The Song of the Baul
Abstract: My project entails an attempt to understand the performance tradition of the Bauls, the singing minstrels of Bengal .Throughout history , Bauls have remained an enigma .As a performer myself,it has been a lifelong dream to know more about them . This project also tries to look into their deep rooted tradition and how they have transformed in this age of globalisation . Though their origins can be traced to Silaidaho , now in Bangladesh ,the Baul tradition has thrived throughout Bengal since the 19th century .During the early decades of the twentieth century, especially since the 1920 s , Bengal ‘s leading intellectuals like Tagore and Kshitimohan Senshastri took up the Bauls’ cause to explore their culture and spiritual thought. Their songs are indicative of different concerns ,from patriotism to social problems and romantic love .It is the philosophy of the Bauls which has drawn me to start this project.
Bio: I have been associated with theatre since my college days. As I entered Jadavpur University at Kolkata for my graduation, I joined one of the foremost groups of Kolkata, Bohurupee. Known for stalwarts like Shombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra,Bohurupee was at the frontline of Bengali theatre. It was during the same time that I began my career as an announcer ,newscaster and an actress in TV serials and feature films.I completed my Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University in 1982 .
I left Kolkata to come toDelhi after marriage but continued to follow my passion,theatre.I have worked in many plays in English ,Hindi and Bengali with Habib Tanvir , Amal Allana,Rajendranath ,Feisal Alkazi and Tripurari Sharma.Along with theatre, I was also active in newsreading assignments for Doordarshan and TVI . I was responsible for founding the Bengali theatre group ,Bikalpa .I worked a full time job with the Public Relations of Kribhco for 20 years but have now taken early retirement to follow my creative instincts.
Contact: avereec @ hotmail.com
METHODS,MATERIALS & PROCESSES
The methods employed will be :
1. Study of their music and the message they seek to give.
2. Study of reference books on their lives and philosophy. (Some books have been procured and some will be borrowed from libraries like National Library,Kolkata,
Sahitya Akademi,Delhi,and Folk and Tribal Culture Centre,Department of Information and Culture,W.Bengal Government.
3. Travelling to and personally interacting with the Bauls at various locations and fairs in West Bengal.Personal interaction will include taped interviews and photographs whenever possible.
4. Drawing upon the resources of people like social historians etc. who have lived and interacted deeply with Bauls.
The Bauls live in a state of abject poverty,barring a few who have become famous through local patronage,television coverage and travel abroad .They earn their living through melas(fairs) and from begging for alms.Though traditionally nomadic,there are some who live in permanent settlement in a community.The west nup homes and some children of Bauls even go to school. However,they have their own social mores.
For a Baul,the concept of Radha and Krishna’s love is important .They do not worship any deity and Guru is the supreme for them.Their sadhana is through”woman’,their `sangini’ or wives.They hold women in high esteem which is obvious through their songs. The human body has an important place in the Baul tradition and philosophy. According to them,what is there in the universe is in the human body. (Jaha ache ei brahmande , tahai ache ei deho bhande ).For them ,it is a constant search of the man of the heart – Moner Manush.
Shantiniketan, Viswa Bharati – World University established by Rabindranath Tagore ,the great poet saint is the platform where the wandering minstrels of Bengal meet. It is the time of Poush Mela and I decided to go to Shantiniketan to come face to face with the Bauls.
It is the Poush Mela where along with different stalls attracting visitors the Baul Akhra (Baul’s den) exists. Its generally at the rear end of the Mela, where the Mukta Mela (Open Forum) is constructed.The note of Flute and Ektara emerged clearly through the cacophony at the fair grounds.
It was a chilly morning but already music buffs had gathered at the Akhra to hear the Baul recited. I got to interview some Bauls and two female Bauls. It is strange that female Bauls are rare yet women are held in high esteem in their lives. Without the woman, the Bauls’ ‘Sadhana’ is incomplete. It is strange that the Sanginis are there to sing along with them, yet there are hardly any female Baul singers worth mentioning.
Yet when I interviewed the two female Baul singers they seemed at peace with themselves. They respect their male singers and have no problem with them. One of the female singers mentioned that she was so much in love in the Bhakti music and that she was not interested in the daily chores of cooking, fetching water etc that she left home and took the shelter of a guru.
Each Baul had their own story to tell. I realized that though most of them live in abject poverty they enjoy every moment of their lives. For example ,when I met Madhusudhan Baul he did talk about monetary problems and how they can only earn in the Melas, or resort to begging as the only way to earn – he too got transformed when he started singing. It was a joy emerging from within.
