Baul is not just a form of folk music; it is a distinct philosophy of life embedded in music. The term, ‘baul’, is derived from the Sanskrit word, ‘Batul’ or ‘Baur’, meaning a devotee who could merge with divinity through music. The process of realisation demands a detachment from worldly affairs and the elimination of egotistical beliefs. Bauls, a wandering community, lend their voice to an ecstatic call towards the divine or ponder the vicissitudes of human life.
Baul songs are of three layers: they express the spiritual goal to be attained, speak of the difficulties laid out on that spiritual path, and offer guidance to overcome these difficulties. The bauls’ quest is directed towards the ‘moner manush’ — the person within. The search for this ‘inner person’ is best expressed in the following song, “Dekhechi rupsagarey moner manush kancha sona / Tarey dhari dhari money kari, dhortey geley dhara dey na (In the ocean of beauty I have discovered the person within, pure as gold / I tried to catch hold of him but he remained elusive)”.
The oral literature on the baul form of worship can be traced back to the Buddhist-tantrik era in the 10th and the 11th centuries. But the baul tradition underwent a radical change in the 16th century with the advent of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Vaishnavite reformer. Chaitanya gave a new impetus to baul music for the propagation of bhakti (devotion) and bhalobasha (love) while having a perspective rooted in everyday life. Baul music thus became a happy blend of the concepts of Paramatman of the Upanishads, the Sahajas of the Sahajiyas, and the Beloved of Sufiism.
Metaphysical considerations dominate baul music. Through their music, bauls seek to replenish their psychic reservoir that gets depleted through the attrition of living. This pensive mystical quality of baul music is perhaps best captured in the songs of Lalan Fakir (1775-1891). Interestingly, even the sexual act is seen by bauls as communion with divine practice. For bauls, the body is as important a medium of seeking divinity as the mind. They celebrate both. In fact, the process of choosing a spouse (baulani) is quite critical. Usually, the baulanis carry forward the tradition of baul music. The women take up the task of singing so that the bauls can concentrate on composing songs.
The bauls’ metaphysical roots spring from their faith, deep introspection, bold intuition, and the teachings of their guru. The experience they gather is communicated to others through their songs. The guru plays a vital role in the baul cult, bridging the gap between idea and reality. This process is recognised as gurubadi siksha, an education that is dependent on the master. The composers not only learn the intellectual subtlety of trained logicians but also the intimate language of love and life. Baul composers also combine the rigorous training of mind and body with intuitive knowledge.
Bengal’s baul tradition, its music and philosophy represent the loftiest of ideals, the deepest of feelings and the sweetest of melodies. Its relevance is perhaps made evident by the fractious times we inhabit.