By Siddhartha Roy:
The terrain of the Indian subcontinent has been thriving with varied music forms for centuries. Their inceptions range from influences of nature and religion to music centred on specific rituals and beliefs. Baul music offers a fresh mix of all these and has been around forever. This cultural (and musical) treasure from Undivided Bengal is an asset to the country’s richness.
Does the word ‘Baul’ ring any bells? Try ‘Iktara’. And the paint on the memory strip is afresh! The adorable pair of Konkana Sen Sharma and Ranbir Kapoor from ‘Wake Up Sid’ immediately springs on to our minds. The haunting tunes on a guitar, a stirring violin and the strumming on an iktara/ektara transform simple moments on screen into a subliminal experience.
For those who have seen Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’ (based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel by the same name), in the sequence in Kolkata where Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) performs the last rites of his father Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) near the Ganges, a boatman is seen as he manoeuvres his boat singing a rustic song — one portraying intense emotions and a bare soul.
Ektara — the instrument is an essential companion to a form of music called ‘Baul’. Although, the Wake Up Sid track ‘Iktara’ isn’t Baul, it has elements of Sufism which influence Baul music. Ektara transcends borders to include India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and is a significant part of Sindhi and Punjabi folk music. The track (Mon Dole) from ‘The Namesake’, however, is a Baul song.
Baul is a unique form of folk music prevalent in West Bengal and Bangladesh since the early 19th century. It may have originated from the tantrik Buddhism of undivided Bengal in the 9th and 10th centuries. The trail of its origin runs cold past a few hundred years but it is possible that the music has existed for over a thousand years.
There are various interpretations of the word ‘Baul’s’ meaning. Some refer to it as implying “rootless” and other scholars say it means “afflicted with the wind disease”. The Baul singers are traditionally wandering minstrels singing their particular form of folk music. The Bauls themselves attribute the lack of historical records of themselves to their reluctance of leaving a trace behind. They are often identified by their characteristic clothes and music accompaniments. Baul music has significantly influenced the Bengali culture and population. In fact, the UNESCO included the Baul tradition in its list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2005.
Both the lyrics and the music are ‘soul-searching’. The beliefs are a mixture of many influences and traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and Yoga. They break away from many common Indian beliefs, including the age-old caste system, and the separation of Hindu and Muslim communities.
The lyrics in Baul music urge man to search for God within himself and decry the role of mosques and temples in the quest of God. Baul music celebrates celestial love. This celebration, however, is represented in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the Baul for his lifemate. With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends religion.
Baul music had a profound influence on two stalwarts of Bengali poetry — Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Tagore always brought in a Baul minstrel in his plays and also categorized some of his own songs as Baul. As a matter of fact, many of Tagore’s songs (termed Rabindra Sangeet) have the elements of eternal love which have been inspired from Baul beliefs. A majority of modern Bauls are wandering musicians — often lacking education and wealth — who play in trains or move from village to village and receive rice and lentils in return. Yet their understanding of life’s mysteries and love’s perpetual embrace being an answer to all questions surpasses that of the ‘worldly’.
The musical accompaniments of Bauls usually includes either a khamak, a string instrument with one or two strings attached to the head of a small drum or the ektara, a plucked single string drone. Other instruments were a khanjani, a tambourine without jangles, mandira or kartal which are small bell-shaped cymbals or ramchaki, a pair of wooden clappers with jangles.
Modern day Baul music has many exponents of the tradition spread across the world especially in the United States in addition to India and Bangladesh. A few names that I came across include Parvathy Baul, Lakhan Das Baul and Anando Gopal Das. The major tradition stalwarts of course are the rustic Baul singers in West Bengal and Bangladesh who are heard in village fairs and train bogies. Bauls also flock to the Joydeb Mela (a four day music fest held in January every year in Birbhum district of West Bengal) and the Poush Mela (celebrated at Santiniketan University — which was established by Rabindranath Tagore himself — on the onset of the harvesting season) where their culture can be experienced and their music savoured.
A sampling of the richness of the Baul music form appears below as a literal translation:
“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.”
“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.”
Now, isn’t that surreally beautiful?
 Canaday, Susan: The Bauls and their Music. Available at: http://www.bauls.com/home.html
 Ramnath, Renu: ‘Enchanting with Baul music’ published in The Hindu. Available at: http://www.hindu.com/2005/11/13/stories/2005111300670200.htm
 The Bangladesh Blog: http://www.bangladesh.com/blog/baul-music-of-bangladesh
 Wikipedia keywords ‘Baul’ and ‘Ektara’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/