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The Mystic MinstrelsA view inside the Baul culture and tradition2/29/2012Mudra Institute of Communication, AhmedabadRanaja...
P a g e | 2Bengal has always been known as a land of the intellectual, of the culturally superior sect ofvisionaries who p...
P a g e | 3people, whose only identity has been that of a Hari Das, submitting to Hari, Krishna or the supreme,the Bauls o...
P a g e | 4The wonder called the human body:In the baul religion, utmost importance is given on individual inquiry and emp...
P a g e | 5who does not know the feeling of tender love, must be avoided always”, goes one song, whileanother says: “A wom...
P a g e | 6The mystical nature of Tagores lyrics is also an outcome of his association to these wandering bards.Edward Dim...
P a g e | 7society has with the past. Hence, folk arts have been leveraged for moral, religious and socio-political purpos...
P a g e | 8
P a g e | 9References:
P a g e | 10
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The Mystic Minstrels


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A view inside the Baul culture and tradition

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The Mystic Minstrels

  1. 1. The Mystic MinstrelsA view inside the Baul culture and tradition2/29/2012Mudra Institute of Communication, AhmedabadRanajay Sengupta, PGP-18, Roll No. 18054
  2. 2. P a g e | 2Bengal has always been known as a land of the intellectual, of the culturally superior sect ofvisionaries who possess a distinct creative bent of mind. Being a Bengali myself, it might sound likean unsolicited compliment which I tend to accept with due humility, but always makes me wonderabout the sole reason behind such perception. In today’s competitive world, where effectivenessand efficiency has become the necessary but not sufficient norm for survival, Bengali’s are known aslaggards and inefficient, which in a way explains the slow (read non-existent) growth of the state asa whole, this probably the only consolation the community enjoys.However, the question that always intrigued me happens to be the reasons behind development ofsuch a perception, and today I will be attempting to understand why we are known as ‘culturallysuperior’ whereas every community has a rich cultural heritage.It’s a common conception to measure a community or a state’s growth by measuring the growth andgrowth potential of its villages and villagers. If the villagers are developed, then it is easy for us toconclude that the community itself is developed as well. Extrapolating this principle to the context ofBengal and its cultural and intellectual scenario, we can very well understand what provided us withthe social standing we enjoy even today. Cultural enlightenment had struck Bengal as early as in the15thcentury, when the Bauls, or the wandering minstrels of Bengal, started their journey spreadingthe words of love, harmony, joy and the divine truth.The Origins:The origin of Bauls can be debated, but, if we are to go by the universally accepted time-frame, thenalso the baul tradition dates back to the 15thcentury AD, the beginning of the Baul movement wasattributed to Birbhadra, the son of the baishnav saint Nityananda, or alternatively to the 8th centuryPersian minstrels called Baal. Bauls are a part of the culture of rural Bengal. Whatever their origin,Baul thought has mixed elements of Tantra, Sufi and Buddhism. They are thought to have beeninfluenced by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas, as well as Tantric Buddhist schools like theSahajiya baishnavs. Some scholars find traces of these thoughts in the ancient practices of Yoga aswell as the Charyapadas, which are Buddhist hymns that are the first known example of writtenBengali. Word “Baul” refers to three terms: vayu (" air ", resembling the inner flow of energywhich gives life to all beings); betul (“mad ",” out of rhythm ") and âuliyâ, (an Arabic term, whichmeans “holy man "). The image of the holy man has traditionally been of a controlled yogi, peacefuland strong; to the non-Baul, the madman (ksepa), or the Bauls are viewed as illogical and possessed.The Bauls nullify this allegation by explaining that it is the Bauls’ disinterest in the material world andhis polar emotional states, which make them seem mad. For the Baul, madness exhibits devotion toa rather of-the-moment-love that goes against established social rules. This is not hallucination, butrather visualizing the truth. The experience of the divine makes the Bauls appear bewildered, butthis is because to view the supreme the Baul must do the opposite of what normal society says.The religion of music:As we have seen in the last section, the origin of Bauls is not limited to one particular sect or religion.For the Bauls, it is about the journey of life and exploration of the same through the eclecticconfluence of music and lyrics. The religion never really mattered to this group of intellectual
