Indian 'mystic minstrel' combines Baul philosophy and music to combat Covid-19


Published: Thu 30 Apr 2020, 8:38 PM

Last updated: Thu 30 Apr 2020, 10:40 PM

In 1962, Allen Ginsberg encountered these "god-intoxicated" troubadours during his maiden visit to the land of mysticism, India, and aptly described them and their timeless philosophy. The Beat generation bard wrote, "The ordinary mind with its absent-mindedness, lack of attention, confusion, loss is transformed alchemically into sacred mind simply by realizing that that's the nature of the mind and the mind ultimately isn't so empty anyway. So you get all sorts of things - puns, metaphysical puns, mental ideational puns like "Am I myself or someone else?" Well, I ain't myself, I ain't someone else, I ain't nobody at all! Baul psychology can make you see that."
The Bauls are dubbed as the "mystic minstrels living in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal, India" by the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and have been an archetypal soul of India's often undermined secular characteristics. They are the bards of time while their ballads transcend cast, creed, and religion to amalgamate mixed elements of Tantra, Sufism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism. Bob Dylan found solace in their songs while recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966 and was completely mesmerised by their spiritual salve that he started calling himself the "American Baul". It was Purna Chandra Das, who, with Dylan's profound camaraderie and wholehearted support, catapulted the genre to the global stage from the bucolic dirt roads and sylvan surroundings of rural Bengal in the swinging sixties.
The most prolific Baul not only extensively collaborated with Dylan but also appeared on the cover of Dylan's 1967 album 'John Wesley Harding', apart from sharing the stage with the likes of Joan Baez, Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, among a list of luminaries of the world music scene of that rocking era of the swinging sixties and the stunning seventies. Purna Das's father Nabani Das too was a Baul singer par extraordinaire and had a significant influence in many of the songs written and composed by Asia's first Nobel laureate and India's literary icon Rabindranath Tagore. However, the Baul community, whose origin is traced to be around the Bhakti or Sufi movement in India in the 15th and 16th centuries, has had innumerable unsung members for centuries.
Both historically and traditionally, the wandering Bauls are both time-travellers as well as a chronicler of time. Their philosophical songs not only connect the human souls to spiritualism and divinity but they are also the remarkable storytellers of their contemporary society, religion, culture and time.
Covid-19 has been no exception. Gautam Hazra Baul, who was born in an impoverished family near Tagore's world-famous university town of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, grew up in the ancestral neighbourhood of Purna Das, Bhubandnga. Hazra's dilapidated house is a stone's throw away from Purna Das's rustic original abode, revered by the members from his community of wandering bards. "I grew up going past the two-storeyed house since my childhood and always got fascinated by his cult public persona. Of course, I have always been mesmerised by his soulful songs," Hazra said about his demigod from his Baul community.
Hazra, who didn't study beyond middle school and worked as a gardener after being orphaned at an early age, has already written and composed a slew of Baul songs depicting the danger of Covid-19 and its incomprehensive impact on the mankind. "I love to create songs on contemporary issues and topics, and the catastrophic contagion has given me a reason to think of how small and hapless we are against Nature's fury."
The inconspicuous member of the nomadic fraternity still works part-time as a delivery person for a local distribution business to make ends meet. "I never had any formal or professional training in music and couldn't afford to have any from a private teacher. I have learnt by observing others, including Purna Chandra and many prominent Baul singers of my time," says the self-taught singer, who plays at least 18-20 folk and mainstream musical instruments proficiently, including some of the must-have musical accessories of the Bauls like Ektara, a one-stringed drone instrument; Duggi, a kettle drum; Anandalahari or Gubgubi, a plucking drum; and Dotara, a four-stringed long-necked lute.
Hazra's songs personify the simplicity of his own humble life but do reflect the intensive and rich philosophy of life and spirituality. His creations not only transcendentally encapsulate the menacing effect of the coronavirus worldwide and in India but the lyrics also explore the possibilities of taming the contagion through the human quest for ambrosia.
The simple yet philosophical lyrics of his songs catapult science to the realm of metaphysics. "The virus doesn't care about who you are. From the rich and powerful to the poorest of the poor, the virus hasn't spared anybody. It's a great leveller for mankind but, more importantly, the greatest and the most effective vaccine one can have to ward off the zoonotic disease is spreading mass awareness. I'm trying my best to do that through my songs in this part of rural Bengal," Hazra - who regularly dons his multi-coloured Guduri, a patchwork costume of saffron colour, worn by the Bauls - informs.
The word "Baul" is apparently derived from the Sanskrit "byakul" (anxious) or "vatul" (mad) and a self-effacing Hazra's unassuming awareness drives are an unabashed manifestation of Baul philosophy, which often describes life with the longing for union with God, who is formless and resides within each individual as the "adhara manush" or the elusive man of the heart.
As the unobtrusive bard strumming his Ektara to spread awareness in the bedrock of Baul culture on the dusty laterite soils of Rahr Bengal, a hundred-odd kilometres away in Kolkata, the iconic Civil Rights movement's anthem of "We shall overcome," once immortalised by the likes of Pete Seeger and Baez, found a voice among the city's policemen. The song of solace and solidarity, which gained a cult status in the 'culture capital of India' at a time when Ginsberg and Dylan discovered spiritual salvation in Baul songs in the eastern Indian city, has been sung by the Kolkata Police personnel to encourage and motivate its cooped-up citizens under country-wide lockdown and make them understand the importance of social distancing in the time of Covid-19.

By Suvam Pal

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