Bauliana - Worshiping the Great God in Man বাউলিয়ানা - মানবে স্রষ্টার আরাধনা
Site authored/edited and moderated by the Bangladesh based anti-establishment jazz-rock-fusion musician Maqsoodul Haque (Mac) in his continued research into the Bauls of Bengal, and connecting it to the universal quest for salvation from despair, a quest into the inner unfathomable depths of the complex creature called mAN? Bauliana was released as a book in Bangladesh on the 4th June 2007
To contact Mac: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jah Bauliana /\
Fakir Lalon Shah in one of his famous verses said ''only worshiping your mother, will lead you to the address of your father'' signaling that among Bauls there are no gender biases. Yet as we look back at the evolution of Baul music, there are incredibly no references or names of any female exponents, practitioners or Gurus for that matter. One reason may well have been the entrenched patriarchy in our culture was more malicious in the ages gone by, with women being assigned back seats. The other and more significant aspect could be that on the Sufi paradigm of Bauls and Islamic spirituality, the complex gnosis or Ma’arefat schools of thought, demands that secrecies centering spiritual transmission chains are best protected and preserved by women – NOT men.
Over 200 years ago when ‘women’s right’ was unknown in our - or any other part of the world, among Bauls it was a complete part and parcel of their belief system. Women hold commanding position among Baul as even today and are in many case equated above the male for they not only take on the pain of bearing and rearing children, they have traditionally assisted the male in all cumbersome burdens in activities within our agrarian society. That is not all, other than agriculture, among the hundreds of household chores that they actively participate in, as well as shouldering the protection and preservation of esoteric secrecies in their belief system, most Baul women are also volunteers in the para-military auxiliary forces Ansar and VDP, and have firearms training – everything from pistols, rifles to sub-machineguns!
Nonetheless, over times and the historical transformation of Baul music what has stood apart – is for reasons unknown, and despite the dominant male singers in the genre, the female voice has a uniquely compelling ability to convey the pangs, pathos and the deep meanings of Baul songs. Although there are no empirical evidence to the same, many a musicologist have argued that Baul music is essentially a female musical form that has been usurped by the male!
Whatever the case may be, among the very few women mentioned in scholarly books on Bauls, we come across the earliest name of Layli Begum. From the Kushtia/Chuadanga region, she came into prominence in the 1960’s courtesy of the radio. Staying true to Akhara traditions the name of Kangalini Sufiya who at age 14 left the comforts of her home and ventured out to be a Baul singer is the most prominent. Sufiya is one of the most extensively travelled Baul singer and has visited the US, UK and other European countries and as far off as China, Korea. At age 70 and in very poor health her on-stage presence today continues to enthrall audience as much as her wit, self deprecating humor and candor are legendary. Sufiya has also been featured in the ground breaking academic book “Women Renunciation in South Asia” where she is extensively quoted on Baul sexuality.
Among the notable female Bauls from the Akhara tradition, Aklima Begum whose ancestry can be traced back to the earliest ‘shiri’ or ‘transmission ladder’ of Lalon is noteworthy. Aklima has been a practicing Baul as well as a householder and has staked her claim as an outstanding artist and performer since the late 1970s. It was post the appearance of Farida Parvin in the early 1970s that female Baul performers were getting noticed and other than the quality of their voices, they immediately started receiving rave responses from listeners who earlier had no inclination to listen to Baul music at all.
Between 1980 to the late 1990’s outstanding singers such as Shehnaz Beli from Abdalpur, Kushtia were rocking the Akharas as well as major folk festivals all across Bangladesh, yet their appearance in the mainstream Bangladesh Television was limited. This was mainly because of intense competition among Bauls, and also apathy of the state run institute to embark upon proper research or creating database of artists. Shehnaz for instance was rarely heard in Bangladesh, yet was well known among the diaspora Bengalis all across the Middle East, Europe and America before her albums back at home finally brought her to media and national limelight – that too after 2000.
Among artists still holding on to Akhara traditions and not known in the mainstream despite their tremendous performance and skills as artists are; Zahura Begum from Harishpur, Harinakundu, Jhenaidah,
Kohinoor Akhter Golapi
Onjoli Durga Ghosh
Onjoli Durga Ghosh from Bheramara, Kushtia and Kohinoor Akhter Golapi from Seuria, Kushtia are mentionable. There is undoubtedly hundreds more female Baul artist worthy of mention all across the far flung corners of Bangladesh, who regrettably cannot be mentioned in this series, given space constraints.
The advent of the new millennium saw the arrival of the folk-rock fusion band Bangla’s first album Kingkortobbobimurho in 2002, which set a new milestone on the way forward with Baul music. The multi talented vocalist of the band Anusheh Anadil, through her perseverance created a niche audience comprising Dhaka’s educated elite and their English medium school and University going children. She sent waves down rural Bangladesh as well, where for years her association with masters of the Akhara tradition such as Fakir Rob Shah and teacher Shafi Mondol among others, gave her rendition of Lalon’s song an unsurpassed acceptability at the grassroots.. Taking Baul music to newer heights, in 2007 Bangla performed with likes of Bono of U2, Bob Geldof and Youssou N’Dour in a concert tour of Germany. Baul music thanks to Anusheh earned the millennium prefix of ‘cool’ !
Following closely on heel with Bangla is the band Lalon – whose lead vocalist Nigar Sumi set new standards of fusing Baul music with rock. Their performances attract audiences all across Bangladesh, as much as they have toured the UK and elsewhere in Europe, the feather to their cap came during a packed performance at the hallowed precincts of the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 15th June of this year with the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in rapt attendance.
13. The glorious 90’s – the revival of rock music and its role in Baul fusion
The band Feedback's 1996 album titled 'Bauliana' is the first Baul fusion album in the history of Bangladesh
10th of December 1990 will go down in the history of Bangladesh as the day that saw the ouster of the hated military dictator Hossain Mohammad Ershad. What has passed many of us by since; Ershad was overthrown by a youth led mass movement. Fed up with the incessant chicanery of their ‘leaders’ in their dealings with the dictator of nearly a decade, it was the only time that the youth front of Awami League, BNP and even Jamaat joined hand in an unprecedented display of unity – the rest is history. For the political landscape it was to see the return of semblance of representative democracy after 1975, a wait of almost 15 years. On the cultural landscape it would usher in a new era, where freedom of expressions, denied and subverted for decades were to be restored and enter center stage of popular imagination.
