Soul-stirring Music in Baul culture of Bengal

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Tomay hrid majhare rakhibo chhere debo na”

Baul culture of Bengal
Parvathy Baul – Mário Pires / Flickr

Baul or Bauls are a group of mystic minstrels who constitute a religious sect and a musical tradition. They compromise of a small fraction of the Bengali population and can be easily identified by their distinctive saffron clothes and musical instruments. Their contribution to the musical field of Bengal culture is immense and hence immeasurable. They are fondly known as “Moner Manush” (the person of the heart) which denotes these inspired people who have an eagerness for the spiritual life and wish to realize their union with the eternal beloved. 

Baul music is known for its celebration of celestial love in earthly terms. Their religion is based on the expression of body and mind and concentrate much of their mystic energy on the four body fluids. The music of the Bauls or Baul Sangeet is a type of folk song but in recent times this rich culture seems to be fading. This UNESCO – World Heritage listed musical style has been reduced to a mere commodity in the present times. Once considered to be rich in culture, today it is performed behind closed doors in air-conditioned auditoriums for a fee. The artists earn very little from these programs as for them it is the sharing of their proud heritage but for the production managers these tickets sell as hot cakes, for many are intrigued by baul sangeet and the singers who live a rustic life. 

Baul culture of Bengal
Baul Singers at Shantiniketan – PTWO / Flickr

The baul music is incomplete in the absence of the ektara, a single stringed musical instrument used in creating the otherworldly charm of Baul sangeet. The instrument is made of dried gourd acting as a resonator; and has a metal string running through its neck. Plucking the string with the index finger generates a unique melody which is associated exclusively with the baul songs. Though the ektara is the main attraction, Baul songs would be incomplete without the accompaniment of percussion instruments such as the dhol cymbals, flute and the ghungroo.  Recently at the Bannerghatta campus of Christ University I had the privilege of watching famous Baul singer Haradhan Das Baul  perform various songs written by his father and himself over the course of time. He tried to explain the tradition of Baul singers but almost no one was interested in the same and only wished to hear him sing. This shows the change seen in the audience culture during the present times…appreciation of culture and tradition is gone and all people want are entertainment. Owing to the kind patronage of the government of West Bengal, Baul music has been attempting to regain its lost sheen and attempts to gain a wider audience by improvising songs that may suit the tastes of many. 

Baul culture of Bengal
Tharundas Baul – Wikimedia

Till date Baul songs are widely celebrated in the state of West Bengal and in Bangladesh through the manifestation of the same in the songs of Rabindranath Tagore and hence Shantiniketan, the town founded by him, continues to be home for many of the wandering baul singers and hence the hub of baul culture in Bengal. 

The Bauls worship music and are not associated with any mainstream religion. Their music is the culmination point of a huge range of cultures from around the world. It includes the tantric practices of the Hindus, the Sufi saints of Persia and certain elements of Buddhism has also been incorporated into their songs that leading to development in the roles of the individual sectors. The lyrics of the Baul songs are written in Bengali. 

Baul culture of Bengal
Ananda Khyapa and Tarun Khyapa Group – Wikimedia

The lifestyle of the modern-day urban bauls is not one of simplicity as some of the practitioners hold celebrity statuses and are conducting foreign tours just like any other musician in the industry. Alternatively, there still exist some who have stayed true to their calling and continue to wander the streets of Bengal in their saffron robes with an ektara in hand. 

The Baul culture is one to be upheld and preserved and passed on from generation to generation for it is rich in the heritage of Bengal and sings of oneness with nature and in these dire times of global warming and melting glaciers we human beings need reminders on preserving our universe. 

Baul culture of Bengal
Haradhan Das Baul, Papia Das Baul & Biswanath Das Baul – Wikimedia

The best place to witness this soul-stirring music is at local village fairs and at the annual Poush Mela held at Shantiniketan. They do not charge money for their performance but it is only thoughtful on our behalf to leave some money on their mats as a kind gesture for they too have a livelihood to earn just like any one of us. It is also considered to be a mark of respect and tribute to the grand culture of Baul music. 

If at all you get a chance to ever witness the Baul singers make sure you utilise the opportunity for they truly are a treat to one’s heart and mind.

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