The Baul philosophy


The Baul performers of Bengal were more about seeking union with the Divine, than showcasing their musical genius. Shoma A Chatterji reviews the movie about Gour Khepa, one of the last Baul performers, who died last year. Gour Khepa performed with legends like Bob Dylan, and refused to visit the United States to perform in Peter Brooke’s Mahabharata, when told he couldn’t legally carry hemp with him!

The Baul school of music that originated in Bengal before it was partitioned, is not just music or performance or a ‘school’, but comprised wandering minstrels who sang their own lyrics set to their own tunes. But to call it a ‘school’ of music is a misnomer because it is an ideology and a philosophy of life. The Bauls dance with bells tied on one ankle, to the rhythm of a small dugdugi in one hand and an ektara on the other. The Bauls are a tradition of religious minstrels in Bengal whose songs of joy, love, and longing for mystical union with the Divine, evoke a profound spirituality. The Bauls took elements from devotional Hinduism, Tantric Buddhism, and Sufi Islam, and integrated them into a simple, natural, and direct approach to God, that seeks to transcend established religious boundaries. The Baul believes that God resides within us and not out there. His entire life is a search for that God that lives within him.

All about Baul Khepa

Gour Khepa was one of the last genuine Baul performers in Baul history. Ladly Mukhopadhyay recently screened his 90-minute film Khyapar Mon Brindabon, a documentary film on Baul Khepa, to a packed audience in Kolkata. ‘Dive deep, go to the deep, and then you can become history!’ said Gour Khepa who passed away suddenly in a car accident last year. Mukhopadhyay, who was deeply influenced by Gour Khepa, journeyed with the Baul for 35 years, and spent eight of those years making the film.

“He was a man of music who belonged to a different kind of reality, a different world altogether. It was not only his music but also his eloquence that revealed the enigmatic charm that mesmerised listeners and made him unique. His words rich with allegories and imageries relate to his philosophy. Gour was a Baul maestro who defined the word Khyapa in the truest sense of the word, an advocate for ‘natural’ against ‘artificial’ and pretentious ways. A first rate performer, bubbling with wit, he loved to attract and surprise people with his performances. He enjoyed baffling people with his comments on social situations and life in general, speaking about true and false, natural and artificial, good and bad, purity and pollution,” explains Mukhopadhyay about his subject.

The film begins with Gour singing Baul howa mukhe rkotha noy, meaning “To become a Baul is no easy job”, followed by many more live performances with his close associates. He also talks about his association with Gautam Chattopadhyay and his liking for Bob Marley, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Gabu, who was seen interacting with Mukopadhyay after the screening, said, “The film has rightly captured his essence. People who did not know Gour will get to know him through this film.”

Gour Khepa was worldly wise and widely travelled, but this experience did not impact on his music or on his lifestyle. He performed with Bob Dylan, and was invited by Peter Brooke to perform in his Mahabharat. He declined the offer when told in no uncertain terms that he would not be legally permitted to carry hemp with him into the United States! In the film, he points out the difference between a genuine Baul and a fake one. He emphasises again and again that Baul is not just a folk performance but an entire philosophy, a way of life, an ideology all Bauls live up to and music is just a part. Candid and caustic, he points out that he liked some of Bob Dylan’s music, but not all. He also worked with Jerzy Grotowski. He had a clear cut take on traditional folk versus Westernised, urban music. He also had close links with the urban elite, litterateurs, singers and men of culture.

The Bauls do not believe in the institution of marriage and perhaps, are the initiators of the practice of live-together relationships. The Baulnis or the female Bauls cook and care for them, travel with them and evolve into ideal life partners outside marriage. The fact that they do not believe in roots, makes them rootless, and they thrive on this rootlessness of their lives. Traditionally, a Baul does not believe in progeny; he believes that inner enlightenment comes through a practised sublimated act of love by a couple, the woman partner playing the role of a conscious guide in the cult. Having a daughter himself, how does Gour deal with his personal frustration about reaching the destiny of love traversing the path of desire? He confesses that he has not been fair to his daughter, which is not taken forward in the film. His partner sits beside him and echoes every sentence that he utters.

The film travels to many Baul fairs like Pathorchakuri in Birbhum, Tonkaitola mela in Birbhum, the Poush mela in Santiniketan, to Nadia district, which is the central hub of Baul culture and Baul practice founded by none other than Sri Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Many of these melas are now commercialised, while the Jaydev Kenduli mela in Birbhum is now dominated by Keertaniyas, a different group of folk performers renowned for their keertans – spiritual songs dedicated to different Gods from the Hindu pantheon.

The authentic Baul

Unfortunately, the Baul institution of music has been grossly commercialised by modernisation and urbanisation, and the rising demand among Western tourists who are keen on capturing different forms of folk music. Bauls therefore, are often exploited as commercial agencies of musical culture in exchange for fame or money. “There are fake Bauls and there are authentic Bauls,” says Gour Khepa in the film, dressed in the typical long, orange alkhallas and a dirty patchwork shawl as he constantly draws on his dose of ganja or hemp. But the never ceasing smile on his face offers an insight into the state of bliss he tries to sustain himself in.

The word Baul is derived from batul, meaning “afflicted with the wind” or “mad.” Thus branded “crazy for God,” the Bauls go their own way, quarreling with none, wandering free as the wind. Their simple language, passionate rhythm and sensuous dance steps speak directly to one’s heart. The origin of Bauls is not known to any great degree of accuracy, but the word Baul has appeared in Bengali texts as old as the 15th century. The word is found in the Chaitanya-Bhagavata of Vrindavanadas as well as in the Chaitanya Charitamrita of Krishnadas Kaviraj. All these are descriptive details of the Bauls. But it is Ladly Mukhopadhyay’s Khyapar Mon Brindabon that keeps one captivated throughout the film to understand how Gour Khepa lived his ideology and fleshed out the spirit of being a true Baul.


Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on
Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPALaadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’, among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema from 1950 to 2003.