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Within every belief system, there will be some elements which question and turn conventional wisdom on its head. And in the tapestry that represents spirituality in India, the Bauls represent that counter-force.
In this land of diverse languages, cultures and belief systems, the many forms of traditional Indian music can be roughly divided into the sacred and the secular, of the North and the South.
So, for instance, a North Indian Hindu musician might end his performance with a bhajan, while a South Indian Hindu would choose a mangalam or a kriti. All are devotional forms.
A North Indian Muslim performer, however, might end with a ghazal, a light classical form with romantic themes. The lines between love for God and love for another human are often blurred, coming as they do from a shared well of emotion.
Bhajans are the most popular form of Hindu devotional composition in North India. They are usually about divine love and spiritual freedom, and refer to deities, episodes from the Hindu scriptures, or praise of Lord Krishna.
Many date back to the 9th and 10th century, and can be heard wherever pilgrims are, or in prayer group meetings around the world. Bhajan lyrics and melodies are simple and designed to be sung by groups.
In Bengal, the popularity of bhajans reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. In that land of change and spiritual activity, Hindu and Sufi Muslim sects came to connect with each other and share a belief in worship centred on devotional love.
These cross-religious encounters led to the founding of the Baul philosophy in Bengal and Bangladesh, while it also shaped Sikhism in the Punjab.
The Baul philosophy holds that the soul of God resides within each individual, and theirs is a never-ending search for Adhar Manush, the Essential Man, the being which is inside us all. The word "baul" may derive from batul, the ancient Sanskrit word for "mad" or "wind”, and âuliyâ, a term of Arabic origin, which means "saint", "holy man". Bauls can come from a Hindu or a Muslim background, and in both cases, they rebel against societal conventions and orthodox religious practices and institutions.
They seek union with the divine through ecstatic singing and dancing, and traditionally, travel as bands of wandering minstrels. They accompany themselves with simple instruments such as the dotara (a simple form of lute), the sarinda (a four-string bowed instruments), the ektara (a single-string instrument often played by holy men), the khamak (a hollow drum with one or two strings attached), the duggi (a kettle drum made of clay), and various small instruments including kartal (small cymbals) and the napur (ankle rattles), a sound which is associated with Bauls.
They sing deceptively simple songs, often with hidden meanings, and they sashay and dance in tight circles, dressed in their mostly saffron patchwork clothing and turbans. The result is haunting, rhythmic and clearly spiritual.
The Bauls used to wander from village to village and sing for alms for their daily needs. Their only possessions were their clothes and instruments, their songs and secret practices, and it was said that they would accept only what they needed and refuse anything more than the strict minimum.
Even today, most Bauls live in small huts, a living space called akhra. These are much like ashrams, except that men and women live together as equal spiritual partners. In opposition to having children, they mostly adopt abandoned children who are taught the Baul way. They live on food which they collect from villages.
Non-singing gurus teach them different spiritual practices—sadhana—and songs with inner meanings. The verses of Baul poetry can come from past or present composers, and they always include secret teachings related to righteous practice and lifestyle.
Many Baul gurus are also poets. Lalan Fakir, one of the most famous of them, was a revolutionary and a holy man who created more than 5,000 such songs. In Baul poetry, the outer meaning looks sometimes very materialistic; but the inner meaning, which is not accessible to everyone, includes teachings related to notions such as srishti tattva (doctrine of the creation of the world), atma tattva (doctrine of the soul), deha tattva (doctrine of the body), prem tattva (doctrine of love), etc.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) was the greatest known Baul singer, who is acknowledged until today as the single most influential singer/poet.
The singing style of Bauls is linked to other aspects of Bengali folk culture, from tribal to village and even urban life. But Bauls have established their own singing style, within which individual and regional styles sometimes remain very distinctive.
Bauls always sing and dance together in such a way, it is believed, that the mind melts into the soul. In the process of dancing, spiritual energy intensifies and heightens, the ego is left behind and only Baul consciousness remains.
This feature was first published in the programme booklet for A Tapestry of Sacred Music in 2011.
Audrey Perera is a festival director, author and journalist specialising in the arts, travel and lifestyle. In March 2018, she created and directed the True Colours Festival, the first Asia Pacific Celebration of Artistes with Disabilities.