The enunciations of the Bauls embodied in the songs, interviews, and documentaries depict voice as everyday communication that questions dominant oppressions and/or ignorance, and legitimizes their (Bauls’) ceaseless negotiations from the margins. Through the voicing of the structural and communicative absences and injustices, through the interrogation of the hegemonic practices of erasure, and through consciousness raising and reflexive performances, the Bauls and Fakirs open up avenues for emancipatory imaginings and transformative possibilities.
4.1. Structurally Constituted Material Injustice
As a medium of expression, Baul songs foreground embodied narratives of the experiences of being at the margins. For example, owing to prolonged structural inequality, Baul communities, (being members of lower socio-economic strata, and often from the low and untouchable castes (referred to as dalits
)), experience struggles in earning the bare minimum requirements of living. Such structural injustices force them to face abject poverty and social exclusion, which have been further exacerbated by the transformation of rural livelihoods amid neoliberal reforms in India. Through their songs, they describe the unbearable conditions of their existence. Sambhu Sadhu, a Baul practitioner from the state of Assam, India, while sitting in his own house, sang,
- My life weeps in broken fragments (Alas!)
- Emotionally dumb,
- For there is such great dearth. …
- No support I have … apart from my quilt …
- As gluttony draws to mouth upon eating rasgullas [Bengali sweet],
- Vegetable rice is a dream of yore, wheat is what goes down the mouth,
- Rice is finished, the price of wheat has risen,
- No way for the poor,
- For there is such a great dearth.
Thus, in their songs, the Bauls often talk about their negotiations with the lack of access to material resources, voicing their economic and socio-cultural struggles amidst the transforming landscape of India (note the narratives of inflation and price increases voiced here). The enunciation of the structural the marginalization of rural life is juxtaposed amid the voicing of the embodied struggles of the Baul to feed her/himself.
Their articulation of material scarcities and absences are not always forthright in nature, since sometimes they use indirect and layered communication. For instance, oftentimes in their voicing of material struggles, Bauls draw on spiritual discourses, mentioning the names of gods, to explain their situation poetically. In a song, Nakshtra Das Baul said,
- Some go to the market and stare,
- While some buy honey and sugar,
- Azure-throated God (Shiva) buys cheap vegetables and gourd,
- I cannot even buy a single thing.
Through these narratives they enunciate their day-to-day negotiations with the hegemonic market forces. They point to the marginalizing forces of the dominant market logics that have resulted in the misdistributions of wealth in society, and its scarcities at the margins. The juxtaposition of spirituality amid their voicing of everyday struggles resists dominant (such as neoliberal) intentions of greed and material accumulation.
Bauls opine that the most privileged people do not even have the time and willingness for listening to and/or addressing the situations of marginalized Bauls. Although their voices are largely unheard, their ceaseless struggle for survival, and their frustrations, often are revealed through their words and songs. A Baul singer from North Eastern India sang,
- What shall I say, who would listen?
- Will come forward any eager ear? …
- Spent my days in starvation
- Even as rice grows abundant on our earth.
Such struggles and negotiations are not only limited to the individual realm; socio-economic disparities, and inequity in the broader societal contexts are also voiced in Baul songs. One such song poetically narrated, “Fire is everywhere in the water, all the vegetables get boiled due to that, vultures are in the air, are coming to attack, Hari-Narayan
(Lord Vishnu) sank inside, … everything is haphazard.” Along with elaborating on the realities of the underserved in the contemporary market-dictated world, the Baul songs also show that economically poor people, and even the gods of the poor, could not overcome the scarcity of resources in their everyday lives. A Baul singer from Birbhum, West Bengal, sang,
- I found neither a friend nor even a lover,
- When I asked for happiness, misery is all I got
- We poor had hopes from the Almighty
- But, when we found him, he too was poor like us.
In some sense, the Bauls in their constant negotiations at the margins poetically depict potential impossibilities in overcoming adversities in their struggle for survival; they do so by showing that even for gods, such overcoming is unattainable. The depiction of the life of the poor also serves as an anchor for spiritually situating poverty.
