Appropriating Baul Tradition: Tagore and His Creative Experimentation
Ujjwal Jana is Associate Professor, Department of English, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India.
‘Baul’ has multiple connotations, especially in religious and social contexts. The Baul image, for long, has had a quintessential romantic association in the collective Bengali Psyche and imagination. “Socially, the Baul tradition can be interpreted as a series of rebellions by isolated individualists against caste and class systems” as Bhattacharya says (30). They combine in themselves diverse strands of thoughts and beliefs. They represent a tradition of Hindu Tantrism with Sufi mysticism, placing emphasis on the human body which constitutes the epitome of the entire universe in the tradition. The present study aims to look in depth at these aspects, especially in relation to Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore, Baul tradition, Tantric, Sufi, literary studies
The word ‘Baul’ has multiple connotations, especially in religious and social contexts. The Baul image, for long, has had a quintessential romantic association in Bengali Psyche and imagination. “Socially, the Baul tradition can be interpreted as a series of rebellions by isolated individualists against caste and class systems” as Bhattacharya says (30). They combine in themselves diverse strands of thoughts & beliefs. They represent a tradition of Hindu Tantric with a Sufi mystic placing emphasis on human body which constitutes the epitome of the entire universe. Bauls have been traditionally known for their humanism, surpassing the narrow confines of caste, religion and communal sentiments. The tradition of the Bauls, historically, dates back to the time when the earliest form of Bengali literature, that is Carya literature, was written down and there are scattered references of them in the existing literature. Of many traditions, shaping and constructing the cultural, religious and social life of Bengal in the 18th and 19th century in a great measure, ‘Baul tradition’ stands as a prominent one, paving the way to a new literary discourse fashioned in a syncretic tradition. Rabindranath Tagore, in fact, came under the profound influence of the religious syncretism of the Bauls and it is no wonder that the poetic self of Tagore himself was highly receptive to this tradition and produced a great deal of writings, be it songs, poems, essays, the roots of which were planted in this medieval saint tradition. This paper will critically examine Tagore’s understanding of the Baul tradition and his texts in the light of the concepts and ideas of Bauls as appropriated by him.
When Rabindranath Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize for his literary contribution in the early twentieth century, literary scholars and critics from all over the world took a keen interest on him to find out if his ideas and writings were influenced by the West. What most of the critics and scholars failed to realize at that particular point of time was that the trigger of his literary genius could be found deeply rooted in rural Bengal than they could be anywhere in the west. Although the influence of the Western literature, ideas and thought cannot be undermined, his inclination towards and association with Baul songs harnessed his songwriting genius a great deal and took his ability to compose songs to a greater height. In his forward to Haramoni, Tagore admits:
I have adopted the Baul tunes for many of my songs. And in many other songs of mine, there is, either knowingly or unknowingly, a mixture of Rag-Raginis and Baul tunes. From this it can be seen that, at some period of time, Bauls’ tune and voice got assimilated in my mind in a natural way. (Dubey 146)
These Baul songs were sung by the people who came from the lower category of the social system and they generally incorporated uncomplicated language and simple stories of everyday lives of the common people unlike the usage of the complex vocabulary and complicated metaphors by the educated Bengali gentry of the time. Apolitical stance of the Baul artists and their refusal to be drawn to any kind of religious bindings, which were greatly reflected in their works, influenced Tagore deeply and the reflection of which could be easily traced in the simplicity of his song lyrics. Edward C. Dimock Jr. has observed perfectly as to why Tagore is so attractive to the non-Indian readers:
He is great to non-Indians perhaps because the tradition out of which he comes is not the highly complex Sanskrit classical tradition which speaks primarily to the educated and sophisticated people of India, but the simple, personal, emotional tradition of the poet-saints who wrote for the people. (34)
It is well documented that baul songs were a kind of rebellion against the society that built barriers by creating divisions among human beings. The songs preached humanism, tolerance and they worshipped ‘achinpakhi’or ‘self’ by rising above any religious boundaries. One baul song reads:
The path is hidden by the temple and the mosque,
and though I hear you call, O God, I cannot find the way;
for against me stand my guru and mursid….
Your worship, when divided, dies,
And on your gate are many locks-
Puranas, Kuran, tasabi, mala-
This outward show makes madana weep in sorrow. (Dimock 37)
This particular tenet of the Baul significantly attracted the attention of Tagore since he himself was vehemently against the institutional boundaries raised by society. In the compiled series of the Hilbert Lectures that was published in 1930, Tagore was quoted as saying:
That is why, brother, I became a madcap Baul. No master I obey, nor injunctions, canons, or custom. Man-made distinctions have no hold on me now. I rejoice in the gladness of the love.
