Bauls are essentially mystic minstrels hailing from the hinterland of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Baul is not just a music tradition but it'salso a syncretic religious sect out of Vaishnavite Hindus, Sufi Muslims and Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas as well as Tantric Buddhist schools like Sahajia. Austerity and detachment is their keyword. Their itinerant cult possessing minimal accoutrement sans mundane trappings evokes a permeating effect of soul onto the macrocosm ? unbound, unhindered and without obliterations. They remain out of the mundane quagmire despite being footed to the terra firma. These undogmatic Bauls revel in a concept of iconography that transcends the visual apparent onto abstract, mystical rumination. And so, Radha-Krishna communion is embodiment of divine love and not idols to be worshipped in the home. This transmutes into subtle tenets on life taking cognizance of societal concerns and thereby churns out an admixture of exotic tradition of Baul wisdom.
Baul etymologically arises from Sanskrit batul or byakul that literally means divinely inane or fervently eager. The Charyapadas (Buddhist hymns) which gave rise to Bengali bear references to the precepts of Baul. It is conjectured that around 6th century AD, Mahaprabhu Chaitanya, culled this esoteric coterie of Bauls as a formal community though the word ?Baul? appeared in Bengali texts around 15th century. It is also hard to surmise as to when the word Baul gave credence to sectarian connotation. The Bauls on dint of their principle of detachment were ever reluctant to leave behind records. Lord Chaitanya, was himself a Vaishnavite mystic in the footsteps of the saint poet, Jayadeva, composer of Gita Govinda, the enchanting epic poem of universal love. Jayadeva lies at the heart of Bauls. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu brought succour to both the Hindus and the Sufis who were both being ruthlessly persecuted for their caste and poverty by the unscrupulous orthodox priests and their high-handedness, by calling the group as Baul or one who has no possessions. The charisma of Chaitanya moulded the Bauls to hit their transcendental pervasiveness in thought and lifestyle alike. Lord Chaitanya preached the oneness of humanity and through his disciples, the Bauls, he advocated progressive ideas of secularism, gender equality, a casteless and classless society imbued in universal love, benevolence and respect for society. A second surge of Baul took place during Birbhadra, the son of Vaishnavite saint Nityananda in the 15th century. The Baul cult had reached its apogee in the 18th century AD as a major sect.
Bauls are a very heterogenous group cutting across despicable denominations of religion, caste, creed and sex. Lalon Fakir (1774-1890), considered the greatest of them all had remarked, ?What form does caste have? I have never seen it, brother, with these eyes of mine!?
They have varied lifestyles ? domestics as well as ascetics, both exist. The ascetic Bauls do not marry and follow a strict ritualistic and religious lifestyle. They have no fixed dwelling place, keep hopping from one akhara to another. These akharas often come up in areas having graves of their earlier gurus and are kept at bay from the village communities. The Bauls generally wear a sort of half-dhoti and an alkhalla on the top, both being saffron in colour. Traditionally Bauls don'tcut their hair so they coil it and make a bun atop their head. Around their neck they wear a rosary of basil beads and carry a big jhola, a shoulder bag. The domestics however lead a family life though they opt to remain in secluded part of a village and do not mix freely with other members of the community.
Bauls do not pay heed to any organised religion being non-conformists, they are iconoclasts and humanists whose sole pursuit is to seek the moner manush ? the God within, to ferret out the ultimate Truth through meditation. They bring about a fusion of the Sahajiya and Sufi concept of devotion believing that the human body is the seat of all truths centering which they follow some secret devotional practices. With the passage of time, upon interactions with Buddhism, Baul underwent some drastic changes. Tantric ritualistic approach to meditation crept in and thereby the spiritual sojourn found entwined with the female as prakriti, that is creator, shakti that is power, sadhika that is companion and sevadasi or the caretaker. Several Baul rites are based on the combined devotional practices of a man and a woman. Their religion is based on the manifestations of deho sadhona expression of body and mana sadhana expression of mind form an integral part. They concentrate much of their mystic energies on the chaar chaand (four phases of moons) connoting the four body fluids and naba-dwar (nine doors representing the openings of the body) and control of breathing, dama-sadhana.
From the initial well-known exponents of Baul genre, five lineages variously called gurudharas or gharas or gharanas devolved ? Lalon Shahi, Panju Shahi, Delbar Shahi, Ujal Shahi and Panchu Shahi, each named after the gurus. Kartabhajas are a special section of the Bauls who conform to Vaishnava traditions and are also known as sati mayer ghar. These ghars exhibit some differences among each other viz. In Lalon Shahi tradition there is predominance of Sufi, Sahajiya rituals and Tantric beliefs where as in the Panju Shahi tradition Tantric beliefs and Sahajiya practices are absent.
Baul music and songs
The sublime delight of a Baul captured by Jamini Roy, much touted folk artist of Bengal
Baul music solemnises celestial bliss of ethereal permeation. These songs of exultation are soul wrenching. Several Baul songs have undergone changes owing to Vaishnava influence of kirtans and also under the influence of Sufism. Though Baul songs are prevalent in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, they differ in both tune and theme. In West Bengal Baul songs, there is an increased presence of Sahajiya Vaishnavism while in Bangladesh, Baul songs have an affluence of Sufi ghazals.
