We were roaming about at Sonajhurir Haat in Shantiniketan, Bolpur, in Birbhum District of West Bengal. I was drawn to the sound of some lively folk music and ran to that corner of the ground. Yes, there was quite a lively party with Bauls singing and dancing. One can’t keep her feet still. You have to jig to the tune. And the lyrics (in Bengali) are special too. The music is a mix of spirituality and rhythm making it transcendentally melodious. The Bauls of Bengal have a typical culture which is age-old, its origin dating back to the 14th century. Baul movement depicts freedom and is known for its unconventional lifestyle and mystical verses.
Baul songs are not written. They are composed of one with all the emotions and feelings and finally passed down orally from one to another. Researchers and music enthusiasts are collecting and compiling them since long. The oldest established name that we get is of Lalon Fakir (1774-1890).
In spite of the fact that the Bauls of Bengal comprise of a very small portion of the population, it has been tagged as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The impact of the Baul’s of Bengal is beyond measure and beyond borders. Rabindranath Tagore was highly influenced by the Bauls. From Bob Dylan to today’s Coke Studio; there’s no end to exploring the Baul music and their way of life.
The Magical Facts…
You may think what makes the Baul’s of Bengal so intriguing. Their sense of freedom and mysticism and liberal expression of love makes them so appealing. They practice and preach of natural forces and the natural laws of nature and love. The Bauls of Bengal are secular in the truest sense. They are influenced by Vaishnava Sahajiyas and Sufi Muslims. The artists have no superficial religious binding. They have Gurus or teachers who guide their path through music and other unique rituals. The gurus have ‘akhdas’ where they stay together and practice their music and customs. Some lead a nomadic life too. Their songs are an enigma to the world, speaking of celestial love and the longing for oneness with the divine. Their principle is that the body is a temple and music is the path to attain divinity.
The Age-Old Culture…
Bauls have a pantheistic culture. They have their own sets of rituals- rituals that erase boundaries and rituals using both the mind and the body. There are 2 kinds of Bauls: Ascetic Bauls – Those who have renounced their family and other social ties. They lead a nomadic life, moving from one ‘akhda’ to another. They often have women as ‘sevadasis’ to help them in their rituals. The other kind of Bauls is those with family. Their lifestyle and rituals are less strict than those of the ascetics. However, their strikingly simple and unpretentious lifestyle is the key to being a Baul. To many, being a Baul is a state of mind.
Their Authentic Musical Instruments…
The Bauls of Bengal can be instantly distinguished by their unique way of dressing up and the musical instruments they carry. A Baul and his ‘ektara’ are inseparable. ‘Ektara’ is a one-stringed plucked drum drone instrument made out of epicarp of a gourd. They also use ‘dotara’, drums like ‘dhol’, ‘khol’ and ‘khamak’, a drum with a string. The Bauls tie anklets called ‘ghungru’ and often play the flute too. Cymbals like ‘khartal’ and ‘manjira’ are also used for rhythm.
Mingling into the Modern Era
The Bauls of Bengal do not have the fear of being wiped out. They do not have difficulties adapting to the new as to be a Baul is to flow with time and life as it comes. The new era Bauls are composing about esoteric matters. Their themes are often hovering around antiestablishment, about today’s politics, about ‘rural vs urban’, and even about ‘science and nature’.
The aura of Bauls of Bengal has spread all around the world, both the West and the East. Bob Dylan called himself the ‘Baul of America’ and worked with Purna Das Baul and his entourage in 1967-68. Dylan was awarded Nobel Prize in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition. With Bob Dylan and Blue Rock Studio, Purna Das Baul walked Baulism into the realm of western and modern music and immortalized it. Purna Das (1933) was named ‘Baul Samrat’ (Emperor of Bauls) by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the First President of India, in 1967.
Tradition and Heritage Continues…
Even though Bauls of Bengal perform in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France and Japan today, their essence, philosophy and the simple ways of life have not changed. We often find these simple Bauls on the streets of Bengal. Many times I have seen them performing on trains and platforms while travelling from Kolkata to Bolpur. They come and perform in expos and fairs. There are musical festivals welcoming them.
Sonajhuri Haat, as mentioned at the very beginning is another good place to listen to Baul music. Jayadev Kenduli, a village near Bolpur, in the Birbhum District, is famous for its ‘Baul Mela’ (Baul Fair) on Makar Sankranti, the last day of the Bengali month of Poush (mid-January). Thousands of Bauls perform and eminent guests from the art world are seen. Every January 48 hours of not stop Baul music is celebrated in ‘Baul Fakir Utsav’ at Jadavpur, Kolkata, where hundreds of Bauls from both India (West Bengal and Assam) and Bangladesh perform.
The Bauls of Bengal keep inspiring and evolving with the urban milieu with the amalgamated music of the ancient and the modern. Bolpur Blues is one such Baul band. Basudeb Das Baul, Kartik Das Baul and Paban Das Baul are some of the prominent names today. With numerous music enthusiasts and artists patronizing Baul music today, it is definitely going to remain endless and borderless, flowing with time and tide.
A versatile writer and travel freak, discovering the world in her own casual way. Loves to immerse into the core of Mother Nature and extract her inherent beauty.