In search of a different truth
The Bauls of Bengal tread the line between cultural preservation and modernity.
“Wild and free, they raised their clamour in the mansions of the rich, and roared in gaiety in the courtyards of the poor. They traveled by foot to fairs and festivals. They sang in buses and trains. Their melodies were poignant, their texts enigmatic. Garbed in long, flowing, multicoloured robes… often living in pairs, they played their frenetic rhythms on stage, handmade instruments made of wood and clay, miming the contrary moods of nature and of passion.”
– Mimlu Sen in Baulsphere
In 2008, I made my first trip to Shantiniketan, a small town in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, India, the seat of Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University as well as home to a large number of Bauls. It was at Bolpur station where I first encountered the voice I would grow to love and follow over the years. The singer was stationed down the aisle from where I was seated, and I recollect approaching him to better hear the song. In front of me, clad in saffron robes, turban on head and dotara in hand (a two stringed instrument often used by Bauls) stood Nimai Chand Goswami. He was singing the most beautiful rendition of the famous ‘Lal paharir desheja’ as the train entered the red earth zone, so characteristic of the Bengal hinterland. He would go on to sing the same song later the next year at the Jaipur Literary Festival, as a representative of a musical cult that has imbibed musical trends from all over Asia.
The song seemed to evoke a deep sense of nostalgia as well as unrest amongst the listeners, especially in the recurring refrain ‘Lal paharir desheja, rangamatir desheja/ Hethake toke maniachhena re, ikkebare maniacchena re’ (Go to your country of the red soil/ where you are, it doesn’t suit you). Although the song is attributed to the Bauls, it has been traced back to the poet Arun Chakraborty, who said he wrote the lines on seeing a leafless Mahua tree that had blossomed near a railway platform, as if out of nowhere. On a particularly hot April afternoon, the surprised poet – who later went on to eat the flowers, rousing the curiosity of passersby – seemed to be asking of the tree, “why it is there?”
A tall man with a slight paunch, Nimai Chand sang song after song that day on the train, accompanied by his dotara, leaving many of us mesmerised. In spite of his fame, Nimai Chand continued to sing on trains. He often said that this was in keeping with the Baul tradition of wandering, while also giving publicity to his songs. In the end, he quietly got off the train and walked away, leaving us to contemplate the man and his songs.
If you’ve been to Kolkata and have travelled by local train, you can’t have missed the Bauls. Ektara (a one stringed instrument) in hand, ghunguroo (musical anklet) on one foot, a flowing alkhala(saffron robe), and a song on the lips; these things generally identify a Baul. From time to time, one hears Baul names like Gaur Khepa, Lalon Fakir or Purna Das Baul associated with international figures like Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan. This may create the impression that these singers and their music from the Bengal heartland have been well accepted, understood and loved by a broader audience. Yet this is not exactly the case. Their easy-going music – as portrayed in documentaries like Le chant des fous by Georges Luneau (1979), or films like Moner Manush by Goutam Ghose (2010) – does not indicate the hardships of Baul life.
The Bauls trace their origin to the ideas of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a 16th century Hindu saint from eastern India. Most of them belong to the six families of the gurus and their descendants. The gurus themselves were descendants of the six 16th century Baul Goswamis. The word ‘Goswami’ refers to a man who has conquered the material world, and is thus enabled to lead others to do the same. ‘Go’ stands for the senses, and ‘swami’ denotes the master. The Baul spirit may be understood as a great melting pot of different cultures and sects, yet if there is one strain that pervades the Bauls, it is the joy of being one with nature. Spread over Bangladesh and India, a large number of Bauls migrated to Kolkata after the 1971 war. But, the superficial aspects of the city were not something they could involve themselves in, leading many to retreat to rural Bengal. This rural setting is reflected in most of their songs, linking the Baul to nature, representing their own bodies as temples and often the ultimate avenues to all spiritual knowledge.
To those used to city life, this form of intense engagement with nature and total disregard for social norms, which is an inherent part of Baul music, seems so different from their own urban lives that it makes the figure of the Baul assume mythical proportions. This often brings about an uneasiness regarding them: in spite of enjoying their music, most prefer to maintain a distance from them. As a result, the Bauls remain largely misunderstood, in many ways indistinguishable from an imagination of wandering mendicants who roam the countryside. Mimlu Sen, in her book Baulsphere, speaks of the resistance that she had to face from her urban middle-class family who disapproved of her close association with the Bauls. Sen elaborates on her own cautious approach to Bauls and their spiritual philosophy while describing her hesitancy in being formally initiated into the Baul fold. It was Hari Goshain, Sen’s guru, who helped her overcome her wariness by reassuring her of the modernity within Baul philosophy by saying:
Jaa dekhibo naa nija nayane
taa bishvaasa koribo naa gurura bacane
(If I cannot see it with my own eyes,/ I will not believe it, even on the guru’s word.)