The other historical event was the first ever open air concert held by Bangladesh Musical Bands Association (BAMBA) on 16th December 1990 at the Mall Square of Dhaka University – the same spot, where over a dozen students were killed in a last ditch gun battle with the henchman of the dictator. Over 50,000 people thronged the Mall to witness the free concert where more than 15 rock bands celebrated freedom away from the clutches of dictatorship. The momentous concert ended on a heartening note that evening, with an hour long performance by Shahjahan Munshi the visually challenged Baul from Manikgang.
Rock and Baul music tied a symbolic thread of commonality and unity on the day – and that was only a demonstration of newer things to appear on the horizon. Urban mainstream and rural ‘cultures’ merged and as if by providence were set to rock in a manner unseen. The winds of change following the historical BAMBA concert saw rock music - stunted post-1975, re-emerge with strength and vitality – and together a noticeable shift in repertoire and listening habits of the audience. From 1990 onwards newer and unheard of genres entered the Bengali soundscape. From pop rock, hard rock to thrash metal, to heavy metal and jazz-rock fusion etc, very quickly and resolutely became powerful musical genres in Bangladesh.
A young and appreciative audience was also lapping up Baul music for they realized and recognized that Bauls were part of our forefather’s rebellion against any form of oppression. Baul was our ancient roots rock tradition and the young just did not stop by giving it tokenistic lip service. Baul fusion was in fact just a few years away from happening. In 1996 the legendary band Feedback (the author was then its lead vocalist) much to the surprise of their urban fan based, launched a complete Baul fusion album. Titled ‘Bauliana’ – the album show cased the possibilities of interpreting Baul music in a global music format. Experimenting not only with the works of Fakir Lalon Shah and other masters of some 200 years, the band notched up their presentations by including living Bauls themselves in the album.
The legendary Hiru Shah the oldest living Baul of the Lalon Shrine at the time and Santosh Baul of Bhanga, Faridpur (both now deceased) were featured in the album, that saw the beginning of a process of Masters joining in an urban production. ‘Bauliana’ was the first Baul fusion album in the history of Bangladesh and was an instant ‘crossover hit’ endearing the band not only to their existing fan base, but also in rural Bangladesh – where it also gave listeners a foretaste of the unique and emerging rock music movement .
The process of soul searching and introspection that is fundamental in Baul music and its philosophy soon became an ongoing praxis among new Baul fusion exponents - the majority of whom were from a generation that was born after the Liberation War of 1971. The Fine Arts Faculty campus in Dhaka University organised for the very first time a proper ‘Shadhu Shongo’ with hundred of Bauls and Shadu Gurus in attendance.
The times also opened up scopes for much younger Bauls emerging from the Akhara tradition to come to Dhaka to perform and record their works without been treated as ‘village bumpkins’! Outwardly the most potent indicator was; newer Baul music forms with the Akhara tradition notwithstanding, led to appreciation that had nothing in common with the closed, cliché and somewhat intolerant attitudes of the previous generation.
Kangalini Sufiya is legendary for her mesmerizing performance both at home and abroad
12. Baul music from 70’s to the 90’s – heading for millennium challenges and new fusion genres
Bangladesh Rock Music (popularly called ‘band music’) was never lagging behind in its appreciation and performance of Baul music. Post 1971, among the five legends of Bangla rock i.e. Azam Khan, Ferdaus Waheed, Feroze Shai, Fakir Alamgir and Pilu Mumtaz the use of folk music motifs interspersed with Baul, Jari, Shari, Kirtan, Maizbhandari, Fakiri, Ma’arefoti and Deho Tottyo into their repertoire was the usual fare. Yet when it came to presentation of Fakir Lalon Shah’s music – there were negligible efforts among the doyen’s of Bangla rock and there are no public records available of the same.
There were two clear reasons for their hesitation. One was, the Akhara-new instruments controversy was at its height among academics and intellectuals post the Liberation War, and contributed to distance them from Lalon. The other was after the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15th August 1975, military dictators and their ilk had undertaken a covert ‘Islamization’ agenda and anything that presented secular aspects of our culture, were either trivialized or completely ignored- if not totally banned. Media was at the mercy of our military masters, and Bauls were viewed with suspicion, their lyrics vetted, sometimes replaced with sectarian words, and their performances heavily regulated.
However there has always been a silver lining in our heavily darkened cultural cloud. As has happened in various stages of Bangladesh’s cultural history, whenever faced with stiff resistance or repression, exponents of our culture have always stepped back and re-strategized. The Bengali genes of resilience has always activated itself to carve out newer niches in its creative expression and those in turn has championed newer, more robust and progressive branching out of culture.
By 1990’s the typically cliché understanding of Bauls had to a great extent started to recede, with newer artist making their presence felt in both Radio and Television as well as live performances. The Government of Bangladesh regardless of whosoever was in power (including ruthless military dictators), never failed to accommodate Baul artist in any national level cultural delegations abroad. Baul music spread to Europe, America, all of the Middle East and to South East Asia, and while they shared platforms with other musical genres of Bangladesh, they never failed to rock. In one such performance during an international music festival in the mid-70’s at Wembley Stadium in London, Kangalini Sufiya who was allotted to sing only one song, stole the limelight after tumultuous encores from a dancing and clapping Western audience compelled her to sing for over an hour in the classic Akhara tradition with minimal use of instruments!
The strength, energy and prowess of Baul artist such as Abdur Rahman Boyati, Kangalini Sufiya, Mumtaz Begum (now an elected MP in the Jatiyo Shangshad), Shah Abdul Karim, Shahjahan Munshi, Shahnaz Beli etc, made them sensations in their own rights. Over the years, Baul music could shed off its ‘palli geeti’ or ‘moromi sangeet’ tag and emerge as a potent independent genre, with the Government giving it the adequate importance and recognition it so badly deserved over centuries. It was perhaps at this point in our history, that folk musicians of all genres started claiming themselves Bauls.
