The mystical minstrels

in Interview
Published on: 17 June 2016
Mimlu Sen, 2016

Md. Intaj Ali: What is the historical genealogy of Bauls and how can it be traced?

Mimlu Sen: Linear ideas of history are difficult to apply to oral traditions which have survived uniquely through “bouche a l’oreille” in Bengal. But for those who require historiographical evidence, I remember reading a book by a Norwegian scholar in which he has annotated early Buddhist tantric texts from Bengal, written in “sandhya bhasa” or intentional language, dating back to millenary times, preserved by the Buddhists in Tibet. This enigmatic, mysterious, coded language, with a terrific sensuality, and a subtle and dynamic perception of the realm of intimate human relations, is the first quality which distinguishes baul culture from any other contemporary spiritual tradition, making it a unique oral tradition which has survived the test of time and has leapt into modern day philosophical thought.

Baul songs, by their very nature, are autotelic. A song heard and learnt in a particular geographical area can be memorized and transmitted in a faraway country. Imagine a Buddhist pilgrim in 2000 BC or an Arab merchant-philosopher in 700 AD or a Portuguese sailor-poet in the 15th century travelling to Bengal. Here is a fertile soil of spiritual syncretism between Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Vaishnava, Buddhist traditions, the meeting point of diverse oral cultural and religious traditions. Each wave of migration to Bengal has enriched the repertoire of baul songs.  Beginning from the Asiks of Anatolia, who travelled through the silk route to obtain wealth and power, to the British colonialists who conquered Bengal and ruled India from this land for three centuries, bauls’ songs, inherited spiritual ideas liberally from all religious traditions to express their counter-culture.

I.A: What makes Baul a cult?

M.S: Aiming to find a path common to all of humanity, to overcome the narrowness of religious dogma and create a balanced and harmonious human society, in which each and every individual has a distinct place, free of caste and creed and religion, baul gurus, saints, poets and philosophers, through vocal philosophical argumentation, chanting dohas and combats in song reveal the nature of human energy and its relation to the workings of human body and the human psyche. The baul gurus, through the ages, each in his own ashram/ monastery, created communities. They based themselves on a network of gurus descended from the baul fraternity of gurus whom today’s baul singers trace back to Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the 15th century and the seven Goswamis.

In this spiritual world of ashrams and festivals dedicated to saints and gurus, strongly embedded among the community of farmers, the gurus transmitted their knowledge of yogic practices to their disciples. The influence of Sufism is evident in the idea that the guru is above all the preceptor of spiritual knowledge and that only an authentic guru is capable of leading an individual to come to terms with his inner self. The influence of Tantrism is apparent in the ideas of tantra (yogic knowledge of the body) and mantra (knowledge of the divine transforming power of sound). They built celebratory systems, the ashram each with its series of annual mahotsavas (festivals) based on a lunar calendar in cadence with local religious festivities. Their akhras (commune) became arenas of philosophical exchange. Here they composed songs to expose the past, reveal the present and lead their disciples joyfully into the future with a clear understanding of themselves. . Individuality has always been the hallmark of the baul tradition. It’s within the domain of intimate relations, domain of extreme psychic danger, that an individual, led by a canny guru can find moksha or liberation from himself. Becoming a receptacle of baul songs has the galvanizing effect of transforming an ordinary individual into a seer. This process of transmission of power and energy has taken place through cults created by local gurus over the centuries. Old gurus have died and with them old cults have disappeared.  New gurus have come into being and with them new cults are appearing.

I. A: Does baul philosophy play an important role in a trans-cultural context?

M.S: Today, religious bigotry has overtaken the world. Amongst the Muslims, the Jews, the Christians the Buddhists and the Hindus. It’s in this contemporary context that the baul philosophy and way of life is of vital importance. Among the bauls, a disciple of Hindu origin can take a Muslim guru and vice versa. Where else in the world is there such a liberty of spirit? In a world where national and regional frontiers are closing in, here is truly modern philosophy, open and accessible to all. Unfortunately, the network of ashrams and festivals of baul gurus is torn to shreds today. Anarchic urbanization, in many forms threatens their way of life.  We need to understand the true and pacific nature of baul philosophy. True power is power over the self and not over others.

I. A: How does media play a role in popularizing baul songs?

M. S: I would say, contrary to the “media” in the cities, the bauls represent the rural media. If media is to play a role in reaching baul philosophy to all corners of the world, I’d say that we first need to reinforce the baul oral media networks in our own home base. Gachher shikor kete gachhe jol daoar mane hoyna (you can’t cut the roots and water the branches at the same time)

 An ambulant baul radio station could be an idea to begin with.  This could link up to the poor starving illiterate farming population of Bengal, true inheritors of baul philosophy and way of life, than to the urban population of Bengal who are in sore need of baul philosophy to confront religious dogma and closed caste attitudes. Naturally, this radio station could link with the urban media and the rest of the world.