  3. 3. P a g e | 3people, whose only identity has been that of a Hari Das, submitting to Hari, Krishna or the supreme,the Bauls of Bengal were following their tradition of spirituality much before the introduction ofIslam and neither had they called themselves Hindus. Their spirituality was never affected by thescriptural might of the Vedas and the upanishadas which were known as “pristine spirituality, bereftof scriptural adulteration”. Sufis were fundamentally Muslims, and used Islamic symbols in theirwritings and preaching, unlike the bauls, who had no such religious trappings and who, worshippedGod or even gods, independent of established faiths. Even Christ and Mary had figured in theirsongs, over 1,700 years ago in what is today Bangladesh. The philosophy of the bauls’ is articulatedwell in the song: "Je maane maanush ke / Bhagban o maane taake", one who serves mankind / Godserves him. The simplicity in the life of a Baul, the devotional nature of the music and absence ofsocial hierarchies are features that make the Bauls truly affable. This is the reason that the Bauls calltheir path ulta (the reverse) path and consider the process of their spiritual journey as the process ofmoving against the current.Baul music celebrates universal love, but in a very earthly term, e.g. declaration of love by the baulfor his boshtomi (life mate). With such liberal personification, it is only natural that music transcendsreligion. Even though they transcend all religious and social conventions, the Bauls are noticonoclastic. Their belief of "Were all offspring of the same God" is echoed in the teachings of Sufisas well. When the sufis’ arrived from Arabia, the mysticism and the egalitarian system of the Baulsinspired them. Almost 4000 years ago, Socrates named himself a global citizen, similarly, the Baulphilosophy made them consider the world as a huge family. But unfortunately, due to the lack ofwell documented history, the bauls never got much visibility as the sufis.The Philosophy:Traditionally, the Bauls were nonconformist, who rebuked the traditional norms to the society toform a sect that upheld music as the religion. "Baul" also happen to be the name given to the genreof folk music developed by this cult. Its easy to identify a Baul singer from the uncut, often coiledhair, alkhalla (saffron robe), necklace of beads made of tulsi (basil) stems, and of course the ektara(single stringed guitar). Music is their sole source of sustenance: They live on whatever offered byvillagers in return of the music, and travel from place to place, as it were, on a vehicle of ecstasy. Onreligious and philosophical standpoints, the existence is an outcome of the comingling of Hinduismand Islam, containing signs of Buddhist influence as well. Baul philosophy promotes a liberal viewand subscribes to a philosophy that condemns caste, creed and other social hierarchies in order tostrip oneself of external influence, revealing the moner manush (Eng: person of the heart). Thepractice focuses heavily on the chaar-chand (Eng: four moons), representing the four fluids of thebody and the naba-dwar (Eng: nine doors), representing the nine openings of the body. Anotherphilosophical theme lies in viewing the body as a microcosm for the universe, and in that wayeverything in the universe is also contained in man. As such, the moner manush is given the utmostrespect by the Bauls, who feel that Bhagavan (Eng: the Supreme Being; the ultimate; absolute truth)can only be reached through the human form. In this way, Baul philosophy emphasizes love for allhuman beings. Which, they feel, is the path leading to the Divine and Romantic love, which again, isviewed as the link between God and man. The philosophy of the bauls is thus similar to thesyncretism of the Sufis’. John Lennons ‘Imagine’ seems to be inspired by Baul philosophy: "Imaginetheres no God, no heaven...” Christopher Isherwood, British Vedanta scholar, called the Bauls the"first Sufis" and the "spiritual worlds earliest evolved souls."
  4. 4. P a g e | 4The wonder called the human body:In the baul religion, utmost importance is given on individual inquiry and emphasis on the physicalbody, because it is believed that the body is the Holy Grail where the Supreme resides and thus it isthe only place people need to search for God, which can be attained through Kaya Sadhan(Realization through the body). In order to gain real freedom, one must die to the life of the worldwhile still being alive in order to get rid of mortal desires. The Baul must get rid of necessity in orderto achieve his or her liberation. Like other tantrics, they hold that the body is a microcosm of theeternal and the only medium for gaining liberation and overcoming death. If one desires to achievethe realization of the Supreme then one should focus on knowing about the inner being. In the Bauldiscipline, the physical body must be kept exceedingly pure for it is the temple of supreme existence.The Bauls use a process called Urdha-srota (the elevation of the current), in order to convert thecurrents of jiva (animal life) into the current of Shiva (God life) and experience the realization of theSupreme. Gobinda Das, a Baul songwriter, considers it to be an absurdity that some people makepilgrimage, fast or even pray in order to find God, for he feels that God exists on its own, extremelyinfinite and having many shapes.Sexuality plays