By the mid 90’s the burgeoning cassette industry made Baul music of all traditions widely acceptable at all levels, and greatly enlarged urban listener’s base. Hundreds of Baul artists were recorded and their works distributed – with some topping sales in unbelievable figures. An album by Mujib Pardesi for instance sold an astronomical 10 million copies in six month. Although not always accurate in its presentation, many cinemas and TV drama serials of the time projected Bauls lifestyle, and in small dosages their philosophy. All these positive projections saw by early nineties Baul becoming a fashion and accessory statement with the famous international model and fashion designer Bibi Russell presenting her gumcha line of dresses to a world audience. Bibi used Baul music during catwalks in international ramps.
What was a matter of great pride was given all that was happening around Baul music and their controversial and unorthodox lifestyle - was a progressive movement among the educated and informed young in major urban centers all across Bangladesh. The important social indicator for this trend was the deepening political divides and the incessant attempts at per force ‘Islamization’ that has seen the dangerous rise of religious bigotry at all ends of our socio-political spectrum. Under the circumstances, disenchanted citizens specially the young found their answer and solace in Lalon, and the two yearly festivals surrounding the great Sage today witnesses hundred upon thousand and ever growing number of new seekers from cities converging at his Shrine, with many preferring as in the ancient times - to go under the tutelage of a Baul Guru.
11. Baul music – from acceptability to respectability and Khoda Buksh Shah Jr
Khoda Buksh Shah Jr was awarded the Ekushey Padak in 1990 for his outstanding contribution to Baul music and Philosophy
The history of Bauls as a pacifist, humane and secular movement has traditionally wavered and treaded on the fate and fortune of prevailing socio-political climate of Bengal at any given time. It is the consistency of their belief system and their remarkably progressive thoughts while living in the economic hardship of rural backwaters of Bangladesh that has constantly endeared then to common people regardless of faith, belief or religion. While the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 was a watershed year in our destiny as a nation, it was also a turning point in assimilation and acceptance of Bauls into our cultural life. When millions of urban Bengalis fled townships and cities to escape brutalities of the Pakistan Army, their shelter were in villages, where for many it was a first time experience to share meals, and live on and off with the poorest of the poor – with Bauls being no exception to the rule.
Bauls played a very significant role in inspiring Mukti Bahini guerrillas in their training camps. Together with songs of Tagore and Kazi Nazrul, those of Lalon and hundreds of other rural bards were effectively used for the war efforts and there were good reasons. Almost 85 percent of our valiant freedom fighters were from villages and Baul music as much as palli geeti as an art form is one they identified with instinctively, and perhaps genetically. Other than music, Bauls provided refugees and fighters spiritual guidance and psychological counseling in what were very traumatic times.
It was therefore not unusual that many displaced urban residents got their first clear views and understanding about the Bauls during the war, and this in turn assuaged their curiosity and made Baul music not just a culture one could pass by, but importantly learn lessons on how to build a pragmatic, liberal, tolerant and exploitation free society. As the history of modern Bangladesh will surely attest, Bauls have been at the vanguard of any socio-political upheavals. Their music that has transformed from Akharas was by now a new force worth reckoning, and its strength emanated from an ability to adjust to demands of contemporary times, yet staying true to the rich tradition they have inherited and still actively live with. Bauls with twentieth century vision had arrived on the scene and set about dramatic new improvement and improvisations to the status quo.
Among the outstanding Baul luminaries of the new times, who created waves in preserving, archiving and documenting, the contributions made by Khoda Buksh Shah Jr, (1927- 14th January 1990 – no relation of Khoda Buksh Shah Sr) is noteworthy. Born in village Jahapur, under Alamdanga in Chuadanga district he developed a keen interest towards music at a very young age, joined a Kirtan choir and dropped out of school permanently. He soon became went under the tutelage of his famed Guru Shukchand Shah. Discarding his usual attire, he donned the saffron robe of a Vaishnavite Fakir to mark his transformation, while taking in the rigors of the Lalon school of thoughts as his prime focus of musical and spiritual discipline. Also, other than Shukchand Shah he spent 36 years of his living life under the tutelage of Guru Bihal Shah.
Where he surpassed his contemporaries; not only was he an exponent of Lalon, he also held phenomenal command on works of notable ‘podokorta’ (poets, bards) of the past such as Ramchandra Khyepa, Ramlal Pal, Rabi Shyam, Guruchand Gosai, Gopal Kashem Shah, Ekram Shah, Mofizuddin Shah – nearly 74 prolific Baul Masters of our times. Khoda Buksh was indeed a walking, and living archive with clear idea of the historical trends of Baul music of over 200 years at his thumbnail.
Khoda Buksh Shah Jr is remembered as a Baul poet, singer, writer, philosopher and composer of extraordinarily high standard and great acumen, leaving behind an archive of over 800 songs penned and composed to his credit. He served with the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy from 1983 to 1987 as an expert on Lalon Shah's music. In 1983 the Bangla Academy awarded him with a fellowship for his skill and mastery on Lalon music. It was during his stint with Shilpakala that he introduced artist from the Akhara tradition such as Kiron Chandra Roy, Kanonbala Sarkar, Indramohan Rajbangshi, Dil Afroz Reba, Chandana Majumnder etc to the mainstream. Other than that he took initiatives of recording hundreds of song of all the great masters post Lalon until the 1980’s and they are preserved at the Transcription Services of Bangladesh Betar. In 1990 the Government of Bangladesh, posthumously awarded him with the prestigious National Award "Ekushey Padak" for his outstanding contribution to Lalon Music and Philosophy as also his own works, being the first among two Bauls Gurus to have received this honor thus far.