The following couplet is an extract from an English translation of one of the most prevalent Baul songs. Every song may have two interpretations of human love or Divine love, the Bauls refer to them as lower stream and upper stream.
Where shall I meet him, the Man of my
He is lost to me and I seek him
wandering from land to land.
I am listless for that moonrise of
Which is to light my life,
Which I long to see in the fullness of
In gladness of heart?
Baul songs do bear an elegiac tenor, evoking the pangs of deprivation or intense longing. They are beckoned by the precept of a human body being the seat of all truths and that the utmost requirement is of a guru or a moner manush. The following is again a translation of a popular Baul song.
My longing is to meet you in play of
love, my Lover;
But this longing is not only mine, but
For your lips can have their smile,
and your flute
Its music, only in your delight in my
And therefore you importunate, even
as I am.
Baul songs do not have the embellishments of ragas like in classical music. Only two ragas prevail ? Raga Dainya and Raga Prabarta and as such all Baul songs involve one of them. Generally Baul songs have two tunes. One for the first part of the song and the other for the second part of the song. While ending the song, the second stave is repeated at a quick tempo. The first stave is very important, often called dhuya, much or mahada. In songs involving a fast tempo, the first stave is repeated after every second stave. In the Baul songs, a refrain generally occurs at the end of each stanza. Songs that have originated from the rural Panchali are generally accompanied with dancing but typically the ones in akharas do not have it. Some songs involve both ascending and descending rhythm. The common tals are Dadra, Kharba, Jhumur and Ektal or Jhanptal. Both chorus or dhuya and solo singings are seen.
The Bauls by all means try to forego encumbrances. Their music accompaniments are devoid of any sophisticated contraptions. The Baul himself mostly makes these simplistic indigenous instruments. With Ektara alone, a Baul can be singing songs. Ektara remains indispensable insignia of a Baul. The name itself means ?one string? implying the oneness of Humankind with God. The hull is made from empty dried gourd with a stretched skin on its bottom and surmounted by a split bamboo stick. One end of the string is tied to the skin and runs to the top of the bamboo with a wooden key to tune it. Dugi is a small version of tabla tied around the waist of a Baul.
Then, there is Khamok, a tension drum variously called as gubgubi or Anandalahari. It is a wooden cylindrical drum with a skin tied across one end. A string pierced in the middle of the skin passes out through the wooden drum to attach to a small brass resonator held as a handle that is freely held when the string is plucked with a wooden plectrum. It is played by placing the drum under the arm and plucking the string while raising or lowering the brass handle, thereby applying tension to the string and the drum head. Surprisingly by varying the tension on the string, it produces a whole gamut of vocal-like sounds like gubgub..gubgub and hence owes its onomatopoeic name Gubgubi. It is the most coveted instrument iconic of the Bauls and gives both melody and rhythm.
Other instruments used by Bauls are Dugdugi, Dotara, Sarinda, Dholak, Mandira (Hand-held bell-shaped cymbals), Khanjani (tambourine without jangles) Ramchaki (Apair of wooden clappers with jangles), ghungroor, nupur, flute and sometimes double – sided percussion drums like Khol or Mridanga and Dhol are also used.
The man of my heart dwells inside me.
Everywhere I behold, it'sHim!
In my every sight, in the spark of light
Oh I can never lose Him ?
Here, there and everywhere,
Wherever I turn, right in front is He!
This is an English rendition of Rabindrasangeet (Tagore song) heavily laced with Baul fervour.
Before Rabindranath Tagore, the Bauls were by and large disdained upon by the upper class Bengali society for being vagabonds and beggar looks. Tagore in his youth got to personally know Lalon Fakir. His Rabindrasangeet (music), poetry as well as philosophy bore a profound impact of this. Nabani Das Baul was a respected yogi who had composed a lot of music for Rabindranath'spoems and songs. This too led Tagore to become interested in the Baul movement. During his Hibbert lecture at Oxford in 1930 (later compiled into The religion of man), he waxed eloquently and eulogized these minstrels for their inner pursuit and detached outlook.
Notwithstanding the paltry number of Bauls, it has left a profound impact upon Bengali culture. In recognition, Baul was accorded a berth among ?Masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity? by UNESCO in 2005. Nabani Das Baul'sson Purna Das Baul made world tours apprising the sagacity of Bauls to the world. He wrote and composed numerous songs and recorded many albums in India, USA, Europe and Japan. Purna Das Baul was conferred ?The Emperor of Bauls? by then the President Dr Rajendra Prasad in 1967. So much so, a film has also been made on his life.
Every year during January there is a congregation on the riparian banks of River Ajoy at Kenduli in the district Birbhum. Of West Bengal. During the four-day long-fest they commemorate their Jaydeb lineage. Again Lalon Shah'sakhda at Cheuria village in Kushtia holds a three-day festival annually during the full moon in the month of Falgun. Even sadhus flock the auspicious event. These days, one might encounter these mendicants singing in trains or aimlessly straying around. A mutant form of Baul has also splurged in the west in America and Europe under the spiritual tutelage of Lee Lozowick. But western Baul integrates rock, blues and gospel though maintaining the same principles.
The Mirror of the sky, reflects my soul. O Baul of the road, O Baul, my heart, What keeps you tied, to the corner of the room?
(The author is a freelance writer with varied interests, reachable at [email protected])