Folk Tradition of Bengal (and Rabindranath Tagore)

by Joydeep Mukherjee | 2018 | 49,317 words | ISBN-10: 8186036989 | ISBN-13: 9788186036983

An English study regarding the Folk Tradition of Bengal and its influence on Rabindranath Tagore—an important Bengali polymath from the 19th century who excelled in philosophy, arts (painting), literature and music. This research tries to initiate the semantic aspect of “folk” through the help of various dictionaries....

Chapter 1.5 - Introduction of Tradition and Baul as a ‘tradition’

The word ‘tradition’ is derived from a Latin word ‘trans’ meaning ‘across’ and ‘dare’ meaning ‘give’. According to normal notion, the word states a transmission of customs and beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. The making is slightly different in Cambridge dictionary. It says “a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these beliefs, etc. in a particular society or group”.

The concept of ‘tradition’ takes a shape in an essay of T.S. Eliot Tradition and Individual Talent. In that essay he defines that everything is a part of ‘tradition’. It gets an expression through the personality of the poet. But it is individuality that keeps a consciousness of separation from ‘tradition’. ‘Tradition’, according to T.S. Eliot, is sometimes confusing and contradictory for it confines the expansion of artist’s potentiality. ‘Tradition’ meaning blind adherence to superstition, age old beliefs and systems discourages the fresh air of freedom and disrupts the future.

However, the term ‘tradition’ is wider that what is initiated earlier. T.S. Eliot indicates a strong sense of ‘history’ of part through the word. ‘History’ always determines the development or degeneration. To acquire this historical sense and to locate the elements of past, one has to follow the ‘tradition’. On the other hand no clear cut method is mentioned in Indian aesthetics. ‘Parampara’, as Indian aesthetics would say, is a bundle of thoughts and instructions obtained from accumulated experience and handed down from generation to generation since early days of human being. In order to have the proper concept of ‘tradition’ and ‘parampara’, Indian aesthetics is must to make a mention. But the research takes an initiative to make it clear through a poem by Rabindranath Tagore Puraskar. Tagore says–the facts and incidents of life will come and go. It is a continuous cycle which itself will fill the minds of new generations with its best. Battles which are still fought are unable to usher any solution. But the battle between Kauravas and Pandavas has become a theme of past and narrates a story of ‘tradition’ the nation. Consequently, any curiosity in Indian nation, one is naturally required to take into account of profundity for thoughts presented in Vedas, the Upanishads and the Classics.

Jeane openshaw defines Baul as “the name of a class, group of people or ‘sampraday’ (tradition)”. Automatically the obvious question is how these common people came to be known as Baul so far as the English connotation i.e ‘tradition’ continues. To be very fair and frank there is no specific date and year neither mentioned nor noted in the entire history of Baul ‘tradition’. From the time immemorial there is a preconceived notion that Baul can never be categorized as ‘gentry’. To put it in a simple way, the research can say that so called educated and elite people cannot match with the Bauls. Hence, they never intend to be Bauls at any cost. But what research looks forward is that so called ‘bhadraok’ (educated people or so called cultured people of the Bengal) always prefer to be ‘tantrik’, an activity that requires sense of elegance and extravagance rather than becoming a music minstrel, Bauls. This high estimation of so called ‘bhadralok’ regarding their social status, education, position and possession thwarts them (the Bauls) at the corner of the society far away from neighbourhood places which is beyond their notice. The research thinks that this social segregation rather lack of direct attachment with the living society is one of the paramount reasons of having no document with them and about them as well simply because neither educated people took interest in them or felt the importance to translate those trash materials into pen and paper nor they motivated themselves to jolt down the content or understand the value of their own.

In the beginning, it is stated that scarcity of books or texts leads the readers or researchers to look back into the perceptions of Bauls. Such consideration can chalk out both the traditions; traditional aspects of Bauls and tradition outgoing. Earlier they are considered as the group of people devoted to Vaishnavite religion. For the justification one needs to probe into Bhakti Movement of Bengal. In Hunter’s Satisfied Account of Bengal Bauls are classified as Hindus apart from being identified as ‘bhairagi’, a renounce (Detachment from life) and ‘vaishnav’, follower of Vaishnavite religion. Risley opined a different view of having separated from the body of Vishnavite rituals.

He further informed:

Bearing in mind the limitations of British imperial sources, I now propose to turn to the material itself. To begin with the earliest relevant source, Bauls are mentioned only twice in the entire series of Hunter’s Statistical Account of Bengal, published from 1875 CE. In both cases, they are classified as Hindus, but apart from being identified as bhairagi in one case, and baishnava but not bhairagi in the other, nothing more is said of them.