10. Pre and Post independence Baul music, Muksed Ali Shah and Farida Parvin
The British agenda of divide and rule saw the partition of India in 1947 precipitated by severe communal riots in Bengal and divide the Baul movement along sectarian lines. It led to the creation of Pakistan and saw Nadiya in Bengal split between East Pakistan and West Bengal. The age old non-sectarian, non-communal secular fabric of society of the region very quickly transformed with the creation of Kushtia district (formerly Kumarkhali) and the Shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah falling into ‘Muslim’ East Pakistan. The cultural and political triumph card for the rulers of Pakistan was Lalon himself, and since the title ‘Fakir’ preceded his name the 'Islamization' of Lalon and Baul music commenced in earnest. Much of the agnostic-monotheistic teaching of Lalon was abandoned and a ‘Sufi’ tag attached to give Baul music a ‘kosher liberal Muslim’ identity.
Most academic discourses of the time spiraled down to polemics centering the identity of Lalon and by default the belief system and unorthodox lifestyle of the Baul community as such. The age old debate of whether Lalon was a Hindu or Muslim was stoked to insane heights. The only positive aspect of the Pakistan period on Baul’s was the construction in 1963 of the Lalon Shrine in Seuria, Kushtia. His grave was properly identified by Fakirs and Sadhus and although the simple mausoleum that’s survives to this day displayed no sectarian symbolism the precinct was renamed a 'mazar' replacing its secular Bengali identity of 'dham'.
The spread of Baul music however continued with much of the Akhara institution left intact and Baul music assimilated and thrived within existing paradigms of 'Palli Geeti'. The famed poet Jashimuddin Ahmed wrote extensively about our folk traditions incorporating incognito recognition to Baul spirituality and their connection with nature. Likewise the Bangla Academy commissioned many scholarly works on Baul music and inducted the verses of Lalon into academic literature. Unlike Kolkata where Baul music entered mainstream courtesy of its elites ‘baithak’ (assembly) in sitting rooms, in what was East Pakistan it entered mainstream culture through radio, albeit adequately attired in the garb of ‘moromi sangeet’ or mystical music. Much of the misconstrued ‘Hindu-ized’ verses of Lalon were abandoned and in its place non-offending songs with largely ‘Sufi’ motifs were relayed.
The 1971 War of Liberation saw Bauls spontaneously join the Bengali aspirations for freedom. Among the many unsung heroes of the War, the role of the famed Baul Muksed Ali Shah (1933-1981) is exemplary. Coming from the Amulya Shah-Sukchand Shah school of Baul philosophy his immediate Guru was Fakir Nimai Shah of Alamdanga, Chuadanga. A college student at the time he was conversant with the use of firearms given his prior training with the paramilitary Ansar of which he was then a commander.
After the Pakistan military crackdown in Dhaka on 25th March and elsewhere in East Pakistan, on 29th March 1971, Muksed Ali Shah organized and headed a pincer strike force that successfully conducted a daring guerrilla raid that led to the ultimate eviction of a Pakistan Army camp in Arorapara, outside Kushtia. Fatalities on the Pakistan side was over 250 killed and startled the then government who set a cash award of Rupees 10,000 for his head. This prompted him the flee East Pakistan and join the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro in India, where he proceeded to assist in the war efforts as a Baul artist and organizer.
After the independence of Bangladesh Muksed Ali Shah established a solid reputation of a Lalon exponent and associated himself firmly both with Bangladesh Betar and Television. About the same time he used the ‘Lalon Academy’ in Kushtia as a focal recruitment ground for sourcing and training versatile Lalon singers for the Rajshahi and Dhaka centers of Bangladesh Betar. Among the talents discovered by Muksed was Farida Parvin who by her rendition of the new genre of Baul music blended with both Akhara and modern music genre, went on to create waves in our culture. Her appearance in Bangladesh Television sealed her berth in the national heritage, which led on to appreciation of Baul music not only in Bangladesh, but also globally. In recognition of her outstanding contribution to the works of Fakir Lalon Shah, the Bangladesh Government awarded her with the prestigious ‘Ekushey Padak’ in 1987.
Rabindranath Tagore made the most significant contribution in global outreach and understanding of Baul music
9. Global outreach of Baul music, newer voice schools and instruments specialization
By 1940 Baul music made rapid yet cautiously progressive strides capturing the imagination of the Kolkata elite. Over time it became a connoisseur art form and found acceptance in the burgeoning urban middle class. Heartened by the initiatives made possible by Khoda Buksh Shah Sr, these newly emerging stakeholders remained loyal to the Akhara tradition yet saw the need for adjustment and a radical change to mindsets. It commenced with creation and promotion of standalone icons i.e. individual performers/singers and musicians who could raise awareness of Fakir Lalon Shah’s music and thereby seize newer opportunities.
The era of professionalism had dawned on Baul music. For the more conservative Bauls, these trends were a ‘shocking departure’ from the Akhara tradition where efforts of the entire community were emphasized. The age old debate on authenticity got further embroiled in harmful shades of neo-puritanism as well as closet sectarianism. This was harshly criticized by the new exponents of Baul music for they argued that it defeated the purpose of Fakir Lalon Shah who was opposed to any form of puritanism. Baul music was reaching out to ordinary people in great numbers and shedding of its unnecessarily sacrosanct status.
The notable new entry for dissemination of music was All India Radio established in 1930. Baul music courtesy the radio was heard all across the Indian subcontinent and the led to newer curiosities as well as a whole range of literature on Baul music, notations and philosophies emerged. None other than the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore made the most significant contribution in global outreach and understanding of Baul music. Deeply influenced by Baul music and Fakir Lalon Shah, Tagore in 1930-31 undertook a lecture tour of Europe and presented several papers which were later compiled in his epochal book ‘’ The Religion of Man’’. The book touched upon and factually documented the Baul belief system and its humanist philosophy.
The influence of Baul music and philosophies drew parallels with Tagore’s adherence to the reformist Hindu ‘’Brahmo Samaj’’ movement that began in 1828, and saw the commencement of the great Bengali Renaissance. By 1940, helped by many Bengali literati and musical stalwarts Baul music went global. Tagore also archived many of Lalon’s work in Shantineketon and set into motion the ‘’Baul-angyo’’ genre i.e. Baul influenced verses into the Rabindra shangeet repertoire.
