Baul Songs
 

The Bauls are mystic minstrels living in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. The Baul movement was at its peak in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and has now become popular again among the rural population of Bangladesh. Their music and way of life have influenced a large swath of Bengali culture, most powerfully the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore.

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Bauls live either near a village or travel from village to village and earn their living from singing to the accompaniment of the ektara, a simple one-stringed instrument, and a drum called dubki. Bauls belong to an unorthodox devotional tradition, which has been influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Bengali Vasinavism and Sufi Islam, yet it is distinctly different from these. Bauls do not identify themselves with any organised religion nor with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places. Their emphasis lies on the importance of a person’s physical body as the place where God resides. Bauls are admired for this freedom from convention as well as their music and poetry. Baul poetry, music, song and dance are devoted to finding man’s relationship with God, and to achieving spiritual liberation. Their devotional songs can be dated back to the fifteenth century when they first appeared in Bengali literature. 

Baul music represents a particular type of folk song, carrying influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song. It is mainly sung in open air amidst the village audience. Songs are also used for instruction by the guru to teach his disciple in Baul philosophy, being transmitted orally from singer to singer. The language of the songs is continuously modernized thus giving it current relevance and meaning.

The maintenance of the Baul songs and the general context in which they are performed depend mainly on the social and economic situation of their practitioners, the Bauls. These have always been a relatively marginalized group, but their situation has worsened in recent decades due to the general impoverishment of rural Bangladesh. Village people as the main audience for Baul poets no longer have the means to support Bauls with part of their earnings.