Baul, Tagore and Humanism

Joydeep Mukherjee & Dr Susanta Kumar Bardhan


The study attempts to deal with the age old folksong tradition called Baul in relation to its humanistic aspects and its impact on Tagore. An attempt has been made to study the source and history of Baul already existing in several books mentioned in the Bibliography for the purpose of giving an idea about the richness and philosophical foundation of this folksong. The present paper mainly focuses on the humanism lying undercurrent in this song tradition which has not even been ignored by the great soul of Tagore.

Keywords: Baul, Humanism, Folksong, Religion, Fakir, etc.

Music is closely connected with human life from the very beginning of its creation. Every nation or society made music their means to progress and prosperity in social, political, cultural, religious, and spiritual spheres of life”—Swami Prajnananda

The quotation oozes out the essence of music, a subtle form of living soul which is also the sole of living. Music as an art form manifests the magnanimity of the Divine. It is not at all the form of creation but inspiration. It is an aesthetic representation of the artist and his art. Music which has been hailed as the highest form by most of the aestheticians plays the basic instinct of man and claims to be the first playmate of mankind since childhood. Thus from the very dawn of civilization it has been giving rise to the process of individuality and development of man of all ages.

Further, music, if we look at the pages of history, is found to be the root of all nations all over the world. Though the language is different, thematically and tonally it is equally acceptable and appealing revealing Wordsworthian view about the universality of “music in my heart, I bore” (The Solitary Reaper). It is a product of creative faculty of human society. The unified single expression of tone and speech, so pure and peaceful, contains a unique healing power that purges the soul off the impurities, soothes the disturbed and anxious soul, help it live in the aesthetically sound world of peace. The main driving force of such power of music lies in its deep (un)seen connection as well as concern with humanism as its aim is to put forward and inject the broad humanistic attitude to life and the universe among the people for the betterment of society and culture.  

Such a powerful folksong is Baul which is one of the Bengali traditional philosophical songs concentrating on the spiritual and philosophical uplift of the man. In the present study we will attempt to focus on how this thematically, creatively and aesthetically rich song tradition rests on and strongly advocates humanism in the broad sense of the term which is the crying need of the day. Before coming to our focal point of argument along with concrete illustrations from the Baul songs, a discussion on the genesis of Baul will be attempted first in order to drive home the point and on the impact of Bauls in building the poetic self Rabindranath Tagore, one of the greatest humanists-cum-artists ever produced in the world.

The origin of Baul is interesting for it wells out of a different unconventional context. The ‘folksong’ is a German compound referring to the songs of low class mainly peasant. This concept undergoes a radical change through ages. Folk, as defined in the Dictionary of Anthropology by Charles Wirck, is- “a group of associated people, a primitive kind of post-tribal social organization-the lower classes or common people of an area”. Invariably folklore, the humble story of complex issue about the common folk, is the basis for ‘folk songs’. There are various forms of folk music of Bengal. Usually there are two groups– functional, sung during festival and non-functional, especially for the purpose of recreation. But in Bengal there are of three types namely- Devotional (Shakta and Vaishnavite) folk songs, Baul songs and Fakiri folk songs.

The word ‘Baul’ is debatable for its derivative meanings. According to many critics specialized in Bangla folk literature, the word stems from Sanskrit word “vatua” meaning an ‘enlightened person or seeker of truth’. Some think that it is derived from ‘vyakula’ which means ‘restless’. Again few argue that ‘bao’ which means ‘to blow’, is its etymological word since this form of folk song is usually orally transmitted from one place to another, from one generation to another through wind. However, the literal meaning of Baul is ‘mad’. They are indifferent (Udas) by nature, showing minimum attention to their domestic life. The poet sings – ‘udasbaulmon’. The Bauls are a group of wandering music minstrel. They mainly belong to Vaishnavite Hindus and Sufi Muslims. Set patterned dress and gesture make them distinctive. Sahoja Chandidas is considered to be ‘Guru’ of Baul. Birchandra Pravu, son of Shriman Nityananda Pravu was its propagator. This is historical document prevalent for a long time. There are separate rituals and rules in Vedic Hindu religion. Though complex, contemporary history reflects a realistic representation of the society, its inhabitants and the distinctive style of their worship. Vagabat Geeta denotes that everyone can worship according to his own wish. Only wistful wish to the Almighty can abolish the foolish and selfish thinking of man and embellish with divinity. Again if we go five hundred years back we only find the statues of Vishnu. If we probe further, we witness that a large portion of Vaishnavite bhakta regards Krishna as their supreme. Hence the poets of Charyagiti are the founders of Baul. This is their emphatic declaration that Pandits theorize all but their hearts remained unexplained. Baul of Bangla still considers Joydev Goswami as their Guru. They constitute an integral part of Bengali culture upholding the idea of sacrifice for the universal brotherhood and love leading to spiritual realization of real essence of human existence, Baul thought has been enriched by the elements of Tantra, Sufi Islaam and Vaishnabism. They are evidently in constant search of Moner Manush who is the God in the heart. This version is captured by Tagore – “Ami kothai pabo tare / Amar moner manus je re” (Where do I get Him, the Man of my heart).

