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St Andrews Historical Journal






St Andrews Historical Journal




Foreword by the Conference Co-Ordinator.....................................................................................6
Professor Peter Kruschwitz (Keynote Speaker): And now for something entirely ... the same?!
- Tradition and Change in the Works of Sallust..........................................................................7
Annie Sharples (Warwick): A change in the way we see disability throughout history; reimagining the Spartan stereotype.......................................................................................................18
Lucy McInerney (Dickinson College): National Identity and Ethnic Individuality in Virgils
Laura Melin (St Andrews): Hearts and Sciences and the Medieval Church: A Reassessment of
the Perceived Clash of Religion and Dissection in the Middle Ages.........................................28
Daniel Petrides (Cambridge): Rethinking the past: new approaches to History in Nietzsche
and Koselleck...............................................................................................................................36
Marco Francis (Edinburgh): To what extent is the Chinese Communist Partys narrative of
the purpose of Zheng Hes voyages convincing?........................................................................46
Aniket De (Tufts/Oxford): Our Songs and Their Songs - Constructing Nation and Tradition in
the Indo-Bangladesh Borderland................................................................................................52
Robert Tildesley (Glasgow): Bombs and Balloons: military technological innovation and reaction during the American Civil War...........................................................................................58




Editor-in-Chief Conference Coordinator Society President

Richard Singleton

Laura Lser

Charlotte Gorman


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Annie Sharples is an
undergraduate student reading
Classical Civilisations at the
University of Warwick.

Laura Melin is an
undergraduate student
reading Medieval History
and Art History at the
University of St Andrews.

Marco Francis is an
undergraduate student
reading Chinese and
History at the University
of Edinburgh.

Robert Tildesley is an
undergraduate student
reading History at the
University of Glasgow.

Photo Credits: Courtney Lewis.

Lucy McInerney is an
undergraduate student
reading Classical Studies
at Dickinson College.

Daniel Petrides is an
undergraduate student
reading History at the
University of Cambridge.

Aniket De is an
undergraduate student
reading History at the
University of Tufts and




Our Songs and Their Songs:

Constructing Nation and Tradition in the
Indo-Bangladesh Borderland
Aniket De

BORDERLAND The borderfence between Bangladesh and India.

his paper explores the historical scholarship around a small, localized folk performance form in the India-Bangladesh border.1 Folk traditions, especially those in the
non-Western world, are often thought to be timeless
and unchanging. Contrary to such belief, folk traditions not only change, but exist in relation to their
political contexts. Focussing on the politics of scholarship on the folk theatre form called Gambhr, this
paper shows how scholars in India and Bangladesh
continually offer competing genealogies of the same
tradition. Such genealogies gain especial importance
1 This paper forms part of a larger project done under the supervision of Dr
Brian A. Hatcher, Tufts University. I thank Dr Hatcher, Dr Kris Manjapra
and Dr Sarah Pinto (Tufts) for their continuous supervision. I also thank Dr
Sukanya Sarbadhikary (Presidency University, Kolkata), Dr Iftekhar Iqbal
(Dhaka University, Dhaka), Dr Perween Hasan (Dhaka) and Mr Saymon Zakaria (Bangla Academy, Dhaka) for their enthusiastic help during fieldwork. The
project was funded by the John Kokulis Summer Scholars Grant at Tufts. All
translations from Bengali are my own.

Nicolas Merky, Wiki-Commons.

in the context of postcolonial nationalisms, where the

antiquity of a tradition can reinforce the legitimacy of
a new nation. Methodologically, I conduct both archival research and ethnographic interviewing to explore
the relation of myth-building to published historical
scholarship. This essay therefore combines both anthropological and historical methods.

While studying tradition and change in historiography, therefore, we need to pay attention to
the agents who construct traditional narratives. The
narratives created by historians do not exist in vacuum. Gambhr performers themselves often read
such historical scholarship and accept ideas given by
historians. As these performers do not generally read
English, I focus on locally published scholarship in
vernacular languages rather than English sources.



