A recent performance in Kolkata underscores the gradual emergence of women Baul singers from the shadows of their male companions, as independent artists.
Dwija sudra itar bhadra Nai re bhedabhed bichar Brahman, Kshatriya, Sudra Mile mishe ekakar.- Krishna Dasi (female Baul).
(Brahmin, Sudra, the high and low/ There is no difference/ For the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Sudra/ Are all mingled together.)
IN rural West Bengal, they can still be seen, wandering from village to village, singing songs for a few rupees, and maybe food. They are Bauls - itinerant minstrels living on the periphery of society, watching it from outside, objectively yet not dispassionately, and incorporating what they see in their lyrics (sometimes with humour, but always with a profound spiritual message). The word Baul comes from the Sanskrit word batul, which means mad, but not in a pejorative sense. In fact, their madness stems from love of the `Infinite Self' they believe to be present in every human being. They are a kind of grassroots mystics.
The impact of these singers/songwriters is not restricted to rural Bengal. Through their simple tunes, rudimentary instruments and allegorical lyrics, they have captured the imagination of the world and have made a major impact on the international cultural scene. The most famous living Baul, Purna Das, even found a place on the cover of Bob Dylan's 1968 album John Wesley Harding.
Folk songs all over India have an old tradition, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Rajasthan to Assam. They are often sung to celebrate religious festivals or the harvest, or with tribal dances.
The tradition, however, is not unique to India. The Middle Ages threw up such itinerant folk singers in many countries and cultures - the troubadours of Europe, for instance. But what sets Bauls apart is a distinctly mystical strain in all their songs. The lyrics often use an esoteric language called `sandhya bhasa' (words with hidden meaning). Besides, Bauls come from both the Hindu and Muslim communities; their object of worship is no conventional God or Allah, but `moner manush' (the man within) who can be reached by anyone through love and devotion.
Scholars have traced the roots of the Baul tradition and its popularity to the Bhakti Movement of Kabir, Nanak, Meerabai, Gondol, and so on, which swept the cultural scene of India in the Middle Ages, drawing upon the monotheism and egalitarianism of Islam, the love songs of Sufi mystics and, of course, the Hindu Vaishnav tradition. Their main musical instruments are the ektara and the dotara (single and double string strumming instruments) and the khole, the kartal and the dugdugi (rudimentary percussions).
Rabindranath Tagore recognised the philosophy of the Bauls and the beauty of the songs and through his works made them acceptable to the Bhadralok (Bengali gentleman). In his youth, Tagore befriended some Bauls, notably Lalan Fakir, and composed a number of songs to be sung in the Baul style. In many of his plays, there are characters representing the `Baul' leitmotif - not only in songs, but also in outlook and appearance.
Bauls defy all social conventions, religious dogmas and caste taboos; they do not recognise traditional deities or conventional rituals. For instance, Lalan Fakir, in one of his oft-quoted songs, talks about the futility of caste distinctions:
Everyone asks what is your caste, Lalan? Says Lalan, what test to apply? A Muslim man can be told apart from Hindus Because of circumcision. But what about the women folk? A Brahmin you can identify by his sacred thread But what about a Brahmin woman?
The words strike at the root of religious bigotry and fundamentalism, caste prejudices and gender biases, and uphold the unity of humankind. This is a common trait of all sects of Bauls, differently known as Bairiagi, Sahajiya, Darbesh, Sain, and so on. All of them believe in the `God within' and to approach Him they need a guide, called a guru.
Women have a significant role in the religious and metaphysical sadhana (seeking) of Bauls. They are inseparable companions of the men, and Bauls insist on love and respect for their women. "He who does not know the feeling of tender love, must be avoided always," goes one song, and another says: "A woman is not a treasure to be trifled with."
