Baragita—The Crown Pearls of Music

The pioneering work of Sankaradeva in respect of music was Baragita (Baragīta) (literally 'great song', 'superior song'). The Saint and his foremost disciple Madhavadeva composed a large number of devotional lyrics. These songs in the later years came to be known as Baragita.

The Baragitas by both the Saints are an exquisitely chiselled set of compositions and a rare contribution to Assamese literature and music. Set in a distinct pattern of melody (rāga), it is sung in individual as well as congregational prayers. However, unlike several old traditions of Indian classical music, the Baragita, with its wide paraphernalia, is a living tradition.

The prefix 'Bara' was appended later by the devotees in a gesture of reverence to their Gurus' creations as they considered them to be above ordinary compositions. The Baragitas were also called Bara (great; superior) because of their devotional, melodic and literary virtuosity.

It is said that Sankaradeva originally composed two hundred and forty such songs. But unfortunately, the manuscripts were destroyed in an accidental fire. Sankaradeva then asked his disciple Madhavadeva to undertake the task of composing songs in a similar pattern. Madhavadeva collected his Guru's songs - only thirty four of them - from whatever was retained in the memory of the disciples, and also composed a number of new ones himself. The total number of such songs came to one hundred and ninety one.

The Songs of the Masters

The term Baragita is used to denote specifically these one hundred and ninety one songs composed by the two great Saints. Songs composed by other saints using the same rāgas in the same style are not normally called Baragita. They are known as gīta only. Rāmacarana Thākura, Daityāri Thākura, Nārāyanadāsa Thākura Ātā, Aniruddha Deva, Gopāla Ātā of Bhavānipur and others wrote songs which are also considered by certain Vaisnava circles as Baragita, but this view is not universally subscribed to. The sacred songs composed by Sankara-Madhava are alone called Baragita.

The Origin of the Term

It is not definitely known since when and precisely how these distinctive songs by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva came to be known as Baragita. A few scholars hold that it may have its origins in the classical songs famed as badgānā in Northern India during the Mughal period. This observation does not appear to be valid as other similar classical endeavors are not labeled Baragita. Even songs in the same rāgā and tāla (rhythm) and delineating similar sentiments and having the same idiom but composed by other poets do not acquire this nomenclature. Some trace it back to Mahāpurusa Sankaradeva himself and claim that Madhavadeva named them as Baragita at his Guru's instance. This, however, is not a historically recorded fact. On the contrary, the two Mahāpurusas and the saints and devotees following them used to refer to them as 'gīt' and not as 'Baragita'.

The qualifier 'Bara' in Assamese denotes something superior. It is used to indicate a special level of things or people of a class and is prefixed to things or persons, eg, kāpora-Barakāpora, phukana-Baraphukana, jāpi-Barajāpi, etc. Hence the qualifier Bara does not admit of anything small or insignificant. In a like manner, from amongst the songs of the Vaisnavas, a special class composed by Sankara and Madhava is called Baragita. The songs belonging to this special class are distinct from the non-Vaisnavite compositions in sentiment, idiom and tune and are regarded as superior even among their own category. Thus they represent the highest class of music in Assam.

The use of the name cannot be exactly dated but the Kathā Guru Carita tells us that it was definitely in vogue since at least the 18th century.

Defining a Baragita

“The Baragitas are based on lofty moral and spiritual sentiments. That is why they are called Bõrgit. The English poet Herrick had called a few of his spiritual poems 'Noble Numbers'. In our literature, too, the Baragitas are Noble Numbers”. [Banikanta Kakati]

“These songs are the Songs Celestial or Great Songs in Assamese literature”. [Kaliram Medhi]

“Holy Songs”. [Debendranath Bezbaroa]

“Crown Pearls of Music”. [Kirtinath Sarma Bõrdoloi]

“Those songs where the devotion-generated imagination of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva come alive in sentiment, idioms and tune are the Baragitas”. [Dimbeswar Neog]

“The Baragitas are completely free from the love lore of earthly love. They are the songs of spiritual worship. Besides, they must be composed by the Mahāpurusas”. [Maheswar Neog]

“The Baragitas are so called because they are distinguished from ordinary classical songs by their nobility of theme, richness of their idiom and the perfect harmony in them of the dignity of classical music and the restraint of the imagination”. [Satyendra Nath Sarma]

The Number of Baragitas

According to the Kathā Guru Carita, Sankaradeva had composed 12 score (bāre kuri) songs. One Kamalā Gāyan of Barpetā, had borrowed the texts with the intention of practising them but unfortunately they got consumed by a forest fire that had engulfed the devotee's residence, in the month of Caitra. This incident gave such a shock to the Saint's mind that he mournfully told Madhavadeva:

With great exertion had I composed the songs. They got burnt. You compose some songs. I won't any more.

