Enigmatic yet humane

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Baul music, philosophy remain key to peace and unity in today’s tumultuous times

Known to be one of the most popular and critically acclaimed folk music of Bengal, Baul occupies an important place in Bangladesh’s culture and heritage. It is because of its alluring aura and acceptance among people from all walks of society that the Baul genre of Songs of Bangladesh has been proclaimed as ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO back in 2006.

Originating in Bengal in the 17th century, the sect was popularised by musician and social reformer Lalon Shah whose moving songs of religious tolerance inspired poets and thinkers of the time.

Many ascetic Bauls renounce the modern world and travel on foot from town to town singing and begging alms, staying at ashrams, but have no fixed address. Others choose to remain in their homes, but live a quiet, secluded life of music and worship.

Baul 101

According to UNESCO’s take on Bauls, the Bauls are mystic minstrels living in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. The Baul movement, at its peak in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has now regained popularity among the rural population of Bangladesh. Their music and way of life have influenced a large segment of Bengali culture, and particularly the compositions of Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Bauls live either near a village or travel from place to place and earn their living from singing to the accompaniment of the ektara, the lute dotara, a simple one-stringed instrument, and a drum called dubki. Bauls belong to an unorthodox devotional tradition, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Bengali, Vasinavism and Sufi Islam, yet distinctly different from them.

Bauls neither identify with any organized religion nor with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places. Their emphasis lies on the importance of a person’s physical body as the place where God resides. Bauls are admired for this freedom from convention as well as their music and poetry. Baul poetry, music, song and dance are devoted to finding humankind’s relationship to God, and to achieving spiritual liberation.

Their devotional songs can be traced back to the fifteenth century when they first appeared in Bengali literature. Baul music represents a particular type of folk song, carrying influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song. Songs are also used by the spiritual leader to instruct disciples in Baul philosophy, and are transmitted orally. The language of the songs is continuously modernized thus endowing it with contemporary relevance. The preservation of the Baul songs and the general context in which they are performed depend mainly on the social and economic situation of their practitioners, the Bauls, who have always been a relatively marginalized group. Moreover, their situation has worsened in recent decades due to the general impoverishment of rural Bangladesh.

The mystique behind Bauls

Talking to Haroonuzzaman, Baul researcher and Assistant Professor of English at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), Baul songs, stuffed with enigmas and codes, sum up the Baul philosophy of Dehattaya (Truth in the Body), probably the central theme of Baulism, outlining the aphorism, ‘Whatever is in the universe is in the receptacle (the body)’.

In many ways, Bauls’ body-centric philosophy is connected t to the thinking of controversial Iranian Sufi thinker, teacher and writer Monsur Hallaji’s “Anal Huq” (I am God), to the transcendentalist Emerson, the American poet, who in his poem Gnothi Seauton said :“Take this fact unto thy soul, God dwells in thee”, to Sufi saint Jalauddin Rumi’s “Everything of the universe derives from my body”, to Upanishad’s “Attamanong Bidi”, and to the monotheistic Vaisnavism of “I am Bramha”.

The aim of Baul Sadhana is to reverse the cosmic process that is to return to the Sahaj state which is the original condition of non-duality that existed before Creation. Male and female principles, Puruja and Prakrti or Sakti, are contained within the microcosmic body of each person, mirroring the macrocosm. The male principle, equated with semen, resides at the top of the head in the highest chakra, the Sahasrar. Here the Supreme exists in a state of perfect unity without any qualities or form; here he is the Atal lswar (the motionless Lord). Since in the Sahasrareverything is integrated into the motionless Lord, there is no duality between the enjoyer and the enjoyed, between God and the devotee.

Whatever ways the divinity has been expressed, the intentional use of enigmatic language, however, poses an impediment to common understanding. To comprehend Baul songs, it is important to decode the technical terminology that are often composed in an ambiguous style, characterized by code words with several layers of meanings, obscure imagery, erotic symbolism, paradoxical statements, and enigmas. At the most basic level of the ambiguous style is code words or phrases that are the building blocks of the esoteric songs.

A timely discourse

As the non-profit arm of Cosmos Group, the Cosmos Foundation has always strived to showcase, cultivate and disseminate for the global audience – the art of Bangladesh. Through its flagship discussion series, “Cosmos Dialogue”, it generates critical discourse between experts and policy makers and often in partnership with specialized think-tanks and scholarly institutes to foster engagement on the most pertinent issues of the day.

In light of this, the focus was made on Baul music and philosophy.

The recent Cosmos Dialogue held in Dhaka made a strong plea for building a National Baul Research Institute in the country to enable study and research on Baul history and to publicise its inner message both within and beyond Bangladesh.

Cosmos Foundation arranged the dialogue recently titled ‘Baul Philosophy, Literature and Music’ at Cosmos Centre in the city where Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor attended as the chief guest.

Haider A Khan, John Evans Distinguished University Professor of Economics at the University of Denver, USA, chaired the dialogue while Cosmos Foundation Executive Director Nahar Khan delivered the welcome speech.

Eminent Lalon researcher Dr Anwarul Karim delivered a tour de force on the history and condition of the Bauls of Kushtia, close to his own home district of Pabna.

UNB Chairman Amanullah Khan, Cosmos Group Director Masud Jamil Khan, Bangla Academy Deputy Director Dr Tapan Kumar Bagchi, writer and researcher Sumon Kumar Das and musician Maqsoodul Haque proceeded to discuss on the Baul philosophy, literature and music respectively. Gallery Cosmos Director Tehmina Enayet, among others, was also present.

Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor said although Bangladesh is progressing as an economy, it is facing the threat of communalism which needs to be addressed involving youths with the spirit of social harmony.

