Minstrels of mysticism

Baul chants are invariably in the form of a dialogue. They move around villages and cities singing simple melodies rooted in the folk music of Bengal, writes Dipti Ray

Bauls own nothing but their simple musical instruments, the single-string ektara
Bauls own nothing but their simple musical instruments, the single-string ektara

BAULSs are a group of Hindu/Muslim religious singers—minstrels, the Hindus among them subscribing to Vasihnavite philosophy and the Muslims to Sufi tenets. The Hindu bauls only wear saffron clothes as mark of their "sadhu" status with a long kurta like upper wear. The Muslim bauls wear plain white dress. There are men and women bauls and they often have ‘live in’ arrangements. But strangely they are not supposed to have any children and have to adapt orphans/abandoned children, whom they have to bring up as bauls. Twice a week, they go to villages to collect food (mostly rice and vegetables).

They own nothing but their simple musical instruments, the single string Ektara: an instrument with one string linked to a skin at the bottom of a bowl and Kartal: a pair of small cymbal. With these they move around villages and sympathetic cities singing simple melodies rooted in the folk music of Bengal. The main traditions of the Bauls are Bhavaiyya, Fakiri, Jhumur and Dehototto, similar to gharanas in Hindustani music.

Invariably Baul chants are in the form of a dialogue. Their credo is the belief that God is found not in the afterlife, but in the present moment, in the body of the man or woman who seeks the Truth. They ask their audience philosophical questions and then essay forth the answers for the queries.

One of their poems made famous by Osho runs thus:

Honey is hidden within the lotus bloom—but the bee knows it. Dung beetles nestle in dung, discounting honey. Submission is the secret of knowledge.

This means, that bauls say that intellectuals viz the pundits, the scholars, are dung beetles. They will never find the way to the lotus... only the bee. Become a bee; become a lover. Because the bee loves honey, it finds the way. Why cannot the dung beetle find the way? It finds a certain way; it finds the way to the dung.

These itinerant singers date their history to the 12th century and claim that the famous Bengali Saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was the first Baul. Their’s is an oral tradition and baul songs were collected and written down only in the 20th century.

Of the original baul poets, Lalon Shah who composed more than 5,000 lyrics is the best known.

Lalon’s direct disciple Kangal Harinath Majumdar (1833- 1896) inspired Rabindranath Tagore to publish 285 Lalon songs in the monthly Prabasi of Kolkata.

The main annual gathering of the bauls of India (mainly of Bengal) is at the town of Kenduli in West Bengal, when nearly forty thousand bauls and their admirers assemble. The four-week festival is a feast of baul culture/ baul music and is known in the western world as the ‘Woodstock" festival of bauls.

In the pre-Independence eras, many nationalist musicians to spread the quest of freedom used the baul music. By 1950’s the troubadours were becoming extinct and only in the 1960’s some effort was made to catalogue their music and record the voices of eminent bauls.

Baul music has also been utilised in Hindustani films. But the senior bauls feel that the purity of Baul music must be maintained and this kind of hybridisation is best avoided. As one elderly baul remarked "tell me, how can a wistful folk number like Allah Megh De become a love ditty called De De Pyaar De in a Hindi film? If traditional folk songs continue to be commercialised, people might forget the original music."

In the late 1960’s, the hippie era, there was a lot of fusion music involving the bauls. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the legendary Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Band collaborated with eminent Bauls on their albums.

Quite a number of thesis and books have been written on them and in the words of the famous writer William Dalrymple their "deep and smoky, alternately urgent and sensuous voice" has made a deep impact on the West. A number of documentaries mainly by Ruchir Joshi have been made on their saga and it was a 1979 French documentary film on the bauls of Bengal called Le Bauls of Bengal that highlighted them. This has led to the eminent bauls being invited by radio France to broadcast baul music.

In modern times, thanks to the revival of folk music, the bauls are again in business—strangely enough in Europe especially Paris. The most famous of them is Paban Das baul, who has brought out a number of Baul music albums, tuned to western requirements.

Recently Paban Das collaborated with the British musicians Sam Mills on two albums Real Sugar and Tana Tani, recorded under Peter Gabriel’s Real World label "Songs of the Madmen". One can see other baul singers in the famous beaches of Sanit Tropez and Nice entertaining the elite of the international crowd.

In India itself in July 2005, a two-day festival in Chennai saw the release of a documentary titled Notun projjonmer baul or The New Generation of Baul. The Bauls, the troubadours of Bengal, are having a revival. And HMV, with its base in Kolkata is concentrating on baul fusion with a feel of world music. — MF