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Seeking Bauls of Bengal By Jeanne Openshaw, Cambridge, Rs 2,730
Despite being very open and receptive human beings, the bauls of Bengal have always lived as a unique community in their placid corners. They wear rag-patches sewn onto their robes and their actions and beliefs also reflect a colourful mixture of opinions. The baul’s sadhana is a mixture of the sahajia way, the way of the jat-vaishnavas, the loukik tantriks, the nathpanthis and the medieval sants. Even two hundred years ago, the bauls were regarded as untouchables by the elite, possibly because of their odd attire, the company they kept, their yogic sexual habits that accepted cohabitation outside wedlock, and above everything, their practice of “charchandra” which involved the eating of their own body wastes and that of their female companions. But they were a group of people who sang and worshipped in close propinquity with the rural culture. So although untouchables, they were also unavoidable.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Rabindranath Tagore was the first man to take a humane look at the bauls. The poet collected their songs and printed them in magazines published in Calcutta. In his writings and lectures, Tagore praised the high quality of the thoughts that fed the songs. He also translated into English some of the lyrics. Tagore’s cultural companion, Kshitimohan Sen, through his writings connected the hitherto cornered bauls with mainstream Indian life.
Gradually, the picture changed with successive studies into baul songs and baul-lifestyle. In this regard, Sashibhusan Dasgupta, Upendranath Bhattacharya and Md. Mansurddin made invaluable contribution. Throughout the 20th century, bauls got recognition and acceptance from the elite on a scale that was unthinkable. The face of Lalan Fakir gradually emerged from among the innumerable baul-sadhaks as the epitome of the modernity, synergy, simplicity and the Sufi-philosophy that informed the songs. Myths came to be created around the figure of Lalan Fakir. Lalan died in 1890, but strangely, never called himself a baul.
During the Sixties, the subject of the bauls effected an intellectual turmoil in society. Foreigners got interested in bauls and it created a demand for baul songs abroad. It brought the community money and international recognition. Edward C. Dimock wrote a book on bauls in 1966 and Carol Solomon’s translations of baul songs created a niche for them in the market. The research of Rahul Peter Das in 1992 focussed on the sexuality of the bauls. Baul-sadhana, so long regarded as a solitary search for the “maner maanush”, once brought into the limelight, came to represent glorious thoughts of the “spiritual East” and became material for south Asian studies.
Among the non-Indian researchers of Baul-sadhana, Jeanne Openshaw has certainly done a good job based on first-hand experience. Seeking Bauls of Bengal is well-written and well-organized. But the bibliography shows that Openshaw is not up-to-date on some of the books published on her subject before 2002. Openshaw at present is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Evidently she has, for a long time and most carefully, done her fieldwork in the Rarh and Bagri regions of West Bengal, which means she has worked in and around the districts of Birbhum and Murshidabad. Which means she has not covered the bauls of “Bengal”, for in a wider context, Bengal would also cover Bangladesh.
Nevertheless, Openshaw’s painstaking and methodical fieldwork constitutes the core of this book. What is great about Openshaw’s work is that despite following the rigours of a methodological research, she is able to record a true-to-life description of the baul-sadhana, and thus prevent the book from getting bogged down in facts. Openshaw has been able to gain entry into the family-life of the bauls and wean out many of their secrets. Openshaw writes, “The fieldwork on which this book is based was conducted with both women and men called Baul. In mixed company, it was usually, although by no means always, men, with their confidence in their developed upper mouth, who dominated conversation. I talked exclusively with women when alone with them, mainly at night when some took the opportunity to instruct me in esoteric practice.” This should be proof enough of the authenticity of the book and that it gets to look at the bauls, in and out.
But a question crops up. Who are the bauls actually' Bauls, for Openshaw, are a broad category. But bauls and fakirs have always lived in Bengal with clearly separate identities. Openshaw is eager to give them the same generic term although there would be many who would say no to the inclusion of the jat-vaishnavas and the sahajia-vaishnavas in the same group. That however does not take much away from Openshaw’s work, which is remarkable for its wide reach.
Openshaw’s only drawback remains in her being limited to the Rarh and Bagri regions, which gives a regional outlook to her work — especially because she makes Rajkhyapa and his beliefs the pivot of her research. On the basis of this faith, she refers to her subjects not as baul but as “Bartaman-panthi”. It is true that sadhaks belonging to the minor religions sects do refer to their faith as “Bartamaner sadhana” (worshipping what is present), the opposite of which is “anuman” that is, shastra, mantra, purohit, mullah, mandir and masjid. The bauls believe only in what they perceive. The world of men and the human body are their objects of worship. So they neither avoid sex nor greed. The rationalism of researchers like Openshaw is constantly destroying the stupidly romantic perceptions about the community. Anyone who is a vastubadi or a realist would welcome Openshaw’s Seeking Bauls of Bengal.