The Art Of Devotion: What I Learned At My First Ever Bengali Baul Performance

The basis of the Baul ideology was the spiritual goal of liberation, which they believed was akin to the objective of attaining the divine that rests within every human being.
The basis of the Baul ideology was the spiritual goal of liberation, which they believed was akin to the objective of attaining the divine that rests within every human being. L: Baul Fakiri R: HeartlandXP

As someone who is immensely moved by music, I will admit to having cried over music, books, and movies. But there have been very few times in my life as an agnostic person where music has moved me to the point of rethinking my entire outlook on life. But the first time I heard Baul music, I remember thinking that there has to be something to the philosophy of the Bauls and their music for it to be so moving. I started thinking about what it means to ‘seek the divine’ if we choose to seek it in fellow human beings instead of a higher power and then I started reading up about them. 

According to one of our Homegrown features, “...the basis of the Baul ideology was the spiritual goal of liberation, which they believed was akin to the objective of attaining the divine that rests within every human being. They felt that exercising the faculty of reasoning for such purposes was not enough. Rather, the path to the ultimate was through the human body, which they held to be a microcosm of the universe in which the Divine resided. Hence, the physical body must be kept in a state which is exceedingly pure.”

The basis of the Baul ideology was the spiritual goal of liberation, which they believed was akin to the objective of attaining the divine that rests within every human being.
The Bauls of Bengal - How A Group Of Minstrels Paved The Way For A Progressive Bengal

While I had read all this and more about the Bauls and learned of their history, I had very little knowledge of its contemporary practice. But recently, through an event facilitated by passionate changemaker and Social Studies Researcher Shilanjani Bhattacharya and the social impact venture Aikyam, I had the chance to see the performance of some of the current practitioners of the intangible art form of Baul Music in Kochi. The group of Baul Fakiris, led by Sumanta Das Baul are based out of Shantiniketan, Bolpur.

While I knew that Baul Music dissented against heteronormative, orthodox notions of religion and its associated discriminations, the space that they create for practice that transcends the bounds of gender and age was an unknown factor for me. Performing on the traditional instruments of Dotara and Khamak, Sumanta Das Baul is considered one of the best of his generation and has performed across India, and even at the world’s biggest international, multi-genre music festival - Colours of Ostrava in The Czech Republic.  

While Sumanta Das Baul might be leading the group of performers, there is essentially no leader or visible hierarchy to the set-up of music. The performances are an expression of devotion that is unbound by traditional systems which the minstrels continue to exist outside of, even to this day. In introducing the artists, Shilanjani, who closely did her master’s research in the everyday experiences of spirituality among the Baul women, used a Bengali term that roughly translated to ‘partners in practice’ to refer to Sumanta Das and his partner Pratima Das Baul. She then introduced their 10-year-old son Paban Das, a young practitioner who even led some of the songs they performed through their set. He was the one who performed the last song of the night - a song that called all people to come together and unite against the social injustices that plague the world through the ultimate revolutionary act of love. 

Despite the many changes that the world has gone through, the esoteric rituals, the rousing music and the ultimate message of kindness and love, both towards oneself and unto others, are still being practised by these musicians. More importantly, when one listens to the music of the Bauls, even without understanding a single word that they are singing, there is a sense of overwhelming joy and reflection that could move one to deeply ponder the possibility of a ‘divine’ self that exists in each of us and how the act of love can bring it forth to build a better world.

You can learn more about contemporary Baul Fakiris here.

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