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Singing and dancing with the Bauls of BengalSubversive and seductive, the wandering minstrels of Bengal have plied their devotional music for 500 years
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William Dalrymple The Guardian, Friday 11 September 2009 Article historyEach year, in mid-January, several thousand saffron-clad wandering minstrels or Bauls – the word means simply "mad" or "possessed" in Bengali – begin to gather in the flat flood plains 100 miles to the north of Calcutta. It is the biggest gathering of tantric musicians in the world. As they have done on this site for 500 years, the Bauls wander the huge campsite, greeting old friends, and smoking copious quantities of ganja. Then, as the night draws in, they gather around their fires, and begin the singing and dancing that will carry on until dawn.
Throughout their 500-year history, the Bauls of Bengal have refused to conform to the conventions of caste-conscious Bengali society. Subversive and seductive, wild and abandoned, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings on breath, sex, asceticism, philosophy and mystical devotion. They have also amassed a treasury of beautifully melancholic and often enigmatic teaching songs which help map out their mystic path to inner vision.
On 25 September, there will be a very rare chance to hear some of the most unforgettable of these wandering philosopher-musicians in London, at the Nine Lives concert at the Barbican, which will bring together four different varieties of South Asian devotional music: as well as the Bauls of Bengal, the concert will showcase Theyyam dancers from Kerala, Thevaram singers led by London-born Susheela Raman and the Shah Jo Raag Sufi Fakirs from Bhit Shah in Sindh. Leading the bill will be Paban Das Baul: an electrifying performer who has recorded three wonderful CDs with Peter Gabriel's Real World label, and is today probably the most celebrated Baul singer in the world.
Most Bauls are Hindus, but unlike the Brahmin priests, they believe that God is found not in a stone or bronze idol, nor in the heavens, nor even in the afterlife; instead God is in the present moment, in the body of the man or woman who seeks the truth: all that is required is to give up your possessions, take up the life of the road, and to adhere to the path of love. Their goal is to discover the divine inner knowledge an ideal that they believe lives within the body of every man, but may take a lifetime to discover.
Paban Das Baul – who began his career busking in the villages, market places, stations and trains of Bengal – will appear with his two longtime collaborators: the blind minstrel Kanai, and Debdas Baul. Paban is a hyperactive figure in his late 40s, with a shock of wiry pepper-and-salt hair, who dominates the group as much by the sheer manic energy of his performance as by his singing. The voices of the three men are perfectly complementary: Paban's resonant and smoky, alternately urgent and sensuous; Debdas a fine tenor; while Kanai's is softer, more vulnerable, tender and high pitched – at times almost a falsetto – with a fine, reed-like clarity. As Paban sings, he twangs a khomok hand drum or thunders away at the dubki, a sort of rustic tambourine. Kanai, in contrast, invariably sings with his sightless blue eyes fixed ecstatically upwards, gazing at the heavens.
Their songs all draw on the world and images of the Bengali village, and contain parables any villager can understand, sprinkled with readily comprehensible images of boats and nets, rice fields, fish ponds, and the village shop. Most however, contain coded advice about the Baul's Tantric teachings: "Never plunge into the river of lust," advises one of Paban's most celebrated songs, "for you will not reach the shore.
It is a river without banks,
where typhoons rage,
and the current is strong.
Only those who are masters,
of the five rasas,
the juices of love,
Know the play of the tides.
Their boats do not sink.
Paddled by oars of love,
They row strongly upstream".
The song of the holy fools
For the Tantric minstrels of Bengal, taking music to the people, the divine is something you find within. William Dalrymple joins a never-ending tour
William Dalrymple The Guardian, Saturday 7 February 2004 Article historyWhen he was six months old, Kanai Das Baul caught smallpox and went blind. His parents - simple day labourers - despaired as to how their son would make a living. Then, one day, when Kanai was 10, a passing Baul, one of Bengal's wandering Tantric minstrels, heard him singing as he took a bath amid the water hyacinths of the village pond. (The pond is to village Bengal what the green is to rural England: the centre of village life - as well as swimming pool, duck pond and communal launderette.) His voice was high, sad and elegiac, and the Baul asked Kenai's parents if they would consider letting him join him as a pupil. In due course, Kanai set off along the road, learning the songs and the ways of his guru, and becoming in time one of the Bauls' most celebrated singers.
