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Bangladeshi bard breathes life into the dying art of Puthi-paath

Once A Vital Source Of Entertainment In Rural Bengal, Now Almost Obsolete

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Bangladeshi composer and master of Puthi-paath, Abu Bakar Siddique, in his home studio: "It's hard to understand the magic of Puthi-paath by sitting in a room amid the concrete jungle." (Photo by Faisal Mahmud)

DHAKA -- By day, Abu Bakar Siddique is a music producer for Bangladesh Betar -- the South Asian nation's state-run radio network -- where a typical workday includes writing music for various program segments and then pulling together all the different parts of the recording process.

"It gets monotonous sometimes. You know, an artist can never get satisfaction if he or she has to create music under a deadline," said Siddique, 59. "But that's a part of my job."

By night, however, Siddique indulges his more creative self. In a small music studio in his house in the sleepy neighborhood of Shyamoli in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, he practices, researches and creates music for a glorious -- almost lost Bengali art: Puthi-paath.

The word "Puthi" means "book" and "Paath" means "recital." Puthis are ancient manuscripts, whose pages could be leaves, sheets of wood, or even old papers. Usually, they were written on one side and bound with a piece of string.

At its heart, a Puthi is a book of fairy tales and religious stories set in ancient Bengal on the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, which was read out for the entertainment of others, as well as a form of education.

"Only a hundred years ago, Puthi-paath was the main source of entertainment for the people of rural Bengal," said Siddique. "Now, it has almost become obsolete. A very few people, like me, bear the torch for it."

Before I met Siddique, I knew very little about Puthi recitals. After attending a reading one evening, I soon found myself heading for the exit in search of a coffee to pick myself up. But my plans changed as soon as Siddique's mellifluous voice started reciting his Puthi-paath. Hearing his rhythmic telling of the story, so full of life, I was instantly hooked.

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"Only a hundred years ago, Puthi-paath was the main source of entertainment for the people of rural Bengal," said Siddique. "Now, it has almost become obsolete. A very few people, like me, bear the torch for it." (Photo by Faisal Mahmud)

"It's hard to understand the magic of Puthi-paath by sitting in a room amid the concrete jungle," Siddique said. "Just think of the context: It's a spring night under a banyan tree in some remote village without electricity. Be it a feudal lord or a farmer, the mesmerizing recitation of a sing-song Puthi would make one cry, laugh and dream about faraway lands."

Siddique remembers his own youth as a time when took pleasure in simpler things. "It was in the 60's and a village in Tangail district couldn't offer much rather than a Puthi-paath," he said.

Watching his father and uncle -- one of the region's most revered bards -- perform every day, Siddique's own life has been entwined with Puthi-paath since childhood. After starting out participating as an assistant, reciting and playing percussion in the village gatherings where his uncle performed and was accompanied by a group of village Bauls -- a folk-religious community providing the background music.

"Since then, I had developed a great affection for it," Siddique said adding that later he did a Masters's degree on Bangla literature at Dhaka University (DU) where he conducted research on Puthi.

Drawn to music as a profession is his student years in DU, Siddique started singing the folk songs of famous Bangladeshi singers Abbas Uddin and Abidul Alim.

In 1984, Siddiqui was enlisted by BTV (the state-run television) and Bangladesh Betar as a composer and 0producer where he met famous Puthi-pathok (Puthi orator) Abdul Latif.

"The thought of Puthi-paath flickered in my mind again when I met Latif," said Siddique. "He revived the practice of Puthi-paath in the modern era. Also an enlisted artist and composer for the BTV and Bangladesh Betar, Abdul Latif started creating music for Puthi. I started working with him later. I pursued a Masters's degree on it and conducted research on Puthi-paath."

After graduating from DU, where he also completed a masters, Siddique enrolled at the public music college at Agargaon in Dhaka where he completed a Bachelor of Music, later moving to Medinipur in India where he completed another masters degree, where his core focus was Bengal folklore, especially Puthi.

While Siddique has successfully put music to many Puthis "the problem is," he said is that "with the advent of Western and other music; people of this generation have started to lose interest in this rich part of our folklore. I am now thinking of mixing western instruments with our local ones to create music for our Puthis. I think the local generation will find such music appealing."

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At its heart, a Puthi is a book of fairy tales and religious stories set in ancient Bengal on the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, which was read out for the entertainment of others, as well as a form of education. (Photos courtesy of Abu Bakar Siddique)

According to Soumitra Shekhar, Professor of ancient Bangla literature at DU, a classical Puthi comprises chronicles of the Arab peninsula or narrations of religious elements "which did not originate from our culture."

"The stories reached Bengal via a traveler's journey and the accounts of traders," said Shekhar. "Tales also reached the region through wars and warfare. Because of the religious value, the stories became a part of our own."

So, Shekhar said, Puthis were basically part of the Muslim revolution in arts and literature on the subcontinent.

"Puthi-paath was a way to spread messages about Islam in the form of entertainment," Shekhar said "Various Sufis used to do that," he said. The Indian subcontinent was mainly inhabited by Hindus. Sufis and Bauls who came to the subcontinent from Persia, found it effective to spread the messages of Islam through songs and poetry. Such practice was common in Persia at that time."

Referring to the works of Abdul Karim Sahittyabisharad, who collected more than 2000 Puthis, Shekhar said more than1,000 were written by Bengali Muslims. "Such findings prove that Muslims were at the forefront of producing Puthis."

The most ancient types of Bengal literature are Chorjapod, Shunnopuran and Srikrishnapuran. "These are basically Puthis. The literature that got recognition at the court of Muslim Sultans of Gauda was all Puthi," said Shekhar.

Originally most Puthis were written in Sanskrit, but during the Sultani era, many Persian and Arabic words were made into Puthis.

"Sanskrit was a tough language. In Hindu dominant societies, only people from higher caste were allowed to communicate in that language and it became unpopular among the common people. So Puthi writers started to prefer writing Puthis with a concocted language comprised of Persian, Arabic and Bangla," said Shekhar.