Madhavadeva took up the Guru's words and recovered from the devotees whatever their memory had retained and composed many himself bringing the total to nine scores and eleven (191). It is not definitely known how many were re-written from memory. Published sources accord 34 to Sankaradeva, but there are a few additional ones. On the other hand, songs composed by Madhavadeva total 180, including the songs of the dramas, some 23. Consequently, the number of Baragitas composed by the two Gurus comes to 191 (34+157). Not all books, however, agree on this number. Some claim that the total number of songs written by either is 240. Available resources and evidence would not allow us to say anything more. Only a text-critical study of the songs can elicit a more satisfactory answer.

Popular Baragitas

The following is a partial list of Baragitas:

Rāga-based music

Each Baragita is set to a rāga. The names of most of these rāgas are similar to those prevalent in Hindustāni and Carnātic music. Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva utilized more than thirty rāgas in their Baragitas and ankiyā gitas (discussed below), the popular ones being rāgas dhanasri, gauri, kalyāna, āsowari, etc. A few rāgas are given below:

The list gives us a fair idea of the the different rāgas utilized by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva in their compositions. These are all traditional rāgas and their references are found in the old Sanskrit treatises on music. A few rāgas like Belowār, Kau and Bhātiyāli are, however, not found amongst the prevalent rāgas of the north and south. But, Belovār perhaps was derived from Belāvari or Belovāli found in the ancient texts. The name Bhātiyāli has similarities with Bhatihāri or Bhatihār which is a popular morning rāga of Hindustani raga music. There is a possibility that the raga Kau was derived from the raga Kahu, once popular in the eastern region of India.

absence of rāginis

A striking aspect of the Baragitas is that there are no rāginis in Baragita. This is due to the fact that no female principle is to be found in the religious system of Sankaradeva.

tālas not indicated in the lyrics

Another striking fact is that except in those songs of Sankaradeva known as sadchandara gīta or songs of the six rhythms, the others have no reference to tāla. The context determines the tāla. Moreover, they have been sung traditionally for so long that a particular tāla alone will fit the rāga as for instance, jāti in āsovāri, kharamāna in kalyāna, rupaka in belovāra and so on. Quite often, Baragitas are sung without percussion, but still they are never allowed to stray from the rāgas and the tune.

Language and idiom

The language of the Baragitas like that of the Ankiyā Nātas and the Bhatimās composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva is distinct from that used in their other literary creations. The Baragitas have been composed in the archaic literary language known as Vrajāwali or Brajāvali.

The Mode of Presentation

Besides being compositions of high literary value, the Baragitas have a definite style of presentation which is different from other types of devotional music like ghosā, kirttana, bhatimā, etc., introduced by Sankaradeva

Baragitas are mainly sung as prayer songs in the different services of the Vaisnava prayer-halls or the Nāmghars. As such, these songs are grouped together for singing at different hours of the day. There are certain compositions which are primarily sung in the morning. Similarly, there are other songs prescribed to be performed during the mid-day or evening services. At the beginning of every (nām) prasanga, there is the singing of Baragita and only after Baragita does ghosā, kirttana, and the other items come. The prestigious position of the Baragitas in the 14 prasangas is taken as a notable feature of them.

The performance usually starts with a short recital known as guru-ghāta on the drum called khola. This is followed by ālāpa in the particular rāga in which the song has to be sung. The ālāpa is sung with the invocation of words like Krishna-Sankara-Guru-Hari-Rama-Rama, etc. Baragitas are usually sung in two ways - with tāla (rhythm) and without tāla. This conforms to the ancient style of singing prabandha gitas in two styles - atāla and satāla. When a Baragita is sung in a tāla (or different tālas), it is called bandhanara gīta (closed form). On the other hand, when no tāla is employed, the same is known as melānara gīta which means a song without rhythm. However, this system is not followed in the case of the Ankiyā-gītas which are invariably sung in tāla.

While ālāpa in Hindustani and Carnatic music is mostly extempore, it is pre-composed in Baragita. Of course, the ālāpa utilises the svaras used in the song with particular stress on the dominant notes. As such, the singer with his ālāpa can bring out the general outline of the raga before the commencement of the song.

A Distinct School of Indian Classical Music

It is interesting to note that the ancient rāgālapa system was also pre-composed to a certain extent. All this only goes to show that the Baragita represents a school of Indian Classical Music, distinct from the Hindustani and Carnatic schools, but conforming closely to the rules of Classical Music as laid down in the ancient treatises like Bhārata's Nātyasāstra and Sārangadeva's Sangita Ratnākara.