After the death of his guru, Kanai took up residence in the cremation ground of Tarapith, where at midnight - so the Bengalis believe - the fearsome Tantric goddess Tara can be seen drinking the blood of the goats slaughtered day after day in an effort to propitiate her anger. There, Kanai met a Delhi-based writer on religion, Bhaskar Bhattacharya. "The cremation ground at Tarapith is like an open-air lunatic asylum," Bhaskar told me. "It is full of people from across India who in different ways have been unhinged by their asceticism. In the west, they would probably be locked up, but here they are free to roam around and are revered as Holy Fools. At the time, I had myself been having a difficult time, and recognised in Kanai and his Bauls something I was looking for, a kind of mystical anarchy. I moved in near him and we became close friends - I was his eyes and he was my voice. He taught me everything I know: to reject the outer garb of religion, to go deep into the heart and to find God within oneself."
On the feast of Makar Sakrant, around the middle of January, an incredible gathering takes place on the banks of the river Ajoy in west Bengal. Several hundred thousand saffron-clad Bauls - mystics and holy men (the word "Baul" in Bengali means simply "mad" or "possessed") - gather at Kenduli in the flat, green flood plains near the poet Rabindranath Tagore's old home of Shanti Niketan. There, they wander the huge campsite, singing and dancing in praise of both Krishna and the bloodthirsty goddess Kali.
As you approach the festival through the low-level wetlands, past the bullocks ploughing the rich mud of the rice paddies and the low, reed-thatched Bengali cottages surrounded by clumps of young, green bamboo, the stream of pilgrims thickens along the roadsides. Bengali villagers herding their goats and ducks along the high, raised embankments give way to lines of lean, dark, wiry men with matted hair and straggling beards. Some travel in groups of two or three, others alone, carrying hand drums or an ektara, the Bauls' simple, single-stringed instrument.
Throughout their 500-year history, the Bauls have refused to conform to the social or religious conventions of conservative and caste-conscious Bengali society. Subversive and seductive, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings on the use of breath, Tantric sex and mystical devotion. They believe that God is found not in the afterlife, but in the present moment, in the body of the man or woman who seeks the Truth: all that is required is adherence to the path of Love. Mixing elements of Sufism, Tantra, Vaishnavism and Buddhism, they revere the Gods and visit temples, mosques and wayside shrines, but only as a road to enlightenment, never as an end in itself. The goal is to discover the "Man of the Heart" - Moner Manush - the ideal that lives within every man, but that may take a lifetime to discover.
As such, some - though not all - Bauls come close to a form of atheism, denying the existence of any transcendent divinity, or the usefulness of rituals and idols, seeking instead the ultimate truth in the physical world, in every human heart. Man is the final measure for the Bauls. Moreover, they defy distinctions of caste and religion: Bauls can be from any background, and they straddle the frontiers of Hinduism and Islam. The music, lyrics and dance of "God's troubadours" (as they are called in Calcutta) reflect their passion, humanism, iconoclasm and especially their love of the open road:
The Mirror of the sky,
reflects my soul.
O Baul of the road,
O Baul, my heart,
What keeps you tied,
to the corner of the room?
Today, the Bauls play an important role as the bridge between Islam and Hinduism, and they perform as much in Sufi shrines as Hindu temples. Usually poor and from rural villages, these illiterate dancing monks are nevertheless important guardians of moderate, pluralistic Hinduism against the narrow Muslim-hatred propagated by the resurgent Hindu right wing.
