The Bauls of Bengal are an order of wandering folk singers that have kept their philosophies alive for centuries. But modern demands threaten to overtake their simple, itinerant lifestyles. Now, an audio-visual record is being taken to keep their vocal traditions alive for generations yet to come.
Bauls : Who They Are
In the Bengal region of South Asia, however, itinerant mystics are still welcomed widely, respected for their sincere but simple way of life, and rewarded for the brilliance of their performances, sharing memorable poetry and music, mainly with rural communities, much as they have done for several centuries. These are the Bauls of Bengal – a group that pursue a life of self-denial and meditative discipline, committed to a belief that ‘the ultimate’ existence is to be found, not so much through rituals in holy places, but in every ‘self’ and are enthusiastic to share this passion almost exclusively through their art. Bauls belong to an unorthodox devotional tradition, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Sufi Islam, yet distinctly different from them. Bauls neither identify themselves with any organized religion nor with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places. They share only one belief —that God is hidden within the heart of man and neither priest, prophet, nor the ritual of any organized religion will help one to find Him there. To them we are all a gift of divine power and the body is a temple, music being the path to connect to that power.
The word Baul comes from the Sanskrit word “Batul,” which means mad and is used for someone who is possessed or crazy for God. The Bauls are wandering minstrels of West Bengal and Bangladesh, whose song and dance reflect the joy, love and longing for mystical union with the Divine. The Baul tradition of mendicancy – ascetics who entertain in exchange for subsistence – has ancient origins, and seems to have thrived well before the rule of the great Mughal Emperors from the 16th to 18th centuries, a period during which Islam spread eastwards from the Middle East to Bengal and beyond. Originally the district of Birbhum in West Bengal was the seat of all Baul activity. Later, the Baul domain stretched to Tripura in the north, Bangladesh in the east, and parts of Bihar and Orissa in the west and south respectively. In Bangladesh, the districts of Chittagong, Sylhet, Mymensingh and Tangyl are famous for Bauls. Bauls from far off places come to participate in the Kenduli Mela and the Shantiniketan Poush Mela –the two most important fairs held in West Bengal for Baul music.
The Characteristics and Attires
They can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments. It’s easy to identify a Baul singer from his uncut, often coiled hair, saffron robe (alkhalla), a necklace of beads made of basil (tulsi) stems. Bauls use a number of musical instruments: the most common is the ektara, a one-stringed “plucked drum” drone instrument, carved from the epicarp of a gourd, and made of bamboo and goatskin. Others include the dotara, a long-necked fretless lute (while the name literally means “two stringed” it usually has four metal strings) made of the wood of a jackfruit or neem tree; besides khamak one-headed drum with a string attached to it which is plucked. The only difference from ektara is that no bamboo is used to stretch the string, which is held by one hand, while being plucked by another. Drums like the duggi a small hand-held earthen drum, and dhol and khol; small cymbals called kartal and manjira, and the bamboo flute are also used. Ghungur and nupur are anklets with bells that ring while the person wearing them dances.
Lalan Fakir : The Legend of Baul Movement
Lalan Fakir (1774 -1890), the greatest of all Bauls, continued to compose and sing songs for decades without ever stopping to correct them or put them on paper. He composed a thousand songs, of which just 600 can be traced. It was only after his death that people thought of collecting and compiling his repertoire. He rejected the division of society into communities, protesting and satirising religious fundamentalism of all kinds. Lalan’s metaphysical lyrics raise a basic question – that if there is a single creator then why so many religions exist ? This is a pertinent problem in today’s world; we all know that the different ‘Gods’ have created acrimony between races and sects and as of today this concept of different ‘Gods’ remains the most decisive divisive force on planet Earth. His most famous song quoted, “Khanchar Bhitor Ochin Pakhi Kemne Ase Jay”. In 2004, Lalan was ranked 12 in BBC’s poll of the Greatest Bengali of all time.
Bauls do not believe in the pious ‘other world’ and most of the times deny the presence of super powers. Looking from a different angle it can be said that according to them, ‘God’ resides in each human being and it is for the human being to realise this truth, the human beings are the best exponents of spirituality ever to tread on this Earth. Nowhere did this philosophy leave its imprint more powerfully than on the work of Rabindranath Tagore, who talked of Bauls in a number of speeches in Europe in the 1930s. An essay based on these was compiled into his English book ‘The religion of man’. An important part of Baul philosophy is “Deha tatta”, a spirituality related to the body rather than the mind. They seek the divinity in human beings. Often, the lyrics philosophize on love and stress to remain unattached and unconsumed by the pleasures of life even while enjoying them. Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms.
Referred to as the Baul Samrat, Purna Das Baul, introduced Baul songs to the West during an eight-months tour of the US in 1965 with stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and all. Dubbed “India’s Bob Dylan” by the New York Times in 1984, Purna Das Baul has played with Bob Marley, Gordon Lightfoot and Mahalia Jackson and the likes. Currently another version of Baul called the folk fusion also called baul rock is also greatly accepted by the audience, especially in West Bengal. Kartik Das Baul has taken baul to different heights by associating himself with folk fusion. This type of baul was brought into the world of music by ‘Bolepur Bluez’, which was world’s first folk fusion band. There are also the Western Bauls in America and Europe under the spiritual direction of Lee Lozowick, a student of Yogi Ramsuratkumar. Their music is quite different (rock /gospel/ blues) but the essence of the spiritual practices of the East is well maintained.
The tradition is so integral to Bengal that it’s hard to think of Bengali culture sans the Bauls. They’re not only an intrinsic part of Bengal’s music, they’re in the mud and air of this land and in the mind and blood of its people. The spirit of the Bauls is the spirit of Bengal– ever-flowing in its society and culture, literature and art, religion and spirituality.