Structural injustice not only materially affects impoverished populations, but also makes them socially alienated and isolated from mainstream society. Such de-legitimizations cause their voices and realities to be ignored and overlooked in the spaces of discursivity. In a Baul song, Kubir Gonsai depicted such realities,
- The hawks are flying in large numbers,
- Swooping down in a moment, they would come,
- On the branches would alight,
- They would feed on the flesh, picking out our eyes.
- Of this misery whom would I tell,
- Everyone would dine on my suffering well,
- Ruin me after and destroy beyond tell.
- The constant pain in my mind,
- To whom do I go, to whom confide,
- Neighbors and well-wishers are not in sight.
- Giving everything, the heart still pains, still yearning,
- They always hurt us, by cruel words they do burn us.
The song not only talks about oppressions, exploitations and helplessness at the margins, but also notes the mental stresses and pains experienced by the Bauls. Such an isolation and/or disenfranchisement both further marginalize the Bauls, and make their struggle for survival ever tougher.
As performers, they seek to secure respect and acceptance in their society. However, oftentimes, the experience of performance is daunting for many Baul singers. Subhadra Sharma, a woman Baul, shares her personal experience,
In spiritual gatherings, we are made to sing the whole night, we never got notice from anybody. Even we also have hunger, but nobody paid any attention to that. Our performance would start at 7 or 8 p.m. in the evening and would go on until 4 a.m. in the morning. Nobody even thinks that we could be hungry. Our entire body would shiver from exhaustion. Tell me, what will happen to the person who is singing unfed? Ultimately they will become sick like me. A folk artist will eventually die from indigestion, gastritis. I think it is better to beg than to sing Baul songs. My sickness brought forth this epiphany,
- “As long is youth,
- So long is zeal,
- So long is desire and fire,
- Then there is quaking,
- Followed by shattering,
- Concluded in spinning.”
Being members of the lower socio-economic strata, and having no sustainable income, most Bauls face exploitation and ignorance from the mainstream. Moreover, such a difficult journey oftentimes negatively influences their physical and psychological health.
For similar reasons, many of the Bauls stopped performing and opted for alternate income options. Scholars opined that the main reason for those who had left the arts, especially among aging practitioners, was that they could not provide sufficiently for the family from their low and/or uncertain income and resources (Jha 2010
). Such marginality also made Bauls and their ways of life unattractive to their next-generations; for example, the son of late Kalachand Darbesh stated (the interview was conducted when he was alive),
Sorrow will stay with us forever. Till now, I always find him (his father) in tears; I have never seen a moment of material-happiness. Today also, he has to toil hard for livelihood. Till today, my father goes by begging alms in the trains and attending fairs. I burst into tears seeing his struggles even in this age of life. It happened many a times that he was saved narrowly from death, when rescued from the streets.
Like the late Kalachand Darbesh, many senior Bauls are struggling to meet the minimum needs of life in their old age. Situated resource scarcity, hunger, psychological stress, and that too with no social security, make their journey strenuous. This is more apparent in this contemporary era, where any respect and recognition of ascetic lifestyles is gradually eroding. According to Parvati Das Baul,
I will be definitely happy if the Baul community is looked after well, especially the old masters. When they are sick and cannot perform, they have no value (in the societal and/or material sense). They have to just depend on whatever is coming (as alms); sometimes the situation is very, very pathetic. So many Bauls I have seen, they do not even have money to buy medicine. So, if these things are taken care of by the government, then it would be great.