Classification of Baragitas

It is not known whether Sankaradeva had classified his Baragitas that he had initially composed, nor is there any way of knowing whether Madhavadeva also resorted to any classification of the same. The few printed books of Baragita have not maintained a thematic or other order. The Guru Carita Kathā however clearly refers to there being six varieties or classes of Baragita based on the six rasas - lilā, paramārtha, viraha, virakti, cora and cāturi. These six rasas make the gīts.

After considering all the factors, the Baragitas may be placed under 2 broad classes:

The lilā songs may be further sub-divided into:

Thematic Analysis

Human life is rare, yet transient and illusory; devotion to Hari is the pole-star in the illusory occasion of living attachments. This is the general significance of Sankaradeva's songs in all their sentimental and idiomatic varieties.

Sankaradeva's Baragitas have for their principal matter religious experience, philosophic reflection on the world and on morality, poignant introspection of the self, spiritual anguish, and yearning for illumination. Some of them speculate on the nature of God, His relation to man, His boundless compassion, the burden of human existence, the way of liberation and so forth. Others are exhortatory, urging men to 'chant the Name of Hari', to 'think of Govinda', 'to rest on the feet of Rāma', 'to leave the illusory pleasures of the world', and so on. Each one of the Baragitas invariably concludes with a fervent prayer for shelter at the feet of Govinda and deliverance from suffering.

In the Baragitas, we find Sankaradeva at his most exalted moments. Here he exhibits his power of fusing philosophical thoughts with lyrical feeling in a language at once felicitous and graceful. Numerous are the similes, metaphors, alliteration and other figures of speech used in these hymns making them enjoyable and appealing.

Sankaradeva's Baragitas are more often than not dāsya-bhāvātmaka. In Madhavadeva, dāsya is not absent, but vātsalya is dominant. Both the Mahāpurusas, by all means, sought to reveal the double-sided genius of Krishna's personality. As in the plays and the other works, in the Baragitas also, the great personality and might of Lord Krishna are evident.

Historical Significance of the Baragitas.

In the religio-cultural and social life of Assam, the Baragitas enjoy a prominent place. During the Vaisnavite Movement, the saints utilized all branches of the literary and the performing arts to drive home the essence of their teachings in the popular mind, but none could augment the process more than the Baragitas did.

The songs helped Sankaradeva much more than the plays and verse in his Vaisnavite Movement:

Like winged arrows, these songs flew about, and wherever they fell, sowed the seeds of neo-spiritual thoughts.

Not only that, when this Movement crossed the bounds of Assam and entered the Koch kingdom, these rays helped to remove the royal resistance. All these are recounted graphically in the caritas.

In his famous panegyric (bhatimā) dedicated to Sankaradeva, his greatest and most steadfast disciple Madhavadeva - himself a poet and artist of no mean order - lists among the outstanding qualities of his master his merit as a poet and song-composer:

gita kavitva guna Sankara devara
kiriti gayo bahu dura

Sankaradeva's fame as a songster and poet had spread far and wide.

In fact, at least 3 incidents mentioned in the famous prose-biography Kathā Guru Carita speak of the role played by the songs of Sankaradeva in attracting devotees to his fold.

Nārāyana Dāsa, while coming for the first time with the intention of seeking spiritual salvation at the feet of the Guru, was able to locate his exact place of residence from some people who had been singing the Guru's compositions. Nārāyana Dāsa later became one of the staunchest followers of Sankaradeva and turned into a stalwart of his order.

The story of how the Koch king Naranārāyana's brother Cilārāi came to be an ardent admirer and follower of Sankaradeva is even more exciting as it was triggered off through Cilārāi's chance exposure to a musical composition of the Guru. Cilārāi had married Bhuvanesvari, a niece of Sankaradeva, who was an excellent singer. One day, Cilārāi heard his wife sing a composition of Sankaradeva and he was so carried away by the great quality of the song that he lost no time in seeking initiation at the Guru's feet. Cilārāi remained a devoted follower and supporter of Sankaradeva to the last.

The Baragitas were also instrumental in bringing Nārāyanadāsa Thākura Ātā's guide Bhāskara Guru to the refuge of Sankaradeva. This is referred to in the caritas thus:

And Bhāskar Guru from village Rauyābrata was doing his round of pilgrimage as an ascetic. He encounters the songs (Baragita):
What path Gopāla has unfolded...
and goes to the Guru to learn its essence and embraces the Mahāpurusa as his Guru.

Ankiyā Gita

Similar to the Baragitas are the ankiyā-gitas, the songs included in the plays (Ankiyā Nāta) written by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva. So far as the technique and the style of singing are concerned, there is practically no difference between a Baragita and an Ankiyā-gita.

Top ↑