I have been listening to Baul music from my childhood but I never realized that their music is also the music of protest. I then read some of Tagore’s articles and found that since Baul Music had a rustic flavour, which is deep rooted in the soil, Tagore too had used some of the tunes in his patriotic songs.
What Madhusudhan Baul sang was interesting . It was the time when minds of people especially in Bengal were engrossed with the controversy involving Saurabh Ganguli, the cricketer & Greg Chappell. His song revolved around the theme.
But somewhere I felt that the traditional practitioners are few and far between.Among them is the octogenarian Sanatan Das Baul, who started proceedings in the festival this year. I remembered him as a child. My father used to be very fond of him and always told me, “ see the way he enacts on the stage.”I remember how he danced on stage while singing . Sanatan Baul is quite outspoken. He said, ‘These Bauls are not real Bauls, they only sing. All the time they are busy pursuing money.’ ‘Where is the Sadhana? ?’
Yes, the core question of the Bauls is ‘Sadhana’- this is the spiritual search. The one question that every Baul has in their mind is ‘Who am I’. For the Baul,” self realization is the most essential part of their sadhana fundamentals”, said Sanatan baul. Sadhana is determined by three essential components. These are 3 basic truths – ‘ami’- one self, ‘Tumi’ – you and the supreme divinity and Guru -the Master, “Guru” plays the central role on the way towards self-realization. Without ‘Guru’ the Baul cannot reach anywhere as he is the spiritual teacher through whom the link between ‘ami’and tumi’, between the self and supreme soul can established.
These are the experiences and the stories I am gathering in establishing the true identity of the Baul.
My next visit was to the Joydev Mela , at Kenduli in Birbhum ,where the largest number of Bauls congregate.
This was my first visit to Kenduli , a place close to the hearts of all Bauls . From Kolkata I take the train to Shantiniketan and onwards by taxi to Kenduli which takes about 2 hours .Kenduli is a small village , on the banks of the river Ajay . This is the mecca for the Bauls .Kenduli is home to a shrine of Joydev and Padmabati , whose love story has been sung for many years . Joydev is the famous poet who wrote `Geet Gobind’. The annual mela is held here in his honour .
Thousands of people have gathered here for the festival; as far as the gaze goes all you can see is countless heads of people. Small tents , about 50 in number , have mushroomed all over; all of them housing Bauls.These tents are known as `akhras ‘. A huge open stage or Mukta Mancha stands in the centre .It is from here that I hear beautiful music and get to speak to some Bauls and Baulinis .Interestingly , I get to meet Purna Das Baul ,who has been responsible for popularising Baul music all over the world .In spite of his busy schedule I did get to have a chat with him .He is probably one of the most famous Bauls around having even found a place on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1968 album .I asked him to comment on the current trends of Baul music ,the publicity it is getting and on Baul fusion .`Most Bauls do not stick to authentic tunes,’he says,`though the popularity of the music has brought in a welcome change.’Purna Das thinks the older generation shies away from the publicity blitz .He is not averse to the idea of Baul fusion because as long as he chants the name of Krishna ,he thinks it does not mean drifting away.
As dusk sets in , the crowd has now swollen to scary proportions . I meet a Baulini who lets me into her small hut .She looks after her Baul sangi (partner) and rears children .Still she finds time to sing and has inducted her child into the tradition . I hear the little Chatu Das regale the audience .He is just 10 years old .
I noticed that the music too has changed . Instruments like harmonium and tabla which traditionally are not played with Baul songs , now form a part of their renditions .Group shows with musicians accompanying Bauls seemed to be an emerging trend .
Yet, the philosophy remains the same :
Dwija Sudra itar bhadra , nai re bhedabhed bichar .
Brahmon ,Kshatriya ,Sudra mile mishe ekakar – Krishna Dasi
(Brahmin Sudra, the high and the low, there is no difference; all are mingled together )
The next part of my work will focus more on women Bauls . The gender bias notwithstanding , I intend to culminate my work in a play which will highlight the lives of these Baul women .
Your posting was very interesting, especially what Purna Das Baul has to say about authenticity in Baul music. Authenticity is a slippery slope and especially ironic coming from Purna Das Baul, whom many regard as the first commercial exploiter of Baul music, seemingly unable to perform without a microphone. Kenduli Mela itself is a sign of the slipperiness of notions of authenticity considering the enormous changes it has undergone in the last 20 years with the introduction of electric lights and microphones not just in the central stage, but in virtually all akhras. As is often the case with authenticity as an obscure object of desire, one now hears of other “more authentic” baul melas elsewhere, though of course, those melas too are undoubtedly always already in transition.