The seclusion of the Bauls has not just been limited to urban settings; those in the villages have also found it difficult to understand their beliefs – particularly their love of nature and expression of physical desire. As a result families who gave Bauls shelter in the villages were often considered outcastes. In Moner Manush – showcasing the life of Lalon Fakir, a famous Bengali Baul saint who was a songwriter and social reformer who influenced poets and thinkers of his time, including Rabindranath Tagore – we see a scene in which Lalon is declared an outcaste on his return from a long voyage during which he interacted with Muslims. His mother throws him out of the house, the villagers refuse to interact with him, and his wife is not allowed to accompany him when he leaves the village.
The Bauls are nonconformists and have been so through their almost 500 year history. Their very name originates from the Sanskrit vatula (mad) or vyakula (restless in nature). They were labelled mad perhaps as a result of their outright rejection of all traditional social norms. This included an overall rejection of both caste and religion prevalent in Bengali society.
Moner Manush includes scenes in which Lalon is confronted by both Muslims and Hindus, who ask what his religion is. He bursts into a song that showcases and contradicts the notion of human division in the name of caste and creed:
Jaat gelo, jaat gelo bole/ eki aajob karkhana/ Soytto kaje keu noy raaji/ sabi dekhi..ta na na na/ ashbar kale ki jaat chile/ eshe tumi ki jaat nile/ ki jaat hoba jabar kale/ se..kotha bhebe bolo na/ Jaat gelo jaat gelo bole…
(People say my caste is gone, what a strange factory is this, no one is ready for the truth… I see everything… when you were born into this world, what caste did you belong to, when you came what caste did you take to, what caste will you be when you leave this world, think about that and tell me… people say my caste is gone…)
Baul musical culture includes aspects of both Hinduism and Islam, and as a result, the language is often mixed, deriving from sects as diverse as Hindu Tantrism, Sahajiya, Vaishnava and Sufism. Unlike orthodox Hindus or Muslims, Baul songs and teachings often seek to portray spirituality, discovery of passion, understanding of the human body, control of breath, sexo-yogic practices (Prem Sadhana, loosely translated as ‘worship of love’), other esoteric practices (loosely based on the Vaishnava Sahajiyas, a form of tantric Vaishnavism centred in Bengal) and mystical devotion, all of which are ingrained in their philosophy. The Baul practice of Prem Sadhana, the yogic discipline of breath control and retention of seminal fluids, is loosely based on Tantric practices (a style of meditation and ritual that arose in India around the 5th century), and those of the Vaishnava Sahajiyas. These practices have received a lot of international attention, and attempts have been made to decipher songs that speak of the esoteric knowledge of conception and contraception, as revealed through an enigmatic language often decoded by the guru for their disciples:
Se je agnir mukhepara rakhesadhakyara/ rakhekebaltaraphumordvaare
(Those who are sadhakas place the mercury in the mouth of fire, only at the entry of the fissure.)
These lines stress correct sexual performance and allude to the practice of ‘cooking’ and refining the semen, while bringing it close to the fire of the Yoni (the vulva, especially as a symbol of divine procreative energy). Understanding these practices is important for anyone trying to understand Baul music, since the Bauls believe that these teachings lead to holistic social achievements and harmony. They believe that all macrocosmic realities find their reflection within the human body. This is aligned with the central theme that all questions about the creator and human life are best answered in the process of human procreation. These teachings seem to find reflection in the literature that is part of Tantric treatises, medieval Bengali Sufism, Buddhist Sahajiya songs, and Vaishnava Sahajiya verses, among others.
The language of the Baul is modern and secular, even though it remains rooted in the imagery and natural world of rural Bengal. As a result, a certain sense of humility and simplicity appears to be a part of their culture, and needs to be acknowledged if one is to have even a preliminary understanding of the spirit of a Baul. For this, one has also to recognise the lessons drawn from nature. It is thus in rural lands, amid paddy fields, banyan groves and forests that the Bauls have historically roamed, practicing Madukari, moving from door to door with songs.
As a part of this ritual, a Baul sings in return for alms. When the Baul reaches a door and sings, it is said his songs reach the inner ear of the person, helping the inner Kalpavriksha (the tree of bounty in Hindu mythology) bloom. Flowers sprout in the inner mind, and sweetness moves along the stamen to the pistils of these blossoms, which in then further replicated in the human body. A connection to the soul is thus established, purifying both the singer and the listener.
Watching a Baul perform Madukari and perform on stage are entirely different experiences. I was at a Baul concert in Kolkata around 2012, where I watched Lakhan Das Baul perform. Surrounded by guitar, drums and a synthesiser, the voice of the Baul was lost somewhere. A few more Bauls performed, ghunguroo on their feet, dancing in a whirl, their songs blasting from a loudspeaker while the audience fidgeted, walked around and fiddled with their phones. What remained of the music was a sad caricature of who the Baul is and what his music seeks to say.
