First impressions of Bengal often bring to mind its array of mishti or sweetmeat — the likes of rasgullas, lyangchas, mishti doi and malpuas. Good music, meanwhile, is the equivalent of mishti to the ears. The lok geet genre of Bengal’s music includes multiple indie sub genres such as baul, bishnupuri, bhatiali, kirtan, Shyama sangeet, patua, Nazrul geeti and Rabindra sangeet, among others.
Some modern sub genres fuse western music segments such as rock, R&B, thrash metal and pop with baul, Rabindra sangeet, bhatiali and Nazrul geeti. And there are also lesser known forms such as kabigaan. In this context, the life of Hensman Anthony has influenced me considerably.
The ‘not-at-all’ Bengali sounding name Anthony has its origins in 18th century Portugal. Hensman Anthony was born and raised in Bengal. His father was a Portuguese trader, and on a visit to the then bustling trading hub, he was blessed with his second son. Anthony was the second of two sons.
Anthony’s association with kabigaan
Historians suggest he was born in the erstwhile French stronghold of Farashdanga, or modern day Chandannagar — a town along the Hooghly. Since childhood, Anthony held a passion for music. He was also an avid traveler, wander as he would across Bengal’s countryside in admiration of its rural landscapes. He was quick in learning the local language and in the process, he imbibed its culture and music. At the time, and particularly in rural Bengal, there was rampant prejudice between locals and foreigners. Not surprisingly, Anthony bore the brunt of these differences. He came to be called Anthony firingee — meaning, ‘Anthony, the foreigner’.
However, with his talent for music, Anthony gradually gained popularity. What also helped was his fluency in the local language. People were naturally drawn to him and listened when he shared his thoughts. With time, Anthony found his interests lay in kabigaan.
Kabigaan is a form of Bengali folk music. It is akin to a competition between two musical groups led by a kabiyal or ‘wandering poet’. Key figures in the kabigaan genre were Balai Sarker, Jajneshwar Dhopa, Hossain Khan, Haru Thakur, Nitai Vairagi, Ram Basu and the famous Bhola Maira. Interestingly, Maira was Nabin Chandra Das’ father-in-law — the person credited with inventing the delicious rasgulla.
Bhola Moira was a profound kabiyal who could hold his audience in rapt attention. They were fond of his gripping tones and witty lyrics.
Kabigaans were well organised events
A typical kabigaan competition would take place in four parts. The main events were preceded by a prayer ceremony dedicated to Saraswati — the goddess of knowledge and art, and Ganesha, the deity of fortune.
The competition would then begin with the first stage. Called the sakhi sambaad, it was marked by the singing of love songs related to Radha and Krishna folklore. The second stage was called biraha; it meant separation. It signified the transition plank of the divine from the mortal. Meanwhile, lahar and kheur were the third and fourth stages, respectively. These marked the point in the contest when enthusiasm ran highest. Each team attempted to better vilify their opponents — a verbal duel of sorts that was set to music.
Kabigaan competitions were usually held in open spaces. Zamindars and local maharajas would organise such events in their palaces as a means of entertainment.
Anthony was fascinated by kabigaans, and with time, he became a regular attendee. He even went on to form his own kabigaan group. With his witty Portuguese influenced compositions, he easily won hearts. Soon, Anthony became a well-known figure in these contests.
A devout Hindu
Sati–the practice of widow self-immolation on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre–was a barbaric practice. The British are credited with abolishing this custom in India or so is said in popular history. In Chandannagar’s case though, French influences had led to its abolishment well before British intervention.
On one of his countryside jaunts, Anthony is said to have saved Saudamini–a Brahmin woman–from committing sati. Later, he married Saudamini. Anthony deeply admired Hindu spirituality and culture and soon became a devotee of goddess Kali. He is also credited with renovation–or possibly building–of a Kali temple in present day Bowbazar in Kolkata.
One oft-recounted story about Anthony is of his expression of mutual respect and tolerance. The story goes that at one kabigaan event, Anthony was called a foreigner. His response will forever live on. He replied thus: “Christ’e aar Krishney kichhu bhinno naire bhai, shudhu namer phere manush phere eto kotha shunai. Amar Khoda je, Hindu’r Hari shey, ei dekh Shyam dariye achhe, amaar manob janam jofol hobe jodi ei ranga choron pai.” It meant there’s no difference between Christ and Krishna; it is only the name that is different. And that he’d be blessed if he ever received the opportunity to touch their feet in his lifetime.
A tragic turn
Despite his fondness for Hindu beliefs and his keen attempt to assimilate with local culture, Anthony would soon find out that he was never fully accepted. The unpleasant realisation possibly dawned on him when one year, he’d organised a Durga puja celebration. Alongside, he was also participating in kabigaans. In a most tragic chain of events, Anthony returned home on evening, amid the festivities, to find his home on fire. It was an arson attack and his wife Saudamini perished in this hostility. The arsonists’ rage, it seems, was on account of Anthony and Saudamini’s union.
The story of Anthony firingee or Hensman Anthony is lost in history’s labyrinths. And similar is the case with the once popular kaviyals and kabigaan contests. The only relic that still stands as testament of this noble soul is the Kali temple in Bowbazar. Devotees continue to visit the shrine that has since come to be known as the firingee Kalibari — or the Kali temple built by a foreigner.
Anthony’s life accounts can be found in select books and films. A recent film that retraces his steps is Jaatishwar. It is directed by Srijit Mukherjee and Anthony firingee’s role is played by noted Bengali actor Prosenjit Chatterjee.
It is sometimes difficult to come to terms with the fact that the influence of once great personalities, do fade with time. But in a positive trend, Bengal’s vibrant folk culture is generating keen interest, although relatively scattered. For me personally, Anthony’s life brings to mind an old saying that went, “some lives are linked across time, connected by an ancient calling that echoes through the ages.”