“The evil efforts of creating disputes among people and dividing them in the name of religion have now become more acute in recent times,” he said terming the problem a ‘big challenge’.

Noor said people have been carrying the poison of communalism since the British era and it spread further during the Pakistan rule and subsequent periods.

The Cultural Affairs Minister said Bangladesh walked towards the opposite direction after the assassination of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who dreamt of a non-communal state.

He noted that the Bauls in Bangladesh often come under attack for their lifestyle, including several times in the past years. “I don’t think those were isolated incidents. But those were planned attacks. Those who don’t believe in non-communal spirit actually carried out the attacks on Bauls,” Noor said.

He laid emphasis on showing the new generation the right direction to maintain peace and harmony in the society taking the message of peace and love deep into the society. “Youths need to be guided properly as they want to do something positive for the country.”

He said people need to practise the philosophy of Baul, the philosophy of humanity, love and unity in their lifetime to overcome the communal threat.

Amanullah Khan who floated the idea of establishing the Baul Research Institute emphasized the imperative need to separate the baul from the myth, dispel the controversies surrounding songs and philosophy of Baul and end its commercialization through appropriate research, analysis and affirmative action.

He also stressed its moral, ethical and unifying value in a society torn by communal strife, racism and mutual hatred.

“A Baul practices a way of life that still retains its relevance in today’s world as it seeks to strike a balance between the spiritual and material life of a human being that draws its strength from Sufism, Tanturi and other philosophies,” Khan said  

Prof Haider Khan said Baul philosophy, literature and music will undoubtedly continue to play their historically progressive role in this planetary struggle.

“Indeed, Baul art and philosophy are part of the current slogan for global justice: A better world is possible,” he said.

Prof Haider Khan said Baul philosophy, literature and music will undoubtedly continue to play their historically progressive role in this planetary struggle.

“Indeed, Baul art and philosophy are part of the current slogan for global justice: A better world is possible,” he said.

Haider Khan also presented a paper at the dialogue, titled “The Bauls: Their Mystical Path and Social Contradictions”, where he cited the example of the Bangladeshi national anthem “Amar Shonar Bangla”, written by Tagore, but was originally set to the melody of a Baul song by Gagan Harkara.

Citing another example of Baul Samrat Shah Abdul Karim, a Baul exponent with whom he had memorable interactions, he said Karim was a very special person and his views were way ahead of his time.

Deputy Director at Bangla Academy Dr Tapan Kumar Bagchi complained that lack of awareness prompted many to call themselves Bauls and take credit for popular Baul songs which had been composed hundreds of years ago, but their origins remained undocumented.

“The question that persists was whether today’s Bauls are moving away from the actual Baul philosophy, or forming a neo-philosophy without staying true to the Baul roots,” he said.

Cosmos Foundation Executive Director Nahar Khan said although Baul music is uniquely indigenous to Bangladesh, UNESCO has embraced its universal message by enlisting it as part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

She also said Baul music has the capacity to touch lives and hearts and that there is a great opportunity to learn from them.

Nahar thanked the cultural affairs minister Asaduzzaman Noor for his encouragement to organizations such as Cosmos Foundation to conserve and promote Bangladeshi arts and culture.

Describing Kushtia as home of Bauls, Cosmos Group Director Masud Khan laid emphasis on spreading its humanist message across Bangladesh and beyond.

Researcher and critic Sumankumar Dash opined that Bauls are devoid of communalism, as is evident through their philosophy and reflected through their songs.

Maqsoodul (Mac) Haque, prominent musician turned researcher, said that listening to Baul music had motivated him towards Bangla music.

He pointed out key misconceptions about the lifestyle that Bauls tend to lead, leading to their ostracisation. Previously, Lalon songs were sung in schools during Pahela Kartik, Maqsood pointed out. But after backlash from religious fundamentalists, he said the schools had bowed down to pressure.

Trustee and Member Secretary of Liberation War Museum Mofidul Haque said Lalon songs have made quite a journey.

“The expressions in the songs are humane,” he added, “although those are subject to further criticism, the message remains the same.”

Ahead of time

Cosmos Foundation had the distinction of taking Shafi Mondol to New York for a solo concert at Symphony Space, New York’s premier performing arts centre on November 2, 2013, which they had co-sponsored along with World Music Institute (WMI).

This was the first-ever event when a Bangladeshi artist performed at WMI’s invitation, where he enthralled the audience and left them bewitched with his rendition of Lalon songs, aptly supported by a group of musicians, mostly drawn from New York’s Bangladeshi community.

He sang, danced and talked during his performance, along with providing a running commentary about Lalon and his music. He emphasised Lalon’s message of tolerance and invited everyone in the audience to look for God in one’s own heart.

Karen Sander, Artistic and Executive Director of WMI, expressed her appreciation for the support her organisation had received from Cosmos Foundation throughout the time.

Modern day discriminations

The Bauls identity as “mystic minstrels” has often been subject to misrepresentation by communal forces, who deem their music to be “radical”. They have long been dismissed as hippies and even attacked and killed after being branded heretics in the Muslim-majority country.

According to their leaders, they are growing in popularity, even attracting members of the rising middle class with their ethos of inclusion and rejection of consumerism.

It has long drawn the ire of religious hardliners, often resulting in several Bauls being attacked or even killed. Their dens have been set ablaze, with vehement threats against their lives becoming a common phenomenon in recent times. These attacks, rather than considering them as isolated incidents, also reflect as attempts to tear apart the pluralistic foundation of our country, in the course, attacking our culture and customs, disrupting our harmonious co-existence.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 51

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