Historians, then, have an active role in creating and

perpetuating discourses of tradition. In the context
of a borderland between two modern nations, such
scholarship is often intrumental for performers in distinguishing our songs from their songs. Along with
studying the politics of historical reconstruction, we
therefore must consider the readership of historical
Creating Histories of Traditions: The Case of

Gambhr is a popular theatre form performed
on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border, principally in Malda in West Bengal, India and Rajshahi
in Bangladesh. The modern Gambhr is a form of
dialogic theatre. This theatrical form was born out of
songs and hymns sung to iva during agrarian rites
and solar worship taking place around the month of
baikha, the first month of the Bengali calendar,
from mid-April to mid-May.2 These springtime rituals of iva, being extremely important in the religious
landscape of rural Bengal, are performed primarily
by low-caste farmers.3 The modern form of Gambhr began to take shape after the First World War, a
period when anti-colonial activists started using the
ritual as a space to spread their message. Having a
broad social base of low-caste farmers, the ritual was
an ideal tool for communication, albeit in a small, localized region. During the interwar years, Gambhr
was fundamentally transformed from being narrative
songs to dialogic performances resembling jtras.4
The stripping of ritual activities also paved the way
for Muslims to be active parts of the performance.
Many Muslims became legendary Gambhr composers, notably a playwright and composer named
Sufi Master.5 It is this theatre we see today, although
the topics addressed by Gambhr have naturally
changed from anti-colonialism to other relevant issues. Today, Gambhr performers offer critiques of
politicians and other powerful people under the guise
of songs and dances around iva. Through jokes that
apparently contempt and ridicule the god, the tradi2 See Benoy Kumar Sarkar, The Folk Element in Hindu Culture: A Contribution to
Socio-Religious Studies in Hindu Folk Institutions (New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.,
1981 [1917]).
3 See kos str, The Play of the Gods: Locality, Ideology Structures and Time in the
Festivals of a Bengali Town.(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,
1980); Ralph W. Nicholas, Rites of Spring: Gjan in Village Bengal (New
Delhi: Chronicle Books, 2008).
4 Pradyot Ghosh, Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba Ekla O Sekla (Kolkata: Cakra
Co., 1968), 31-3.
5 Pushpajit Ray, Gambhr. (Kolkata: Lokasanskriti O Adivasi Sanskriti Kendra,
2009), 99.


tion masks dissent and complaints of common people.

Another transformation in the history of
Gambhr came due to the partition of British India
to form the independent states of Hindu-majority
India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947. Malda
and Rajshahi lay on the India-East Pakistan border,
causing widespread population displacements. Many
Muslims, including Sufi Master, moved to Rajshahi in
East Pakistan. Gambhr began to have a new life in
East Pakistan, especially after East Pakistan became
the new state of Bangladesh in 1971. As rituals of
iva lacked an audience among the Muslim majority populations of the Islamic state, Gambhr performers made a simple but significant change in the
pattern of Gambhr. The divine figure of iva was
substituted with the character of an old Muslim peasant and his young assistant. The old man was hailed
as nn or grandfather, and the young man as nti
or grandson. Dialogues between nn and nti replaced the conversation of iva and the farmers. The
Gambhr of nn and nti in Bangladesh, however, addresses similar political and economic themes
as does the iva Gambhr in India. The change in
Gambhr in Bangladesh is indicative of the crucial
role of political economy and statecraft in the making
of cultural practices.6

Representation by scholars has been an extremely influential factor in shaping the discourse
around Gambhr. The most widely read scholars on
Gambhr have written in Bengali, and in a lucid style
suitable for non-academic audiences. Moreover, these
scholars are often natives of Malda, who have been
childhood friends with kids who have grown up to be
Gambhr performers. As a result, Gambhr performers read these scholarly works with deep interest
and enthusiasm7; some of the books are even dedicated to them.8 When I asked the performers about
Gambhr, a common reply was, Why dont you ask
[the scholar] who lives in the next block? He knows
the history more than us, we have learnt about Gambhr from his books. The authority of defining the
performance, then, is handed over to a knowledgea6 Tasaddaq Ahmed, Nabbaganja Jelra Lokasangta Gambhr. (Dhaka: Bangla
Academy, 1994); Habib-ul Alam (Ed.) Bangla Academy Folklore Sankalan
Vol 67: Gambhr Gna (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1995) , 1-11; Jahangir Selim,
Gambhr: Klera Kanha (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2010).
7 I have consciously refrained from discussing the politics of scholarship in
English (the little there is). This is not to suggest that English scholarship is
not political, but to not that the performers read the Bengali books and not
the English ones. So, only scholarship in Bengali has the practical impact in
shaping the discourse.
8 Ray, Gambhr, is dedicated to two performers I interviewed extensively.
Selim, Gambhr is dedicated to the three most famous founders of Gambhr
in Bangladesh, two of whom he knew personally.



ble person the performers know and trust.9 Gambhr

scholarship, a tradition as old as the modern form of
the performance itself, exists in dialogue with the performers and their performances, and not in a distant
academic world.10 It is this local world of scholarshiparticles in local newspapers, thin, cheap books printed
by local publishers and short bulletins published by
the government that have the extreme importance in
shaping the idea of Gambhr.

