There is always a mysticism associated with wandering minstrels. For centuries folk music has persisted in Bengal in the form of music rendered by a group of such minstrels, the Baul Fakirs, identified by their unique clothing and music. People from an earlier generation will definitely remember the singing fakir passing with an Ektara and a bowl for alms.
Baul Fakirs belong to a traditional fusion and mix of multiple religious influences into an eclectic group called Bauls. The origin of the tradition itself is shrouded in a mystery lost to the ages but is known to be at least a half a millennium old, integral to the region of Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand.
The tradition is primarily a strange mix of influences from the Vaishnav Bhakti movement, a Hindu religious movement from the pre-medieval era and of Sufi influence from Islam. The result of this is rendered in music and songs that celebrates celestial love imbibing the philosophies of both Hindu and Sufi Islam.
Baul music has, however, transcended celestial love into open interpretations of the understanding of the supreme and hence, goes beyond religious boundaries. The lyrics of the Baul songs celebrate this approach and understanding.
The strength of the Baul philosophy was so strong that even the great Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was deeply influenced and incorporated into his poetry and music.
Samiran Baul hails from a long lineage of the Baul tradition and has been singing since his childhood days. Having learnt from his guru Sadhan Bairagi , he now performs with a troupe of 5-7 members that include Vivek Khyapa and Nabakumar Baul.
Samiran has been lucky to perform with legendary Baul artists like Subhadra di (Subhadra Sharma) and Golam Fakir in his earlier days and with them is deeply influenced by the legendary Sufi poet Sain Lalon Shah Fakir.
Samiran explains that the Baul song is about love for the Divine and celebrates celestial love. “It has the power to transform a person’s feelings from negative to positive or even the other way round. Baul music allows the singer to discover themselves”, he said.
The word “Baul” is possibly derived from a Sanskrit word “Vatula”, which means achieving a state of enlightenment sanity in the search of truth and detachment that makes one appear to have lost their sanity.
Samiran says “Baul music a complete assimilation of the spiritual with the material. We believe in Bhav Tattva and Deha Tattva, principles related to emotions and the body (the material) . The words are most important in Baul songs and if can connect with the song, a complete new perspective of the world is exposed. Who sees this and follows, imbibes the quality of a Sadhu”. There is no better example than the poet Sain Lalon Shah Fakir, whose couplets on Krishna and Radha symbolizes the divinity of love and beauty.
An interesting method of singing sometimes used by Baul singers is “Palla Gan” where the Baul way is explained where one asks questions and another answers.
The Bauls tend to distribute their songs and music orally without records and most of the songs have been passed on from one generation to other.
Baul Music is characterised by certain type of musical instruments like the Ektara, the Dotara, the Dhol, Manjiras etc. These instruments are made from natural substances like clay, bamboo, wood etc. and the results are sweet melodious tunes. In Samiran Baul’s view, the melodious sound from traditional instruments cannot be matched by modern electronic instruments.
Folk traditions are increasingly threatened today by Film music and western influences. Musicians today include modern touches into their usual traditional forms to attract people. Samiran Baul is confident that there are audiences that appreciate the Baul songs in its traditional original form and who appreciate the deeper meaning of the music. Samiran considers it a taboo and destruction of tradition to modify the songs, especially the words and the intrinsic meaning, except to change the rhythm to attract the current audience.
Samiran Baul and his troupe performed on the 15th of February at the recently concluded Blue Lotus Festival in Pushkar this year and will be seen on the 21st February, “Bhasha Divas” in Kolkata; and then later in Rajasthan.
Popular contemporary Baul artistes are Parvathy Baul, Kartick Das Baul, Paban Das Paul and others who spread the tradition and perform regularly across the country in Baul Fairs, held in Kolkatta and in Shantiniketan every year.
The resurgence of many such events has ensured that the Baul music tradition is preserved and distributed. As Samiran Baul says with confidence “It has a great future ahead”.
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