West calling: Bengal’s Baul singers reach foreign shores

Paban and Mimlu

Bauls, the singing minstrels from India’s state of West Bengal, are now looking West. In a globalising world, it’s hard to say no to new opportunities, even for the tradition-bound Bauls.

Mimlu and Paban Das Baul, a couple living in France for the last three decades, write and make Baul music. “Paban is a big hit. His music is on local FM radio in France and people consider him a big star. In India this is his first album (Notun Sopon – The Sugar Mule Project) being produced,” says Mimlu.

Westerners enjoy their local folk music that originated in Gorbangha, Shantiniketan and Bolpur in West Bengal. They love their attire, made up of multiple cloth patches and their singing to the accompaniment of a ‘do tara’ (two stringed instrument).

Call it the lure of exotica or desire to connect with the other. Europeans know how to connect with Baul singers. It is not surprising to see foreigners milling around Baul singers in Bolpur or Gorbangha. They share their food and also live with them.

They also have offers to travel abroad and perform. However, some reject it considering the philosophy of their community is to remain content with basics. But recent trends show that Baul singers hunger for recognition and aspire for all the glitter the West promises.

Bishnu Dad Baul, 45, who performs in Kolkata to make a living, points out, “Of course I want to travel abroad. Dreams occasionally turn into reality. I am hoping that one day all this will come true although at times I find my age going against me.”

The Baul community now looks forward to offers that give them an opportunity to perform and stay abroad. “Yes, they do get carried away by the glitter of the Western world. They are human. The Baul singers have been performing abroad for long. A Baul friend of mine in Shantiniketan has a Swedish wife. He has performed all along in the West. I don’t think there is anything wrong. Do they have anything here in India?” asks Partha Majumdar, a researcher working on the Bauls for one decade.

“They have found a substantial way to survive with dignity and respect. The West has recognised their music, their Bedouin lifestyle and respected them. So it is only human to aim for such a platform,” he adds.

There are several such Baul singers who decided to cross the shores to earn a better living. Sadhan Das Baul has a Japanese wife. He and his wife Maki Kazumi host international tents in Kenduli Mela every year in Kolkata. Dipankar Chaki, popularly known as Jojo, a national award winning sound arranger with Tollywood (Bengal’s film industry) and producer of Paban Das Baul’s fusion music album, says, “The current trend is to stay partly in Europe and Kolkata.”

Many believe that this traditional art needs more attention from the authorities. Banglanatok.com is an organisation working for the promotion of traditional art forms. “Shilpi banchle shilpo banchbe (the art will survive only if we save the artists). Only a few Baul singers make a decent living. Most of them are struggling to eke out a living.  We have economically rehabilitated the Baul singers of Gorbangha village. But there is scope to do more,” says director Ranjan Sen.

Kolkata organises music festivals such as Baul Fakir Utsav and Poetry Couture from December to January. Baul singers get an opportunity to perform on these limited platforms. “They sometimes get to perform at private parties and programmes where creativity is welcomed,” says Joie Bose, organiser of Poetry Couture and part time English professor at Jadavpur University.

Sumonto Das Baul, a second generation Baul operating from Shantiniketan laments, “I am into singing since childhood. I would be happy if I could send my children to school even if it is just to learn music. Life would be easy for them.”

“The world is changing and they aspire to live a better life. There is nothing wrong in it,” claims Majumdar who organises Baul Fakir Utsav. Many feel that the fusion of modern instruments with traditional do tara has eroded Baul melody. However, the Baul world is so open that this is something inevitable. “Fusion is something that the world and India have looked forward to. They love amalgamation of folk with modernity. I think the world is changing and so is Baul music,” says Chaki.

The Baul world is changing indeed. The children of Paban and Mimuli have taken up different vocations though they grew up amid Baul folk music. They have a different world where jam sessions are marked by their corporate friends joining in.


Know More About Baul 

Baul singers

Baul music is a widely known and appreciated folk music of Bengal. It is basically a Bengali religious sect whose members call themselves as Baul and their songs are called Baul-Gan (baul songs). It has been suggested that, etymologically, the word derives from Sanskrit word “vatula” meaning “affected by the wind disease, mad”. On the other hand, it might be derived from Sanskrit word “vyakula” meaning “restless, disordered”.

The baul costume comprises a half-dhoti and an alkhalla (saffron robes). Another noticeable aspect is their hair style. They don’t cut their hair but coil it neatly atop the head in a bun. They also wear a necklace made of beads formed from the stems of the basil plant (tulsi).

In Bengali folk music – Baul, Bhaoyaiya and Bhatiyali- Baul is distinguished from the others textually as religious music. The texts of bhatiyali and bhaiyaiya, though they may be concerned with Radha and Krishna, are mainly about the problems of love, separation or unrequited love.

In Baul-gan, however, though songs of similar nature occur, they are thought of as allegories on the state of separation between the souls of men and spiritual ground. The instruments, extensively used by the Bauls, are gopiyantro, khamak, dotara, ghungur, nupur and duggi.

Gopiyantro, often called “ektara,” means one string and that is the most popular instrument of a Baul singer. The Ghungur or Nupur are always used in conjunction with Gopiyantro or Khamak. The Baul singers also use “dotara” (two strings) as their paraphernalia. Khartal/mandira and premjuri are used as the adjunct idiophones by the singers


Why Fusion is in Vogue

The fusion of Baul music with electric guitar and modern arrangements has elicited a rapturous welcome in the western world. The local music bands and street performers in many countries have joined hands with Baul Fakirs to produce albums.

Researchers feel that the West needs good foot-tapping music that suits their temperament and yet has a calming effect. Baul fusion gives them the calming effect with something fresh.

A section of experts, however, feels that this hybridisation is taking away the soul of Baul music. The real Baul folk is all about voice where instruments are hardly audible.

Kolkata-based Ranjan Sen, who is working for the rehabilitation of various art forms in West Bengal, says, “Introduction of electronic instruments have spoiled the real music. Not that every person from West is travelling to villages in search of real music.”

Countering him, Partha Mujumdar, an organiser of Baul Fakir Utsav in Kolkata, claims that since the Indian government could not provide much support to promote the Baul talent, the latter have every right to go wherever they get an opportunity. “It is only the right and fair thing to accept such offers and enjoy music and good life,” he says.

Recently a programme ‘Rock and Baul’ has caught the fancy of people in Kolkata to promote fusion. Baul singers are also a hit at private parties where they fuse with Bangla modern songs.

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