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 Preserving the Bauls of Bengal for the 21st century

Baul music is the soul of Bengal and is essentially the music of self searching. Its about 500 years old. Chaitanyadev's Bhakti Cult movement, which is seen as the first social reform movement in Bengal, may be the basis of evolution of Baul music. Bauls believe Chaitanya's eldest son was the first Baul. Chaitanya started 'Keertan', reached out to the oppressed ones and mobilized people against the social divide (due to gender, religion, class, caste) and social evils like Sati (where widow was forced to be burnt alive along with dead husband). Then comes, Lalan Fakir, who used to live at Kushtia in Bangladesh and he may be called as the father of Baul music. Living the life of an esoteric, denouncing the material world, they urge people to rise above the narrow divides created by caste, creed and religion to find love, peace and harmony. Do not look for God anywhere, look for Him in the human body. Only then will you get Him, feel Him and be able to know your own self too.

Baul is a philosophy and music. The Bauls and Fakirs believe that Murshid or the Guru is the steersman who can lead a devotee to God. The philosophy gets passed on from 'Guru' to his disciples. Bauls are Hindus and Fakirs are Muslims and both the communities practice the same philosophy with little difference in nuances. One can see the impact and influence of Sufism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Nath doctrines on the Baul-Fakir philosophy.

3 major genres of Baul music are : Dehatattwa, Atmatattwa and Gurutattwa

Dehatattwa: The body is like a cage, thus spoke Lalan Fakir. Bauls believe Moner Manush (The Loved One) blooms like a flower within oneself. One should search for that flower. The body includes the mind, spirit, knowledge, emotion and other feelings. All of them are directed by ego. One's own ignorance, inability and despair are reflected with sorrow in the Bauls and Fakirs' songs. Songs of this doctrine emphasize the human being and the body. Metaphors of various kinds are used in the lyrics. The body is sometimes thought of as a field for growing crops and sometimes as a boat or a ship that is to be steered in the right direction to attain the Ultimate Truth.

Atmatattwa: Sufism is replete with the thoughts of the soul and the after-soul. Mind, spirit, knowledge, emotion and other feelings reside in the body. Baul philosophy as in Atmattawa believes that knowing oneself one can know the divine. The spirit or soul guides the human body. Therefore the soul must be worshipped along with the body. Songs of this genre eulogise the free spirit and underscore its supremacy.

Gurutattwa: Bauls and Fakirs believe one cannot be a Baul without being initiated (Diksha) by a Guru or Murshid and, once initiated, one must follow the path directed by him. However, only one who has attained divine grace through austerity can be a Guru. He knows God and, therefore, one can reach God through him. But to do so, one must unconditionally surrender to the Guru, keeping faith in him to get freed of all earthly attachments.

Rabindranath Tagore, the first non European Noble laureate poet and philosopher from Bengal, who also created the University 'Viswa Bharati' at Santiniketan in Birbhum district came to know about Lalan Fakir, may not have met Lalan in person, but met his disciples and got influenced by Baul music. Nadia in West Bengal and Kushtia in Bangladesh can be called as Source of Baul music (in pre-independence days, Nadia and Kushtia were in same district) and it has travelled to Birbhum because of Rabindranath. It may not be wrong to say that Baul music was once a subaltern music, but has reached the heart of Bengal including urban educated elites, through the hands of Tagore and has evolved as Soul of Bengal. Simple words, heart-touching tunes and instruments like Ektara, Dotara, Khamak, Dhol, Khanjani, Flute and Dubki keep enchanting audiences the world over as it did hundreds of years ago. Even mainstream music salutes the Bauls, Fakirs and Sufis and is giving them the space they richly deserve.

Baul music got inscribed in the UNESCO’s ICH list of Humanity in 2008 by Bangladesh, with a mention of West Bengal. Unfortunately usage of traditional acoustic instruments is quite low now in the presentation of Baul music in Bangladesh, whereas the practice in West Bengal is retained completely.

Current status of Baul music in West Bengal: In 2004, an intervention was taken up by banglanatak dot com with 272 Baul Fakirs in Nadia district of West Bengal, following Art for Life (AFL) methodology. The work also gets referenced at multiple global forums including at Ted-Talks Seeing the success, the same has been expanded in 2016 to cover additional 1200 Baul Fakirs across 5 districts in West Bengal - Birbhum, Bardhaman, Bankura, Murshidabad and Nadia, as part of Rural Craft & Cultural Hubs initiative supported by UNESCO and Dept MSME&T, Govt of West Bengal). Now, there are about 3500 Baul Fakirs in West Bengal with an average age of 32-35 years, which was 48-52 earlier. There are also a lot of interactions in recent years between urban folk singers with Bauls and thus Baul music is now an integral part of urban folk singers too, about 300 of them regularly perform the same. There are quite a few popular Baul Fakiri melas, including Joydev Kenduli in Birbhum (the oldest mela), Shaktigarh in Kolkata (started in 2006) and Baul Fakiri mela organized by banglanatak dot com (since 2010, last one was held in Nov 2022, next edition will be held on 24-26 Nov, 2023).

Thanks to the initiative taken by banglanatak dot com, since 2010 Bauls travelled quite regularly to perform at various World Music Festivals, including Rina Das Baul performed at the biggest & most prestigious World Music platform WOMEX at Lisbon in 2022, and Baul musicians also collaborate with various Int'l Musicians. Popular TV Channels also showcase Baul Music on regular basis & Media coverage has also increased many folds. Bauls are very open about their music and love to explore possibilities, they even performed for a fashion show hosted by French Consulate.

 An American Film team has recently visited most of the Baul akhras and done a film on Baul music, yet to be released. I expect the same to be a game changer to position Baul in the global scenario.

 Here is a few short films made by us:

·         Baulani

·         The Search within

·         Strings and Beats

·         Bangla Qawwali

·         Transmission of Heritage

·         Celebrating Togetherness

·         Streaming Memoirs 

       Author: Amitava Bhattacharya,


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