What happens to oral traditions when confronted with a crisis like a pandemic? In the case of the Bauls of West Bengal, India, the purity of their music and heartfelt smiles while performing, even over Zoom, prove that the musicians themselves are a lived embodiment of their tradition.
Bauls (pronounced BAH-ools) are a spiritual group indigenous to West Bengal and neighboring country Bangladesh. According to UNESCO, “Their music and way of life have influenced a large segment of Bengali culture.” Baul philosophy center around love, brotherhood, and humanity. One Baul genre is Dehatatwa, which centers “on the importance of a person’s physical body as the place where God resides,” and their unique “poetry, music, song and dance are devoted to finding humankind’s relationship to God, and to achieving spiritual liberation.”
When global lockdowns began in March 2020, the cancellation of festivals and fairs and the sudden halt in tourism impacted Baul performances. The Indian government has been slow to offer financial safety nets, at a time when COVID-19 has impacted 300 million artists and performers in the country. Cultural organizations like banglanatak dot com attempted to fill this void by hosting weekly performances on their Facebook page, compensating the musicians so they could earn money for their families. Since April, banglanatak has hosted over 130 of these virtual concerts, each attracting an average of 2,500 viewers.
I was first introduced to banglanatak in 2018 when the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage participated in an exchange program called Communities Connecting Heritage. Smithsonian staff and interns first visited musical and craft communities in Kolkata. That summer, Baul singers Girish Khyapa and Rabi Mondal (aka Rabi Das Baul) came to Washington, D.C., to meet cultural heritage professionals and attend the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The pandemic prompted further reconnection between the Center, banglanatak, and the Baul musicians, leading to a recent interview.
As was the case for so many researchers this year, my only option was to conduct the interview with singers Rina Das Baul, Sadhu Baul, and Kangal Baul from home. Our conversation spanned thousands of miles, from my living room in Los Angeles to the rural neighborhoods of Birbhum, Kolkata.
Rina Das Baul has sung in the tradition for thirty years, usually to live audiences, but that day she greeted me from a pixelated Zoom window on my computer. She sat on the floor of her home studio, which was filled with tapestries. Brothers Sadhu and Kangal Baul (their formal names are Tapan and Tanmoy) smiled at me from their dimly lit room. Three banglanatak team members joined us: director Ananya Bhattacarya and music outreach specialists Debalina Bhowmick and Arpan Thakur Chakraborty.
Together we discussed the expanded role of cultural organizations and the experiences of the musicians during the pandemic. What tools could cultural activists provide for tradition bearers during times of crisis and financial instability?
“We have been quite morose these past five months,” Rina admitted, speaking in Bengali through a translator. “Baul musicians are defined by their passion for performing many programs. But in the present situation, we cannot meet with each other. Our work life has been hampered, and the financial condition is really bad.”
One benefit has been a strengthened mutual relationship between banglanatak and the Baul musicians, often managed through technology.
“In the beginning, the pandemic took a huge mental toll,” Sadhu explained. “But as time went on, we got the online platforms that reduced the pressure to some extent.”
“These Facebook Live platforms have at least given us the opportunity to see one another,” Kangal said. “We are also making money. Although—what can I say—Facebook performances remind us that we cannot get together, and this is disheartening.”
“The first time I sang by myself, I felt really silly, and I did not like it at all,” Rina confessed. “But later, when many people said that I did very well, I realized that people were listening, and this gave me courage.”
Despite the difficult transition to online performances, Rina, Kangal, and Sadhu shared positive experiences of the last year. They were able to earn money to keep themselves going, provide their communities with music and healing words in these unprecedented times, and spread their beliefs to an even larger global audience. From my desk in Los Angeles, I could enjoy their live performances, ranging from ten minutes to well over an hour, and watch the comment sections fill with Bengali voices of joy and support.
“Kangal and I were not aware of social media’s intricacies,” Sadhu said. “Neither did we know about Facebook Live. Banglanatak dot com gave us trainings on social media where we learned about hashtags and their benefits. Now we can use them to promote our own work.”
Through all the challenges, Rina revealed another positive aspect: “Having so much time has been beneficial. We wrote and composed new songs.”
In “normal” times, the Baul lifestyle is all-consuming. Musicians tour constantly. Their schedules are filled with long-distance travel, and some evening shows last into morning. During the shutdown, the musicians have used the gift of time to improve their musicianship and look inward into their philosophy.
Now, more than ever, Rina takes heart in Baul philosophy, which inspired her recent composition, “The Guru Will Show Us the Path.”
“I have written a song where I say that Guru is the only person we follow, so we must continue to practice our path in order to overcome any hurdle that comes our way.” Through her hopeful lyrics and pure voice, listeners may find the resilience and faith necessary to persevere in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Free of traveling and performing, Sadhu took up a side project he had always wanted to try but never had time for: building a dotara from scratch. The instrument he proudly held up to his webcam is a five-stringed lute made from a gourd. He named his instrument Odasi, meaning “forlorn” in Bengali, a tribute to the pandemic’s hardships.
I live thousands of miles away from Rina, Sadhu, and Kangal. Still, their hardships resonate with me. I think of the role music plays in my life and how many of my favorite artists and cultural traditions are faring now. Around the world, local artists and musicians, tradition-bearers of their regions’ cultural heritage, are disconnected, isolated, and left without places for connection and financial opportunity. In a time where the healing power of music is most needed, cultural institutions like banglanatak seek to fill this gap in the global community via online programs that remunerate local musicians for their work and provide a shared space for musical connection.
Historically and during the pandemic, music is a flexible medium for self-expression and community-based healing. Despite the limitations of online performances, Rina, Sadhu, and Kangal have learned to adjust their music to an online world and remain committed to exploring their faith both inwardly and outwardly.
Looking to the future, the question is not whether the Baul tradition is newly endangered, but how traditions are transformed and negotiated through innovation, productivity, and human resilience.
Jill Yanai was an intern at the Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage in the summer of 2020. She is currently majoring in sociology/anthropology and music at Carleton College.
Thank you to banglanatak dot com team for providing lyrics and translations.