In the contemporary era of increasing financial uncertainty, external aid and assistance are certainly helpful and important for Bauls. However, Bauls traditionally practiced Madhukari
(i.e., everyday ritualistic begging for alms by walking from one village to another) for survival and sustenance. Changing economic, social, and cultural scenarios in this neoliberal era mark decreasing patronage for the Bauls; consequently, both the nature and practice of Madhukari
are also changing. Unable to earn basic minimum subsistence because of the rapid liberalization of rural spaces, the Bauls are now performing in public places and/or gatherings, including in trains (aforementioned song of Nakshtra Das Baul is an example of such a performance). One of the senior Bauls, Paban Das Baul was talking about the contemporary practice of Madhukari
, “The conditions are different now. These days, Bauls sing in trains. Do you know why? Trains do not make for a good setting. You can hardly hear the songs. They sing for only one reason—to survive.” In contrast to visiting rural households on a regular basis with an aim to awaken them spiritually, many Bauls now have to entertain people in crowded spaces to earn food and essential commodities for their families. Their discourses highlighted the socioeconomic disenfranchisement experienced by Bauls; simultaneously, their utterances invert the logics of commoditization, greed, and profiteering. The articulation of the struggles with material resources are juxtaposed in the backdrop of the deep interrogation of economic attachments and market principles, drawing on a spiritual narrative.
Again, the questions and concerns about the survival of the Baul tradition, and the endangered existence of the Bauls, are also represented in Baul songs. For example, in anticipation of such danger, the famous Baul, Purna Chandra Das, once sang,
- Who will sing Baul songs?
- After experiencing so much pain or sorrow the Bauls have died …
- The bamboo-flute becomes speechless; so, Baul cries,
- With this sorrow (I would like to say),
- People have forgotten the songs of Bauls.
The song poetically captures the struggle of Bauls for survival, as well as an anxious anticipation of extinction by the Bauls themselves. However, by negotiating with all the aforementioned challenges, disparities and adversities, the Bauls are relentlessly working towards overcoming material and discursive marginalization.
4.2. Communicative Marginalization Amid Hegemonic Cultures
Along with structural barriers and economic oppressions, Bauls experience various forms of symbolic marginalization–culturally, politically, and religiously. These various forms of marginalization have prolonged historical contexts and connotations, often tied to their lower caste or untouchable status.
Even before the era of Lalon, i.e., in the eighteenth century, this community was constantly facing opposition and oppressions from the dominant politico-cultural, as well as religious forces. These oppressions reflected the interplays of caste practices and practices of communicative marginalization. To date, the religious authorities portray performances and practices of Bauls and Fakirs as indecent and irreverent, and oftentimes label their songs as sinful (haram
). About the religious-appropriateness of singing, one conversation was depicted in a biographical movie on Lalon Fakir—Moner Manush (released in 2010), where Lalon was answering one such question posed by his disciple:
- Sai (Master), I have a question for you. Because we sing songs, many Muslim religious leaders are angry with us. They say bad things about our practices. They even beat us. They say that singing in Islam is a sin (gunah).
- If the religious leaders say that singing is a sin, do not argue with them. By arguing, you will not reach anywhere. Holding your ears (i.e., admitting your mistake publicly), tell them, ‘Master, I have made a mistake, please forgive me, I will not sing songs again in front of you’. Then keep singing inside. Those who are spiritually thirsty, keep serving music-nectar to them. (BongoBD 2015)
Communicatively speaking, Lalon in the aforementioned conversation advocated for strategic and veiled communication. His teachings argued in favor of apparently non-confrontational communication, which embodied an essence of ceaseless resistance (and a disapproval of mainstream religious praxis). We can describe such conversation as an example of ‘stubborn bedrock’ as delineated by Scott
Baul philosophy does not subscribe to a narrow definition of religion; it essentially questions the very intentions and dominant notions of religious organizing. Again, the Bauls put emphasis on true spiritual realization embodied in everyday experiences that can be achieved by anyone [and particularly as modes of spiritual possibility for excluded populations]. Therefore, they criticize hegemonic interpretations of sacred texts for misleading and controlling common followers. In an interactive Baul song (where two singers [one male and one female] are seen conversing with each other: One was favoring dominant discourses, and other one was talking about Baul philosophy), the female singer who was representing dominant discourse commented, “You (the Bauls) people don’t obey the rules of the holy Quran
, How can you claim that you are Muslim? … You people always skip Namaz
, In Ramadan
, you do not fast … you people do not even participate in Hajj
and other Islamic activities. If you want to go to heaven, fear the Allah”. In response, the male Baul singer enunciated counter-arguments by saying, “By reading two pages (of religious text) it is not possible for one to grasp the spirituality of Bauls. They (religious leaders) do not even understand (the key-texts), and how can they teach people? By simply misinterpreting and misleading others, the Mullahs (religious leaders) take advantage. We are neither greedy for heaven, nor believe in the existence of hell. So (my friend) just introspect and nurture love inside you” (Tareque Masud Memorial Trust 2016
). In the conversation, the first singer put emphasis on the external and/or ritualistic aspects of religious practice, such as reading sacred texts and participating in payer or fasting. The second singer, who represents the Bauls, challenged such ritualistic notions, and argued in favor of experiential realizations and spiritual attainments. Note here the juxtaposition of the Baul philosophy of syncretism in the backdrop of hegemonic religious orthodoxy.