a crucial role in the search for the ultimate truth. Like the tantrics, the Bauls toobelieve that the path to achieve divine love is through human love; through the physical conjugationof the man and woman. Bauls’ copulate with seminal retention during the menstrual period of abaulani. The objective of these rituals is to attain the duality that was separated when the world wascreated. The Bauls try to inverse the cosmic process that leads to death and rebirth. Bauls believethat the active form of the Supreme, known as the sahaj manus, manifests in the muladhar, thelowest of chakras, during a woman’s menstrual period. It is at this time that the Bauls perform theirsadhana to get hold of the supreme. For sadhana to be successful it is required to bring undercontrol the six enemies (lust, anger, greed, infatuation, vanity, and envy). The male practitionervisualises himself as a woman in order to convert his lust to true love by avoiding semen loss.The bauls believe that one, who realizes the truth of the bhanda (body), will be able to understandthe truth of the brahmanda (universe). Similar to the baal, which rejects family life and human tiesto roam the desert, singing in search of his beloved, the Baul too wanders about in the search of hismaner manus (the ideal being). The madness of the Baul can be compared to the craze or euphoriaof the Sufi diwana. Like the Sufi, the Baul too searches for the divine beloved and finds him housedin the human body. Bauls call the beloved sain (lord), murshid (guide), or guru (preceptor), and it isin his search that they go mad. This thought is exemplified by the lines -The way to the divinehas been blockedby temples and mosques.The Women:Women perform a significant role in the religious and metaphysical sadhana (seeking) of bauls. Theyare inseparable companions of the men, and bauls insist on love and respect for their women. “He
  5. 5. P a g e | 5who does not know the feeling of tender love, must be avoided always”, goes one song, whileanother says: “A woman is not a treasure to be trifled with”. The baul philosophy of destroyingreligious and social boundaries has also been exemplified using feminine symbolism:“A Muslim man can be told apart from HindusBecause of circumcision.But what about the women folk?A Brahmin you can identify by his sacred threadBut what about a Brahmin woman?”If we put across one simple point which has been mentioned before, it will be clear how muchrespect women command within the baul community. In most of the cultures and religions, womenare considered to be ‘dirty’ and ‘filthy’ during their menstrual cycles, but bauls believe that theactive form of the supreme, manifests in the muladhar chakra during the menstrual cycle and theyperform sadhana (sexual intercourse with seminal retention) in order to attain the supreme.Even though the baulanis’ (female bauls) command respect in their day to day lives, the amount ofvisibility they receive in terms of their performance is minimal. They have always remainedbackground, dancing, providing the rhythm and lending their voice in the chorus whileaccompanying their fathers, brothers and husbands. Lately though, their skills are alsoacknowledged, Parbathy Das Baul is the biggest example of such singers.The influences on society:The baul-culture was ostracized till early 20thcentury terming it as hedonistic and uncultured,especially by the bhodroloks (cultured/civilized middle class). But slowly and steadily, it influencedthe social uprising of Bengal. Aroused people like Raja Rammohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda wereable to understand the open-mindedness of the baul culture and helped the bauls to introduce theirmusic and madness into the mainstream Bengali culture. The agendas behind the “brahmo Samaj”,formed by Raja Rammohun Roy, were quite similar to the baul ideologies, including “No IdolWorship”. This brought about a social revolution in the rising middle classes of Bengal. The songsalso influenced renowned poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. RabindranathTagore, who is considered by some to be a Baul, is known for bringing introducing such songs to themiddle-class Bengali society. It was Tagore and his associate Ksitimohan Sen, who elevated them as acultural symbol. In 1968, Upendranath Bhattacarya wrote about the Bauls and proved that Bauls,both Hindu and Muslim, practice similar sexual rites, which are essential to Baul religion and for thecomprehension of their songs.Tagore, in his Hebert Lecture in London (1933), first applauded the mystic poet, Lalan Shah, as whodiscovered soul and the meaning of man. Tagore cited that he discovered that man from thesongs of Lalan who said that (“ai manushe ase se mon....”) the “man is within yourself, where areyou searching Him”.Tagore, with the help of Bamacharan Chakravarty managed to copy nearly 150 songs from Lalan’sakhra (residing place) in Seuria from which few songs were published in the ‘Probashi’ as Haramoniin 1920. In a later publication (1932) of ‘Haramoni’, Tagore described in the preface, that in thesesongs, “Hindus and Muslims have been united under the same sky; there is no barrier of caste orcreed.”
