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


At a time when trendy movie tracks dominate the country’s music scene, Ganesh Debbarma, 79, is trying to preserve Tripuri tribal music and its tunes with his retirement money.

The tribal musicologist has published a noted treasure trove of traditional Kokborok songs (lingua franca of most of the Tripuri tribes) – perfectly dosed with taal (beats) and categorized according to the ragas and raaginis of classical Hindustani music, translated from iconic songs by the winner of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and famous music director Sachin Deb Burman, has published a series of books, disbursing up to Rs 3 lakhs, all from his pension funds.

Born on December 31, 1945 in the village of Mudipara in the West Tripura district of Nanda Ram Debbarma, himself passionate about traditional music, Ganesh Debbarma played from an early age on traditional tribal instruments such as sarinda, sumuwi and chongpreng .

The now seventy-year-old musicologist joined the Tripura College of Music and Fine Arts 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 a member artist of All-India Radio (AIR) and performed classical, Kokborok and folk songs. Since retiring in 1999, he has been busy working on his dream project of propagating “original tribal music” and forming the basis of institutional academic teaching of tribal music through musicological settings. standardized Hindustani classics.

Speaking to, he said his mission was to preserve the traditional tribal air that has withstood the wrath of time for hundreds of years, but struggles to survive the onslaught of the tracks of hindi movies.

“There is so much influence in Bollywood songs that our own traditional tunes are lost. My job is to preserve these great tunes that our ancestors imagined. These are tunes that speak to our roots and we should come back to them, ”Debbarma said.

Tripura is home to 19 tribal communities, comprising almost 30 percent of the state’s 37 lakh population. While all of 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 classified the songs of Kokborok sung in everyday life according to seven raaginis or melodic compositions.

Ganesh said tribal life is full of songs and dances celebrating daily chores. These songs are about love, sorrow, harvest, festivities, etc. Her collection includes Jadu Kalija (songs of love and sorrow), Tangyiei Chamani (songs from a busy professional life), Waing Khilimani (lullabies), Maiyani Kamung (mother’s lamentations), Khafang Syilikma (favorites) , Mamita Ryimani (cult) and Reser Khagyira, which is a traditional song sung to worship Goddess Ganga – one of the most important goddesses in the divine Tripuri pantheon.

Classical Hindustani and Carnatic musicology has over 300 taals and anga taals, which are essentially metric models that embrace the temporal dimension of music through rhythm and musical expression. Of these, Ganesh Debbarma used seven taals – Dadra, Khemta, Ektaal, Teentaal, Tilwada, Jhaaptal and Keherwa – to define the songs in his collection on metric patterns. He believes this will increase the chances that Tripuri’s songs will be popularized among students and music lovers.

Many of these songs have been arranged according to specific melodic or raga structures. Mamita Ryimani was on Raga Bhoopali while Waing Khilimani was on Raga Durga.

“I think it will help many students and enthusiasts to learn more about Tripuri music. Since our music is not exactly standardized in terms of metric phrases and progression in how music is taught everywhere, people who have not been previously exposed to our music cannot easily grasp its spirit. My effort was to preserve authentic music, to tune it and shape it so that it could become understandable to music students across the country, ”said the musicologist.

Notably, the majority of tribal musicologists refer to Uttar Raagini and Dakshin Raagini as the two main standardized ragas of melodic structure. Ganesh classified these songs according to the ragas and raaginis of classical Hindustani music, which had never been done before.

While many tribal experts and musicologists argue that tribal folk songs originated without metrics or melodic phrases or progression parameters and should be kept that way, Ganesh Debbarma and a few others like him believe that tribal music should be standardized in some way. to become acceptable. as an academic discourse so that it can be taught and learned as is done in the case of classical Hindustani or Carnatic music. Veteran writer and tribal expert Chandra Kanta Murasing recently published a similar work with popular modern songs noted in the classical Hindustani style.

Debbarma’s other works include two books on SD Burman songs, a book on Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and a second part of “Tipra Barat: Rwchab Mungni Swaralipi” – all translated into Kokborok and marked in metric and melodic compositions.

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

Recounting the days he worked on the books, Ganesh’s wife, Gouri Debbarma, said, “He stayed awake days and nights after his retirement. Usually, life in retirement means relaxation for many, but we knew his case was different. He had this mission and he succeeded.

His wife regretted that the previous government led by the Left Front had not shown much interest in the work of Ganesh Debbarma.

Ganesh received the Sachin Deb Burman Smriti Puraskar and the Dasharath Deb Award by the state government. He has 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 Culture 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 college of tribal folk music after its establishment in 2010, but the administration did not follow up on the proposal.

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

Some other seasoned tribal musicologists like Nanda Kumar Debbarma believe that while succumbing to the onslaught of film music is undesirable, it is also unwise to use classical music settings in folk music, which was originally designed without standardized taals or ragas, as it would erode its authenticity.

“Appropriate folk music could lose its authentic character. For example, Jaduni is a Tripuri folk song and does not contain taal. Tradition must be loved, copying others can never be the way to go. I think tribal music should be preserved as it is, ”he said.

Veteran violinist Pandit Subal Biswas echoed a similar tune, saying that while research into the preservation of 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, Information and Cultural Affairs Minister Sushanta Chowdhury said the state government is attentive to the preservation of art, music and culture.

“We always promote artists and cultural people. Our government recommended Beni Chandra Debbarma and Thanga Darlong for the Padma Shri Award. We continue to look for people doing genuine work in such areas. It could be that Ganesh Babu’s work was not properly evaluated and recognized by the previous government. If he puts them in front of us, we will surely see what can be done, ”he said.

Pradyot Kishore Debbarman, the leader of the TIPRA Motha party, who now heads the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), said the ADC administration would like to discuss the work of Ganesh Debbarma and keep the sense of the air Tripuri he worked on.

“It is very important not to lose the identity of popular music forms and to maintain our sense of melody. We will be more than happy to sit down with Ganesh Babu if he wishes and see what can be done to preserve our culture, ”he said.


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