The Bauls not only reject the dominant religious doctrines, but have also raised their voices in the context of social injustices, such as the existing caste system in South Asia. Thus, fundamentally, they articulate their position against the hegemonic meaning-construction and knowledge production processes, working through their marginalized positions to disrupt hegemonic religio-social structures. In a documentary—Songs of the Bards of Bengal: The Bauls and Fakirs—Dr. Sudhir Chakraborty, argued,
They (Bauls) offer their worship within themselves. Their rozah (ritualistic practice of abstaining from food and drink) is not physical fasting, but is a metaphoric expression of self-restraint and control of senses.
Thus, when they chant the name of Hari or Allah, they actually mean something different; they refer to an internalized awareness.
They essentially embrace a spiritual ideology that dismantles the silos of religious orthodoxy, and envision humanity, consciousness and reflexivity at the center of spiritual accomplishment.
Bauls fundamentally reject mainstream religion and rituals, and perform alternate spiritual practices. In their spiritual path they place no importance on visiting places like temples, mosques, and idols, and reject the guidance of Brahmins or priests. In one song, Radhabalav, a Baul poet, communicated a similar message,
- Beguiled by the opportunists,
- You have lost your direction,
- Alas, which form of sadhana will then,
- Will fetch you the divine wealth?
- If Allah could be found in the streets of Mecca,
- Or Lord Shiva’s residence was only in Varanasi,
- If Vrindavan was indeed the garden of Lord Krishna,
- Then none would have returned to their homes.
- If God could be had, With offerings of food—this and that,
- Or by proffering sinni3, on a large scale,
- Then food would have been all it took,
- To have the King shook,
- To buy His amazing grace and escape his rebuke.
The song fundamentally questions and challenges the mainstream religious practices and rituals as well as argues for internal awakening and realizations. Chakraborty
) noted that scriptures, hymns, sacrifice, penance, pilgrimage or Holy Water is not important for Bauls and Fakirs; they search for their god among human beings; and their gurus are their initiator and pathfinder in the journey. In the path of alternate spiritual learnings, Gurus or Murshid
(spiritual masters) hold a very important position for the Bauls and Fakirs. It is the gurus, who intimately and ultimately guide them. As Monimohan Das said in one of his songs—
- Oh Guru! You are Brahma, you are Vishnu, you are the revered god Shiva,
- Have mercy on me Guru, kindest thou be than all noble hearts, bless my soul and guide me over,
- You are help to those who are helpless,
- You are the Father and the keeper of us all,
- Stability to them you provide who have lost direction.
- Guru, I am all bereft,
- No path for me awaits, nothing for me in this world except for some shelter at your feet.
Gurus or their spiritual masters not only guide them in their spiritual journey, gurus also show them a path in their everyday negotiations with material and communicative adversities. Being members of the lower socio-economic strata, many Bauls do not get the opportunity to pursue and/or continue formal-education. Moreover, in spiritual and moral education contexts, they express their full faith (if not surrender) to their Guru, who is their mast in their spiritual journey. Chakraborty
) opines that they can even lay down their lives for gurus. Bauls come from different castes, classes, or religious groups. In their spiritual path, Bauls go above and beyond their boundaries of religion and silos of rituals; they express their faith in human consciousness and realization. One such Baul song notes,
- Be he Hindu or Muslim, be he Shakta, Buddhist or Christian.
