Baul music: the spiritual songs of Bengal’s wandering bards

The Bauls, traditionally been lineage of wandering devotional musicians, are vital to Bengal’s cultural history. Baul can be literally translated as ‘an affliction with the spirit of wind’, hinting at the style’s poetic, folkloric themes as well as the ecstatic, trance-like states it seeks to evoke – batul, the original Sanskrit root word, can also describe a state of ‘restless insanity’.

It is believed that some time prior to the 15th century, groups of spiritually-inclined Bengali musicians decided to leave behind the trappings of modern life, forming ‘creative cults’ that roamed the countryside, immersed in ascetic, devotional routines. They went from village to village, retelling ancient folk tales using songs, poems, and dances, and expounding a doctrine of liberation via falling “madly in love with the Unattainable Man…the Divine Self”.

They took music as their religion in a very literal sense, uniting behind the shared bliss of performance rather than specific doctrines or the strictures of their existing faiths – comprised of a curious mix of Vaishnava Hinduism, Sahajiya Buddhism, and Sufi Islam. Bauls have traditionally believed that the connection with God should be established directly, through ‘recolouring the soul itself’, with no need for a priest class to mediate or sermonize to the masses. 

Lalon Fakir, perhaps the most famous of the historical Bauls, preached a heady blend of sensory euphoria and religious tolerance throughout the 19th century, singing about equality, social inclusivity, and harmonious visions of a better world for all. His legacy endures today – in 2004 he was voted the 12th-greatest Bengali of all time.

Baul lyrics, usually in Bengali, tend to present ambiguous, half-sketched scenes, with simple vocabulary that belies a rich philosophical depth. Songs tend towards the poetic and allegorical, commonly evoking the dissonance between the earthly and spiritual realms, or describing the inherent beauty of the laws of nature.

In keeping with the Bauls’ general ‘find-your-own-path’ sentiments, words aim to provoke new lines of spiritual enquiry rather than serve up all the answers in detail. Consider the sparks catalysed by the following passage, drawn from a historic Baul hymn:

“God has reversed the acts of the play, and the land talks in paradox; The flowers devour the heads of fruits, and the gentle vine, roaring, strangles the tree.

The moon rises in the day, and the sun at night, with shining rays; Blood is white, and on a lake of blood, float a pair of swans; Copulating continuously, in a jungle of lust and love.”

Unsurprisingly, themes such as these captivated many literary and creative minds from around the world, including Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan (although the latter’s self-description as an “American Baul” does little justice to the tradition’s formidable musical demands).

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath who we met in another article, held vocalist Nabani Das Baul in high esteem, using his texts as the basis for various Rabindrasangeet and conferring him with the title Khyapa (‘wild’). Tagore never forgot his first encounter with Baul music:

“One day I chanced to hear a song from a beggar…a religious expression that was neither grossly concrete, full of crude details, nor metaphysical in its rarefied transcendentalism. At the same time it was alive with an emotional sincerity, it spoke of an intense yearning of the heart for the divine, which is in man and not in the temple or scriptures, in images or symbols…I sought to understand them through their songs.”

Even today, Baul musicians are recognisable for their aesthetic non-conformities, typically sporting colourful robes, ornate bead necklaces, and long, coiled hair. Baul vocal melodies are accompanied by the ektara, a one-string instrument with a gourd resonator and bamboo neck, along with various drums such as the dholkhol, and duggi, and a vast array of bells and cymbals including the khartalkansarjhanjhargini, and manjira

Baul musicians have, however, struggled economically in recent generations, and their numbers declined for many years. However there is some evidence that the scene is in places starting to thrive again – aided by support from local government, and catalysed by the platform of latter-day stars such as Paban Das Baul, who has taken the music global via collaborations with musicians from across pop, jazz, and reggae through to Britain’s electronic Asian underground.

Baul music was granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2005, and as of 2019 Parvathy Baul is in the process of establishing the Sanatan Siddhashram, a training academy for young musicians. Female performers are beginning to find more space too after years of exclusion from all but supporting roles – something that is starting to filter through to the top stages.

The music, increasingly concentrated around Bengal’s urban centres, remains in constant flux, but many of its roots and original routines are still intact. According to writer Tania Banerjee, the “wandering musical bards…are not totally extinct. The saffron-robed mystic minstrels can still be sighted in the Khoai belt of West Bengal, walking on the red soil with an ektara in hand. The best way to catch their music live is to attend the village fairs….they don’t charge for their performance, but leaving money on their mat is considered a thoughtful gesture – a mark of respect for the long history behind their music”.

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