Travelling from village to village, owning nothing but a patchwork quilt, they sit in teashops and under roadside banyan trees, in the compartments of trains and at village bus stops, singing their ballads about love, mysticism and universal brotherhood to gatherings of ordinary Bengali farmers and villagers. They break the rhythm of ordinary rural life, inviting intimacies and wooing their audience with poetry and song, rather than hectoring them with sermons or speeches. They sing of desire and devotion, of the individual as the crazed Lover and the divine as the unattainable Beloved. Mourning man's separation from the divine, they remind their listeners of the transitory nature of this life, and encourage them to renounce the divisions and hatreds of the world. Inner knowledge, they teach, is acquired through power not over others, but over the self.
Once a year, however, the Bauls leave their wanderings and converge on Kenduli for the biggest gathering of singers and Tantrics in India: sort of Woodstock or Womad meets the Exorcist. Last year, I flew to Calcutta and took a train north to Shanti Niketan, determined to see this gathering for myself.
But first I had to find Kanai.
Bhaskar had arrived at the Kenduli Mela a few days ahead of me, and had found that Kanai had already joined up with an itinerant group of Bauls. They were staying in a small house off the main bazaar; to get there, you had to pick your way through the usual melee of Indian religious festivals - street children selling balloons and marigold garlands, a contortionist, a holy man begging for alms, a group of argumentative naked sadhus, a hissing Snake goddess and her attendants, lines of bullock carts loaded up with clay images of the goddess Durga and a man selling pink candyfloss. All along the main drag of the encampment, tented temples had been erected, full of brightly-lit idols, with constellations of clay lamps and camphor flames winking in the dust of the warm, encompassing Bengali darkness.
By the time I found the house - a simple, unfurnished Bengali cottage - the Bauls were in full song. It was like a scene from a Mughal miniature. The Bauls were sitting in a circle around the fire, cross-legged in the straw on the floor, breaking their singing only to pass a chillum of bhang from one to the other.
There were six of them. Kanai himself, a thin, delicate and self-possessed man in his 50s, with straggling, grey beard and a pair of small cymbals in his hand. Beside him sat an older Baul, Hari Goshai, hung with the beads of a rudraksha rosary, singing with a khomok drum in one hand and an ektara in the other. His grey hair was gathered into a topknot, a string of copper bells, which he rang as he sang, attached to the big toe of his right foot. Facing these two was the celebrated Baul Paban Das Baul, who was surrounded by his wife Mimlu and his two younger sisters. Paban was a handsome, hyperactive figure in his late 40s, with full lips, a shock of wiry, pepper-and-salt hair. He was playing a small dotara and dominating the group as much by the manic energy of his performance as by his singing: "Never plunge into the river of lust," he sang, "for you will not reach the shores. It is a river of no coasts where typhoons rage."
Kanai and Paban were old friends, and as the music gathered momentum they passed verses and songs back and forwards between them, so that when one asked a philosophical question, the other would answer it, a sort of musical symposium, or a dialogue in song. Paban would sing a verse about his wish to visit Krishna's home ("The peacock cries - Oh, who will show me the way to Vrindavan? He raises his tail and cries: Krishna! Krishna!"), only for Kanai to answer with a verse reminding Paban that the only proper place of pilgrimage was the human heart: "Oh my deaf ears and blind eyes! How will I ever rid myself of this urge to find you except in my own soul? If you want to go to Vrindavan, look first in your heart."
Their voices were perfectly complementary: Paban's deep and smoky, alternately urgent and sensuous; Kanai's softer, more vulnerable and tender. His singing was surprisingly high-pitched - at times almost falsetto - with a fine, reed-like clarity. While Paban sang, he banged on a khomok drum or a dubki, a small rustic tambourine; Kanai sang with his sightless blue eyes fixed ecstatically upwards, as if gazing at the heavens. Paban would occasionally tickle his chin and tease him: "Don't give me that wicked smile, Kanai."