“Ghorer kachey arsinagor, sethay porshi boshot korey ekghor pnorshi boshot krey, ami ekdino na dekhlam tarey”( I have not seen him even once my neighbor who lives in a city of mirrors near my house.)
Lalan Fakir’s lines, ironically strikes a chord with the ground reality of the contemporary urban class whose admiration for “Bauls” and the “baul songs” seem to be merely an escapism to evade the cosmopolitan complexities. Baul songs and baul philosophy speak of knowing one’s ‘self’, “Apnarey apna na chiniley/ghurbi koto ei bhuboney” (If one is not in touch with the inner self, one moves around to embrace nothingness).
Most of the urban youth are unaware of the esoteric baul philosophies like “Sahajiya ”, “Sahaj Manush”,( easy,natural or innate being) and “Dehotatwa”(the truth of the body) and thanks to Social Media, are far away from ‘self’. Yet year after year, Poush Mela (Shantiniketan, Kenduli, Joydeb Mela, Baul Fakir Utsab witness thousand enthusiastic faces. While for some it is the folk fever-the call of the soil, for numerous faces, it is visiting bauls and uploading ‘selfies’ that is “in”.
Raised and breathed by the continual flow of urbanization that flows from the elite backyards, bauls have been neglected and used by the corporate city dwellers. This is not one truth that these bauls are comfortably placed with, but indeed their journey has been a long and tough one ever since Rabindranath Tagore and Jyotirindranath Tagore’s tryst with Lalon Shai. Carol Solomon in his essay Baul Songs writes: “The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose thought and writing were substantially influenced by the Bauls, is credited with bringing Baul songs to the attention of middle-class Bengali society. In 1915-1916 he published twenty songs of the great Baul poet Lalan Fakir in the literary journal Prabasi. He also had in his private collection two notebooks containing a total of 298 songs by Lalan that are among the oldest and most authoritative sources of Lalan’s songs, It was largely Tagore and his associate Ksitimohan Sen who elevated the Bauls to the status of a cultural symbol. This idealization took place at the expense of the Bauls’ esoteric aspect, and had a deleterious effect on scholarship, leading scholars to eschew field work and focus exclusively on their humanistic beliefs.”
Exotifying the “Others” is rampant; in cultural history, in society, in life. William S. Sax. has observed that, creating the other is universal. Mainstream culture eulogized baul songs, philosophies, but when it came to incorporating the bauls into mainstream culture, the cloud with the silver lining was absent.
What is more interesting to watch is, even bauls’ see urban intelligentsia as “others” – rich, educated and hence a threat. Uttam Das Baul feels unlike the bygone days more and more bauls are being incorporated into mainstream culture, he adds “somaj mantei hobey, amra to somajer bairey noi” (We do adhere to social norms, we are no more treated as outcast).
According to William S. Sax., “The other is also a reflection of the self, at times resented, at times emulated”. And it is this emulation of “others” and the other’s culture that is recurrent and often two dimensional. Urban youths are more and more into baul fashion and weed smoking. Baul songs often speak of human bondage and love and breaking free from the shackles of what we call-the self.
Baul ideology is a way to search the “Moner Manush” (Man of the Heart). Bauls even believe that there is neither heaven nor hell -all but a state of mind. For a corporate soul, these esoteric philosophies are indeed intriguing and at times intimidating. As for Sourin Sett, currently a government employee in Steel India, the middle class upbringing, the lesson taught from childhood to belong to a safe zone and mostly cloud capped knowledge about Baul philosophies; remain to be the reason of contemplating the bauls as “others”. While for Madhulina Saha, a longing to identify with the concept of “free love”, has made her comfortable with baul philosophy.
Originally, Bauls were the nonconformists, who abandoned social norms to form a distinct sect. In their vehicle of ecstasy they moved around and that bohemian streak of Bauls attracts Gen Y and hardcore corporate slaves like Madhulina. Urban elite societies’ attraction to “Bull lifestyle” is their love of an independent lifestyle.
However, the independent lifestyle of the bauls that cosmopolitan life is so attracted to, is under severe threats. The international chord is as important now as the ektara and the khamak; both in terms of music and money. International projects are fame and pocket friendly, feels Uttam Das Baul. Workshops, voice sessions and “Macha” program (catering to not so elite audience) earn them the bread. Generations after generations bauls have been in sync with their roots and ideals in spite of being attacked by the religious fascists and communal forces.