Risley further opined:

Baolas are separated from the main body of Vaishnavas. They comprise a number of ‘disreputable mendicant orders’ and recruit mainly from the lower castes. Flesh and alcohol are forbidden but fish is eaten; hemp is smoked; they never shave or cut their hair and filthiness of a person ranks as a virtue among them. They are believed to be grossly immoral, he maintains, and are held in very low estimation by respectable Hindus. They comprise a number of ‘disreputable mendicant orders’ and recruit many mainly from the lower castes. Flesh and alcohol are forbidden but fish is eaten; hemp is smoked; they ‘never shave and cut their hair and filthiness of the person ranks as a virtue among them’. They are believed to be grossly immoral, he maintains, and are ‘held in very low estimation by respectable Hindus’. (Risley, p. 347)

Though some conceptions are rooted on assumptions, it definitely engenders and endangers the concept of Baul regarding its ‘sampraday’ (tradition with sect, of name with tradition).

In Bengali literature, Akshyay Dutta first initiated the concept of Baul, ‘aul’, ‘sahaja’, ‘kartabajha’ as a ‘sampraday’ in his monumental work Bharat Bishayay Upasak (in Bengali) translated as Religious Traditions of India. Exclusively he talks about thirty ‘sampraday’ under the rubrics ‘branches of chaitanya sampraday’. Here at this juncture it creates a clash with another literary giant on this track, Upendranath Bandopadhyay. He straightway negates the concept of ‘sampraday’.

Jeanne Openshaw writes:

Dutta is criticized by Bhattacharya for ignoring the great traditions (sampraday) of Fakirs of East and West Bengal, an omission shared to an overwhelming extent by the sources in English cited, and one inevitably entailed by Dutta’s inclusion of B auls and so forth offshoots of the Chaitanya Sampraday. Bhattacharya’s contention is that Dutta was blindly followed on these matters by subsequent authors. (p. 35).

However, there are considerable amount of confusion between ‘fakir’ and ‘Baul’ among Muslim thinkers rather critics and gentry people of West Bengal.

Jeane Openshaw comments:

The assumption of an exclusively Hindu identity for Baul should be seen in the context of developments within Bengali Muslim society from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In association with the rise of a series of Islamic reform movements, a stream of hostile tracts was unleashed against the perceived heterodoxy of Muslims called ‘Fakir’ or ‘Baul’. Such tracts, generally written by Islamic scholars and clerics, include ‘fake fakirs’ (Bhanda fakir) and mandate for the destruction of Bauls (Baul Dhanvsa phatoa) (Ray, p. 22-23).

One crucial point is Lalon himself, the ‘guru’, the founder and propagator of Baul tradition who never identifies himself as ‘Baul’. He was one and only Lalon Fokir.

Nevertheless the conception creates a spark and unveils a spectacular research within Shaktipada Jha:

Moreover, as far as I know, Lalaon, who came to epitomize the traditional Baul, and who was also a vilified by reformist Islamic elements, never called himself Baul, nor was so called by his contemporaries. In his songs, he usually ‘signs’ himself Fakir Lalon and refers to his guru Siraj as Sai or darbes (‘Darvish’). (Jha, p.153).

In the very beginning, especially in introductory part of Baul, the research points out the connotation of the word based on one of the oldest texts of Bengali literature. At the end of 16th century the word got mentioned seven times in the primary text of Vaishnav Sahitya, Shrikrishna Chaityacharitammrita. Here the book positively approves the attachment of Baul with Vaishnav cults. One of the traditions of Vaishnav Padas (Poems) is ‘vanita’ (mention of the name of the writer in the last line of the poem). Later on quite surprisingly in the compositions of Bauls, it has become a norm to authenticate their writing with devotion. Lalon Fakir has extensively used it. After that Gitgovindam, another voluminous book by Jaydeva inspired the concept of Bauls so far as the language is concerned. It is worth pointing out that all these poems in Gitgovindam are a form of celebration conferring Lord Krishna who is also the ideal of the Baul sect. They are devotees of Lord Krishna and Maa Kali. Even Chaitanya Mahapravu, to add to the curiosity in the minds of the readers, the research can say is often called ‘Maha Baul’ in the sense ‘gone mad’ especially when he lost himself in the vortex of Krishna devotion in the form of ‘Bhakti’ movement.

S. B. Dasgupta avers:

The Caryapadas (or Carya Songs) and the Dohas (distichs), written by the ‘siddhas’ (perfect ones) between the 18th century and 19th century CE, are generally considered to belong to the tantric Buddhist school of thought and literature known as Sahajiya or Sahajiyana (p. 13)... The term ‘sahaj’, from which these levels derive, literally means ‘being born together with’, and by extension ‘congenital, innate, hereditary, original, and natural’ (p. 61-62).

He further informs:

In modern Bengali, sahaj(a) means ‘easy, ‘simple’, and ‘plain’. Sahaja constitutes an ontological as well as psychological category, and emphasis is placed on realization rather than ritual or scholarship. Indeed formalism and convention of any kind, lay or religious, Hindu and Buddhist, seems to have rejected. (Dasgupta, 53-54).

Charyapadas and some songs of Bauls are very similar in all respects particularly when the concept of ‘sahaj’ is hinted at. After that in the hand of Lalon, Baul tradition gets fired up and through Tagore it gets a new dimension.

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