Meanwhile in Chaudanga of erstwhile Nadiya district a lot was happening. The foremost of musical disciples of Buksh Sr, was Shukchand Shah a versatile and extraordinarily gifted vocalist. After a historical meeting between Shukhchand’s spiritual Guru Amulya Shah and Buksh Sr, Baul music assumed a dimension hitherto unheard of. Impressed by the groundbreaking work of Amulya, Buksh Sr, handed over his long preserved and documented archive of Lalon’s song to Amulya Shah and simultaneously, the mantle of vocalization to Shukhchand. The Amulya-Shukhchand duo thereafter charted a new fusion course, whereby Baul music infused with different musical instruments and influences became hugely entertaining and widely celebrated as it shed off much of the drab, dull and somewhat depressing sounds of the Akhara.
What happened next was emergence of new schools of Baul music that replicated the modes, methodologies and rigor of the Indian classical ‘gharana’ (apprenticeship in comprehensive musicological ideology) tradition. This in turn resoundingly addressed two basic areas of contentions, i.) Gurus from the Akhara tradition would train disciples in music regardless of whether the subject was a seeker or a music student and ii.) usage methods in musical instruments itself became a discipline whereby only under the tutelage of a Akhara master would the musicians be guided. Other than voice training, this phase in Baul music saw the rise of Baul Gurus who introduced and trained disciples in musical instruments such as dotaara, harmonium, violin, khamak, gomok etc and a variety of percussion instrument from pakhwaz, khol, dhol, mandira to prem-jhhuri and kartaal.
Inclusion of newer instruments and artist saw the Baul music genre getting enlarged
The inclusion of newer instruments and artist saw the Baul music genre getting enlarged and well defined - engaging and captivating larger audience numbers across a very wide spectrum, as well as connecting urban listeners to their nostalgic roots. The trend led on to the creation of versatile musicians as well as performers not only enriched the form in a complex and highly competitive musical environment, it guaranteed Baul music’s survival for posterity. By late eighteenth century the invention of microphone and ‘Chonga mike’ (improvised bull horn speakers) and amplifications meant that by early 19th century, Baul music had effectively moved out of village Akharas to thanas and district towns and to urban city centers including Kolkata, with Dhaka emerging in importance much later.
As a genre it was quickly lapped up in particular by aficionados who were not Bauls in any way but shilpis. These were vocal artists with no understanding about the deep spirituality associated with Baul music. Singing and performances by ‘shokher Baul’ i.e. Baul pretenders as they were condescendingly referred to by Shadhus and Fakirs have since times post the transition of Lalon been the bone of contentions and many a sore debates. Since Baul music was by now open source and available aplenty in the national heritage, so it was only natural that many artists as well as vested interest staked a claim. The debate around the times centered on why one has to undergo the rigor of Baul life just to be able to sing the songs of Lalon? The Shadus and Fakirs i.e. the legitimate stakeholder’s insisted that this was just not music but an ancient tradition, and wanted its authenticity retained under any circumstances.
The above debate continues as until today and it will be no error of judgment to state that the Sadhus and Fakirs arguments merit understanding and appreciation. For one, by 1920 Baul pretenders had in more ways than one usurped the tradition, and distortions became rampant and routine. Despite the many vagaries of the times, and the hazards advancements in technologies brings with it in society, the ancient Akhara institutions as this series of articles has repeatedly pointed, prevailed. It has painstakingly preserved and continues to nurture all aspects of Baul music. It is in recognition to the continuity of the tradition and maintaining consistent criteria’s both in music and spirituality, that on the 26th November, 2005, UNESCO is Paris, declared Baul Music as ‘’Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’’.
However historical records indicate that differences of opinion into holding on to Akhara authenticity started immediately after the transition of Lalon. Disputes raging for several years among disciples on possession of the Lalon Shrine in Seuria, greatly divided and weakened the Baul community. The important shift to assimilation of Baul music with Palli Geeti (general folk music) is believed to have been started in 1920 by Khoda Buksh Shah, Sr, who was a living, walking archive. He had consigned most of the estimated 1200 verses of Lalon into memory and was also a famed vocalist.
His real talents however lay elsewhere. It was in his deep understanding of the class division in society and evolving a strategy as how best to ensure transmission of Lalon’s songs. He went on to perform yeomen service to our culture and ancient traditions.
Bauls have always been a marginalized and ostracized community given their unorthodox lifestyle and belief system, they challenged sensibilities of the dominant Kolkata based Brahmin and Muslim elite, who considered them no more than a ‘subordinate class of riffraff’s’. It was Khoda Buksh Shah Sr, who saw the strides folk music other than Baul was making among the elite and had become acceptable from fairs, to markets to the sitting rooms of the affluent. Buksh Sr, looked at working on a critical mix of talent, trend and evolving technologies, without in anyway compromising with the Akhara tradition. Baul music’s entrance into Bengali folk music was not an accident. It was an exercise in subterfuge, a planned and calculated interventionist maneuvering. ‘Fusion’ as we know it today became institutionalized in Baul music at this point.
A Baul with an Ektaara and Baya has since remained the most enduring image in the media.
7. From Akhara to mainstream – use of new musical instruments in Baul music
Historical records suggest that the Ektaara a single stringed lute was the only musical instruments used inside Akhara premises from the times of Lalon and that tradition continues in many cases even today. The simple yet highly sophisticated instrument when played in accompaniment is believed to convey ‘secret instructions’ by Lalon, decipherable only to adept Bauls, who will therefore never deviate from the same. Baul music in its earliest forms was not based on any complex raga of the Indian classical tradition, nor were any taal, beat or accompaniment instruments used.
Nonetheless while evolving as a musical genre during the times of Lalon, there is no denying that many tunes or ‘soor’ of the times were used and they were based on existing Murshidi, Marfati or other popular Sufi genres, as much as Kirtans and Bhajans from the Vaishnavites. Baul tunes have similarities with folk music from such far off places such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Persia, Turkey and Iraq, even with complex ones from Carnatic music traditions. As an independent genre it became recognized over time and after many musical elements, motifs and forms mixed and gave it the complete shape that we hear today. Baul music has traditionally fused with newer trends and ideas.