The conversational relationship between
scholars and performers cause a few epistemological difficulties. To begin with, scholars have faced
long-standing ambiguities in categorizing Gambhr.
Older literature classifies Gambhr simply as gna or
song. Contemporary Gambhr, however, is dialogic and closer to theatre than the term song implies.11
An alternative term that has been used is utsaba or
festival. Festival implies a specific ritual context:
a festival cannot happen anytime and anywhere.
The majority of Gambhr performances happen
throughout the year without any religious ritual involved. The term festival, although helpful to study
the religious history of Gambhr, is not appropriate
for the contemporary practice.12 Descriptive terms
like lokasangta folk music and lokasanskriti folk culture continue the politics inherent in the term folk.13
Some recent scholars have bypassed the problem by
titling their works simply as Gambhr, without any
qualitative adjective.14


loosely bound conglomerate of various practices. Its

links to erstwhile agrarian rituals and practices survive
only as palimpsests. For example, the maximum number of Gambhr performances, even those addressing political themes, is still held in April-May, the time
when the agrarian rites were performed. This calendric similarity does not mean that modern Gambhr
has been continuing in a linear historical trajectory
from Tantric Buddhist practices of the ninth century
till today.16 Constructing a pre-history of Gambhr,
therefore, serves only to legitimize a subjective antiquity of a tradition whose objective modernity
is very clear on historical inspection.17 Therefore,
modern Gambhr is an assimilation of palimpsests
of what have been songs, festivals and theatres, but it
will be a fruitless exercise to look for one category that
synchronically captures what Gambhr is.

The implications of the historical scholarship
on Gambhr are fully visible when we compare texts
on Gambhr produced from India and from Bangladesh.18 Most texts produced from India show Gambhr to be the native tradition of Malda, with almost
no indication that the tradition exists in Bangladesh.
Of the few that grant some attention to Bangladesh,
one book generously devotes one whole paragraph on
Bangladesh. The paragraph states that characters like
iva are not found in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan),
and concludes that:

As the various characters have not entered

So, is Gambhr a song, a festival, a culture or the Gambhr of East Pakistan, it must be admitted
a theatre? More importantly, why has the apparent- that the entertaining quality of the Gambhr in East
ly simple task of categorizing Gambhr remained so Pakistan is much lesser than the Gambhr found in
elusive? The problem lies in seeing modern Gambhr West Bengal (Malda).19
as a monolithic, a priori entity that has changed forms
over the course of time. It is assumed that Gambhir
The tone of the passage is unambiguous
of this age is simply a new version of the Gamb- in admitting that the Malda Gambhr ranks highhr of that age.15 Modern Gambhr, however, is a
9 The tension between emic and etic perspectives, a continual predicament of
Western ethnography, is largely resolved when scholars are themselves parts of
the cultural tradition they write about. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that
even such scholarship is an attempt in writing culture, coming with the politics of constructing a text. See. James Clifford, Introduction: Partial Truths in
James Clifford and George Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of
Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 1-26.
10 The two earliest accounts of Gambhr are Haridas Palit, dyera Gambhr
(Malda: Jatiya Siksha Samiti 1912), and Sarkar, Folk Elements (1917). Both Palit
and Sarkar were natives of Malda. Gambhr took its modern form in the turn
of the century, hence not too far from these two texts.
11 Asutosh Bhattacharya, Blra Loka-Shitya. Vol 3. (Kolkata: Calcutta Book
House, 1965), 242. Alam, Bangla Academy Folklore Sankalan 67, 1.
12 Ghosh, Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba. The concept of festival also seems to
be a key analytic in Palit, dyer Gambhr.
13 Ghosh, Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba. Sarkar, Folk Element.
14 Ray, Gambhr. Selim, Gambhr: Kler Kantha.
15 Ghosh, Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba, is subtitled Ekla O Sekla or
this age and that age. Ghosh romantically notes, History has not recorded in

