Read about the Bauls who are bards, composers, musicians and dancers with a single mission to entertain. Their music with their heart warming lyrics are mostly influenced by beautiful cultural intermixes.
People love to watch them sing and dance expressing their narration of folk tales, and contemporary issues through highly melodic songs at an extraordinarily high-pitched rendition. Although their lyrics speak the language of the village folks, their songs are simple and direct, profusely emotional and universally appealing .
MELTING POT OF CULTURES
Baul’s religious and philosophical standpoints exist largely as an outcome of the mix of the of Hindu and Islam communities, containing some signs of Buddhist influence as well. The philosophy promotes a liberal view, renouncing caste and other social constructs, in an effort to strip oneself of outside influence.
Its prime objective is to reveal the actual person of the heart, or ‘moner manush’ as they say in Bengali. This signifies their heavy physical influence as the object of devotion. Their practice focuses heavily on the four moons or the chaar-chand, representing the four fluids of the body and the nine doors or the naba-dwar representing the nine openings of the body. Another main philosophical theme lies in viewing the body as a miniature of the universe encapsulating all its characteristics within. But overall the ‘person of the heart’ is given prime importance. Their roots are not just deep but ancient and their thoughts a mixture of many religions which culminates into Baul music eventually. Lyrics and songs that are simple, down to earth, easy and clear, create an instant connect with its listeners.
TOOLS OF MUSIC
Bauls use a typical set of instruments mainly ektara and dotara. The dotara served as the prime accompanying instrument for percussion and melody. It’s a 4-5 string wooden instrument resembling a small mandolin, played by different genres of folk musicians of east India. With its origin around the 16th century, its usage started by Bauls and Fakirs from the plains of Bengal. Today, it is the single most important folk instrument used in genres like jhumur, bhhawaiya, kirtan and baul.
The ektara is a finger played single string instrument primarily used for percussion. It consists of the string and the hollow bowl or the drum. A piece of bamboo with a natural knob at one end forms the rest of its body. It is split into half with the split ends tied firmly against the bowl.
Variations of the ektara has brought in other accompanying instruments like the khamak. It is smaller in size than the ektara. While playing, the musician holds the khamak by his armpit and plucks the string with a striker. The khamak, like an ektara, has a single string attached to a one-headed drum. The only difference is that no bamboo is used to stretch the string. It’s held by one hand, while plucked by another.
The true beauty of the Baul lies in their freespirited nature. They do not care for old rules of orthodox religions and remain staunch to the fact that they are liberation seekers. Their music and dance routines prove this strongly. They are generally clad in bright coloured robes with cloth patchwork on them. They don’t cut their hair and usually coil it neatly on their head in a bun and also do not believe in worshiping idols in temples or mosques. For them, the human body is the temple and their music is the path to the Almighty. Over time and under cultural influences, Bauls have adapted to new forms of arrangements taking the sound to larger audiences across the urban world. Lalan Fakir is considered the greatest Baul of all times. Among the contemporary baul singers, Purna Das Baul is undisputedly the reigning king of the Baul clan today. His father, the late Nabani Das was the most famous Baul of his generation. Tagore conferred upon him the title ‘Khyapa’, meaning ‘wild’. Purna Das was induced into the folds of the baul music from his early childhood.
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 many others. Dubbed ‘India’s Dylan’ by the New York Times in 1984, Purna Das Baul has played with Bob Marley, Gordon Lightfoot and Mahalia Jackson and the likes. He played live for the Rolling Stone’s concerts in the 70s.
In more recent times, another locally famous Baul – Basudev Baul found it interesting when a young man from Calcutta visited his native place in Birbhum district one morning and wanted to try out something new. Kunal Ghosh, a self-taught drummer and a percussionist by choice, connected instantly with Basudev Baul’s songs and dotara playing the first time he heard him at the latter’s mud house. The first thing that struck Kunal was the taal or the rhythm of the song Basudev sang playing his dotara. Almost like an unwritten rule, around 60 percent of baul numbers are composed on the dadra taal. Kunal, to his amazement, found this quite similar to the six by eight structures of the Blues rhythm. The duo roped in Aaron and Ranjan to play the guitar and bass to try a blues-baul fusion. The idea was to keep the originality of the baul-ness intact on a bluish flavour with Basudev singing along with his dotara. The fusion was established after days of rehearsal and a baul blues band was formed, the first-of-its-kind. The sound they created together was more power packed and adrenaline charged ideal for live acts embodying the blues rock baul genre. Bolpur Blues went ahead winning many hearts through TV shows and live gigs and eventually got selected by EMI to do an album called The Soul Connection in later years with the dotara in the lead.
The baul way of life certainly attracts scepticism and criticism too widely believing that these wanderers in their swaying bright robes and instruments eventually sing and dance to oblivion. But the fact remains that this art form in whatever way it has evolved over the ages amalgamates the concepts of world religion into such a unique facet that one can only sit back and imagine the possibilities. Their unique music is their way and the God they believe is formless and within them.
Written By & Photos: Anupam Chanda