Liquid music

From the rural melas to the city pubs, baul tunes find a home everywhere. It’s a testimony to the versatile repertory of themes and traditions, say musicians

It’s late evening, when a saffron-clad baul climbs the stage at the Joydev Mela in Kenduli. He tugs at his khamak, his voice rising to a fever pitch. His companions strum on the dotara, beat the dubki. The music transports the crowds to a different time and space, it seems.

Cut to a popular pub in the city. As Kartik Das Baul unleashes his khamak, he is greeted by a young crowd brandishing the ‘devil’s horns’. He is flanked by Bodhisattva and Mainak, who’re busy tuning their lead and bass guitars to match Kartik’s pitch. Kartik’s dressed in the quintessential baul’s jobba. His hair is pulled back in a bun at the nape of his neck. The lights dim. The act begins.

It’s quite some distance from the Joydev Mela to Kolkata but the bauls seem at ease at both places. It’s a testimony to their versatile repertory of traditions, melodies and poetry, feels Bonnie Chakraborty, musician, singer and the founder of Oikyotaan, a platform that supports Indian folk traditions. “Baul songs have been a pool for everyone to explore. If one knows their history well enough, a lot of Indian classical music has evolved from folk music. It’s a full circle!” That’s one of the reasons why we see a lot of young musicians incorporating baul tunes into their music. “Baul music is no longer confined to melas and festivals. It can be categorized as world music,” says percussionist Bickram Ghosh, who had collaborated with baul singers and musicians Sahaj Maa and Utpal Fakir.

Reinterpreting baul music on the urban stage is fine but should be done with caution warns Bonnie. “Baul has been open to re-interpretation for generations. They re-structure and re-interpret their own philosophy and music. Alterations and re-adaptations can be done but without losing the essence of the song and philosophy.” His thoughts are echoed by musician and percussionist Tanmoy Bose. “One reason why baul music has potential to be popular among youngsters is the whole idea surrounding the lifestyle of the bauls. However, one must guard against getting carried away.”

Baul music is thus a common pool from which both bauls from places like Nadia, Bolpur and Gorbhanga as well as urban musicians like Bonnie, Bickram, Tanmoy and Gabu draw inspiration from, suggesting that the walls of this pool are porous. “Around eight to 10 years back, I would often get ridiculous requests like, ‘Free te ekta baul jogar kore de’ for stage shows. That has changed,” says Sanjay, one half of urban baul outfit Brahmakhyapa. Sanjay and Malabika, his partner, credit this change to Tinkori Chakraborty who has collaborated with Peter Gabriel. However, they also reserve special praise for Paban Das Baul and his collaboration with Sam Mills. “They are the gurus. They have shown us the path!” says Sanjay.

Gabu’s father, Gautam Chattopadhyay – the founder of Moheener Ghoraguli – was the first band musician to collaborate with bauls. “My childhood was spent listening to and tampering with baul music. A lot of work is being done in promoting baul music. I have myself used the dotara in a song in ” Kagojer Bou“. But what makes musicians turn to baul music? “The tradition dates back to the 15th century. Baul utsavs like the Joydev Mela, have been taking place for 200-300 years. Yet baul songs are contemporary. There lies the magic,” says Gabu.

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