its diary the day on which Gambhr song started its journey. Today it is going
forward by changing its form and shedding its religious garments by being the
mouthpiece of the common people. Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba, 48.
16 This has been a surprisingly dominant trend of scholarship on Gambhr.
In the 1910s, the great Bengali Sanskritist Haraprasad Shastri discovered
the Carypadas, c. 10th century Buddhist songs in a proto-Bengali language.
His monumental anthology of the Carypadas, Hjra Bacharera Pura Bl
Bhya Bauddhagna O Doh (Kolkata: Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, 2012 [1916]),
is a milestone in Bengals literary history. Palit, dyera Gambhr, extends Shastris
argument directly to assert that Gambhr derives from a similar Buddhist heritage. Sarkar, Folk Elements, gives a detailed sociological analysis of Buddhism.
Even contemporary works continue to draw the lineage of Gambhr since
antiquity. Ray, Gambhr, 50-5.
17 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006 [1991]), 5. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Eds. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1983).
18 Ray, Gambhr, for example.
19 Ghosh, Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba, 34. There are no examples of songs
from East Pakistan, only an indication of the existence of the tradition there.




er than the East Pakistan Gambhr in a scale that One Bangladeshi overheard one tune being rehearsed
measures quality of entertainment. Let us now see a by the best Gambhr team of Malda. He ran back to
corresponding passage produced from Bangladesh:
Bangladesh with that one tune. That is why throughout Bangladesh Gambhr is sung in only one borAlthough Gambhr was very popular in Malda ing tune: the tune that they stole from our rehearsals.
Gambhr was re-born after the independence of There is no variation and no creativity. Their GambBangladesh in 1971. The lamp of Gambhr was lit hr is not worth hearing. Go ask [the scholar] hell
by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with encouragement, corroborate that this story is true.
inspiration and patronage.20

Needless to mention, Bangladeshi Gamb
Along with recognizing the antiquity of hr is a rich and varied musical genre, far from beGambhr by acknowledging its Indian roots, it is ing monotonic. The artist had heard a Bangladeshi
necessary to show Gambhr as a tradition national Gambhr. He never recalled where he first heard or
and intrinsic to Bangladesh; hence the concept of read this widely known tale. He told me that scholre-birth, and the mention of the patronising role of ars have established that Gambhr went to BanglaMujibur Rahman, the father of the nation of Bang- desh from Malda and that the quality of Gambhr in
ladesh. Another scholar has a historical-sociological Bangladesh is inferior to the Gambhr in India. That
take on the subject:
was proof enough for him.

Although Gambhr was the worship of iva,
over the course of time Gambhr has acquired a new
level. Leaving the old garments [of iva worship],
Gambhr has solidified the common mans feelings
of sorrow and pain in the character of grandfather
in place of iva.21

The author intelligently avoids the contexts of
religion and nationalism under which iva got transformed into the grandfather. In almost a liberal historiographical tone, the progress of time is granted
the agency of transforming devotion to a god into
solidifying the common mans feelings in the character of the grandfather. It is the course of time, the
natural course of sociology, that has dictated such a
change in the performance.

That such myths exist in spite of not being
corroborated should not surprise us. For myths have
no fixity- they can come into being, alter, disintegrate, disappear completely.22 Being narratives with
credibility and authority, myths are discourses that do
not wait to be corroborated by historical scrutiny.23
Myths need a historical narrative only to serve as a
substrate to build on, and myths change quickly with
a change in historical trends. It is precisely because
[myths] are historical, Roland Barthes notes, that
history can very easily suppress them.24 Scholarship
has been instrumental in providing the historical narrative of nationalism and partition as a fertile ground
for myth-making in both India and Bangladesh. The
myth of The man who stole Gambhr is at most a
few decades old, a myth that could have been realized
only after the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Perhaps
the legendary Bangladeshi man being denounced as a
thief in India today will someday be hailed as a Prometheus across the border. Or perhaps Bangladesh
will create its own Gambhr-thief who would be
lauded as a hero in India. The importance of scholarship in moulding and mythologizing discourses on
culture cannot be overemphasized.