Bauls are profoundly inspired by the famous quotation of Chandidas: “Sokhi sinan karobi nir na chuobi, bhabini bhobero deha”. They live in society with a strict sense of separation. One can incriminate them for their light heartedness, casualty and indifference for their domestic domain. Invisible Bramha is their only playmate. Deep attachment with life cannot alienate them from life. To hanker after the light of life enlights their life. Hence piercing philosophy can be perceived in each point of their song. Like Dotara, there are two strings of selves- one is outer self and the other is inner self, one is domestic self and the other is detached self. Family cannot forge a chain for him but he fathoms the unfathomable being in family. His mind and thinking is tinged with the notation of Tyag (sacrifice). It at once gives birth to a “Sohoj Manus”, with the occult power of resistance. He then easily placates his restless soul which always pays a lingering look for gross material profit. This is the normal nature of a Baul and a rare genius be contented with his own. Bauls are those ‘Wriddho Purush’ who are always free in their feeling enjoying the spirit of eternal emancipation while entangled in the chain of life.

This form of songs spread in Rarh Bangla of West Bengal and some parts of Bangladesh, always conveys the features of the soil. The mingled expression of water, soil and man gets a meaningful manifestation through these songs. Thus, Baul is closely related to the semantic aspect of its birth-and-growth place and an enriched emblem of its age old culture. Every part of soil has its own symbolic as well as emotional significance that sublimates the spiritual thinking of man. Likewise, the reddish soil of Rarh Bangla of West Bengal not only shows the outward novelty but also has incorporated its relish as its soul. Symbolically, the reddish colour of the soil stands for a different soul that remains indifferent to the “petty case of paltry things” of our daily communication. This is the colour that represents one’s earnest endeavour for yeoman’s work and thus naturally smells a note of sacrifice. Our minds, emancipated form personal chain of love and loss, get reverberated with the song of a Baul. This is the sudden revelation of our heart, where head gets the least attention. It is the prime time for man to feel his soul as his own. Hence Baul for this impending impression at heart without getting affected by the tinge of artificiality keeps its indelible footprint everywhere. Even the world poet Rabindranath Tagore, could not resist himself from getting influenced by it not only due to the organic unification or fusion of though, feeling and tone in it but also due to the very loaded philosophy, spiritualism and humanism as easily traced in every Baul song. Tagore in his essay ‘Baul Gan’ (Baul Song) written in 1927 has clearly stated:

Those who have read my writings know that in many of them I have conveyed my deep love for and attachment with Baul songs. When I was at Silaidaha, I had frequently met Baul groups and discussed with them. I have borrowed Baul sur (tune) for many of songs and in many of my songs a combination of Baul sur and other ragas have been knowingly or unknowingly. From this it can be realized that Baul sur and speech have easily merged together in my mind. (translation is writers’) 

It was none but Rabindranath Tagore who realized at the heart of hearts the very worth of such innocence-born folksongs of not so called educated Baul folk the truth lying within these. He perceives the immensity of their creativity though culturally neglected. In his Hibbert lectures at Oxford University in 1930, later came to be known as The Religion of Man, he clearly hints at his persistent sincere choice for and there by inclinator towards Bauls:

I have mentioned with my personal experience with some songs which I had often heard from wandering village singers, belonging to a particular sect of Bengal, called Bauls, who have no images, temples, scriptures or ceremonials, who declare in their songs the divinity of Man, and express for him an intense feeling of love. Coming from men who are unsophisticated, having a simple life in obscurity, it gives us a clue to the inner meaning of all religions. For it suggests that these religions are never about a God of cosmic force, but rather about the God of human personality [The Religion of Man, III, 89].