Tagore was said to be getting closely associated with Baul songs when he started spending enough times in various parts of Bengal in order to look after the family estates. Silaidaha, Naogaon, Sirajganj, etc. are the places which helped him to inculcate a penchant for Baul which would help him later to write and compose many songs that would live hundreds of years. This fact could easily be verified as he mentioned in numerous lectures which he delivered in Europe and later published in the form of a book ‘The Religion of Man’;
I have mentioned in connection with my personal experience some songs which I had often heard from wandering village singers, belonging to a particular sect of Bengal, called Bauls, who have no images, temples, scriptures, or ceremonials, who declare in their songs the divinity of Man, and express for him an intense feeling of love.
The name Nabani Das Baul cannot be ignored when it comes to the discussion about Baul and Rabindranath Tagore. This very discussion would perhaps not be taking place had Nabani Das Baul would not existed. He was the man who made Tagore fall in love with Baul and Tagore himself acknowledged the contribution of the great man. Tagore gave him a place to stay in Viswa Bharathi University which he established in Shantiniketan and appointed Nabani Das Baul as a teacher to teach Baul in the university. Simplicity of the melodious tune and the poetic exquisiteness moved Tagore profoundly and such was the extent of the influence that he went as far as calling his songs ‘Rabindra Baul-er Gaan’. Many of his songs which were greatly influenced by the tune and lyrics of Bauls left an indelible impression on the readers and audiences. Phire Chal Matir Tane, Ami Tarei Khuje Berai, Jodi tor DakShune, Gram Chara Oi RangaMatir, MegherKole Rod Heseche are some of examples which bear testominy of the claim. Tagore himself asserted in one of his lectures:
I have fitted the tunes of the Bauls to many of my songs, and in many other songs the tunes of the Bauls have consciously or unconsciously been mixed up with other musical modes and modifications…… the tune as well as the message of the Bauls had at one time absorbed my mind as if they were its very element. (Dimock 35)
The humanistic spirit of the Bauls inspired Tagore very much. Tagore learned to unlearn ignorance, pride and vanity which were the stumbling block for the realization of the ultimate. He is ecstatic when we hear:
I must launch out my boat. The languid hours pass by on the shore —alas for me!
The spring has done its lowering and taken leave. And now with the burden of faded futile lowers I wait and linger.
The waves have become clamorous, and upon the bank in the shady lane the yellow leaves flutter and fall. (Gitanjali 21)
The poet is apologetic. He wants his soul to be purged of greed. He appeals to the Almighty:
I cling to this living raft, my body, in the narrow stream of my earthly years. I leave it when the crossing is over… (86)
I must launch out my boat The languid hours pass by on the shore —alas for me!
The spring has done its lowering and taken leave. And now with the burden of faded futile lowers I wait and linger.
The waves have become clamorous, and upon the bank in the shady lane the yellow leaves litter and fall… (87)
And now, at the end of your days, will your boat gently touch the landing-place; and will you see, in the darkening of the evening, the row of lights upon the other shore?
The sweet and gentle wind touches the sail of my mind—and I hear, in the darkness, someone’s laughter from the distant shore. (Gitanjali 140)
The permeating spirit of the Bauls led Tagore in search of the Almighty. The journey from finite to infinite, from mundane to spiritual, which characterizes Tagore’s thoughts and writings, is vividly represented in the following song:
Who is he, who has made me wander, mad, from quarter to quarter of the town? I have wandered through the forests and through the mountains in my search for him. And now I am lost, weeping in my sorrow. (Gitabitan, II, 218, no. 555).
The influence of the Baul is not only restricted to Tagore’s poetic works as it has not left untouched his prose works also. “Within the cage, the unknown bird comes and goes. If only I could catch him, I would keep him fettered with the irons of my hand…” The resounding words could be found on the pages of the novel Gora and the impression of the Baul songs is very much attached to the words. There is no doubt that the simplicity of the words and the touch of rural melody enriched Tagore’s oeuvre significantly and he was very much liberal in his acknowledgement in his lectures. He realized as times went by that it was his time to contribute to the Bauls. Baul was predominantly oral tradition since it was sung and performed by rural uneducated people belonging to the lower sections of the society. There were no attempts made to document the Baul songs and the Baul artists at the time so, he took it upon himself to give it a light of exposure by publishing some of the materials in Prabasi, a literary journal published in Bengali. In conclusion, it can be said that the elements of mysticism, esoteric belief, celebration of joy and beauty in nature and man, realization of the self, yearning for the supreme and above all the idea of universal love which distinctly mark Tagore’s songs, poems, music are reflective of his close and intimate understanding of the Bauls, their life style and their traditions.
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