Comparing texts produced from the two sides
of the border shows us that the agendas of scholarship
remain contested even in the case of a small, localized
ritual like Gambhr. The obsession with the original and the most authentic is crucial for processes
of nation-building. Such scholarship not only creates
discourses on nationalism, but acts as substrates for
myth-making for even the Gambhr performers.
When asked if he knew anything about Bangladeshi
Gambhr, a Gambhr artist in Malda recounted
very spiritedly to me:
Myth-making and the postcolonial nation

Ha! You ask about the Gambhr of Bangladesh. Ill tell you how they got to have Gambhr.
20 Alam, Sankalan, Preface.
21 Selim, Gambhr, 5.

22 Ronald Barthes, Mythologies.Trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage 2009),

23 Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of
Myth, Ritual, and Classification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989),
24 Barthes, Mythologies, 144.



The case of Gambhr shows how postcolonial nationalisms foster competing visions of tradition
by creating contesting genealogies of cultural forms.
Since the 1970s, both India and Bangladesh has been
producing contradictory genealogies and histories of
Gambhr, aiming to prove how Gambhr was originally Indian or Bangladeshi respectively; some even
attempt to claim that one State plagiarized the others
traditions. Such discourses of our songs being historically different from their songs are not confined to
official publications, but find widespread acceptance
in writings by scholars, journalists, local literary societies and often the performances themselves.

Gambhr acts as a lens to see two larger
processes of constructing traditions and boundaries.
First, the quest for a new national culture is important
for legitimizing a new nation. Producing genealogies
that deny modernity of traditions is a tool to establish
authenticity and antiquity. Thus Indian histories of
Gambhr claim it to be continuing since the Buddha,
while Bangladeshi histories emphasize how Bangladesh was always home to the secular, if not Islamic,
tradition. Secondly, this reconstruction becomes even
more crucial in case of cultural forms found in the
borderlands. The borderland, being the frontier of
nations, states and identities, is a zone where nationalism needs to be expressed most emphatically. A
modern, militarized border like the Indo-Bangladesh
border sharply divides territories and identities; one
is either Bangladeshi or Indian, but not anything
in-between. Transformations in borderland cultures
reveal the stakes involved in the invention of tradition and heritage.

Investigating the competing histories of
Gambhr enables us to reflect on the pivotal intersection between traditions and nationalisms. For nations,
constructing the antiquity of traditions is often as crucial as arguing for progress and development. We can,
then, look at traditions as sites where political propaganda, cultural nationalism and expressions of identity converge. Studying the intersections of nationalism
and tradition in the Indo-Bangladesh border throws
light on the processes of conceptualizing the nation as
well as expressing it in the frontiers. The historiography of tradition is a powerful tool for such conceptualization.


I. Printed Primary Sources (Bengali)
Ahmed, Tasaddaq. 1994. Nabbaganja Jelra Lokasangta Gambhr. Dhaka: Bangla
Alam, Habib-ul, ed. 1995. Bangla Academy Folklore
Sankalan Vol 67: Gambhr Gna. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.
Bhattacharya, Asutosh. 1965. Blra Loka-Shitya.
Vol 3. Kolkata: Calcutta Book House.
Ghosh, Pradyot. 1968. Gambhr Lokasangta O Utsaba
Ekla O Sekla. Kolkata: Cakra Co.
Palit, Haridas. 1912. dyera Gambhr. Malda: Jatiya
Siksha Samiti.
Ray, Pushpajit. 2009 [2000]. Gambhr. Kolkata: Lokasanskriti O Adivasi Sanskriti Kendra.
Shastri, Haraprasad. 2012 [1916]. Hjra Bacharera
Pura Bl Bhya Bauddhagna O Doh. Kolkata:
Bangiya Sahitya Parishad.
II. Secondary Sources
Anderson, Benedict. 2006 [1991]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
London: Verso.
Barthes, Roland. 2009. Mythologies.Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Vintage.
Clifford, James and George Marcus (Eds). 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of
Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Donnan, Hastings and Thomas M. Wilson. 1999.
Borders. Frontiers of Identity, Nation and State. Oxford and
New York: Berg.
Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger (Eds.) 1983.
The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lincoln, Bruce. 1989. Discourse and the Construction of
Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



str, kos. 1980. The Play of the Gods: Locality, Ideology

Structures and Time in the Festivals of a Bengali Town. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Nicholas, Ralph W. 2008. Rites of Spring: Gjan in Village Bengal. New Delhi: Chronicle Books.
van Schendel, Willem. 2004. The Bengal Borderland:
Beyond State and Nation in South Asia. London: Anthem