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Saving the free souls of rural India

May 22, 2009

Bauls, a group of mystic singers from West Bengal in India, who, for generations carried social messages in their songs, are facing threats from the growing urbanisation and consumerism. A new book shares some interesting anecdotes of their lives and culture.

Bauls have always fascinated the sentient observer who sees in the singing mendicant a free soul loosened from the shackles of ambition and greed. But while most people hold the bauls in high esteem, very little is done to maintain the environment that sustains them.


Their way of life is under threat, from rampant urbanisation, from the spread of the concrete jungle which banishes clean air, cool breezes, the stars from the sky and the song of moving waters filled with fish and bird life.

Indeed, the bauls, who are rooted in the history and geography of rural Bengal, are now in retreat, impoverished and lured by the blandishments of our consumerist society, yet clinging to their heritage.

To become one of them takes enormous willpower and devotion. To write about them while being one of them, and yet to see them from a non-baul perspective requires a dichotomy of existence that would sap the energy of most authors.

BaulSphere is Mimlu’s first published book. She has been writing since she was a child, maintaining diaries and notes which, coupled with a remarkable memory, allow her to write with immediacy and feeling about her myriad journeys and the amazing people she has met and welcomed as friends. Readers of The Statesman’s Sunday supplement 8th Day will be familiar with Mimlu’s column.

While the focus of the book is the bauls she meets, Mimlu includes a lot of information about their origins, myths and philosophy. Naturally, there is a large autobiographical element: how Mimlu became a baul, and Paban’s soulmate; her artistic singer mother, and her father who finally conceded not only her independence but also his support are the pillars of her early life.

"Mimlu’s life changed completely after she met Pabandas Baul and heard his mesmerising singing"

Her childhood in Shillong, brief interludes at college in Kolkata and Delhi, before she disappeared to Paris, lived with Katoun and Terai, and her children, form the background and the context.

Mimlu’s life changed completely after she met Pabandas Baul and heard his mesmerising singing. Despite brief exposure to the poverty of villages in Bihar on a stint of relief work, Mimlu could not possibly have known how difficult it would be to chase the existence she glimpsed and recognised as her own. Yet she plunged in, taking two-year old Duniya with her, to be eventually followed by her son.

The author’s ability to withstand discomfort in the course of her baul wanderings is remarkable. Truly, her inner vision held sway. When she describes the water shortage in rented rooms at Shantiniketan, she writes: “It was the rumble and gurgle, the mouse-like squeaking and squirting of water in the pipeline that wakened me every morning. I then filled the pails, drums, containers for the morning wash and bath, filled the kettle for tea, lit the chulah, washed the dishes and prepared the morning meal.” No grumbling here.

Her journey with Paban leads her to his impoverished family, to a grassroots community life, to gurus and gurumas, to akhras and monasteries, to melas across the land, to concerts and impromptu performances, travels throughout the world, with the narrative punctuated by baul songs and more songs, a whirling dance across the firmament, with the mystical possessed and the mad, the divine and the slippery, though one must hasten to add that there are few genuine bauls who lose their sense of the divine, the occasional Jagannath being an exception.

We meet Haridas Goshain and his spiritual partner, Nirmala Ma Goshain, Gourima, Lakhon Baul, Gour Khepa, and many, many more. We read about legendary bauls from down the ages – Lallon Fakir, Nabani, Bete Baba – a procession that remains in the memory. Their followers will not let them die.

The book is laced with folktales, amazing stories and anecdotes arising out of the picaresque life led by Mimlu and Paban. The narrative is interspersed with excerpts of baul songs mostly translated by Mimlu. We meet a delightful galaxy of non-bauls too who have taken the road less travelled, whether it is Jean Louis who ends up as a Roman Catholic priest, or Johnny who steals an unclaimed sitar from a Puri hotel in the dead of night, or Katrin chasing an elusive prem sadhana.

The writing is leavened by a terrific sense of humour, so that the arcane never becomes too much for the ordinary reader who finds at the end of the book that baul lore has seeped into the brain with the greatest of ease.

Mimlu describes a baul and fakir who dispute the call of a bird. One hears, “Hare Krishna Radha,” the other, “Allah Rasool Khuda”. They decide to settle the matter by asking a vegetable vendor what he hears. The vendor replies: “Onions, ginger, garlic.” Each to his own. So too the book.

Only the nit-picker will pounce on small errors in sociological detail that have crept in, understandably, for the book is not a scholarly text. It is like a baul song: you get the meaning, you do not crib if slight liberties are taken in explaining concepts hard to grasp and harder to explain to the non-Indian reader.

“Can we not be elastic? Swing between multiple visions of the world, like the monkeys above our heads who swing from branch to branch?”

Indeed, the vagaries of memory are part of the book’s charm; the reader who sits with an encyclopaedia to check out all the free-ranging assertions will not be inclined to appreciate the joys of this book anyway.

To quote the author: “Can we not be elastic? Swing between multiple visions of the world, like the monkeys above our heads who swing from branch to branch?”

Sometimes the language, with its mix of baul and Bengali terms, some translated, some not, a sudden French idiom in English, a mixed metaphor or two, can be bewildering. But only for a second, as one intuitively gets the larger meaning. The language has sinew and grace, is evocative and compelling. So too are the black-and-white photographs that invite you into the world of the bauls.

Source : Infochange
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