How Bob Dylan & Bengal’s Baul Musicians Got Together

I have spent my days on the road in a clay house of illusion,

I lost everything on the road coming to a clay house of illusion.

- Lalon Phokir

Legendary Baul saint, musician and philosopher Lalon Fakir said these words circa 18th century, which continue to enchant many. Bauls are wandering minstrels or nomadic singers, originally from undivided Bengal – now West Bengal and Bangladesh. These nomads seek to convey the message of ‘eternal truth’ through their philosophical songs and joyful dance.

A Baul performance in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, in the Winter of 2014.

Bauls usually write their own songs and sing and play them on traditional instruments like the ektara (a one-stringed instrument), and the dotara (a two, four, or sometimes five-stringed musical instrument resembling a sarod).

Also Read: Photo Feature: India’s Little Known Musical Traditions

The Baul Way of Life

Belonging to sects across religions such as Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims, Bauls can be identified by their distinct clothes (mostly colourful, often patch-worked robes, with the primary colour being saffron), often matted hair, and musical instruments. Further, there are generally two types of Bauls: the ascetic who rejects family life, and ones who choose to marry and have families of their own. While Lalon Fakir, the most renowned Baul saint in history, belonged to the former category, Paban Das Baul (a modern-day minstrel of international renown) is of the latter category.

Tarak Das Baul, performs near Santiniketan, West Bengal. 

The origin of Baul culture and music is unknown, but the word ‘Baul’ is said to have appeared in Bangla texts as early as the 15th century. Baul music and lifestyle has influenced a large number of Bengalis and even foreigners, but nowhere has it left its imprint deeper than in the works of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore evoked Bauls in a number of his speeches in Europe in the 1930s. In the Hibbert Lectures of 1930, Tagore, in his lecture at Oxford, which was later transcribed into an essay called ‘The Religion of Man’, evoked Baul culture. For Tagore, the word ‘Baul’ meant ‘madcap’ – someone who deviated from social norms, walked the road less taken.

Photographed during the 41st International Kolkata Book Fair at Milan Mela Complex organised by the Publishers & Booksellers Guild, Kolkata on 4 February 2017.

Baul songs typically speak of the human condition and also invoke God, albeit, promoting the belief that God lies within us humans. These are songs of the soil, of the lay person and their daily struggles, and also promotes the idea of love for all. It is a culture that believes in acceptance of all people without discrimination on any grounds. While some Baul songs invoke Allah, others invoke Lord Krishna.

Many Baul songs also evoke the soul-searching, ‘search for universal truth’ philosophy that lies at the heart of this nomadic culture. Bauls have always thrown convention to the winds, and have rejected the idea of physical places of worship, as well as the idea of caste. “What form does caste have? I’ve never seen it, brother, with these eyes of mine – Lalon Shah Phokir

‘Prayer’ for Bauls has been through music and dance.

This is only portrait of Lalon made during the mystic’s lifetime, believed to have been sketched on a boat by the River Padma. (circa 1889).

Bob Dylan & the Bauls

Purna Das Baul, son of legendary Baul Nabani Das, was the first to introduce Baul music to the world. It began with a conversation with Bob Dylan’s manager Albert B Grossman in January 1967 at The Oberoi Grand hotel in Calcutta. In an interview to The Telegraph, Purna Das Baul recalls:

"It all began with a phone call. It was 1967, and I was living on Kali Temple Road at that time. I got a call from the manager of The Oberoi Grand saying that Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager then, wanted to meet me. I remember going to Grand in the evening with my wife Manju Das. I was carrying my ektara and khamak. We had tea and then Albert asked me to sing a song. He was happy with what he heard and asked me, ‘Can you come to America with me?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘And 10-12 people will also travel with me.’ He agreed. "

In the same interview, Purna Das says that he later learnt that “Albert had got my contact details from poet Allen Ginsberg.” Thus began Purna Das’ ‘American dream’ with his first concert on 14 September 1967, with his younger brother Laxman and their troupe, at the iconic music venue The Fillmore, in San Francisco. The band had one English-speaker leading them, namely Calcutta-based journalist Asoke Fakir, who was roped in as their manager. Deborah Baker writes in The Caravan, “Asoke had even come up with their name, the LDM (Lok Dharma Mahashram) Spiritual Band, which was in turn derived from the “World’s First Socio-Spiritual Research Institute for the Neo-Spiritual Movement”, of which Asoke was both the ‘International President’ and ‘Founder Director’.”

Albert B Grossman (centre).

This concert was recorded as a CD called The Bauls of Bengal, which is still in circulation as a CD re-issue at a San Francisco studio.

“Albert then took me to Woodstock where I met Bob Dylan for the first time, along with artistes like Joan Baez, members of The Band, Tina Turner, Peter, Paul...,” recalls Purna Das to The Telegraph. Bob Dylan and Purna Das re-united in 1973 at a concert in Madison Square Garden, and then again, at Dylan’s birthday party in 1978 in New York. In 1984, Purna Das collaborated with Dylan and English rockstar Mick Jagger in France.

Purna Das Baul’s band on stage in 1967 in San Francisco.

Also Read: World Music Day: Songs of Lynching by Meo Muslims of Mewat

Allen Ginsberg’s Tryst With Baul Life

Other popular Baul artistes such as Paban Das and Parvathy Baul have also performed around the world, collaborating with international music producers like Sam Mills. Paban Das Baul’s music is particularly well-known in France, where he has been living for years.

Western poets have also been drawn to the Bauls. Iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, after spending 9 months in Calcutta, in 1962, travelled to Siuri, in Birbhum district of West Bengal, with his partner Peter Orlovsky, Bengali poet Shakti Chatterjee, and Asoke Fakir. Siuri has traditionally been home to many Bauls. At a small hamlet fringing Siuri, Ginsberg chanced upon aging, feeble Baul legend Nabani Das, who could no longer sing, and was completely bedridden. Despite his decrepit state, Nabani managed to recite some of his songs, which were translated by Asoke Fakir for Ginsberg. Ginsberg studiously noted down Asoke Fakir’s translations into his notepad.

Iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

During his week-long stay with Nabani Das and his family, Ginsberg learnt to play the ektara and tanpura, and even learnt to eat with his hands, from Nabani’s wife.

Notable scholars and ethno-musicologists have also worked with the Bauls for a long time. Dutch pioneer in South Asian ethno-musicology, Arnold A Bake, extensively recorded Baul life and music at the annual Jaydev Kenduli mela (fair) in Bolpur, Birbhum district, West Bengal, in the 1930s. Albert Grossman and his wife Sally too contributed hugely to the preservation of Baul culture, in that they sponsored the creation of a web-based archive.

Joydeb Kenduli Mela, West Bengal.

In his tome Sailing on the Sea of Love: The Music of the Bauls of Bengal, Harvard-educated musicologist, Professor (Dr) Charles Capwell, expresses his concern that the traditions of the Bauls are likely to disappear. But that fear has proved to be baseless; Baul music remains popular globally.

(Siddharth Gomez maintains the Baul Archive, and is currently cataloging the Baul Archive collection at Archive and Research Center for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies.)

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