Rusticity coupled with simplicity of the music, was the pre-eminent beauty of Baul music, which remained strictly confined to Akhara centric Shadhus and Fakirs who had no aspirations to become professional singers. Over time this became a problematic aspect in the spread of Baul music, because all too often singing was off key, as basic tuning methodologies were not understood. Also within Akharas, no one much cared, as how one sang or how instruments sounded as long as the messages within the songs were decipherable. These idiosyncrasies in fact added up in creating the Baul music genre which was exceptional and unique.
Emphasized within the Akharas as far as approaches to musical instruments are concerned, there has not been a marked shift to the earliest standard fare even to this day. Staying true to ancient traditions Bauls sing live and without microphones or amplifications of any kind in open air concerts. It is therefore not unusual that many Bauls acquired distinctive vocal skills with high pitch rendition of songs that reaches out to hundreds of assembled listeners. With the general acceptability and popularity of Baul music over the years, saw the incorporation of several instruments to join in as accompaniment.
It was in fact about 2 decades after the transition of Lalon, that Baya or small drum slung to the waist and played with the left hand was included into Baul music. A Baul with an Ektaara and Baya has since remained the most enduring image in the media. Many even strapped a Payel or Ghungroo (small bells) to their ankles to improvise and create rhythm. Baul repertoire moved on the same principals applied by ‘one man bands’ with minimalism in everything from what they wear to the instruments they play being part and parcel not only of their music, but also their belief system.
Initially it was the bamboo flute and the 4 stringed Dotaara, then progressively rhythm instruments such as the mandira, khartaal and jhuri, wooden castanets, later drums such as dhol, khol, naal as much as pakwaz made their steady entry. The Vaishnavite and Sufi influences in Baul music meant that many instrument favored by the Mughals and other aristocratic and feudal classes such as the Serangi, Shehnai, Santoor, tabla, tanpura, Chimta, Khamak as well as harmonium and Sitars made their inroads and sooner than not, became an integral part of Baul music.
The inclusion of various instruments into Baul music were never imposed, but the need and demands of times, because while the music practiced and pursued in the Akhara institution was the base parameters set by the stakeholders themselves, it was gradually moving out of the Akharas and gaining mainstream acceptability. Since Bauls never believed in any prescribed musical forms nor were they ever dogmatic or puritanical in matters of what instruments can or or cannot be used, incorporation of newer instruments and trends thus became inevitable.
Shadhu Guru Darbesh Hossain Ali Shah (left) confers with his disciples during a Shadhu Shongo at Sonagari, Chuadanga
6. The Guru among Bauls and their transmission chart, music and messages
Gurus follow a hagiographical transmission chart called Shirzanaama where they can track back their spiritual lineage i.e. his own Guru and one before him and so forth, dating hundreds of years in most cases. For instance among followers of Lalon there exist 7 clear shiris or ‘spiritual transmission ladder’ comprising living descendants of his disciples i.) Panju Shah ii.) Duddu Shah iii.) Hiroo Shah iv.) Deyal Shah v.) Delwar Shah and families of vi. ) Sothi Maa poribar and vii.) Chowdhury poribar as well as a controversial and little understood chain that many Bauls claim - is that of Fakir Lalon Shah himself.
There are different kinds of Gurus among Bauls with the all important Diksha Guru who renders exoteric spiritual training to disciples, then the Shikkha Guru, who more or less fills in the role of an educationist, sometimes explaining them on modern parameters and paradigms, followed by the Gaaner Guru who is a music teacher. There is also the Onupreronar Guru or inspirational Gurus who does not hold any rigid mantles of a Guru, but one who inspires disciples into the Baul path.
In the times gone by when formal education was not known in our part of the world and the culture was oral, it was the traditional institution of imparting ‘lip to ear wisdom’ - meaning not all that’s transpires between a Guru and Shishwa is for public consumption, remained the mainstay for the growth of the institution. Secrecy about music and spirituality has always been the key point among Bauls and follows the ancient epigram, ‘pour only so much that the cup can hold’. It meant mere obeisance to the Guru was not always the parameter for judgment and the prerogative lay with the Gurus to decide if a seeker or disciple had the mental or spiritual temerity to pass on and spread the vital coded messages that have come for humanity. A seeker had to prove he/she was qualified for the task in hand, and rigid process of examination and scrutiny continues until today.
About the messages in Baul songs, musicologist Dr. Karunamaya Goswami explains ‘’Baul songs always carry a double meaning, the outward meaning guarding the inner sense, and this double entendre was known as ‘sandha vachana’ i.e. code language. The outward meaning of the songs has indeed a literary flavor, for the songs really follow a traditional pattern, but the outward sense was intended only to disguise the inner meaning which recorded the mystic practice, experience and emotion of the masters in their process of self-realization.’’
The Akhara institutions take, when it comes to music is interesting as well as exemplary. Different regions in Bangladesh have their respective traditions of rendering songs. For instance there is a noticeable difference in tones, tonalities and even tunes in how Lalon’s songs are rendered in Kushtia Akharas as opposed to neighboring Chuadanga. Likewise all the way from Harinakundu in Jessore to Manikganj and Munshiganj in Dhaka, the style, intonations, ambience and presentation of verses are markedly different. Baul songs as practiced in Bangladesh are also in many cases vastly dissimilar to those of West Bengal in India. Yet there are seldom any disputes on the matter.
At most, any variations or mistakes in the words or lyrics may be quickly pointed out and corrected if there is common agreement via the institution of bahas (intervention, debates, enquiry), else they are accepted and may continue as has been practiced in a particular region with not so much as an eyebrow raised. What is of prime importance more than the tune or rendition methodologies are that the messages embedded and encoded within the verses remain undiluted and coherent. The practice of intervention for correction remains confined to the verses in question which in turn explains that Baul music never set any rigid standards or instructions about performance modes and they were left to grounded subtleties of each region, as also the peculiarities of individual performer’s nuances and their voice quality. Puritanism of any kind has always been shunned by Bauls.
