Bengali Folklore
Folk Music
Folk Theatre

The Bauls of Bengal

The Baul songs are a very specialised branch of Bengali folk songs. Baul song has a kind of hippie-like attraction to it. It is unique in itself, yet it seems to hold in it a lot of elements of the other branches of Bengali folk musical tradtions as noted above. Because of its unique appeal or affliction, we have presented it as a distinct folk practice.

The word Baul means "afflicted with the wind desease", minstrels, uncaring travellers, selfless wanderers, lost in search of their souls, street walkers, ones with no fixed address, ones who find happiness in richness of their minds, etc. Much of the Bengali society looked upon the bauls as strange people who forsake all comforts and binds of the family life and chose streets as their home and austerity as the way of life. Customs and traditions they leave behind on the wayside.

The Bouls are the folk heroes of Bengal. "The popular romantic imagination everywhere seeks expression through its chosen bards: we have our Bob Dylans and Leonard Cohens, the Bengalis have thier Bauls. These wandering minstrels carry with them from village to city the soul of Bengal, perhaps of India, and every Bengali knows it even if today he is becoming uncertain what that soul really is" [Charles H. Capwell and others]. The Baul tradition cannot be characterised by any known or distinct doctrine. According to Edward C. Dimock, Jr. the term baul encompasses "a wide rage of religious opinion, traceable to several Hindu schools of thought, to Sufi Islam, and much that is traceable only to a man's own view of how he relates to God. All Bauls hold only this in common: that God is hidden in the heart of man, and neither priest nor prophet, nor the ritual of any organised religion, will help man to find him there. The Bauls feel that both [hindu] temple and [muslim] mosque stand across the path to truth, blocking the search. The search for God is one which everyone must carry out for himself."

Capwell thinks that "the Baul tradition is a fusion of elements from Buddhism, Saktism (worshippers of goddess Kali - the source of all energies), Vaisnavism (worshippers of Lord Visnu) and Sufi Islam, may well have its roots in the tantrik Buddhism of Bengal in the 9th and 10th centuries. At that time, Buddhism was first taking root in Tibet while it was dying out in India, and much Buddhist literature that might otherwise have disappeared in oral tradition. Within this literature are collections of songs written in the newly arisen vernaculars of northern India rather than in Pali and Sanskrit, traditional languages of Buddhism. One of the oldest of these collections - an anthology of caryagan - contains the earliest significant examples of the Bengali Language. The texts are strikingly reminiscent of songs like gosdi ebar porebi phyare; that is, they transmit the insights and mysticism in the homeliest of metaphors. The structure of the poems - couplets with a refrain - suggests that their musical form might also be similar to that of Baul songs today. For, in the Baul songs, a refrain generally recurs at the end of each stanza, the stanzas are roughly divided into two musical phrases, the first of which tends to hover around the lower tetrachord of the basic octave range, while the second reaches up to the higher tonic before descending again to the refrain that cadences on the lower tonic. This is a common Indian musical structure, and the division of the stanzas into two phrases of lower and higher ranges is clearly analogous to the similarly arranged structure of sthayi and antara phrases in kheyal ciz or an instrumental gat.

"Since the music of the caryagan was not notated, it is impossible to know how closely it might have resembled contemporary Baul songs, if at all. Even though the old poems are each preceded by the name of a rag, the significance of these names has been lost during a thousand years of musical evolution. Today's Bauls, untrained in the rag music of India, do not classify the tunes they learn in oral tradition; nevertheless the resemblance of some tunes to classical rags is unmistakable."

Before Rabindranath Tagore, the Bauls were not regarded well by the Bengali society, for most considered them vagabonds and beggars as Bauls lived itinerant lives wandering from door to door in rural Bengal mostly subsisting on meagre foods offered by householders. Tagore, who in his youth knew Lalon Fakir - one of the greatest Bauls that ever lived, was much influenced by the Baul music and philosophy in his poetry, music and thought. He "changed all that as he did so much in Bengali society, by acknowledging his debt to what the Bauls stand for and to their music. Many of his own songs he categorised as Baul; and in most of his plays there is a Baul character - an unspoiled man who sees clearly and deeply, his vision uncluttered by the swirling bits and irrelevant particles of life. The Baul is also the man who can express what he sees with equal clarity, his imagery and metaphor drawn from everyday things, the river of life, the marketplace of the world, the once majestic house of the body crumbling into decay" [Dimock].

Baul songs are usually solo songs although often accompanists and members of the audience (normally, handfull of villagers gathering around the Bauls) to join in the refrain and repetition phrases of the verse. Instruments used by Bauls include the following:

  • Khamak - A rhythmic instrument with one or two strings attached to the head of a small drum. The strings are plucked with a plectrum and they are alternatively tightened or slackened to generate an amazing array of rhythmic and tonal variations.
  • Tabla - A pair traditional Indian drums called 'baya' (the left hand drum) and the 'daina' (the right hand drum). The left drum has a clay based shell whilst the right drum has a wooden shell. Heads of both drums are covered in animal hide, the centre of which is applied with a layer of (dry) pulp mix. Tonal variation are achieved by adjusting tension of the skin head.
  • Mridanga or Khol - A barrel-shaped clay drum with two heads - sort of a combination of the baya and daina of tabla as described above.
  • Harmonium - A small keyboard instrument with hand-worked bellows - not unlike accordian.
  • Ektara - A plucked single string drone - fingers and thumb are used.
  • Khanjani - A tabourine without jangles.
  • Mandira or Kartal - Small bell-shaped cymbals.
  • Ghoongoor - A garland of bells tied around the ankle - played with rhythmic movements of feet.
  • Ramchaki - A pair of wooden clappers with jangles.