of the epics was much changed in accordance with the Bengal of the poets' own times, and the mysticism of the tales thinned out to stress the human elements - often the love-episodes. More significant in the last respect were the Vaisnava lyrics portraying the divine love of Radha for her paramour, the lord Krsna. Vaisnava lyrics were composed both by the Vaisnavas and the non-Vaisnavas - the Muslims included - and both in urban and rural areas. The biographies, in verse, of Caitanya and of early Vaisnava missionaries were mainly composed in the urban areas. In these biographies, the life story of a human being was documented in Bengali for the first time.

The principal genre of Bengali poetical works produced in the rural areas was the mangal kavyas, sung in praise of the local deities. These works bear ample testimony to the life and conditions of the contemporary people, and also reflect a spirit of defence against authority. The folk ballads of east Bengal deserve special mention because of their genuine rural atmosphere, their fullness of life and liberal humanism, and their simplicity of style and diction, which stood in sharp contrast to the erudition and conscious ornamentation of the urban poets.

Parallel to the works in praise of Puranic and local deities, there appeared several groups of poems in which the prophet Muhammad was eulogized, the tenets of Islam preached, the glories of Muslim heroes recounted, and the Muslim folk deities venerated. The Sufi-Yoga tradition also found significant expression in poetry.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, poetry was practically the only vehicle of literary expression in Bengal, and like their verse-forms, the works were repetitive. Once the genres were established, the poets unhesitatingly followed one of them; therefore, there were scores of translations of the Ramayana - in full or in part, -several poets repeated the the fables of Candi, and the pangs of separation of Radha from Krsna were endlessly recited for centuries. Not only did the themes follow laid-out patterns; even the physical descriptions of the heroine of one episode exactly fitted that of another. Since the established social values restricted the scope of free love, love poems were dressed as trysts of the human soul for the Supreme Being, where the accepted social norms did not apply. The romantic tales were likewise explained as allegories or stories of a course of life predestined by the divine will.

New literary trends were developed by the popular poetasters, who appeared in the eighteenth century, lived through the nineteenth and catered to the taste of new consumers who were growing up in the commercial and administrative centres. The Kaviwalas threw the accepted literary canons to the wind, brought in the excitement of verbal duels, employed the Vaisnava and Sakta themes divested of their religious connotations, and rendered a picture that was essentially worldly and sensuous. Another group of poets produced tales of romances and of legendary Muslim heroes employing a new diction that had a preponderance of Perso-Arabic elements and reflecting antagonism to non-Muslims. With the development of what is usually termed as modern Bengali literature, these trends found popularity in the rural areas. In distinct contrast to these stood the Bauls, the last generation of the syncretic tradition. Their mystic songs sought a complete withdrawal from the world, but at the same time, conveyed a message of the unity of man.

Poems were meant to be sung by a group of singers, rather than by individuals, and in several sessions if it were a tale or a longer poem. A mangala kavya, for instance, was sung from the beginning to the end in eight successive nights. The poets used to indicate, at the very beginning of the verses, the particular raga (mode of music) and the tala (time-measure) that should accompany the words. It appears that with the exception of the bamboo flute, musical instruments were meant to accompany the songs. The principal stream of Bengali music was, therefore, the vocal one in which words were predominant and the singer was required to follow the prescription of the poet.

It was during this period that the development of the Kirtana, Vaisnava lyrics in tune, took place. The immense popularity of this school of Bengali songs is demonstrated by the growth of its regional varieties and by the fact that several musical instruments became totally identified with its singing. Later, the Sakta cult evolved its own devotional songs in the Syma-sangit. Although there is no definite proof as to the time of their origin, the Jari, songs on the tragedy of the Karbala, seem to have developed in this period, giving vent to a theme popular with the Bengali Muslim. Sari was perhaps the only secular group of songs of the time - sung by the oarsmen engaged in a boat-race.

The classical music of north India - which by that time assimilated a great deal from the music the Muslims brought into India, including a repertoire of new musical instruments - was greatly patronized by the courts and the elite. This source also contributed to the general world of Bengali music where the scheme of ragas and raginis was well adhered to.

 
 

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