BUT gender bias dies hard. Baul women (Baulanis, as they are called), though constant companions of the men, have almost always remained in the background - dancing, providing the rhythm and lending their voices to the chorus. In other words, always playing second fiddle to the men. It is only recently that they have come to the forefront. It is in this context that a recent musical soiree, Baulanir Gaan (songs by female Bauls), organised in Kolkata by the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre in collaboration with Muktashilpa, a cultural organisation, assumes significance. Solo performers such as Sandhya Dasi, Subhadra Sharma, Uma Dasi, Krishna Dasi and Sumitra Dasi kept the audience enthralled through the evening. Their male companions were present, but not on stage.
Hailing from different districts of West Bengal, such as Birbhum, Nadia and Bankura, some of them initially started performing with their fathers, husbands or male companions, and later branched out on their own. Some of them have even travelled abroad. In many cases, they are the sole breadwinners for their families. But the two magazines, Hriday and Raktamangsha, which have taken up the laudable task of bringing their songs to the limelight, lamented that despite their professional excellence, Baulanis were still accorded the second place.
All this does not seem to make any difference to Baulanis. Krishna Dasi from Basirhat in North 24-Paraganas district told Frontline: "I have led the life of a Baulani from a very early age. When I am on stage, only my song exists. At that point of time, I am not aware of being either a man or a woman. I am just aware of my song. My sisters [other Baulanis] and I live with our songs."
A wandering life dependent on the charity of listeners is by no account an easy one; and it is all the more difficult for women. But for Baulanis, there can be no other way of life. Sandhya Rani Dasi was only three years old when she started wandering with her father. Even though she is now married with children, she still cannot resist the call of the road. "It's not just when we need money that my husband and I go wandering with our songs. When we are singing, I don't feel we have a home. For the last 25 years my dotara has been my one constant companion and that is the way it shall remain for the rest of my life. Even when I grow old and my body becomes feeble, even if there is no stage for me to sing my songs, I shall continue to wander with my songs till I die," she told Frontline.
Sometimes, the road takes Baulanis beyond the boundaries of West Bengal, and even India. Uma Rani Dasi has toured France, Switzerland and some countries in Africa such as Morocco, with her songs. "Basically, we are just singers who consider the whole world their home. Baul is a religion that is universal, in which everyone is included," she said.
In all their wanderings, Baulanis have never deviated from their basic philosophy, but that has not deterred them from incorporating the changing times in the themes of their songs. The careful listener will find subtle differences between the songs of Baulanis and those of their male counterparts. The modern Baulani is very much aware of her feminity, and her songs of liberation and emancipation of the self can also be applied in the context of the social status of women. An example of this can be found in the words of Subhadra Sharma, a Baulani from Nadia: Kobe hobe swajal borosha rekhechhi shei bhorosha/ Kotodine jabe amar bhagnadosha (My hopes rest on the purifying rains that will come and liberate me.)
Subhadra, a graduate, has intentionally retained her surname, instead of opting for the title Dasi or Baulani. "I don't feel I deserve that title yet," she told Frontline. "My aim is to serve life and to know myself within. Only through that will I be able to get a glimpse of the truth and be one with the universe."
Though they will never deny a song to anyone, publicity and fame are usually not at the top of Baulanis' priority list. Yet, their influence among the younger urban generation is considerable in West Bengal, and they are fast gaining immense popularity, something that Krosswindz, one of the most well-known Bengali folk-rock bands of Kolkata, acknowledges through its music. Vikramjit Banerjee, the lead guitarist of the group, told Frontline: "Baul music is something we have always been influenced by, both philosophically and musically. There is absolutely nothing pretentious or false about this music, which at the same time is also very profound. We are absolutely certain that this sound can be global." The lead vocalist of the group happens to be a woman - Chandrani Banerjee.
Essentially, Baul music in its original form was meant for the poor and the uneducated. The simplicity of its form and deliverance makes it easily understandable. As a result, this form is also used in advertisements for children's vaccine shots and other social messages. According to Dr. R.K. Samaddar, deputy director of the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, this kind of music was dying as an art form. But gradually, it is finding its place in the mainstream; and what is most important, the Baulani is getting her rightful place on the stage and the recognition that has been due to her for centuries.