5. The Shadhu Shongo institutions - Guru -Shishwa interactions and Sheba
Shadhu Shongo’s the second most important institution for Bauls are regular conclaves or assembly of the wise i.e. masters in music, spirituality as well as day to day social matters of common concern. Scriptural discourses sets the tone of each Shongo and they can last anywhere from three to seven days, depending on the weather, circumstances or overall socio-political-cultural situation prevailing at any time. Discourses and singing goes on non-stop, and Bauls irrespective of caste, creed, religion or sex live and eat communally during the period of the Shongo.
It is therefore easy to surmise that up to three Shadu Shongo are held every day somewhere or the other in rural Bangladesh and unlike other ‘cultures’ that are tokenistic or revolves around peripheral ‘cultural activism’, Baul music and the culture associated is organic i.e. one that has to be lived and practiced as a lifestyle statement. Other than the assembly of various Shadhu Gurus (the eldest Shadhu denoting practitioner, derived from the word Shadhona), these events sees different schools of Bauls congregating and passionately discussing tunes and tones of Baul music, as well as the inherent and esoteric meanings of verses which are reverently referred to as pod or kalaam.
A Baul Shadhu Shongho at the Akhra of Fakir Sattar Shah in Sauntha, Kushtia
The Guru holds very special importance among the Bauls for they are literally considered ‘God heads’ or fountains of knowledge from which spirituality and music flows. Each Guru holds a Shongo every year and in many cases a a second one, commemorating the death of his own Guru. It is estimated that at least 1000 small, medium to large Shongo are held every year in Bangladesh, with the one centering Fakir Lalon Shah, held in Seuria, Kushtia in the Bangla month of Choitro (March) and Kartick (October) being the largest by far. It is very rarely that a Guru leaves his ashon (assigned seat) during the course of a Shongo so that no shishwa or disciple misses the chance to hear the Gurus speak and their interpretation of verses and scriptures in question. This in essence reinforces Guru-Shishwa parampara, or interaction, which is a continuously evolving non-traditional educational process.
Other than music, spirituality and quest for knowledge, the Shadhu Shongo institute consciously emphasizes on ‘Sheba’ - the rites of food which is a pivotal demonstration of the Baul lifestyle. Nothing is more sacred to the Bauls than food, for ultimately it is a gift from the Creator. ‘Sheba’ as the word denotes is a voluntary offering i.e., service to humanity and one every human on the planet by providence holds collective responsibility. Food therefore is not ‘eaten’ but shared equally. Sharing food and consuming food are both acts of God – and more profoundly as Bauls believe that God dwells inside each human soul, we feed the ‘God in us’, not necessarily ourselves. Thus why, when and with whom food is shared is in itself a meditative process and one that has survived centuries as the rite of food is so meticulously understood and observed scrupulously.
Bauls have a vegetarian diet and the only ‘meat’ they consume is that of fish. Cooking is done in a communal kitchen with no fossil fuel (kerosene or gas) but firewood. There are three specific Sheba : i.) Guru Sheba – dinner, which takes place usually post midnight at the end of a Shongo, ii.) Balya Sheba – breakfast where children are fed first and whatever else is left, is shared by adults iii.) Punyo Sheba – lunch, Shadhu Shongo usually ends at after this particular Sheba and everybody leaves the venue in a state of ‘Punyota’, or complete blessing from the Guru.
From the pot to eating bowl, everything is served fresh, and none is supposed to even taste it (even to check salt) before it is served. Each and every seeker has to squat on the floor while is served equally – yet not eaten right away. It is after a signal from the Shadu Guru that the rite commences and everybody starts eating. At the end of Sheba, hands are washed communally and again, only on signal from the presiding Guru, does it end and everyone is allowed to leave.
A Shadhu at the Shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah, Seuria, Kushtia
Baul music is simply not gaan or music, but also a convergence of gyaan or knowledge. This is 18th century ‘rural info-taintment’ if we may that has survived until today. During the times of Fakir Lalon Shah an informal Akhara curriculum was advanced which had as its basis 4 specific ‘stations’ termed Chotur desh, or phases which seekers on the Baul path will encounter.
They are – i.) Sthulo desh – novice, mundane, ordinary, common phases, ii.) Proborto desh - transitory, apprentice phases, iii.) Shadhok desh - perfected seekers, recognised, practitioner, and the penultimate - iv.) Shiddhi desh - one who has reached the height of self realization.
Within this broad classification of phases, further subdivision was necessitated for a variety of reasons;
a.) there were 14 different subgroups within each of the original 4 stations, meaning theoretically the works of Lalon could be interpreted into 56 different sub-categories
b.) Lalon like other Sages of Bengal preceding him was influenced by enumerationist Samkhya philosophy of Sage Kapila (5th to 2nd Century BCE), who advanced 25 Tottyo or discourse principals and
c.) Lalon was conversant with the 4 Sufi Maqaam or stations i.e. i.) Shariyat – origins, base, the path to the well, ii.) Haqiqat - Supreme Truth, reality check, iii.) Tariqat - differing ways and orders and iv.) Ma’arifat - Gnosis, God realization, the state of extelligence i.e. beyond intelligence.
So as to make it simpler and accommodate major Vaishnavite, Sufi, Sahajiya Buddhist philosophies, 8 easily identifiable sub-groups or categories were also included into the 4 stations regime.
They are the Tri Tottyobaad which covered Sufi aspects of i.) Noor Tottyo - discourses on light, enlightenment ii.) Nabi Tottyo - discourses on the Messengers iii.) Rasul Tottyo - discourses on Prophets.
Vaishnavite and Sahajiya Buddhist philosophies were grouped under Pancha Leela or five Pandeist course of willful acceptance i.e.
i.) Krishna Leela - Lord Krishna’s life story, ii.) Goishto Leela - cowherd’s music signifying Krishna’s boyhood tryst with Gopis, moral lessons, iii.) Nimai Leela – discourses on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, reincarnation of Krishna, iv.) Gour Leela – Gaudiya Vaishnavism, discourses on Gouranga, another name for Krishna in Puranic scriptures, v.) Nitai Leela –discourses on the omnipotent, ‘timeless supreme’, one who has no birth or death.
