Anyone going about their daily business in the West who stumbles upon a group of individuals in flowing robes, with untrimmed hair, some carrying single-stringed musical instruments, and all bursting into song, could be forgiven for feeling curious. Rarely these days do we meet genuine mystics, monks, friars, contemplatives, prophets or humble sages in our orderly landscape.
In the Bengal region of South Asia, however, itinerant mystics are still welcomed widely, respected for their sincere but simple way of life, and rewarded for the brilliance of their performances, sharing memorable poetry and music, mainly with rural communities, much as they have done for several centuries. These are the Bauls of Bengal – a group that pursue a life of self-denial and meditative discipline, committed to a belief that ‘the ultimate’ existence is to be found, not so much through rituals in holy places, but in every ‘self’ and are enthusiastic to share this passion almost exclusively through their art.
In order of performance: Baul Rafiq Sharkar; Baul Pagla Bablu; Baul Saharuri Sahana - see sidebar for song translations
The Baul tradition of mendicancy – ascetics who entertain in exchange for subsistence – has ancient origins, and seems to have thrived well before the rule of the great Mughal Emperors from the 16th to 18th centuries, a period during which Islam spread eastwards from the Middle East to Bengal and beyond
Bengal has always been rich in philosophies and religions, each one built up from sacred myths, scriptures, hypotheses and scholar-led practices, followed tenaciously by generations of adherents. In ages when diseases, disasters and death could strike without reason or warning, the idea that individuals should conduct themselves in morally-acceptable ways – lest gods and spirits be affronted – would have seemed sensible enough. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, together with Tantrism and Yoga, preached and taught for centuries how these behaviours ought best to be followed. All these traditions included strict cautions about wars and violence and an imperative that individuals become fully aware and in control of themselves in all circumstances. This was the complex pattern of devotional life confronting the vanguard of Islam as it spread eastwards less than 500 years ago. Prominent within that vanguard were the mystics and theologians of Islam, the Sufi. These ‘holy men’ would find significant consistencies between Islam and the religions they met as they travelled.
For many decades, Hindu, Muslim and other communities in Bengal lived and laboured on – sometimes as reluctant neighbours – following separate and quite distinct social conventions but mostly without open hostility. This was a time, under British East India rule, of quiet resurgence for Bengali – both as a language and as a vehicle for the development and expression of ideas within the region’s unique cultural environment; additionally, it was a period of growth in literacy and education. The ‘holy man’ as the prime guide to eternal mysteries began slowly to make way for the well-tutored religious leader – often more inclined to spread rules for the practice of faith than to deal with personal queries about existential matters.
As an ascetic discipline, Sufism continued to manifest itself in esoteric discourse, but moved firmly towards ordinary (especially rural) people through the traditional practices of mendicant minstrels, especially with the Baul in their dedicated and poetical search for the ‘Unknown Bird’ – the ‘Man of the Heart’ who, they believe, hides within every human frame, a ‘god, in whom all individuals are said to have a part. The Baul taught, through poetry and performance, that ‘ultimate ecstasy does not merely await “the faithful” in some distant heaven, but rests within everyone who can take the difficult steps to grasp it.’
Lalon Shah was born in Bengal in the 19th century. Though never wholly literate nor schooled in music, Shah became by far the most influential of all Baul. His many songs – estimates suggest there are several hundreds of them – enshrine all that is essential to the Baul concept of life.
Shah, along with the Baul both of his time and since, are passionately dismissive of caste, class and all forms of social discrimination. They are free-spirited, heterodox, anarchic and – as passionate believers in freedom of body and soul – limitlessly tolerant.
Of Shah himself it has been said that he was neither Hindu nor Muslim but both. In one song he asserts that man is the incarnation of God; in another he says that ‘if you know yourself, you know all’.
Thus far, the turbulence of the 20th and 21st centuries does not appear to have brought about the demise of the Baul; they are still to be seen across West Bengal and Bangladesh, and the presence among them of young aspirants as well as elderly practitioners is an encouraging sign for their future. Following partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 and at intervals since, there have been times of heightened tension between religious communities – but the Baul have managed to survive, partly through their tolerance, and partly because of their popularity as performers.
However, despite these performing talents now having a degree of international appeal – meaning there’s a good living awaiting those who can sing fine songs well, even if their audiences do not fully subscribe to the mysteries of their lyrics – improved standards of living, with wider access to entertainment on digital media, are eroding the appeal of minstrels’ performances. The itinerant life becomes ever less feasible and economic development does not particularly favour the mystic; who would wish to search, without promise of success, for an ‘elusive ecstasy’ when there is much instantaneous gratification to be found in a local market-place?
Portrait of Baul, an archival and performance project led by photographer and filmmaker Enamul Hoque, began with a fear that changing times in the country of his birth may be putting at risk not only the Baul wisdom and teachings, but are also threatening the very survival of the Baul themselves. He’s not alone in thinking this way; in 2005, UNESCO recognised the Baul tradition as a ‘Masterpiece of Intangible Oral Heritage of Humanity’.
For years, Hoque felt compelled to explore Lalon’s songs and Baul performances to make sure the traditions and philosophies wouldn’t fade away as modern cultural trends threaten to erode their appeal among younger generations. Hoque has spent more than a decade exploring and archiving the Baul songs and performances in a collection of audio, video and photographic recordings. To date he has collected over 350 songs performed by male, female and disabled Bauls.
‘I wanted to reconnect with my own Bangladeshi roots as well as to help safeguard the songs of the Baul from being lost forever,’ says Hoque. ‘It’s an attempt to bring their beauty, humanity and meaning to a wider global audience via the creation of a living, breathing digital archive.’
One of the most striking efforts at widening their global appeal to date was an ambitious audio/visual presentation in the Barbican Centre, London (see below video) in which giant videos of Baul performers were projected in high-definition onto the building itself, transforming the centre’s central pillars into glowing monoliths of light and sound, the Bauls ‘emerging from the concrete surface of the Barbican to sing, before dissolving once again into the architecture,’ describes Hoque.
Portrait of Baul was also presented at the documenta 14 Contemporary Art Festival in Kassel, Germany, and the British Library is holding 100 Baul songs for safe-keeping. There are also plans to anchor this archive in Bangladesh with an organisation with an accessible digital archive. Hoque is also collaborating with music composers to rework a selection of songs from this archive into modern compositions aimed at a wider global audience As the Baul ‘philosophy’ never quite amounts to a ‘religion’; its followers offer no scriptures, preach no sermons and seek no converts; as such, it falls to projects such as Portrait of Baul to keep alive the Baul ‘message’.
Baul beliefs are intellectually challenging – but not confrontational – and are as tenable philosophically as those of most other religions. That Baul wisdom is presented in song is, in itself, a reflection of genius; memorable songs tend to live longer in the heart than the most passionate of sermons. The remarkable history of the Baul is one of love, tolerance and rejection of discrimination. Free from vain ambition, the Baul promote cohesion over division in societies – and the value of meditation in the hustle of contemporary living. All these invaluable ‘lessons’ could simply fade away if, as is now possible, the Baul simply disappear from Bengal within a decade.
For Hoque, this is the fundamental purpose of Portrait of Baul – to preserve intact the distilled wisdoms of the past to inform and guide an inquisitive humanity in the future.
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