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The Bauls of Bengal

By Aratrika Bhattacharya

In 1931 Tagore wrote, “I mention in connection with my personal experience some songs which I have often heard from the wandering village singers, belonging to a popular sect of Bengal, called Bauls, who have no images, temples, scriptures or ceremonials, who declare in their songs the divinity of man, and express for him an intense feeling of love. Coming from men who are unsophisticated, living a simple life in obscurity, it gives us a clue to the inner meanings of all religions.” The term Baul has been used by various scholars to denote, among other things, a sect, a tradition, a community, a cult, an order of singers, a spirit, a class of mystics, or a religion. My analysis of Bauls will try to accommodate this inherent plurality and fluidity.

Comprising of members from the Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims, Bauls occupy a unique position as devotees, mystics, naturalists, tantric and wanderers in India and Bangladesh. BaulFakirs are identified by their unique clothing and music, with an ektara and bowl for alms in hands. Clubbed, in colonial accounts, as subordinate categories within the larger ‘Hindu’ identity as Bairagi, then as Vaishnava and later on as Baolas, Bauls were “held in very low estimation by respectable Hindus” (Risley,1891, pg.347). Even reformists like Ali Shariyati denounced Bauls and Fakirs as corrupting Bengali Islam with their “un-Islamic” life and songs (Mukherjee, 2009).

Though there are differences in beliefs and practices among distinct sects of Bauls, it is undeniable that they, as a collective whole, occupy similar social positions in rural society and have shared historical experiences. Bauls have no faith in sectarian religion. Rather, they are representatives of a syncretic marginal religious sect following a musical tradition influenced by lyrics from the Hindu Bhakti movements and the suphi (a form of Sufi song exemplified by the songs of Kabir) that seek the divinity in human beings. Baul songs, thus, unify multiple worship practices in the Baul tradition.

But, what is a Baul song? To some, Baul songs are articulations of a heterodox Bengali sect that observed and practiced abominable sex-yogic rituals. To others, they were merely an entertaining form of soliciting alms; while to another set of people, they came to be distinguished by their decidedly indigenous folk-melody and folk-content of the idyllic Bengali village. Many regard Baul songs as songs of transcendental humanism.  Others, however, suggest that they are in fact to be distinguished from other folk songs by their highly sophisticated and coded esoteric content. The romantic-nationalist perception of Bauls and Baul songs as embodiments and repositories of the Bengali village was shaped in response to these earlier disparaging framings and negative stereotypes of Bauls as the disrespectable, sexually promiscuous, and immoral Other. Baul song forms were occasionally dismissed as strategies of entertainment of the bhadraloks of late nineteenth century (Mukherjee, 2009).  However, some sections of bhadralok society of the times, and especially, Rabindranath Tagore, regarded Baul identity as one that voiced concerns about rural oppression while providing a window into their everyday life through simple and rustic allegory.

Despite being an eclectic group with multiple religious influences, the music of the Bauls transcend religious boundaries and evoke open interpretations of the supreme. The lyrics of the Baul songs celebrate this approach and understanding. It is a complete assimilation of the spiritual with the material—Bhav Tattva and Deha Tattva—principles related to emotions and the body which offer a new perspective of the world. They renounce religious practices and criticize the superficiality of religious divisions. The lyrics from a Baul song says, “Fakiri koribi khyapa kon raag-e/ Ache Hindu-Musalman dui bhaghe”—which means, how can one preach peace in a country which is divided on the basis of two major religious groups—Hindu and Muslim. Also, “Je ja bhabe sei rupe se hoy,Ram-Rahim-Karim-Kala ek atma jogotmoy,”  which again reinforces that Ram, Rahim, Karim and Kala are the names of the same supreme power (Mondal, 2013).

‘Man’ is the first and final concern of Lalon Geeti (songs composed by Fakir Lalon Shah—the main pioneer of Baul tradition in undivided Bengal). Baul songs question that if this world is created by one single Creator then why would there be any caste system, multiple religions, gender discriminations, and class dominations. The most profound theme in Lalon Geeti is Lalon’s reaction against class and caste system. His age old songs are still relevant in contemporary society. Lalon wrote,

“Jokhon tumi bhobe ele
tokhon tumi ki jaat chile
Jabar belay ki jaat nile
E kotha amay bolona”

No man is either born with a religion, nor dies with one.

Baul songs also advocate equality and liberation of women:

“Kuler bou hoye mone kotodin thakbi ghore
Ghomta fele chol na re mon sadh-bajare”

which discourages woman to confine herself within the home and encourages her to go out and explore her land on her own will.

The origins of Baul community and traditions underscore their fraught existence and marginal condition in society, aspects which led to their secret sadhana (meditation) of Moner Manush (Man of the Heart). The Bauls do not worship any deity nor visit temples, mosques, or go on pilgrimages. Baul songs necessitate seeking the supreme power in one’s own body. The Bauls, therefore, believe that truth is not found in religious books or scriptures as they simply obscure the spiritual effort and block the path to divinity. The Bauls do not believe in austerities or penances for spiritual pursuits. They seek freedom from inner desires and antipathies and live by the guiding light of the Moner Manush. There is only one religion for all, “the Religion of Man.”

Lalon says:

“Dube dekh dekhi mone kirup lilamay
Akash patal khujish jare ei dehe se roy”

One can only find the existence of god in one’s own self instead of searching for him everywhere in heaven and hell.

Aratrika Bhattacharya is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology in Presidency University, Kolkata. Coming from a family of musicians, and with her own training in North Indian classical vocals for two decades from Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, Aratrika has been curious about the anthropology of different music forms. This, in combination with her research interest in religion, religious communities and culture studies, led her to the Bauls of Bengal. Her PhD thesis is an ethnomusicological study of the Baul tradition in West Bengal. Aratrika teaches Sociology in St. Xavier’s College, Burdwan. Having been awarded the prestigious Presidency University scholarship, she is presently pursuing her research in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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