Catholics sing koshter gaan (songs of sorrow) during Lent in Chorakhola village of Tumilia Parish, northeast of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
As darkness descends, Montu Tolentino makes his way to a house in Chorakhola village situated about 40-kilometers from Dhaka.
Once at the house the 45-year-old farmer joins around 30 Catholic villagers in singing traditional Lenten songs called koshter gaan (songs of sorrow).
"Koshter gaan is an important tradition we have been carrying out for generations," says Tolentino.
"Our families have handed down this tradition and we are proud to continue it," he says.
Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, Tolentino has been a member of the group for the past 20 years.
"These songs are one kind of prayer, a call to repent for our sins and change our hearts. It reminds people how God loves them and Jesus suffered for our sins," he adds.
The songs commemorate the birth, teaching, suffering and resurrection of Jesus, and they also narrate biblical stories such as those concerning creation and the great flood.
Chorakhola village is situated in Tumilia Parish, which is part of the Dhaka Archdiocese, one of the oldest and largest Bengali Catholic strongholds in Bangladesh. It is here where the songs originated and they remain very popular.
The genesis of the songs began as an oral tradition in Chorakhola during the 1940s but it wasn't until 1960 that a Catholic teacher Peter Dominic Rozario wrote them down.
The tradition is also popular in four Catholic parishes in Natore and Pabna districts of northwestern Rajshahi Diocese, which were set up by Bengali Catholics who migrated and settled in the area decades ago.
Watch this ucanews.com video of Bangladeshi Catholics singing koshter gaan during Lent.
Singing the songs
During Lent, groups sing two-to-three pages from a hymnal each evening and it takes between 60-to-90 minutes to complete. All the songs from the 100-page hymnal are sung through the Lenten season.
Usually, a lead singer and two assistants sing a line of verse and a chorus repeats it.
"We continue singing pages after pages every evening. On Good Friday we sing the whole night to finish the rest of the pages. Sometimes, we need to continue until Holy Saturday to wrap up the songs," said Bernard Prodhan, 72, leader of one of three koshter gaan groups in Chorakhola.
People invite them to perform the songs for various reasons, says Prodhan who has been involved with the group for over 50 years.
"Their intentions include for the well-being of their family, healing from sickness, good performance in examinations for children and the protection from sin and evil forces," says Prodhan.
"People believe their prayers will be fulfilled if we perform at their house," he says.
For performances the groups don't take payment but they accept donations, which go back to the community.
"We save the money that people generously offer and donate a portion to the church and the rest we offer to any charitable works in the area," Prodhan explains.
He points out that the tradition enhances unity among villagers.
"Singing together forges strong unity among us. It helps us to work for the common good of all the people in the area," he adds.
Men sing koshter gaan during Lent. Despite its popularity, the Lenten songs don't attract the young generation, elderly Catholic singers say. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Waning interest among younger generation
Despite its popularity with older Catholics, koshter gaan in under threat because younger Catholics have shown little interest in the tradition.
The majority of the members in the group that Prodhan and Tolentino are a part of are between 40-70 years old.
"Young people are not much interested in the songs. We invite them to join our group but they don't come and we can't force them," says Subol Costa, 73, a village leader in Chorakhola.
"Young people are more interested in modern media tools and they lack an interest in religious matters, and their families don't encourage them much on religious traditions," explains Costa.
He has concerns that the custom may become extinct if the young don't learn it and carry it on.
"We would be happy to see young people taking up the responsibility to continue this tradition. Otherwise, we don't know if it would exist when our generation passes away," says Costa.
Costa's concerns are already becoming reality in some areas. In St. Francis Xavier Church of Foiljana in Pabna district, the practice has already vanished.
"Koshter gaan started in our area with Bengali migrant Catholics from the Savar area of Dhaka who settled in one of the villages. As the members of the groups passed away, the tradition stopped as the next generation didn't carry it on," says Abraham Costa, 50, a local Catholic leader from Foiljana.
"Generally, people are interested about it, but there was a lack interest among people to learn and carry it on," Costa says.
"Maybe it could survive here if there were some efforts from the church authority and concerted efforts from local Catholics," he adds.
Men sing koshter gaan, which commemorates the birth, teachings, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. They also narrate biblical stories such as creation and the great flood. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Ways to preserve tradition
The Catholic Church highly appreciates and recognizes popular devotional traditions like koshter gaan, says Father Patrick Gomes, a noted Catholic musician and liturgy expert.
"Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel has highly prioritized popular piety, and similarly the Catholic Church in Bangladesh also highly appreciates popular piety traditions such as koshter gaan," says Father Gomes, who is based in the Rajshahi Diocese.
"This popular devotion is not only a source of spiritual blessings and nourishment, but also a way to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to others," he says.
Despite the church's appreciation, no serious effort has been taken to research or document the custom. Nor has it been promoted among Catholics in other parts of the country.
"Effective and constructive efforts are needed to preserve and promote such traditions, but this is yet to happen," says Father Gomes.
"Some priests including myself are looking how could we modify and shorten these songs from the original long format, to make them simpler, so that newer generations of Christians can feel more connected," he says.
"Here in Rajshahi, we are thinking about introducing an adapted form of koshter gaan among indigenous Catholics and it is possible. Similar efforts like this might be useful in preserving and promoting it in other areas of the country," the priest adds.
Of 160 million people of Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians account for less than half percent of the population, an estimated 600,000 people. The majority of Bangladesh's Christians are Catholics who predominantly live in eight dioceses found in various parts of the country.