I. A: How can you distinguish the contradictory point of views between the older and newer generations of bauls?

M.S: The distinction is that there has been a shift of the tectonic plate in the world of the bauls. There is a grand crevice between the world of bauls and the world of babus. Unfortunately, the bauls are dependent on the babus today to eke out a living. The old gurus and their ways of transmission are disappearing and the new generation are hooking on to urban media in order to survive. They are no longer able to nourish themselves spiritually on the knowledge of the gurus. For the older generation of bauls there was a natural organic link between the roles which they played in Bengali village society and a stream of baul and Vaishnava consciousness like a river in which they could constantly bathe. Now these streams are polluted by crass commercialism. This has throttled every domain of folk culture and the violent pressure of poverty upon the agents of these precious intangible treasures of humanity have been disastrous for the continuity of the baul tradition. With the death of Hari Goshain, Ma Goshain, Subal Das Baul, Gour Khepa , Nimai Goswami and Tinkori Chakravarty, we have seen the disappearance of a baul cloud which poured a rain of songs to us. Perhaps there’s a new baul cloud forming.

I.A:  What is your view on the hybridity of baul music?

M.S: Yes, sometimes, hybrid music can mean a lowering of standards and a departure from the criteria which defines baul songs. However, I feel from my own experiences with that you cannot generalize about this, it depends on who is making which fusion with whom. Although baul songs are mostly traditional, yet it’s the creative artistry in the bauls who sings these songs which are the decisive factor. Bauls have always picked up local melodies and rhythms to incorporate their message. Now that the route of  baul singers  have fanned out to a much wider world wide orbit, it’s only natural for them to be exposed to many different musical forms and try to experiment with them.

I.A: How does Baul philosophy transcend both national boundaries and religious differences?

M.S: Baul philosophy appeals to the universality of the human being surpassing national boundaries and religious differences.

I.A: How are bauls different or similar to sufis?

M.S: From what we understand, the key concept of uniting with the self with the help of a preceptor or guru is common to both sufis and bauls. The sufi stream and the baul stream come from separate sources and nourish the main source. Although Sufis are located in the Muslim community and Bauls in the vaishnava/ Hindu community, they have common standards for deliberately crossing borders between these religions. Bauls give the Krishna mantram to their disciples and in a similar manner the Sufis give the Allah mantram to their Muslim disciples. They answer questions about the body and the mind in a similar way.

I.A: What is their philosophy of life?

M.S: Ascetism.

I.A: What is the present predicament of the bauls?

M.S: Today’s bauls are thrown into an orbit which lack the natural emotional backdrop which is required for a flowering of spiritual life. They are confronted by crass commercialism and extreme poverty. Earlier, the baul could survive with seven fistfuls of rice for his day of madhukari (asking for alms).  The village world to which he belonged understood his role and nourished him in body and mind. Today’s bauls are forced out of their impoverished villages to beg in buses and trains and travel to the cities.  They are parachuted into a world which has no understanding of their noble ancient and natural way of life. They are demeaned and destituted. Hardly a few authentic gurus survive and they too are outnumbered by the sheer volume of religious bigotry.

I.A: How does broadcasting and telecasting of baul songs make an impact on the global audience?

M.S: Broadcasting baul philosophy and their way of life through cinema and television are the most complex and effective mediums to make an impact on a global audience. However, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow. It’s this shadow world which we need to confront. Today’s bauls have had many films and documentaries made on them. How many have ever seen the films which were made on them. It’s vital to make it full circle. A way of doing this could be to organize documentary film festivals parallel to the baul festivals to open up the village public to information about the paths travelled by the bauls in their global circuit and to make the local public in Bengal aware of the crucial importance of the bauls in world culture. Visitors to the Kenduli Baul festival from Kerala or from abroad are often surprised to find that the local inhabitants of the village have no idea of who the bauls are. What’s the use of broadcasting the bauls to the whole world, if at home they pass unrecognized?

I.A: What were your reasons for getting involved with bauls?

M.S: The philosophical, musical and poetic content of baul songs and the candid and dynamic personalities of baul singers appealed to my heart. My own life as a nomad began at the age of eighteen when I left my family home in Calcutta to try and search for a more evolved way of life. And it took another twelve years of wandering before I met the bauls and decided to accompany them.

I.A: Does baul songs comment on national integration?

M.S: Bagh diye langol chash kora jayna (you cannot yoke tigers to ploughs). Unlike oxen, tigers will not be yoked together and your field will stay un-ploughed. National integration can come about if we have a flourishing economy, a competent administration, a satisfactory political system which is truly democratic and ensures parity of sexes. National integration can be ushered in debate and discussion and much thought and work and the creation of many arteries of communication within presently closed structures, not through hooliganism and private bloody settling of accounts. No amount of baul songs can ever solder the present dog eat dog situation worldwide between religious communities and political factions.

 Bauls songs are not an escape. They are a way of life which demands extreme diligence, hard laborious discipline and breath control while singing baul songs.

I.A: Please talk about your two books Baulsphere and The Honey Gatherers: Travels with The Bauls: The Wandering Minstrels of Rural India.

M.S: They are the same book. The reason why the title was changed to The Honeygatherers by the publishers for the UK and Commonwealth edition was that the word “baul” is not in the English dictionary.  I did not argue about this. The French edition is called the “Les Vagabonds Enchantes” and there is a version in Malayalam which I’m delighted to say is quite popular in Kerala. I’m glad to say that as a result of my book, there have been many travelers from all over the world to the Kenduli Baul Festival.