- In the world of free love, everyone is equal.
- Those awakened by the knowledge of tattwa (epistemologies and theories),
- For them, darkness fades forever.
Through their songs, Bauls advocate for religious harmony, and celebrate the essence of core values and teachings of spirituality. To Bauls the almighty is not a mono-religious construct; they envision inclusive and equal entry of all people, irrespective of their individual identity or affiliation. A Baul song, narrates their vision—
- He (god) is the epitome of the Vedas and the Upanishads,
- He holds the Koran and reads the Namaz.
- The Christians think Him to be Christ,
- Creating inspirations of spiritual love and passions.
The song seeks to search the almighty in pedagogies and ideologies embedded in various religious traditions. Such utterances of inclusivity are important in this contemporary era of religious intolerance. Jha
) showed that Bauls come from the margins of Muslim, Hindu as well as Christian societies. As they are from underprivileged classes (including dalits
and indigenous background), mainstream society portrays their practices as gounodhormo (marginalized religion), upodhormo (sub-religious), or opodhormo (Mal-religious). In a way, Bauls’ long oppressive, dis-respected, unacknowledged existence make them (Bauls) anti-brahminical and counter-hegemonic. Further, because of their (Bauls’) non-conformist attitudes and rejection of mainstream religious doctrines, they (Bauls) are also denied recognition in the mainstream. More specifically, mainstream religious institutions consistently posed restrictions, bans and/or even announced ‘Fatwa
s’ against such alternate practices to further marginalize the Bauls and Fakirs (Jha 2014
). In one such case in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, Jha
) documented a song that narrated the incident vividly. In February 1973, local political and religious leaders intentionally humiliated and ostracized Bauls publicly. Khodabaksh Fakir, writer of the song, narrated,
- … They feigned a meeting and invited us,
- “Come, my brothers to hear this meeting,” he (a local leader—Golam Ali Murtuja) amiably said.
- A sacrifice of the Fakirs was to be made, it was told,
- Hearing this, people came, all young, as well as the old.
- Went there then the party all, curious to see what was going on,
- Some Fakirs were captured and made to swear on their religion,
- That scoundrels were they who indulged in marijuana’s grave intoxication.
- … Fear of beating and lynching too,
- Made the Fakirs swear over and anew,
- Alas, but they do die at heart.
- … Near the banks of Sura (a river) there lived Panchu Shah (a Fakir),
- Now because of such trouble, chances of living he had none,
- Sitting in his home, he prays to the guru, deeming that he is the only hope.
- Seeing and hearing it all, some Bauls took heed, and to Beldanga (location of the incident) rushed,
- Orders were given, curfew in effect, which in turn Section 144 ushered.
- Some immediately fled, but three Fakirs were arrested.
- Manik Fakir and Ibrahim (a Fakir) have no more days to them to live.
- Mantu Khan (a local leader), Pretending to be a doer of good, cut off their (Bauls’) buns off their heads,
- Chaos and outrage spread …
Though not common in the Baul literary tradition, this song is not only a testimony of Bauls’ material and discursive marginalization, but it also demonstrates that through singing of the song, Bauls still remember and legitimize the incident among a wider audience.
In a similar tone, Baul Shah Abdul Karim of Bangladesh shared in one of his interviews, “People (Sharia
followers) threatened that as I sing songs, they said that they will not bury my body in my religious custom.” He then commented, “I committed many mistakes. We all make mistakes in every step of the way. But, my singing was not a mistake. I had never thought it was a mistake. It is my songs that brought me closer to the people’s heart. It is my songs that created a consciousness within my being.” Such expression of commitment and non-conformity is also reflected in the words of the younger Bauls; they refuse to submit to the mainstream doctrines and/or impositions; Bedana Fakir, a woman singer from Nadia, West Bengal answered,
- Do the Mullahs or those who abide by the Sharia law oppose you?
