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‘Baul’ tradition: The folk music from Bengal fights Extinction

'Baul' tradition is an extraordinary melange of influences from the Vaishnav Bhakti movement, a Hindu religious movement and of Sufi from Islam.

  • The ambit of folk music in India is huge but it is primarily a countryside representation of the urban society
  • it is of grave concern that this traditional form is standing on the brink of extinction
  • ‘Baul’ performers sing and play indigenous instruments such as the khamak, ektara and dotara                                                                                                                                                                                                  

India is a land of diverse cultural heritage and what makes this diversity all the more unique is the continuing rich tradition of folk music in the country. While each region has its own variety of folk music, the forms seem to unite in their essence of being a rustic reflection of the larger Indian society.

The ambit of folk music in India is huge but it is primarily a countryside representation of the urban society.

While many tend to mix up Indian folk music and tribal music but there is a big difference between these genres of music. Tribal music may simply mean music of the group considered to be a tribe. However, folk music is difficult to circumscribe.

It may be used to designate the music of various segments of people like villagers in general that also includes tribal people, agricultural peasants, and a particular caste. A strata of music category, folk be may be termed vague, which includes the music from both tribal and non-tribal communities.

Group with various baul music instruments Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, folk music is very distinct from classical music. Classical music usually requires a student absorbed into perfecting it, on the other hand, practising folk music is like following a daily ritual. It is mostly sung in to celebrate the day-to-day activities like weddings, birth, etc.

Another interesting difference between classical and folk music are the instruments used. Classical music uses refined versions of instruments. Say for example, ‘tabla’ used in the classical form is used in a raw form like ‘daf’, ‘dholak’ or ‘nal’ in folk music form.

However, it is of grave concern that this traditional form is standing on the brink of extinction. Partially due to lack of talent and partially owing to the dwindling number of audience for authentic folk music, the instruments of this form are on the verge of disappearance.

One such dying but an extremely popular form is ‘Baul’ tradition from Bengal’s countryside. It is both a religious sect and musical form. This tradition is an extraordinary melange of influences from the Vaishnav Bhakti movement, a Hindu religious movement and of Sufi from Islam.

‘Baul’, which is a wandering cult of music has its etymological origin in the Sanskrit words ‘Vatula’(madcap), or ‘Vakula’ (restless) and used for someone who is ‘possessed’ or ‘crazy.’

It has lyrics, which transcends celestial love into open interpretations of the understanding of the supreme, thereby pushing even the religious boundaries.

‘Baul’ performers sing and play indigenous instruments such as the khamak, ektara and dotara.

One of the foremost proponents of the ‘Baul’ tradition is Tarok Das, who performs with his dotara near Shantiniketan. Speaking to roadsandkingdoms.com, Das said, “To see God in a wooden instrument is no small matter. No one has seen God. You say Krishna plays the flute in the woods? But there is no Krishna, no flute, no woods. There is only a power, within these instruments and within ourselves, that drives us.”

It is noteworthy that the ‘Baul’ tradition was included in the list of ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO.

It is easy to identify a ‘Baul’ singer with his uncut, uncoiled hair and alkhalla (saffron robe), necklace of beads and basil stems and ektara (a single-stringed guitar).

Apart from ektara the music form incorporates a number of musical instruments. Some of the prominent ones are:

  • Dotara: It is a multi-stringed wooden instrument used for an accompaniment.
  • Chimta: It is a long flat folded piece of metal, which has got seven pairs of small metal jingles.
  • Manjira: These are circular metal pieces, attached to each other by a string.
  • Gungaroo: It is a small belt of bells tied around the ankles.

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