In the heart of the quaint hamlet of Bannabagram, hemmed by rolling plains, vast stretches of meadows, sal trees and cultivated lands, a magical celebration unfolds every year—the Baul Fakiri Mela, organised by a social enterprise, Bangla Natok dot com. The three-day vibrant fiesta is not your average village fair; it’s a symphony of culture, a kaleidoscope of colours and a testament to the rhythmic heartbeat of tradition.
As the calendar flips its pages, the villagers of Bannabagram dust off their festive finery, and the anticipation builds like a crescendo in an ancient raag. This isn’t just any gathering; it’s a melodic marvel that beckons the soul, a celebration where the spirit of the Baul Fakiri takes centre stage. Conjure up an image of a vast meadow being transformed into a carnival of sounds and sights. The air is alive with the twang of ektaras, the honeyed tunes of the dotaras, and the rhythm of dholaks, dugis and khamaks.
Transporting listeners to an alternate realm via some celestial vehicle, the poignant verses of baul fakirs, masters of the storytelling craft within their songs, possess the magical ability to stir the soul. Enveloped in the ethereal embrace of their melodies, one finds themselves immersed in a world where every note is a balm, and the atmosphere resonates with a soothing and soulful cadence. As the first rays of the sun kiss the hamlet, the mela kicks off with the sweet strains of an early-morning melody, where baul fakirs grace the air with their enchanting music. Dressed in vibrant hues of orange, green and yellow, and adorned with beads and trinkets, the baul fakirs, from ten in the morning, weave through the narrow lanes, enchanting onlookers with their ethereal tunes.
This year, Bannabagram witnessed the soulful diapason from 24- 26 November. About 170 baul fakir artists and gurus from the five districts of Nadia, Birbhum, Murshidabad, Bankura and East Burdwan participated in this fair. The lineup read like a legendary playlist—Shyamsundar Das Baul, Armaan Fakir, Reena Das Baul, Uttara Vaidya, Parul Bibi, Nimai Khapa, Piyush Banerjee, Karthik Khapa, and that’s just the opening act! Adding to the festival’s allure was the captivating presence of Maki Kazumi, a Japanese woman who was enticed by the metaphysical realm of Bengali folk and joined the company of Sadhan Das Baul several years ago.
Local villagers as well as people from foreign nations became avid spectators, engrossed in the captivating performances of the bauls, forming a bustling crowd within the arena. Among those individuals was Sharadindu Ghosh, who, by trade, practised masonry and, as a heartfelt pursuit, sang kirtans. Despite facing physical challenges, he exhibited a remarkable dedication to his vocation as a kirtan singer. “Attending my first Baul Mela was a joyous revelation. The vibrant gathering, the musicians’ tireless performances, and their engaging interaction create an infectious happiness that puts you in a delightful mood,” observed Simona Cosentino, a doctoral fellow at Nottingham Trent University, while taking a break from swaying alongside the dancing Bauls. As the sun dips below the horizon, casting a golden glow over Bannabagram, the mela reaches its crest.
The night is a tapestry of lights, laughter and lingering melodies that wrap around the hamlet like a comforting shawl. Embracing a life free from worldly bonds and rising above material allure, baul singers have woven an enchanting tapestry of unembellished, mellifluous verses since the 15th century. This folk music, a unique treasure of West Bengal and Bangladesh, carries the spirit of a bygone era. Recognising its profound significance, UNESCO, in 2005, enshrined baul music from Bangladesh among the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In response to the enigmatic and nomadic lifestyles typically embraced by these mystic minstrels, Bangla Natok dot com dedicated to fostering inclusive and sustainable development through culture-based approaches across India, envisioned a timeless platform.
This platform, rooted in the rustic charm of Bengal’s countryside, emerged as the Baul Fakir Ashram at Bannabagram in Ausgram, 12 kilometres from Guskara—an everlasting sanctuary celebrating the indigenous music and talent of these soulful troubadours. “Many baul songs are sung in diverse settings and melodies by individuals not affiliated with traditional baul or fakir ‘houses’. Despite variations in the tunes, a considerable number of bauls do not perceive it as problematic. Instead, they emphasise the importance of preserving the integrity of the lyrics. They believe that spreading these teachings contributes to a more open and enlightened human society, instilling hope,” Amitava Bhattacharya, founder director of Bangla Natok dot com, shared with The Statesman.
The legacy of baul fakiri music gracefully cascades through the ages via the revered guru-disciple tradition. This melodic tradition encompasses three principal genres. Firstly, there’s Deha Tattva, portraying the quest for the ultimate truth—seeking God itself. Secondly, Atma Tattva emphasises the significance of the heart in governing the body, underscoring the vital path as the object of search or worship.
Lastly, Guru Tattva posits the notion that the Guru embodies divinity, having attained glory through sadhana (worship); thus, the disciple must steadfastly follow the path illuminated by the revered guru. Engaging in a candid conversation with The Statesman, Baul Rasidul Islam described the song he performed at the Baul Fakiri Mela this year. “Originally performed by Matal Razzak Dewan from Bangladesh, the song delves into the fleeting nature of our lives, where each day is but a numbered moment—the sun rises, and in the next breath, it sets. Time slips away– highlighting the transience of human life. The lyrics convey the wisdom of cherishing moments, doing good to fellow humans, and adhering to divine guidance. The Baul Fakiri Mela isn’t just an annual event; it’s a living, breathing entity that weaves the past, present and future into a harmonious melody.
“Baul fakirs, through their music, advocate for peace and unity through love, transcending religious and caste differences. Their songs focus on spreading this message globally; renowned singer and saint Abdul Karim Shah has time and again envisioned a world embracing the Baul philosophy,” Bhattacharya further expressed. So, if you find yourself wandering through the lush green plains of Bannabagram during a certain time each year, follow the strains of music that float through the air.
You might just stumble upon a celebration that eclipses time—a Baul Fakiri Mela where the village sings, dances and revels in the timeless magic of tradition.
The author is a journalist on the staff of The Statesman