- Bedana Fakir:
- Yes, they do. In the beginning, they opposed us becoming Fakirs. But my guru refused to obey their diktat.
The mainstream authorities often confront Bauls’ alternate spiritual journey. Moreover, compared to their male counterparts, female Bauls experience more opposition from patriarchal Bengali society; they are not supposed to go outside to visit homes or families. A woman singing songs in public is seen as blasphemous in many parts of rural Bengal; Mallika Akar, a woman Baul from Murshidabad said, “in our Muslim society, there is an impasse about women singing songs. [The men] don’t let us step out of the house; even listening to songs is prohibited”. Sufia Begam, a performer, in another interview shared what her family members told her, “You are a girl. Why do you need to go out in public? Why do you have to cast aside all your shame? You should remain at home. You will get married and go to your husband’s house and look after the family. Why do you need to go out in public and sing?” In other words, Bauls continuously have to face many hurdles in their lives, if not the threat of extinction. To counter the alternate spiritual practices and epistemologies, the dominant institutions defame and misinterpret the discourses and ideologies of the Baul community. While negotiating with material and discursive marginalization, the Bauls and Fakirs agentically imagine the possibilities of transformative emancipatory avenues.
4.3. Emancipation, Reflexivity, and Transformative Communication
While the Bauls try to challenge and question the mainstream beliefs and practices, their songs seek to raise consciousness among their listeners to create alternate avenues for social transformation. Another important aspect of Bauls is that, they are not just a group of singers; they follow a certain introspective and ideological path, and seek to inspire and teach the common people. In other words, their deep commitments, sacrifices and simple lifestyle, spiritual and discursive practices, attract common people, which eventually gave them credibility at the grassroots level. As a part of their reflexive practice, they constantly question their own identity, privilege and actions. In this introspective engagement, they also question and challenge the existing social systems, norms, and doctrines. According to them, such a reflexive engagement is a continuous and ongoing process, which is also essential for engaging with communities; Sanatan Das Baul, a senior Baul, while performing in an ashram, sang,
- If you are searching for The Human (superior sense),
- Then you worship the humans,
- In everyday practice, offer homage
- To the feet of your human-guru,
- Be a human, with the humans.
- The Human is always creating consciousness,
- The Human resides inside all humans.
Therefore, to become a conscious human being, and to raise consciousness among others is an important aspect of Baul practice. Through constant engagement and interaction with the humans, and through exhaustive introspection, Bauls pursue their journey for knowledge and emancipation.
While calling for love and consciousness, the Bauls also exhibit their commitment in foregrounding broader social inequities and injustices. For instance, while addressing key philosophical debates or spiritual tattwas
and others), Baul Shah Abdul Karim remained committed to raise voices for the lower class and lower castes of society. His Baul songs express solidarity with the struggles of the marginalized and outcasts in co-creating a framework for building a peaceful and equitable world.
- The sensitive poets are they who sang the songs of tattwas (theories and epistemologies),
- In my painting, I portray this world’s misery and grief,
- And, the demands of the displaced,
- Karim wants a peaceful co-existence,
Karim’s utterances represent the social and political commitments of Bauls to create a humane world.
Coming from the lower strata, Shah Abdul Karim never forgot his commitments, and never stopped to fearlessly foreground the oppressed and underdeveloped situations of the underserved. Karim further noted that organized efforts from the margins based on solidarity would open up transformative possibilities in underserved spaces. He called for united agentic efforts involving underserved stakeholders to overcome contextual adversities. In one of his songs, he said,
- Oh, my farmer brother, plough the grounds with hands stern,
- With able care and immense passion, treasures we will unearth,
- Saving lives, giving life, is our primary conduct.
- The call for produce is upon us, let us brothers join hands,
- Let us wrestle with the earth, to beget Nature’s bounty grand.
- Farmers and laborers us all,
- Cradled in our Mother Bengal’s loving bosom,
- Through hard work and perseverance, cultivate we can gold,
- Alas, but even then, we are stricken by sadness bold.