There was no practical interest by any scholar or musicologist on the folk songs of Bengal. He is the first to initiate ethnomusicological study in Bengal. He realized the importance of Bauls because they had a general propensity towards the philosophy of life. He took the challenge to introduce a language that can subdue the Bhadralok (educated and cultured man). His first exposure to the Bauls deepened at Silaidaha, where he came across Gagan Harkara. He was, as we find from his unambiguous statement made in his essay ‘Baul Gan’ quoted above, too impressed by the telling height of the song and love to resist himself to compose some songs following the tradition. He even felt the urgency to translate them into English for wider and global readership. He avers that we, the common mass, lack the penetrating eye to denote such profuse notations. The eyes of circumspection widen their world view considering the common to be very uncommon. But Bauls chronicles such feelings through songs. In a way song is the only medium for the revelation heart-felt philosophy. It is the consequence of profound realization. If we minutely feel the appeal of the song, we cannot help being touched by its philosophical points. The rich colourful dress embodies the colours of life. The patch work with the help of small pieces of cloths knitted non-artistically points out that they stitch both sad and bad, fear and tear, and joie de vivre in songs. This reminds Rabindranath Tagore’s -“Gane gane gethe berai / Praner kanna hasi” (It was my part at this feast to play upon my instruments, and I have done all I could) “The Song Offerings” No – 16. Ektara, one stringed instrument, stands for their unflinching attachment with God and love as the only medium to feel Him. Again Dotara, another musical instrument, philosophically proves two selves- outer self, symbolizing indifference and inner self, suggesting deliverance. They sing with “full throated ease” that unfolds their unaffected feelings of life of “past or present or to come”. They philosophically predict the human predicament.

Notice that criticism is always not denotative but connotative. He is not the silent listener or passive actor in his stream of consciousness, but also an avid reader to highlight the blotted space of mind. This at once creates a sense of right and wrong and good and bad. Basically Bauls carry on the first step of primary education. Bauls can interact with his inept soul. In a way Baul is the conglomeration of three traits of life movement of body (dance), tenderness of soul (song) and rhythm of life (play). They stitch in their songs each and every incident irrespective of joy, jubilation, defeat, delight, trouble and tear of life and the song evidently emerges to a new elegance. Bauls treating the subject matter, very much common in an uncommon way, can sentimentalize the unsentimental instinct of man. Hence one traces the breathing of moral teaching at every moment of life.

Bauls are not so called educated. But they cannot be measured by any degree. As the tunes of Bauls are traditional, common people do not have to bother about its tune. Lyrics are mostly simple and not difficult to memorize or remember. They are least concerned about the grammatical and musicological characters regarding metre, pitch, lexicography, etc. As they are at the core of nature and nurtured accordingly, such composition are full of simplicity and liveliness. They trap the nuances of local and probe into the profound aesthetic merit of literature.  Thus the songs relate to the living moments of life and by the way make life more spontaneous and so lively. Tagore rightly and reflectively argues:

They have special sectarian idioms and associations that give emotional satisfaction to those who are accustomed to their hypnotic influences Some of them may have their aesthetic value to me and others philosophical significance over cumbered by exuberant distraction of legendary myths. But what struck me in this simple song was religious expression that was in their grossly concrete, full of crude details, nor metaphysical its rarified transcendentalism [The Religion of Man, III, 129]. 

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 It is genuinely ‘raraavis’, they enjoy their lives and thus revive the wry up, dried up sensations and provide the space for redemption from the “weariness, the fever and the fret” of the mortal world. They can engulf the wide gulf between words and work. Rabindranath Tagore says-‘Korme o kothai atimyata koreche orjon’. Tagore stares at those who can keep up an unflinching attachment with their words and actions. They can surpass their surroundings with ease. Love is the theme of their life and song. In one of the songs of Lalon Fokir says-

 Jakhan orup smoron o hoi/ Thake na loklojja karo voi

O prem j kore se jane/ Amar moner manusero sone.