Today it would be unfair to say that the world has not acknowledged the Bauls, a niche international as well as home-grown audience understand and loves their music, while also recognising the importance of their philosophy in the context of a disturbed present. Filmmaker Goutam Ghose noted this in an interview, when he said:
just like after 9/11 people re-discovered Rumi, along with a resurgent need for peace, similarly Bauls as a group have through their songs been spreading the terrific message about peace, love and brotherhood, all through these years, without realizing how great a part their songs had played in that direction.
Perhaps just as the 13th century Persian poet Rumi’s poetry brought forth the message of peace to a larger world audience, a greater awareness of the Bauls and their music could lead to a better understanding of not only this genre but also their basic teaching of love and brotherhood.
Rabindranath Tagore, who was himself influenced by the Bauls, played an early role in introducing them to an international audience. His songs often reiterated the deeply humanistic and anti-sectarian voice of the Bauls, and found in them a creative stimulus to his own outputs. His poem “I am one of them”, while being a comment on the futility of caste, is also an introspection on his own state of affairs: “I, a poet, am one of them –/ I too am outcast, without initiation,/my offerings did not reach/ That jail imprisoning the Gods(the temple)…”
The same observations about the need to liberate oneself of caste and creed were also made by the poet during the Hibbert Lecture in Oxford in 1930, when he compared himself to a Baul:
That is why, brother, I became a madcap Baul./ No master I obey, nor injunctions, canons or custom./ Now no men-made distinctions have any hold on me,/ And I revel only in the gladness of my own welling love./ In love there’s no separation, but commingling always./ So I rejoice in song and dance with each and all.
However, one must question this recognition, the urban setting, the electric sounds, the so-called glamorisation. How much has it really helped the preservation of simple Baul music and its cultural ethos? Questions must be asked about whether exposure has led to a depletion of what Bauls stand for. My evening in Kolkata was enriched when the Bauls where pulled down from the stage and urged to sing free in the more natural environment of a friend’s house, where their immense magic unfurled. It made me realise that their songs are best sung free and beyond the confines of a stage.
Yet Bauls have not been able to resist the lure of good money and recognition. Realising that their music and its philosophy is appealing to Western audiences, many Bauls have wanted to travel, perhaps in search of a better life and acceptance. But in spite of travelling beyond their rustic territories and singing for a much larger and international audience, has Baul music and the profundity of their philosophy been understood? And if the answers to such questions are affirmative, why then are their heroes not lauded in life as they are in death, why has their music still largely remained in confines?
Nimai Chand Goswami died on 13 June 2014, and was cremated in Bolpur. He was well-known for his beautiful songs and his expertise on the dotara. His death went largely unreported. Asking why this is so is perhaps not easy, as it demands introspection. One wonders whether obscurity in death would matter for Nimai, who once sang:
Ke ba badshah ke ba fakir…shobai toh insane re…char dine er ei asha jawa…jhogra bibad korishnike… allah r dorbare jeno shokale shoman…bhalo monder bichar koren khuda meherban
(Who is the king and who is pauper/ everyone is human/ life seems like a few days of coming and going/forget about fights and arguments/everyone is same in the court of Allah/only he judges who is right and who is wrong.)
Given the fact that there are many such Baul singers who face oblivion because they do not sound ‘modern’ or are not more attuned to urban tastes, will the traditional Baul be forced to change? The question is important because Baul music is not merely music, but a confluence of their lifestyle, philosophy and culture.
Purna Das Baul, one of the few Bauls to have made it truly big internationally was one of the first to have insisted upon payment for songs, breaking from the Madhukari tradition(which his own father insisted upon while alive). Unlike Purna Das Baul, other Baul stalwarts like Gour Khyapa and Nimai Chand largely lived lives of poverty. Gour Khepa was a celebrated figure in life and death, and counted the likes of Bob Dylan among his friends. He may have been labelled a rock star had he been anywhere else but Bengal. The balancing act required for a Baul to retain his Baul identity while producing music that is popular is perhaps a tough one, but necessary, if this musical cult of wandering minstrels is to be preserved.
The fact that Baul music is a method of sacred communication rather than just a source of entertainment should be understood and preserved. Hari Goshain and Nimai Chand, who largely remained uncelebrated in spite of large followings in the Bengal heartland, are classic examples of the clash between preserving the old and giving way to the new. So, while Hari Goshain’s teachings are modern in their allegorical interpretation of the Gita and other works, the likes of him are few. Such Bauls shall perhaps remain obscure because they refuse to bend, or blend, into the modern understanding of what Baul music should be.
The demise of a free spirited Baul or the loss of his songs would be mourned forever, especially for those who know how to listen and perceive that which the free soul has sung. On such an occasion, one is reminded of lines spoken by one of Bengal’s most-loved poets, Shakti Chattopadhyay (who was close to Nabani Das Baul) in his elegy to the singer:
Kobi mour, rekhe gaele chino hote smaarok, mawrmawr…/Neerawbe kaemon achhi bhalobeshe aamrityu shawngjoto!
(O Poet, you left behind the memorial in marble to be uprooted… How I love thee in silence, restrained till death!)
~ Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore-based writer. She may be found at maitreyeechowdhury.com.