- Farm fish, plant trees, grow much vegetables,
- Reap jute, pluck cotton,
- Grow wheat and grow mustard
- Farmers and laborers,
- Fisher-men and handloom weavers,
- Work to your fullest,
- Put all your emotional strength,
- Baul Abdul Karim says,
- Sans this there is no other way.
While most of Karim’s songs are about spirituality, he, as a Baul, always remained mindful about his wider societal commitments and the needs of the hour, such as building communities and the nation at large.
In addition, as a part of their spiritual practice, they regularly engage themselves in theoretical discussions and introspections related to their values, actions and philosophies. Thus, through their reflections and performances, Bauls create space to enact their agencies (individual and collective), and search out alternate paths for emancipation. Referring to a famous nineteenth century Baul master, Lalon Fakir, and his humanistic teachings, a contemporary poet, Arun Chakraborty commented in a mediated interview, “In Lalon’s philosophy, he speaks of manobotabaad (humanity and humaneness). In his approach there is no discrimination based on race, caste or class. That is why his philosophy was humanist one.”
Serving and worshiping humans and humanity, Bauls want to create a society, which is just and harmonious (Chakraborty 2001
). While narrating about Bauls’ spiritual commitment and reflexivity, a Baul from the Burdwan district of West Bengal sang—
- Being a human, respect other humans
- Being a human, know other humans
- Being a human, discover other humans
- Human is the eternal treasure, search for that ‘Human’ (the man of the Heart).
- To search for the man of the heart is the destination by itself.
Respecting (or worshipping), caring, as well as being human is a continuous and lifelong journey for the Bauls. In other words, teachings of the Bauls fundamentally seek to pose questions as to our perception, preoccupation and inconsistencies towards searching for transformative avenues.
) showed that songs of Bauls are equivalent to hymns and chants, uttered in local dialects and/or mother languages primarily for the purpose of meditations. He further noted, music is just one aspect of broader Baul philosophies; and added that many Bauls do not sing, and only follow the path of their gurus. As Akkas Fakir, a Fakir from Nadia, West Bengal, explained during a mediated interview,
Music is the medium through which we meditate, our music is very introspective. Our songs are about humanity. You must know to give respect and love to the one who is poor and downtrodden. The songs and teachings essentially question our ego, pride and attachments, which are hindrances to our ways of realizations and journeys to advancement.
Their songs also communicate broader social and ethical commitments towards building a better future. For a Baul, it is important to transcend the boundaries of ego, sense of achievement, social hierarchy, and unearned privileges (like gender and caste). Subhadra Sharma, a woman Baul from West Bengal reflected,
Boundaries are not only of caste, religion and sect … Even knowledge, music, pride, gender … all these create limits of identity. If I think I am a great singer, I get trapped in that identity. Some think ‘I am an expert or a great devotee’, they get shackled by that. The pride of caste, the pride of beauty, the pride of knowledge, the pride of greatness, and the pride of youth (Jouban) … these are the five sources of sin. That is why our spiritual path is beyond any caste, religion or class. A Christian, a Muslim, a cobbler, a sweeper (a laborer who sweeps roads and other public places) everyone is treated as a human being in this path. For a state of spontaneous simplicity, all these bounded identities have to dissolve.
Her comments depict that Baul discourses, philosophies and practices are fundamentally grounded in the principles of reflexivity and introspection. It is the engaged realizations and involvements, which characterize their journey towards humane transformations.
In spite of all kinds of mainstream oppositions, Bauls talked about their commitment to follow the path of singing and spreading the message of humanity. Sufia Begam shared her life-story, how as a women Baul she fought against patriarchal or mainstream religious values, and embraced the path of sacrifice and commitment,
There was a Fakir residing near our house. He used to regularly perform in the akhara. I was drawn to him by his singing. I went and asked him to teach me. He asked me, “Are you sure you want to learn singing? Your father does not sing, you mother does not sing either, nor do your brothers, or anyone in your family.” I told him I was serious about learning music. He then told me “Your songs will be invaluable. Yet no one will appreciate you.” I told him, “Let it be so. Let no one appreciate me. Yet, I want to learn music from you.” …
People came up with a lot of comments. My mother beat me up. My father threw me out of the house. And yet, I was not deterred. I was in love with music. I thought if I could sing my life would have some meaning and purpose to it. I was quite stubborn in my pursuit. And that is how I entered the world of music.