They love to love and love to be loved. Like Swamiji this is the part of their belief that man is Shiva. According to their belief love is quintessential. The songs are interlinked by the recurrent themes of love for man and God. Love is the only element for worship. Tagore quotes ‘Jare boli prem, tare boli puja’. They also firmly believe in love connecting a wide network among all. They are in favour of forming caste, creed and classless society. They are after Universal Brotherhood and for this love is the only flower to concoct a unified chain. Their earnest cry is – “Milon hobe koto dine/ amar moner manusero sone”. The song immediately reverberates one of Tagore’s own- “ Amar praner manus ache prane/ Tai heri tai sokol khane”. What is Moner Manus to Lalon, is Jeevandevata to Tagore. Like Lalon Fokir Tagore felt to elevate the soul above materialism, to establish a perfect communion between men, love is pairless and peerless. Each lyric of Bauls is a symbol of love and pure devotion towards the eternal one. Tagore is one with them that man is a part of this inscrutable, Immanent God. God expresses himself through various forms of Nature. Nature is the source of joy and the expression of God’s love and affection for mankind. Thus, the best form of worship is obviously love and the process of ultimate realization is parallel to enjoy the beauties of Nature. Likewise Bauls are engrossed with the thoughts of Radha and Krishna and consequently flooded by love and joy. God, for Tagore, is eternal, all pervasive, immanent, inevitable, omnipotent and omnipresent spirit. The poet here takes God to be the ultimate singer. Mankind is like a flute through which He sings His eternal songs:

I know not how thou singest, my

Master! I ever listen in silent amazement.   [Song Offerings No-03]

Now let us cite some more Baul songs which explicitly and movingly propagate the broad humanistic values needed to be inculcated by the humanity at large for the peaceful living in this earthly existence. In answer to the question relating to the time to be needed for meeting the Moner Manus, Lalon sings in simple but philosophical language:

Man re sudhao man-manuser ghar thikana

Kardame phutechhe padma, kardamero kit a ache jana

Boner baire ache dnaraie chandanbriksha

Nijer subas se jane na, pay sudi antariksha

[You ask you mind the address of the man of mind. Lotus has grown on the mud but does the mud know that. Chandan tree standing by the side of the forest is not aware of its own sweet incense/scent but the sky gets it.] —translated by the present writers.   

The above quote suggests that Baul basically emphasizes on the importance of human mind which is the reservoir of ideas identified with God or expected Self and only the mind can lead a man to salvation by inspiring or motivating him to do self-sacrifice. For learning this Baul relies on the observation of the phenomena happing in Nature or surroundings. Similarly, Baul tries to promote selfless man-to-man relationship as found in the following quote:

Manusete manus achhe

Manus-i manus hoy

Manus-i jay manuser kachhe

Manus hoite

[Within man MAN (humanity) resides. MAN makes man dance.A man goes to another man to become human.]— translated by the present writers.

The societal human relationship among the people is, as the Baul feels, the foundational need for the growth of humanity in men which can bring paradise on earth. The same idea is strewn in so many Baul songs endowed with emotion, sensibility, vitality and above all love for all including humanity at large. Their basic thrust on and concern for understanding the riddle behind the human existence along with others on earth have led them to a better realisational level which remains far beyond the understanding of the so called educated scholars. Though their realisational level appears to be too high, their language is, as mentioned above, simple, lucid and close to our heart. Therefore, they can easily trace the colourful, potential growing innocent heart lying hidden in the flesh and blood body of man (e.g., the song beginning with: manus manus bole sabe manus dhara manus pabe). That is why they have been able to come out of the narrow boundary of caste system prevalent in our society.

The present discussion within the limited space has attempted to explore the idea of broad humanism as the main motivating force of Baul song. The true cause of the popularity of this Bangla folk tradition lies hidden in this progressive idea coupled with simplicity, lucidity, and sweetness in tune. Though Chandan Kundu (2006) observes the decline of its popularity as against Kirtan (another Bangla folk song based on story of Lord Krishna and Radha), Baul’s popularity and appeal among the common man and educated ones still remain intact and moreover, in recent time it has gained a wide space in the foreign world.


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