Historical records also suggest, there were several significant seats of learning called khadis or ashon for transmission of Baul music and philosophy with their own resident Gurus in geographically defined locales.
They were: i.) Pachu Shah in Gholdhari, Chuadanga ii.) Mochai Shai in Abdalpur, Kushtia, iii.) Gorib Shah in Sabdalpur, Jessore iv.) Choudhor Shah in Kodaliya, Meherpur v.) Shukur Shah in Alamdanga, Chuadanga, vi.) Kanai Shah and Bholai Shah in Chotropara, Jhenaidah, viii.) Ujal Shah in Jhaudia, Jessore ix.) Iman Shah in Moheshganj, Meherpur x.) Shaker Shah in Choraigram, Kushtia xi.) Tinkori Shah in Bittipara, Kushtia and xii.) Nengta Shah in Nischintapur.
The all inclusive, yet intense curriculums as well as the existence of transmission centers indicate the high musical and stringent spiritual standards practiced by Bauls since Lalon’s time as until today. Clearly Baul is just not a music form, but an organic sophisticated lifestyle statement which is scientific, and forward looking. The art form survives until present times due to the seriousness its practitioners emphasize on the esoteric messages of Fakir Lalon Shah for humanity, that has reverberated all across Bengal for centuries and as is evident now, reached a global audience.
3. The first fusions of faith, belief and music – the Vaishnavites and Sufis
Bauls from a Sufi Chistiya order perform at the shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah in Seuria, Kushtia
The timing of the Vaishnavite influenced Bhakti movement was unique in our history for it coalesced favorably with the then inroads of Sufi tarikats (orders) i.e. Qaderiya, Chistiya, Naqsbandiya, and Mujadedia from Turkey, Iraq and Persia into India. Both Sufi and Vaishnavite doctrines propounded more or less the same principals of belief. The reasons for Sufi success and acceptance in India were attributed to similarities with those of the Bhakti exponents. The earliest of Muslim invaders to India had made Islam a puritanical, intolerant and highly tyrannical religion, which was challenged, chastised and its influence was already waning. In Bengal by the late 17th century Akharas strengthened and emerged as benign institutions were peace, moderation and Bengals tradition of communal harmony, non-sectarianism, secularism and importantly humanism were propounded and established firm roots in our culture.
Both traditions discovered a lot of similarities in their thoughts, beliefs and practices, which led to easier understanding of the other and cemented the bonds for their assimilation into our cultures. Cohesion and acculturation became the order of the times. For instance what was Akhara for the Vaishnavites was likewise the Khanka institution for the Sufis, with both insisting on values of discipline and regimentation with music the ultimate ‘weapon of choice’ used in spreading the message of Sages, Saints and Poets. Both traditions established the primacy of a Sage or Saint termed Guru among Vaishnavites, which in the Sufi parlance was Murshed. They were preceptors and able elders who would take pain in guiding seekers and disciples in fomenting peaceful coexistence and to dedicate their lives for toiling humanity. This was also the time that devotional literature, music and various fine arts forms developed very rapidly.
As the cultures coalesced, enriched and became dynamic, two specifically problematic aspects surfaced in the study and appreciation of Baul Music. Firstly ancient tracts, treatise and music of Shahajiya, Kartabhajas, Shaheb Dhoni, Balahari, Ponchoshokhi, Nath, etc and other sub-groups who are thought to be original stakeholder to Baul practices became rare and are limited today to small pockets in West Bengal, India - quite possibly on the verge of extinction. On the other hand, many traditional musical forms of the time having both Vaishnavite and Sufi overtones entered mainstream by piggybacking on Baul music given its success and wide acceptability. That being the case even Boyatis or practitioners of Kobi gaan or many traditional Kirtan and Bhajan artist as of now claim to be Bauls, which theoretically they are not.
2. The Akhara institution and it importance in Baul Music
The ancient word Akhara denotes ‘regimentation’ or a place of practice with facilities for board, lodging and education used by religious renunciates. As an institution it dates back to the 8th century and its purported founder Sage Adi Shankara or Shankarcharya (788–820). The 8th century was significant in other aspects as well. It saw the commencement of the unorthodox Bhakti Movement in Tamil Nadu, India - a spiritual revolt against caste discrimination among Sanatana Hindus which challenged grounded and stern Brahmin doctrines. Bhakti insisted that salvation is achievable by all and does not require an advantage of birth as also, that the concept of blood lineage was abusive and exploitative. Bhakti taught people that they could cast aside the heavy burdens of rituals, caste and complexities of philosophies, and simply express their overwhelming love for God in the spirit of humanity.
By late 14th Century the movement gained momentum and spread to Bengal with Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) the scion of the Vashnavite movement as well as his disciple and close friend Nityananda (or Nitai) jointly spearheading the spiritual revolt that laid foundation for aspirations against religious bigotry, dogma, caste, creed, exploitation and subjugation of any kind. The Nadiya district of undivided Bengal in India, of which modern day Kushtia, Meherpur, Jessore, Chaudanga etc in Bangladesh were then an integral part, was the epicenter of this cultural renaissance, historically referred to as the ‘’Golden Age’’ of Bengal.
Music was and still is the forte of Akharas and together with subjective discourses which were just not limited to ‘spiritual education’ as is the popular misconception; profound subjects such as philosophy, history, social sciences, ethics, aesthetics, mathematics, logics were included. More complex disciplines such as cosmology, ecology, agriculture, pharmacology and in the case of Deho Tattya (discourses on the human body) physiology, psychology even embryology as well as the ancient art of Yoga were taught through music, in what was essentially an oral culture.
The overriding aspect of the Akhara institution is it has traditionally survived on contributions of communities, and unlike Ashrams is informal with no fixed sets of seekers residing for years on end. During those bleak times in our history when villages were the root of our existence and society, by and large rural and arguably ‘primitive’, Baul Akharas provided a very valuable spiritual and social service. We may therefore credit the Akharas institution as one of the prime and fundamental reason for Baul music’s survival into the new millennium.