  6. 6. P a g e | 6The mystical nature of Tagores lyrics is also an outcome of his association to these wandering bards.Edward Dimock Jr. in his The Place of the Hidden Moon (1966) writes: "Rabindranath Tagore put theBauls on a higher-than-respectable level by his praise of the beauty of their songs and spirit, and byhis frank and proud acknowledgement of his own poetic debt to them." The Baul pattern alsoinspired many other successful poets, playwrights and songwriters of the 19th and 20th centuries.Tagore, in his later writings, testified that he infused the tune of Baul (especially Lalan) in many of hissongs and dramas. Dusan Zbavitel, a Czech Folklorist wrote that “It is my firm belief that if Tagorehad not stayed in the countryside (Selaidah), he would not have become what he was as a man or apoet. Now the scholars are discovering the Baul-motifs in his songs, dramas and poems, which needselaborate discussion”.The significance of Baul culture in today’s society:The baul viewpoint is not only relevant for today’s society, but also ensures human dignity andrespectful and harmonious co-existence of different religion. The baul way of life is highly modernistin its approach of achieving the higher connect by using images from everyday life and imaginativerhetoric. The prime messages the bauls intend to deliver using their music includes, but not limitedto, the following:• The god within – Moner Manush• Acceptance and harmonious co-existence of different cultures.• No religious fundamentalism.• Devotion through a commonplace life.• Advocating free thought.It’s quite obvious looking at the list above that the baul way of life addresses most of the majorconcerns that plagues our society today. Thus, the music can prove to be an effective medium toincrease awareness about issues like the caste system, communal violence, equal rights for the girlchild, women empowerment, domestic violence etc. The entertainment value associated with themedium will not only appeal to the rural audience, making it easier to pass a message across even tostrata of the population with relatively low literacy rate, but it will also appeal to the mainstreamurban culture as an alternative form of media. The recent attempts of incorporating baul music withthe mainstream media and entertainment industry prove that the appeal and relevance is quitecontemporary, even though the lyrical intricacy is almost 600 years old. So, baul can provide us withboth the platform and the medium to express the rich ideologies which can help us achieve socialupliftment in terms equality and harmony an also provide us with the cultural anecdotes and thematerials required to enrich the lives, in the remaining sections, we will see how we can use the baulmusic (or folk tradition is general) to disseminate these messages.Significance in present context, folk culture as a Mass Media platform:Anthropologically, India is divided into tribal (12%) rural (75%) and urban (13%). Indian society withits complex family system, classes, ethnic groups, clans, geographic disparities, lack of moderneducation and rural settlements, has not fully emerged out of the deep associations of the folkculture. In remote villages and in tribal communities, indigenous strands of Indian culture persistthrough the use of oral and functional role of folklore. This emphasizes the strong links the Indian
  7. 7. P a g e | 7society has with the past. Hence, folk arts have been leveraged for moral, religious and socio-political purposes in India since time immemorial and rarely have they been perceived as materialsof pure entertainment alone. It must be noted that folk forms consists of communal, caste wisereligious and linguistic dialects and bear associations that can’t be overlooked. Thus, the folk arts notonly preserve the tradition and culture of our forefathers, but also disseminate it in a lively manner.The relative inexpensiveness and easy accessibility adds to the popularity of the folk media in ruralareas and their spontaneity, ease of participation and involving quality makes them the media parexcellence for any powerful and effective communication.In rural and tribal India, more than anywhere else, music is inseparable form of all the day-to-dayactivities. Music is remembered more faithfully because to the folk singer due to the fact that theappeal is more emotional than logical. The appeal lies in the simplistic nature of the styles that makepeople involve in a group. The music not only functions as a cornerstone for the rituals andfestivities, but also as a communication device when it is employed through the language andaccepted melodic patterns of a community. Folk musical styles supplement the speechcommunication with patterned vocal sounds, i.e., musical styles of modes. "Like the forms ofLanguage" Alain Danielon writes, "the musical modes are permanent marks of the tradition to whichpeople belong".Advantages of folk media over electronic media:Folk media have certain clear cut advantages over the traditional media, they are mainly:• The familiarity, personal contact, common language, intelligibility and credibility• Folk media establishes a contact between the sender and the receiver, as this contact is directand personal, messages become far more credible and acceptable.Mr. S. Krishnan, station director, A.I.R., Mumbai, spoke about the effectiveness at a lecture inMumbai in 1983; the excerpt says “The effective method of communicating with the backwardpopulation in rural areas is to talk to them in terms of myths and legends which are a part of theirreligion. The tribes may have their own gods and goddesses and their own myths which are modernin its appeal and if such myths were communicated with the help of tribal artistes themselves in theirown dialects, it would go a long way rather than a performance by an urban troupe”.Moreover, in folk arts, audience participation is very important. In adult education, the emphasis isprovided on the individual’s transformation through his own active participation in the developmentprocess. In these terms, the folk media is more flexible, repeatable and reachable than theconventional media. Folk media makes repeating the messages easy and far less expensive thandoing the same through the electronic media. Electronic media might provide greater reach in termsof numbers, but the effective reach is greater in case of folk media.The epilogue:We have seen how the baul tradition has sustained itself over history and historical atrocities. Inrecent years, when bauls and baulanies received commercial success with Paban Das Baul, Purna DasBaul and Parbathy Das Baul, we can only say that the bauls, with their songs and vision are not onlyto stay, but also to emanate the vision of Lalan and other fakirs towards making the world a place ofharmonious co-existence of people and religions where hierarchies do not exist and boundaries donot matter.
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  9. 9. P a g e | 9References: Identities, Endangered Lives: Baul Women in West Bengal and Bangladesh – Lisa IreneKnight, Syracuse UniversityMystics of the East: The tradition of Bauls – Shameek Ganguly, IIT GuwahatiBauls of Bangladesh – Khonker Taskin Anmol, University of Dhaka
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