Title: Along Deep Lonely Alleys: Baul-Fakir-Dervish of Bengal

Author: Sudhir Chakravarti; Translator: Utpal K Banerjee

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Pages: 390

Price: Rs 595

Long-entrenched and still pervasive in Indian society, the oppressive caste system has even moved from its Hindu moorings to infect other faiths entering or originating in the subcontinent and defied centuries of effort at reform. But what if those wishing to escape its iniquities collectively turned their backs on society itself?

This was the route taken by an eclectic group in the then British-ruled Bengal in the final decades of the 18th century. Tired of being discriminated against, they discarded caste and everything that mentioned it — the scriptures, places of worship, rituals, et al — to fashion a new syncretic identity for themselves. We know them as the Bauls.

But while we know of their influence on Rabindranath Tagore or on the music of Bengal elsewhere — among others inspiring that wistful plaint Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lagalo from Guru Dutt’s iconic Pyaasa and the music of Bob Dylan — what was their specific trajectory? And what makes Bauls a glittering but distinct feature in India’s vibrant cultural landscape, given such efforts to eschew fixed places of residences or belongings and shun restrictive religious norms had been on since the Bhakti movement?

Inspired and indefatigable scholar Sudhir Chakravarti — who in his Gobheer Nirjon Pothey (now translated into English) provides a hands-on and incisive look into the Bauls’ disappearing world — has some answers. And they lie chiefly their simplicity, their doctrine of live and let live and their self-contained lives.

A uniquely Bengali phenomenon as regards their “emergence, expansion and movements”, they are unlike any other tradition of wandering mendicants in India like the “jogis” or “qalandars”, Chakravarti said.

Bauls are totally uninterested “in the concepts of class, lineage, idolatry, doctrine of rebirth and self-publicity”, added Chakravarti, who spent 10 years researching them by travelling to different villages across West Bengal’s Nadia, Murshidabad, Birbhum and Bardhaman, mostly on foot, and sharing food, shelter and songs with them.

“Their demeanour essentially exudes a solemn depth and silence as they follow what their preceptors preach. They solely grasp ‘iho’ (the present) and ‘deho’ (the physique), and everything else is immaterial and should be abandoned. The earthly life can’t allure them. They don’t even engage themselves in the act of cultivation.

“They take a meagre meal. They want very little,” he said.

It would, however, not be correct to term them merely a curiosity, for “their innate simplicity and the delight of simple ways of life are really impressive. They do not feel envy of others. Nor do they hate any other sect”.

Bauls live within their own secretive circle and exchange ideas through their enigmatic songs like “Your meditations matter/Here’n’there, do not scatter!/Take care of you and yourself/Both former and latter”, Chakrabarti revealed, adding “they alone happen to know the password of a song which they learn from their preceptor”.

Elaborating on their primary mode of self-expression, Chakrabarti said: “What the Bauls convey in their songs is quite adequately pragmatic in ushering in harmony among Hindus and Muslims”.

But, on the other hand, he is not too hopeful about their future, lamenting that the “real Bauls, so to speak, are on the wane”.

The popularity of Baul music has attracted many to the cities where their songs have become a mode of recreation, he said, adding that Bauls are now mostly being used as a “showpiece”.

It took him three years to pen down the outcome of his decade-long research, with Chakravarti ruing that the educated middle-class knows little about folk religion and the book thus is aimed at this section of society.

Chakravarti, who was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2004 for his Baul Fakir Katha, a precursor to this book, says he is happy that through it, his hard work of 35 years was finally acknowledged by the elite and the academicians. He, however, felt “aggrieved that the Akademi has not as yet translated” it into Hindi, which might have helped it attain an all-India readership.

However, Along Deep Lonely Alleys will fill this gap about the peaceful and innovative caste revolution Bengal saw more than a century before B R Ambedkar’s advent.