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 2.4 - The Bauls of Birbhumi, Birbhum

Glorifying the simplicity and tranquillity against an era of stress and turmoil, Tagore proclaimed himself to be heavily influenced by the Bauls in his literature and songs; it fascinated him in collecting and preserving indigenous creations before they are suffocated by the intrusive and arrogant arrival of modern civilisation. Tagore’s publications on Baul contributed to the diffusion of their success among intellectuals and the urban élite, in a purified version that romanticised the Bauls’ esoteric aspect to make it socially acceptable. The recent surge of interest in the Bauls (Bengali Baul) and the resultant discussion (not always truly scholarly, often tinged with Bengali nationalism) have made this religious group well known. I may thus content myself here with stating the basic characteristics of their belief and for the rest referring to the extant literature on the subject. In short, the syncretistic Baul creed is seemingly lying outside the fold of the religions of the so-called "great tradition(s)" in Bengal, especially in Birbhum. With the growing impact of globalisation and the gentrification of Birbhum district especially the Bolpur Santiniketan countryside, due to their ability to trap the nuances of the local and yet penetrate into the global hippie audience, Baul communities of Birbhum are now enjoying an increasing patronage by outsiders, middle-class amateurs and folklore tourists who are in search of an ‘authentic’ indigenous tradition. The notorious entanglement between folklore and nationalism expressed itself emblematically in the context of a preindependent Bengal. Members of the urban élite fascinated by Bauls’ hippie appeal, rural cosmopolitanism, a misunderstood sexual permissiveness under the cover of sadhana, and community participation in smoking marijuana, became enthusiastic neophytes on this path. The recent strand of academic literatures on Baul shares a common fear of corruption and contamination by the invasion of modernity and popular culture.

Questioning this view, textual and contextual evidences often show that Bauls’ lyrics are responding to their status of popular culture with self-confidence and adaptability, keeping their folk tenets and literary devices unaltered. Contemporary Baul communities of Birbhum are capable of preserving their traditional identity with respect to their Gurubanis, vis-à-vis the demands of a modern audience without contaminating or corrupting the oral charm of Dehatattwa or sadhantattwa. The sudden entry of print-culture and Western education, along with the creative indigenous response to them through vernacular prose, valorised book-learning to an unprecedented extent among the colonial middle class of 19th century Bengal. The most sacred of Hindu texts became widely available in written form for the first time, and printed matter became far more accessible than manuscripts could ever have been. Higher education, now being made indispensable for respectable jobs and professions, was imparted through a foreign language, far removed from everyday speech, which could be learnt only through books. Contact with a culture which claimed superior status by virtue of its rationality and science stimulated efforts to use self-consciously 'rational' arguments to modify, or defend, institutions and ideas now felt to be 'traditional’. Time acquired new meaning and disciplinary authority through an equally abrupt entry of clocks and watches, and there was among some a sense of moving forward in consonance with its linear progress. Foreign rule, however humiliation, had brought the gift of 'modern' culture for the new English-educated literati, and maybe its evils could be reduced or eliminated through gradual reform. Likewise in this process of westernisation and commoditization of national identity, the traditional folk asset of Bengali culture, Baul songs unfortunately started to turn into a popular culture, appeal of the Bauls of Birbhum has also led to its exposure to the urban intelligentsia and their print culture, the circulation of many fake Baul songs, to the designation of any folk song and performing art as “Baul”. In response to Aditya Mukherjee’s attack on the current greed of the Bauls for popularity and their indulgence to have attachment with Shantiniketan, foreign beauties, the writer quotes Shaktinath Jha commenting that the foreigners feel them connected with Bauls but he does not clarify the hippie spirit that attract the foreign audience rather than any vaba. My focus will be on this commercialization that has led to the gentrification or modernisation of Baul sadhakas and artists, the extinction of the rich traditional heritage of Birbhum and my research aims at differentiating genuine and authentic Baul padabalis, manufactured by the traditional Baul Mahajans from the modern updated versions.

The researcher came to know about the social, academic and intellectual construct given to the Baul movement of Bengal for centuries have been attempted by the elite status quo to box-in the music, lifestyle and philosophy of Fakirs, Sadhus and Sages of our time, thereby limiting them to easily explainable parameters and expected norms, practices of spirituality. Baul philosophy is however unique in that it challenges these constructs in the epochal tangents setting it apart from other ‘religions’ or beliefs. Our dominant heritage culture, especially those practised by the marginalised majority, the construed ‘subalterns’ has therefore traditionally been in conflict and at odds with the city centres. A review of the major trends of the research on the Bauls by different scholars can be found in Upendranath Bhattacharya’s commendable work Banglar Baul O Baul Gaan. The preliminary work that the researcher found so informative and authentic detail on Bauls of Birbhum, is Bauls of Birbhum (M. Ray in 1994), where the author argued: “in all textual studies there was a tendency to exclusively focus on the perennial essence of Baul metaphysics and their esoteric rituals. There was an atmosphere of search for the changeless essence of a group living in isolation from others” (Ray in 1994: xi). He also opined that Jean Openshaw observes a connection between Bauls with hippies and confirming Purna Das Baul as “global hippie”, but he does not elaborate on this topic. The researcher continued to say that her book Seeking Bauls of Bengal offered an eloquent and illuminating critique of the established religious traditions and social divisions of the wider Indian society from which they recruit. Jeanne Openshaw did intensive fieldwork among Bengali Bauls for seven years, and the resulting book—overflowing with ethnographic detail and insight is illuminating not merely for those interested in Bauls in particular, but also because of the subversive yet highly compelling perspectives these Bauls offer on matters such as human life, gender, the body, love, and religion. The writer informed that Manas Ray confessed about his preliminary venture, and being stimulated by his research I want to probe more deeply and comprehensively in my research along with Openshaw’s observation. As a translator Mr. Bhattacharya has succeeded far better in his second attempt with Baul songs of Bengal. The translations bring out the simple sincerity of the songs. This reviewer, who lived in Birbhum for years and had the opportunity to listen to the Bauls, was moved to find many of his favourite singers and songs listed by the translator. The short sketch of the history of the Baul cult is an excellent overall account that would facilitate the readers' understandings of these songs. It is a fact of life that we shall always cherish and admire this band of Baul singers who, by their conviction, remain steadfast to their cult of music, their feelings of nearness to the Eternal, and their insistence on Oneness in a land that has been torn apart again and again by differences of religion, language and beliefs. The readers can be sure that these two efforts on the part of Mr. Bhattacharya to make available to the English-speaking public the living lyrics of Bengal's popular Vaisnavite and Baul cults will do away with the cobwebs of mystery that still clutter the ordinary Western mind regarding the creative thought and writing of India. While Bhattacharya contends that the basis of the cult is Buddhist and Vaisnava Sahajiya, Anawarul Karim in his book Bauls of Bangladesh opines that it is Sufism. Perhaps because of the emphasis placed on the origin of the cult, too little of the book was drawn from Anawarul Karim's actual fieldwork. Baul songs and quotations from Baul informants could have been used to support his arguments. It is hoped that in the future he will share with us more of the knowledge culled from his long association with the practitioners of this fascinating religious cult.

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