The Incredible Bauls of Bengal in Eastern India

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 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 ( 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.

Author

Dipannita

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.

14 thoughts on “The Incredible Bauls of Bengal in Eastern India

  • January 5, 2021 at 12:41 pm
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    The article has been written very spontaneously….covering all the facts….I am emotionally touched by this and has been highly charged up to listen some baul songs!!

    Reply
    • January 6, 2021 at 11:14 am
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      There are numerous books and documentaries on Bauls. It’s a very small sect but hugely impact. Search for Baul songs. Here’s one popular song done in a contemporary fashion by Coke Studio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5iNbmDbViA

      Watch Gautam Ghose’s Moner Manush.

      Reply
  • January 5, 2021 at 1:05 pm
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    Awesome ma’am…
    And thank you so much for this information….

    Reply
  • January 5, 2021 at 2:38 pm
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    খুব সুন্দর লেখা । বাউল সম্পর্কে অনেক অজানা তথ্য জানতে পারলাম । অসংখ্য ধন্যবাদ আপনাকে ।

    Reply
    • January 6, 2021 at 11:10 am
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      বাংলা লেখা দেখে ভালো লাগলো …… It is our duty as commoners to hold on to our cultures.

      Reply
  • January 9, 2021 at 4:38 am
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    That is so amazing! I would love to visit the area one day and see musicians play these instruments live. I’ve heard Indian music before, and it’s mesmerizing.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2021 at 4:38 am
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    This is fully awesome. I’ve been a musician my entire life, and I’ve always loved learning about new musics of various cultures. I’d love to see them play one day.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2021 at 10:55 am
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    Amazing i always appreciate your article because i learn lots from your article. Now i know different type of instruments. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  • January 9, 2021 at 1:17 pm
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    This is a very informative article to read and I am so happy to know other things about different culture and traditions.
    It is so nice to listen to a baul songs because its relaxing and gives you happiness and energy.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2021 at 5:34 pm
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    This is a very well-written article. As a bengali myself I am surprised I have never heard of the bauls of bengal? Thank you very much for sharing. You have helped to deepen my understanding on part of my heritage.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2021 at 8:47 pm
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    This is beautiful. The music instruments are similar like Indonesian music instruments. Understanding your cultural heritage allows some people to be able to identify with other people who have a similar background and mindset.

    Reply
  • January 10, 2021 at 6:11 am
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    I never heard of that kind of music but it looks cool. Always fun to learn new stuff. Great post by the way!

    Reply
  • January 11, 2021 at 1:58 pm
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    I want that mail post stamp! It’s so cool. I love learning about the culture and history of one country. Can’t wait to go back to India.

    Reply

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