CHENNAI: A s the twang of the ektara and the rustic beats of the khol rend the air, Madhusudan Baul’s soulful voice ascends in rustic melody. The song he is singing swells with emotions, an elemental feeling that can be evoked only by folk singers from the hinterland. Passers-by stand enraptured, unaware of their surroundings as they watch him and his seated troupe sing mellifluous tunes that rise and fall in crescendos.
Madhusudan and his troupe — Sanatan Baul, Jayanthi — belong to the Baul, a group of mystic minstrels from West Bengal who have a rich and inclusive musical tradition. Predominant in Bardhaman and Birbhum districts of the state, their music is steeped in philosophical themes, with imaginative descriptions and an emphasis on oneness with the divine. His troupe, under the name Baul Balladeers, is currently performing at the Dastakari Haat Samiti’s Exhibition at Kalakshetra Foundation.
“The Baul are predominantly mystics,” says Madhusudan, with a glint in his eye. “The song I just sang is by Kazi Nazrul Islam, a very famous Bengali poet. It preaches the oneness of all religions and urges people to not to differentiate. In fact, in this song, the lyrics say that if Islam is the moon, then Hinduism is the sun; if your eyes are Islam, then your heart is Hindu.”
Most songs of the Baul incorporate concepts of Sanatan Dharma and also the great saint Kabir’s Sufi music. “Through these songs, Baul musically answers questions of who we are and why are we here; where are we now and where we are going to be,” says Madhusudan. “Doot hain yeh, a messenger for society. Through music it goes to every home and spreads the message.” So popular was Baul music in Bengali culture that it is even said to have inspired and shaped Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and music.
So how did he and his troupe become Baul singers in today’s age? “We used to be steeped in music since childhood; eventually through years of singing we became Baul singers. If you don’t have a relationship with music since childhood you cannot grow with it,” says Madhusudan. It is their first time in Chennai, one of very few visits down to south India. They often perform for exhibitions and events that the Indian Council for Cultural Relations conducts.
The Baul fall in that unique category of musicians who do not write down their songs; it is an oral tradition that they pass on and sustain through pouring their emotions into their songs. “Live in peace, love each other, we are only travellers in this world,” he smiles as they segue into their next song.
Baul Balladeers will perform at Dastakari Haat Samiti’s exhibition at Kalakshetra Foundation till October 2.