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The Bauls (the word comes from Sanskrit batul, meaning divinely inspired insanity) are a group of Hindu mystic minstrels from the Bengal region, and are a part of the culture of rural Bengal. They are thought to have been influenced greatly by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas. Bauls travel in search of the internal ideal, Maner Manush (Man of the Heart).
Baul singers at Shantiniketan, during the colour festival Holi, Mar 2004The music of the Bauls, bAul saMgeet refers to a particular type of folk song of sung by Bauls. It carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song mediated by many thousand miles of cultural intermixing, exemplified by the songs of Kabir, for instance.
Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the bAul for his boshTomi or lifemate. With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends religion, and some of the most famous baul composers, such as Lalon Fakir have been of muslim birth. Here is a particularly well known Baul song:
AmAr prANer mAnuSh Achhe prANe
tAi heri tAye sakal-khAne
Achhe se nayan-tArAy, Alok dhArAy
tAre nA hArAye
ogo tAi heri tAye JethAye sethAye tAkA-i Ami Jedik pAne
The man after my heart lives inside me,
That is why I see him everywhere.
In the gaze of my eye, in the sparkle of light
Oh I can never lose him --
Here, there, everywhere,
Wherever I look, he is right there for me.
Tagore on Bauls
The songs of the Bauls and their lifestyle influenced a large swath of Bengali culture, but nowhere did it leave its imprint more powerfully than in the work of Rabindranath Tagore, who talked of Bauls in a number of speeches in Europe in the 1940s, and an essay based on these was compiled into his English book Religion of Man:
The Bauls are an ancient group of wandering minstrels from Bengal, who believe in simplicity in life and love. They are similar to the Buddhists in their belief in a fulfilment which is reached by love's emancipating us from the dominance of self. . . .
Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?
He is lost to me and I seek him wandering from land to land.
I am listless for that moonrise of beauty,
which is to light my life,
which I long to see in the fulness of vision
in gladness of heart. [p.524]
The above is a translation of the famous Baul song: Ami kothAy pAbo tAre, AmAr maner mAnush Je re. The following extract is a translation of another song:
My longing is to meet you in play of love, my Lover;
But this longing is not only mine, but also yours.
For your lips can have their smile, and your flute
its music, only in your delight in my love;
and therefore you importunate, even as I am.
The poet proudly says: 'Your flute could not have its music of beauty if your delight were not in my love. Your power is great -- and there I am not equal to you -- but it lies even in me to make you smile, and if you and I never meet, then this play of love remains incomplete.'
The great distinguished people of the world do not know that these beggars -- deprived of education, honour, and wealth -- can, in the pride of their souls, look down upon them as the unfortunate ones, who are left on the shore for their worldly uses, but whose life ever misses the touch of the Lover's arms. . . This feeling that man is not a mere casual visitor at the palace-gate of the world, but the invited guest whose presence is needed to give the royal banquet its sole meaning, is not confined to any particular sect in India.
A large tradition in medieval devotional poetry from Rajasthan and other parts of India, also bear the same message of unity in celestial and romantic love, and that divine love can be fulfilled only through its human beloved.
Tagore's own compositions were powerfully influenced by Baul ideology. His music also bears the stamp of many Baul tunes. Other Bengali poets, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, have also been influenced by Baul music and its message of non-sectarian devotion through love.
Bauls are to be found in the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh. The Baul movement was at its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but even today one comes across the occasional bAul with his ektArA (one-stringed musical instrument) and begging bowl, singing across the farflung villages of rural Bengal. Travelling in local trains and attending village fairs are a good way to encounter Bauls.
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