Christmas around the world is synonymous with presents, good food and carols. For Bangladesh and the people's affinity for music, it should come as no surprise that Christams receives its own mode of celebration including the carols, or rather 'Boro Diner Kirtan.'
Traditionally, the Christmas festivities commence with the Christmas carols or 'kirtans.' Even though it is seen less often in Dhaka, it is in fact an integral part of the celebration all over the country.
In Bengali kirtans, there is a tone of worship and the lyrics bear devotional meaning. “This is owing to the direct influence of the adaptors of the Christian carols and integration of them through translations and writings of Hindu authorship,” explains Turzo Nicholas, a graduate student.
Hence, in many of the carols, there is a repetition of Jesus's name, such as “Hay Jishu, Hay Jishu, Hay Jishu, Hay Jishu…” (“Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus…”) and that is repeated several times.
The Bengali kirtans have a specific style — they begin slowly and eventually become quite boisterous owing to the instruments such as the 'dhol' or drums, tambourine, and pump organ, which add a musical beat to the kirtans.
Singing the kirtan is accompanied by a specific dance motion, which places the kirtan leader in the middle and then members of the group walk around them clapping and singing along. All participants make a circle and initially walk through the circle singing and clapping with the beats and later start dancing through the circle when the tempo of the song reaches its climax.
This is unlike the manner in which carols are sung abroad, where the carollers stand in an organised fashion and sing in a synchronised manner, be it in the church or as they go from one location to another. Rather, the kirtan bears resemblance to the Gospel choirs where singing and dancing are incorporated.
In the month of December, groups of girls and boys from both rural and urban areas, go from village to village and home to home to perform the kirtan.
Upon their visit, the hosts serve them special Christmas dishes, such as pitha, payesh, and so on. After the kirtan is performed, the hosts give the group a donation, mostly in cash, which is usually spent on charity or philanthropic work within the community. Kirtans and pitha are considered essential to Christmas celebrations in Bangladesh.
Other than the kirtans, the most widely sung Bangla songs in the church services in Bangladesh are contained in the book titled 'Khrishto Sangeet' (Christ Songs), as mentioned by Joyce Das from one of her previous trips to Bangladesh in 2014.
Most of the songs in the book were translated from western Christian songs and come with Bengali folk or Indian semi-classical tunes. Late Priyonath Boiragi was one of these songwriters, whose local Bengali church-songs are popular.
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced around stone circles (the word carol originally meant to dance to something). Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived. Saying that, as Christmas is celebrated in Bangladesh with kirtans, the true meaning of the word carol lives on!
For a glimpse of Bengali Christmas kirtan performances and customs, you can check out: www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Fl8KMWd0tSo