When I was a student at Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan, I stayed in awe of a rickshaw-puller who played flute every evening, with his vehicle stationed at the Ratanpally stand. Flawlessly he caressed the notes, defining and redefining music at his own liberty, playing a fresh tune everyday as if narrating a different story for each new dusk!

Then I moved to Lucknow and considerably lost touch. Social media wasn’t that aggressive in 2004. Recently, as I reconnected with some old friends, I learnt that “PaglaTaposh” has now become Taposhbaul!

I wasn’t surprised. In fact subconsciously I may have expected him to walk this path. Because this is what Baul is all about. They are eccentric, possessed, self-absorbed beings who keep themselves immersed in their own deep world of music and philosophy, churning out melodies and poetry almost simultaneously.

Every year on the seventh day of Poush (which is the ninth month in Bengali calender), Santiniketan hosted (it still does) the Poush Mela, an annual fair which was an attraction for both locals and tourists. Usually on seventh noon they arrived. The Bauls. Dressed in saffron kurta and dhoti, a turban wrapping their head, they would sit around stringing their ektara or smoking biri or ganja, sometimes a rudraksh entwined across their neck, self-absorbed as if nothing in the world was more important than that moment. Ask them of their origin, and the answers will make you smile. To us they said, “the same place that you came from” or “from a very far off land; I came from there and one day that is where I will return”, philosophically suggesting that every soul is united before birth or after death!

And that precisely is the core of their lyrics. Their love for music is embedded in their search for the soul, as they roam around free with the restlessness of a child and detachment of a hermit. Bauls can’t be identified with a distinct place or community of origin, as people from various sects have joined them at different times. However, history and research says that often these singers are either Vaishnava Hindus or Sufi Muslims, influence of which reflects in the thought, lyrics, metaphors, melodies, spirituality and philosophies of the music as well as the musician. The songs they compose are real, close to nature and down to earth. The metaphors and references used in the lyrics are so simple yet hard hitting that the audience is completely taken by their ruthless but beautiful representation of the truth! They endorse through their music, humanity and spirituality and hence, an existence which is devoid of boundaries or distinctions. Romancing with life like an incessant wanderer, and dancing with the beats as they sing, these folk artists are committed to restore and propagate the wisdom of life. It is said that the Baul would never write down or preserve his compositions. He sings from his heart and the tradition flows naturally across generations, either by inheritance or by choice. More than being a distinguished sect of music-lovers, Baul is a way of life — a philosophy, a movement, a non-aggressive path towards liberation of self.

Lalan Fakir is said to be the founder of Baul music, whose songs spoke of unison and love, his words searching that eternal origin which is the root of all human beings rather than those that are restricted to one religion or caste or life. His contributions in the Bengal cultural space inspired many poets and literary thinkers of his times. Many writings and songs by Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam had very strong Baul influences, both in lyrics and in music. Renowned artists like Purnadasbaul, Pabandasbaul and others have made sure that their culture and art is not restricted within the regional boundaries. They have taken their music across India and to the West, where music enthusiasts have celebrated them and welcomed them with open arms. Many other music explorers in Bengal, like Swapan Basu and Tanmoy Bose, or bands like Dohar, Mohiner Ghoraguli, to name a few, have introduced fusion with Baul influences in their compositions.

Bauls can’t be identified with a distinct place or community of origin, as people from various sects have joined them at different times.

As is the usual path of every cultural movement, Baul did not take long to bring its richness and power to the Indian film industry. Both in regional and national creative space, film makers and music directors have explored their forms and formats to infuse that eccentric and passionate blend in their musical repertoire.  Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Pankaj Kumar Mallik, Anil Biswas, S.D. Burman and later R.D. Burman were the first few names to introduce Baul into their works and embellish their brand of cinema with music that was deep and vast. And the practice has travelled since then, as Baul has cast its impact in the visions of contemporary film makers.

Says the veteran film director Srijit Mukherjee, “I have grown up with experiences of going to Santiniketan during Poush Mela and hence have been exposed to Bauls, their music and their philosophy from an early age. Then through Presidency College, JNU and my theatre days in Delhi and Bangalore, and the subsequent Baul Fakir festivals in Kolkata those experiences intensified. Bands like Dohaar and Mohiner Ghoraguli and fusion initiatives like those with Pabandas Baul only added to the gamut of pure musical experiences. In the film Jaatishwar (2014), where my musical high spans across 150 years of Bengali music from Kabigaan (folk music composed and presented usually on the spot by folk poets called Kobials, especially during festive seasons)  to Rock, I have also explored the musical and lyrical influence of Baul, especially Bhoirobi Baul on the evolution of the Kobigaan genre. I think it is the simplicity and the power, the smell of the earth and philosophy of the mystic that helps Baul music to touch the chord across language, culture or geographies.”

As different music bands, independent composers and film makers picked up the influence of Baul and festivals across the world welcomed folk artists to perform and entertain a greater audience, Baul today is no longer restricted into the rural corners of West Bengal. Their versatile renditions have been a part of events like Lakme Fashion Week or shows like India’s Got Talent, garnering immense appreciation from the audience there.

Screenwriter and director Soumik Sen, who has also composed the music of his directorial debut Gulaab Gang (2014), vouches on the huge range of emotions that Baul touches just so effortlessly, thus making the art relevant to different personalities across status or races. “Purnadas, Pabandasbaul are huge stars in the west. Like any art form the best will make their way to the world stage,” he says, and adds, “Many composers have used Baul in their mainstream work, but S.D. Burman of course is its primal flagbearer in Hindi films. In my film, Gulaab Gang, the song Aankhiyaan has strong Baul/Bhatiyali roots in its composition. There is no better ‘gharana’ than Baul to give you the feel of expanse, earthiness and lilt. That song was subconsciously trying to capture the pathos we have grown up on.”

The artists devoted into this form of folk music are obviously on an experimenting mode today, employing jazz or Indian Classical instruments or other such fusion as a part of their complete offer. While they had crossed the borders of Bengal, and also India, long back influencing tracks in various regional, national and international albums, they as a community are also settling down more with each passing day. They are increasingly gaining consciousness about the perils of drugs which can hamper their voice, as they consciously choose to tap the huge market that their art commands. They are also increasingly settling down with families and enrolling for formal education for themselves and their children.

However, as much as this growth is good for business or art and as much as their ambitions target the world-stage, the root of the Baul would remain with people like Pagla Taposh, who still might be absorbed in his own music somewhere, irrespective of the audience or ambiance around him. Rather, he will create his own evening and design an ambiance for himself, while the onlookers would succumb to his wandering tunes.

Koral Dasgupta is the author of Fall Winter Collections and Power of a Common Man. She is also an academic, teaching Marketing Management studies in colleges.