Bauls are a unique community of folk Bengali singers who travel from place to place in search of music and have rejected the forms of regular social life. They are mystic minstrels residing in rural parts of Bengal and also Bangladesh. Bauls are a group of unorthodox community who recognize music as their only religion and are mainly followers of Vaishnavism and Sufism. They can be identified by their unique appearance like wrapping saffron clothes most of the times, holding a stringed instrument called “ektara” and going on singing. The Birbhum district of West Bengal was bed of Baul music and later it was extended to parts of Tripura, Bihar, Orissa and also Bangladesh. Even today if someone travels to Birbhum district, specially the place of Santiniketan, popularly known as Tagore’s own constructed town, Bauls can be spotted in almost every corner. During religious and cultural festivals of “Poila Baishak” and “poush mela” Bauls become an integral part of the occasions for adding texture to the events.
Baul verses, song and dance try to associate divinity with humankind considering God as one. Baul music is basically a oral tradition and it is said that Lalon Fakir, the great Baul saint composed many songs for decades but never bothered to write them.
The Life of Lalon Fakir
Lalon Fakir (c. 1774 – 17 October 1890) was a family Bengali Baul saint, songwriter, philosopher and a social reformer of India. He led a controversial life and shunned by his community members and his faith was also questioned. It was known that he suffered from small pox on his journey while going for pilgrimage. He was left alone by his friends. During this time he was rescued by a Muslim saint, Siraj Sanyi who took him in his shelter and treated him. But when Lalon went to his house after recovering he was shunned by his wife and other relatives. After this painful incident Lalon went back to Siraj Sanyi breaking barriers of religious identities and continuing Baul music with his guru (Siraj Sanyi). He passed rest of his life there in austerity composing and singing more songs.
His songs are composed in ordinary language and speak of non-sectarian attitude towards humanity and devotion of love. One of his famous songs says “Sab lokey koi Lalon ki jat samsare……” which means “everybody wonders what is Lalon’s faith? In reply Lalon says, “I have seen the face of faith with these eyes of mine….” This is how he embraced the faith of music and wanted to establish harmony shunning all forms of communalism and religious differences. Following his principle, the Bauls today live the life of wanderers without any caste or religious identity. They have established their sect as only Bauls devoted to folk music.
Rabindranath Tagore’s association with Baul music
Famous Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore opined that one day he heard one beggar belonging to the Baul sect singing and he was amazed at the emotional sincerity. It was full of crude details and yearned for divine union which is present in the human heart and not in the temple or scriptures. He strived to understand them through their songs which were their only form of worship. He was extremely impressed with their devotion and simplicity which inspired him to incorporate their music in his songs. The famous and most popular Rabindrasangeet “Amar Praner Manush Ache Prane/ Tai heri taye shokol khane….” which means “the man of my heart resides in my soul and everywhere he is found and cannot be lost” was inspired by Baul theme. Similarly many other poets, musicians and lyricists were inspired by Baul music.
Variations among Bauls
The Baul sect is a combination of Tantra, Sufism, Vaishanavism and Buddhism. They are heterogeneous group who are mainly the followers of Vaishanavism and Sufism concerning the belief that human body is the seat of truth. The Baul sect consists of two categories, ascetic Bauls who denounce their family and the other Bauls who choose to live with their families but doesn’t mingle with the members of non-Baul community. The ascetic Bauls lead more restricted life and live on alms. They don’t have any fixed place of stay and keeps on wandering from one place to another. But apart from their differences in forms they sing the same Baul songs reflecting the urge of harmony and pain of longing. Almost every song relates to the perception of human life and divinity which is also the universal meaning of Baul theme.