What finally seems to threat the present generation baul culture is the commercialization of their art and a personal bias for luxury. “Their lifestyle is also unusual. In theory, at least, Bauls are supposed to subsist on alms from begging (madhukari), although in practice many earn their living by singing professionally or by engaging in other occupations –Carol Solomon-The Roots of the Baul Tradition.
Educated elites and Marxists have had admired bauls as the later nourish the ideals of Egalitarianism. However, a lot of them are now skeptical about these singing minstrels as bauls have inhaled the poisonous air of materialism. Instead of that carefree attitude and lackadaisical attitude about money, the bauls are aggressively venturing for pocket friendly fame and international exposure. For them, the passport is the sure shot route to money and fame.
Sayan Kanungo, a diehard communist feels -indeed the materialistic hue is more visible in the celebrity bauls. “As long as the bauls enjoyed a limited existence, their jeebondorshorn (way and the notion of life) continued, but then evolution did change the game. Because of evolution, the society is culturally unidirectional”. It is the fear of identity crisis, Kanungo feels, has led bauls to become more materialistic. Then there are fellow communists like Soumya Kundu, who believes, it is the insistence of the mainstream culture who allure the bauls of better living conditions-all culminating in ‘materialistic bauls’. Kundu adds, “Keeping aside the celebrity bauls (much seen in Lokasanskriti Utsab, Poush mela and Bigg Boss Bauls), lots of traditional bauls have kept the flame alive.
Uttam Das Baul feels the whole structure has undergone a change. Before, Baul life had it’s embryo in the Guru’s Ashram, and there was no attachment with family. Now, the need of marketing in order to survive has taken the focal position. Hence, the nonconformist stance has mellowed down to an accessible and media friendly image. Most of the A grade bauls have their Facebook accounts, mobiles. As Uttam Das Baul readies himself for his show at the Baul Fakir Utsav , he is hopeful about the future. “Manush ageo baul gaan shunto, tobey television, cinema baul gaan use korey eta ekhon hit, jebhabei hok, shunchey to!” (People use to listen to Baul songs even before, it’s just that, now television, cinema have offered them more scope to listen to us).
For Kanai Das Baul, Bauls represent a state of freedom from self and a state of complete independence. But, the current environment –the evils of materialism and consumerism have affected their lives too! The life of renunciation-defying social conventions does come and stay, but with a heavy price to pay. While independence and freedom are the positive aspects of a baul’s life, the negative aspects remain – daily hardships and 2,500 for a show!
It is more of music now for these “chemical bauls” (the present generation bauls) and less of sadhana (devotion). The Whatsapp generation is much in sync with the Urban Folk fusion bands like (Lalon from Bangladesh) and Fakira (Kolkata). These bands with their experimental attempts, modern instrumentation have been successful in reaching the mass. They have acted as a bridge to connect the genres of ektaara and guitar. Anusheh Anadil, in one of her interviews with a leading daily opined once: “City people can’t express themselves with mild ektara”.
Kanai Das Baul has to say- “Ora amader moto gaitey parbey na, amra oder moto parbo na, tobey khamok niye gaan alada bhab jagay.” (These rock -folk people can’t sing like us, neither can we sing like them, but khamak adds to some other magic) Again, in a friendly chat with Uttam Das Baul at Tepantar Theatre Village at Shantiniketan, you will notice his nicely padded bag for ektara and his sophisticated tone for baul songs. And this is less alarming when it comes to the forefront that Kartik Das Baul had sung for Tata to promote manures and in Kakinara Utsab, Bauls sang for Kanyashree Prakalpa. Commercialization of baul songs is a regular thing.
‘Baul’ is a category that the mainstream culture has formulated. And it is universal attempt to search and find the meanings of the categories, terms and words. Bauls have been nonconformist-breaking boundaries, meanings and set protocols.
According to Surajit Sen, “We have ‘fixations’, they have flexibility.”( Fakirnama) And it is this flexibility that perhaps is visible in the modern day bauls. In a nation, where temples and mosques become the focal point of cultural and political dogma, Bauls will remain to be some other India, irrespective of the conspicuous change in Baul songs and life.
By: Adrita Dey Ghatak
Image Credits: Anirban Saha