Her words conveying the committed struggles of Bauls that take place at the margins; she also indicated that for sustaining their tradition, Baul teachings are communicated from one generation to the other.
Another aspect of Baul and Fakir practice is not to be fully dependent upon the dominant financial institutions including state (having said that, we are not arguing that they do not need financial support from the state or Non-Governmental Organizations, but historically the rural Bauls tried to survive with alms and support of local people and their followers), but to create a community of admirers to ensure their spiritual journey is sustainable. For instance, following the practice of Madhukari (ritualistic begging), they go door-to-door to reach their followers and make regular contacts with followers in local communities; the process is an important one for both their spiritual and physical sustenance, anchoring spiritual bonds in community ties. During Madhukari, they perform publicly, and accept any offerings as per the ability and/or choice of their admirers; this practice helps them to reduce their ego. One of the Baul practitioners explained, “One of the daily routines of the Bauls is to go around the village, waking up the villagers by singing. In exchange the villagers used to give the Baul money or grain.” Apart from everyday Madhukari, Bauls organize spiritual events and gatherings in their ashrams/akharas with financial support of followers and well-wishers. One of the organizers of an ashram of Birbhum, India, said, “The (Atal Behari) Ashram runs by the donation of people. We beg door to door for six months to arrange this festival. We serve the mendicant people like sadhu, saints, and others.” Thus, local organizing and interactions (as opposed to institutional grants) are also the way for many of them to spread the words of duty, love and harmony. In a documentary—Sama: Muslim Mystic Music, an interviewee commented, “They organize their performances by collecting money themselves. Hence, they do not require (state or external) patronization. The absence of patronization is perhaps why the form has stayed so pure.” In other words, their reliance and confidence in local support and patronage help them to keep their discourses, values and ideology out of the reach of the dominant influence or prevent them from getting co-opted (to a large extent) by the mainstream religious and socio-political institutions.
Several scholars and Baul performers argue that Baul and Fakir songs, philosophies and paths offer hope for the coming days, where the world is becoming increasingly insane and turbulent. Choto Golam Fakir, a performer from Murshidabad, India, during an interview commented, “World peace can come through music. No matter what people were made for, the ultimate goal is attaining humanity. Our music has an essence of universal love and peace. If these songs spread across the world—I believe people will live happier lives.” Through their discourses, the Bauls talk about global issues from their local spaces, which also opens up scopes for local global exchanges.
In the imaginings of a better (more tolerant and habitable) world, Bauls call for breaking the boundaries of religion, caste, class and thereby seek to build a humane society free from oppression, ostracism and material-scarcities.
- Come be that day,
- When Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist,
- Divide of caste, class or faith would cease to exist,
- Such a reformed humane society,
- Oh my mind, when would its creation come to be?
- When temptations of greed would hold no sway,
- When to take up the shoulder satchel, none will need,
- When no one will shove us apart, Calling us ‘an unreformed awful lowly lot!’
- Oppressive shackles will not make us feel continually alienated,
- Such a reformed human society,
- Oh my mind, when would its creation come to be?
- The rich and the poor, together, under one common roof would reside,
- Each one will get what each one’s deserving shares strike.
- Over religion, caste, faith or creed,
- No one would make an upheaval, no one would fight.
- Weeping, says Lalon Fakir,
- Who will be there to show me,
- Such a reformed humane society,
- Oh my mind, when would its creation come to be?
In today’s turbulent world and uncertain existence, their songs remind us to serve and care for humans, which is the ultimate aim of the Bauls. It is remarkable that being at the margins of the global South and constantly fighting with contextual odds, never losing faith in transformative capabilities of human agencies, and never stopping to dream about emancipatory possibilities, which we (as a human race) need to ensure together.