The Bauls of Bengal

The word Baul comes from the Sanskrit word “Batul,” which means mad and is used for someone who is possessed or crazy for God. The Bauls are wandering minstrels of West Bengal and Bangladesh, whose song and dance reflect the joy, love and longing for mystical union with the Divine.

The Bauls have made no effort to record their practices, lives or beliefs, for they are reluctant to leave a trace behind. Therefore little concrete documentation is available when exploring the group’s origin. But what we know is that originally the district of Birbhum in West Bengal was the seat of all Baul activity. Later, the Baul domain stretched to Tripura in the north, Bangladesh in the east, and parts of Bihar and Orissa in the west and south respectively. In Bangladesh, the districts of Chittagong, Sylhet, Mymensingh and Tangyl are famous for Bauls. Bauls from far off places come to participate in the Kenduli Mela and the Pous Mela–the two most important fairs held in West Bengal for Baul music.

Bauls belong to an unorthodox devotional tradition, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Vasinavism and Sufi Islam, yet distinctly different from them. Bauls neither identify themselves with any organized religion nor with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places. They share only one belief —that God is hidden within the heart of man and neither priest, prophet, nor the ritual of any organized religion will help one to find Him there. To them we are all a gift of divine power and the body is a temple, music being the path to connect to that power.

They can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments. It’s easy to identify a Baul singer from his uncut, often coiled hair, saffron robe (alkhalla), a necklace of beads made of basil (tulsi) stems. Bauls use a number of musical instruments: the most common is the ektara, a one-stringed “plucked drum” drone instrument, carved from the epicarp of a gourd, and made of bamboo and goatskin. Others include the dotara, a long-necked fretless lute (while the name literally means “two stringed” it usually has four metal strings) made of the wood of a jackfruit or neem tree; besides khamak one-headed drum with a string attached to it which is plucked. The only difference from ektara is that no bamboo is used to stretch the string, which is held by one hand, while being plucked by another. Drums like the duggi a small hand-held earthen drum, and dhol and khol; small cymbals called kartal and manjira, and the bamboo flute are also used. Ghungur and nupur are anklets with bells that ring while the person wearing them dances.
Before, the Bauls roamed Bengal on foot and earn their living from singing to the accompaniment of their instruments. In each village there was a special house set aside for them to stay in, and they would stay as long as they pleased. But unfortunately modern India can no longer support their nomadic way of living, so therefore they have had to adapt. Now bauls have their own houses and they stay in one place, not moving around.

Travelling in local trains, specially to Santiniketan and attending village fairs are good ways to encounter Bauls. Their devotional songs can be traced back to the fifteenth century when they first appeared in Bengali literature. Baul music represents a particular type of folk song, carrying influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Islamic Sufi song exemplified by the songs of Kabir. Bauls pour out their feelings in their songs but never bother to write them down. Theirs is essentially an oral tradition. It is said that Lalon Fokir (1774 -1890), the greatest of all Bauls, continued to compose and sing songs for decades without ever stopping to correct them or put them on paper. He composed a thousand songs, of which just 600 can be traced. It was only after his death that people thought of collecting and compiling his repertoire.

He rejected the division of society into communities, protesting and satirising religious fundamentalism of all kinds. Lalon’s metaphysical lyrics raise a basic question – that if there is a single creator then why so many religions exist ? This is a pertinent problem in today’s world; we all know that the different ‘Gods’ have created acrimony between races and sects and as of today this concept of different ‘Gods’ remains the most decisive divisive force on planet Earth.

So Lalon composed and sang:
Everyone asks: “Lalan, what’s your religion in this world?”
Lalan answers: “How does religion look?”
I’ve never laid eyes on it.
Some wear malas [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,
some tasbis [Muslim rosaries], and so people say
they’ve got different religions.
But do you bear the sign of your religion
when you come or when you go?

Bauls do not believe in the pious ‘other world’ and most of the times deny the presence of super powers. Looking from a different angle it can be said that according to them, ‘God’ resides in each human being and it is for the human being to realise this truth, the human beings are the best exponents of spirituality ever to tread on this Earth. Nowhere did this philosophy leave its imprint more powerfully than on the work of Rabindranath Tagore, who talked of Bauls in a number of speeches in Europe in the 1930s. An essay based on these was compiled into his English book ‘The religion of man’.

Tagore composed:
The man of my heart dwells inside me.
Everywhere I look, it is he.
In my every sight, in the sparkle of light
Oh, I can never lose him–
Here, there and everywhere,
Wherever I turn, he is right there!

An important part of Baul philosophy is “Deha tatta”, a spirituality related to the body rather than the mind. They seek the divinity in human beings. Often, the lyrics philosophize on love and stress to remain unattached and unconsumed by the pleasures of life even while enjoying them. Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the Baul for his bosh-tomi or lifemate:

My longing is to meet you in play of love, my Lover;
But this longing is not only mine, but also yours.
For your lips can have their smile, and your flute
its music, only in your delight in my love;
and therefore you importunate, even as I am.

Baul music also forms allegories on the state of disconnect between the earthly soul and the spiritual world. For example, there is a song which asks: why doesn’t leaves of trees become banknotes ?

Among the contemporary Baul singers, the names of Purna Das Baul, Jatin Das Baul, Sanatan Das Baul, Anando Gopal Das Baul, Biswanath Das Baul, Paban Das Baul, and Bapi Das Baul are prominent. Purna Das Baul is undisputedly the reigning king of the Baul clan today. His father, the late Nabani Das “Khyapa”, was the most famous Baul of his generation, and Tagore conferred upon him the title “Khyapa”, meaning “wild”.

Referred to as the Baul Samrat, Purna Das Baul, introduced Baul songs to the West during an eight-month tour of the US in 1965 with stars like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and all. Dubbed “India’s Bob Dylan” by the New York Times in 1984, Purna Das Baul has played with Bob Marley, Gordon Lightfoot and Mahalia Jackson and the likes.

Currently another version of Baul called the folk fusion also called baul rock is also greatly accepted by the audience, especially in West Bengal. Kartik Das Baul has taken baul to different heights by associating himself with folk fusion. This type of baul was brought into the world of music by ‘Bolepur Bluez‘, which was world’s first folk fusion band.

There are also the Western Bauls in America and Europe under the spiritual direction of Lee Lozowick, a student of Yogi Ramsuratkumar. Their music is quite different (rock /gospel/ blues) but the essence of the spiritual practices of the East is well maintained.

Recently a Bengali film ‘Moner Manush’ based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel of the same name was made by Goutam Ghosh. It was premiered on the same day in India and Bangladesh, creating a milestone in cultural synergy between the two countries. The film, an Indo-Bangladesh co-production has won the Golden Peacock award at the International Film Festival of India in Goa. The film is a partly fictionalised, partly real documentary of the strange life of Lalon Phokir, who over time became an institution unto himself. The film is structured within the discussions between Lalon Phokir (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and Jyotirindranath Tagore (Priyangshu Chatterjee), during the time the latter was sketching a portrait of the former. The essence of Baul philosophy comes across brilliantly in Ghose’s musical – and it merits this tag because, “it has 32 songs that form part of the verbal interaction between and among the characters.” It is also an educational film, shedding light on a little-known sect, on their unique ideology and lifestyle and their resurrection in modern times through cinema, theatre, literature and so on.

The tradition is so integral to Bengal that it’s hard to think of Bengali culture sans the Bauls. They’re not only an intrinsic part of Bengal’s music, they’re in the mud and air of this land and in the mind and blood of its people. The spirit of the Bauls is the spirit of Bengal– ever-flowing in its society and culture, literature and art, religion and spirituality.


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