The Baul are a group of mystic entertainers of Bangla. They constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition. The sets are very heterogeneous, with many sects, mainly consists of Sufi Muslims, Vaishnav and Hindus. They can apparently be identified by their distinctive attires and musical instruments.
Though Bauls comprise only a small fraction of the Bangali inhabitants, their influence on the culture of Bangla is considerable. In 2005, UNESCO included the Baul tradition in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
Bauls are considered as an extension of the saint philosophy, they believe in living in the world as a half-saint. The origin of the word Baul is debated. Some of the researchers suggested that it may be derived either from Sanskrit word ‘Vatula’, which means “enlightened, lashed by the wind to the point of losing one’s sanity, god’s madcap, detached from the world, and seeker of truth”, or from ‘vyakula’, which means “restless, agitated” and both of these derivations are consistent with the modern sense of the word, which denotes the inspired people with an ecstatic eagerness for a spiritual life, where a person can realise his union with the eternal beloved, ‘the man of the heart’.
The origin of Bauls is not known exactly, but the word “Baul” has appeared in Bengali typescripts as old as the 15th century. The Bauls themselves attribute their lack of historical records to their reluctance to leave traces behind. The music of the Baul appears to have been passed down entirely in oral form until the end of the 19th century, when it was first transcribed by outside observers. The Bauls were recorded as a major sect as early as mid-18th century.
Regarding the origins of the sect, one recent theory suggests that Bauls are descendants of a branch of Sufism called ba’al. Votaries of this sect of Sufism in Iran, dating back to the 8th-9th centuries, were fond of music and participated in secret devotional practices. They used to roam about the desert singing. Like other Sufis, they also entered the South Asian subcontinent and spread out in various directions.
Like the ba’al who rejects family life and all ties and roams the desert, singing in search of his beloved, the Baul too wander about searching for their ideal beings. The madness of the Baul may be compared to the frenzy or intoxication of the Sufi diwana. Like the Sufi, the Baul searches for the divine beloved and finds him housed in the human body. Bauls call the beloved dominant, guide of eternal life, or the preceptor, and it is in his search that they go ‘insane’.
There are two classes of Bauls, ascetic Bauls who reject family life and Bauls who live with their families. Ascetic Bauls renounce family life and society and survive on alms. They have no fixed dwelling place, but move from one akhra/dham (place of Baul gathering) to another. Men wear un-stitched piece of white cloth and a long white tunics; women wear white saris. They carry a shoulder bag for alms known as jhola. They do not beget or rear children. They are treated as outcastes. Women, dedicated to the service of ascetics, are known as sevadasis (maidservant). A male Baul can have one or more sevadasis, who are associated with him in the act of devotion.
Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in earthly expression, as in declarations of love by the Baul for his lifemate. With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends belief.
Lalon Fokir is regarded as the most important poet-practitioner of the Baul tradition. He criticised the superficiality of religious divisions.
The great Baul conveyed his thinking:
Everyone asks: “Lalan, what’s your religion in this world?”
Lalan answers: “How does religion look?”
I’ve never laid eyes on it.
Some wear beads [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,
Some tasbis [Muslim rosaries], and so people say
They’ve got different religions.
But do you bear the sign of your religion
When you come or when you go?
Their religion is based on an expression of the body (Deho Sadhana), and an expression of the mind (Mon Sadhana). Some of their rituals are kept hidden from outsiders, as they might be thought to be repulsive or hedonistic.
Baul music is a particular type of folk song. Bauls pour out their feelings in their songs but never bother to write them down. Theirs is basically an oral tradition. It is said that Lalon Fokir (1774 -1890), the greatest of all Bauls, continued to compose and sing songs for decades without paying the least attention to correct them or put them on paper. It was only after his death that people thought of collecting and compiling his repertoire.
Their lyrics intertwine a deep sense of mysticism, a longing for being united with the divinity. An important part of their philosophy is “Deha tattya”, holiness related to the body rather than the mind. They seek the holiness in human beings. Metaphysical topics are dwelt upon humbly and in folk accent. They stress remaining unattached and unconsumed from the pleasures of life even while enjoying them. To them ‘we are all a gift of divine power and the body is a temple, music being the path to connect to that power’.
The most common musical instruments used is the ektara, a one-stringed “plucked drum” drone instrument, carved from a gourd, and made of bamboo and goatskin. Others include the dotara, a long-necked fretless lute made of wood. Despite the fact the name literally means “two stringed”, it usually has four strings. Besides khamak, one-headed drum with a string attached to it which is plucked. The only difference from ektara is that no bamboo is used to stretch the string, which is held by one hand, while being plucked by another. Drums like duggi is a small hand-held clay drum. Other instrument usually used are dhol, khol, khartal, manjira, and the bamboo flute.