- Issue One: Failure
- Issue Two: Territory
- Issue Three: Bare Life
- Issue Four: Slowness
- Issue Five: Affective Framing: Cinematic Experience and Exhibition Design
- Issue Six: Aesthetics of Heterogeneity
- Issue Seven: Responding to Site Specificity
- Issue Eight: Invisibility (escaping notice)
Heterogeneity and Baul Spirituality: The Songs of Baul Taskir Ali in Bangladesh
This article briefly explores the contemporary heterogeneous song-texts of Taskir Ali (popularly known as Baul Taskir) from Sunamgonj, in the district of Sylhet, Bangladesh. Bauls are nomadic communities in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, and they express their profound spiritual philosophy and thoughts through their songs and performance. Taskir Ali belongs to the Baul school of thoughts in Sylhet known as the dhamail. His musical creations address, explore, satirize, investigate, and protest against many historical and contemporary social issues in Bangladesh. The short analysis of his songs in this paper present a variety of aesthetics addressing materialism, eco-centrism, secularism, patriotism, and so forth. Baul tradition and culture are the central features of folklore in Bangladesh, and Taskir Ali’s songs represent the fundamental aspects of diverse and inclusive spiritualties of South Asian oral literature and music.
Keywords: heterogeneity, ethnomusicology, South Asian oral literature, folklore, Bauls of Bengal
Bauls, the itinerant minstrels from Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, are heterogeneous communities who believe in a diverse and hybrid spiritual philosophy expressed through their songs and music in Bengali language. Most of the South Asian and Western scholars on Baul music and culture use the words “heterogeneous” and “heterogeneity” to describe Baul communities, music, and culture. In both South Asian and Western scholarship of humanities, heterogeneity bears similar meaning referring to cultural diversity, pluralism, and hybridity. In defining the Bengali word bishomoshatto or heterogeneity in folk music in Bangladesh, Aroj Ali Matubbor (1995) explains that the heterogeneity in Baul communities refers to the multiplicity and pluralism in life-styles, religion, and especially the “varieties of connotations of their song-poetry” (17). Baul dharmo or religion is heterogeneous pursuing many themes and experiential philosophy on the meaning of human existence, problems of gender binaries, social satire, secular thoughts, eco-centric living and values, and so forth. Matubbor brings forth the aesthetics of heterogeneity in Baul songs explaining that “each Baul singer and practitioner has his or her individual spiritual understanding towards life and nature, and the song-texts portray the heterogeneity of spirituality based on the regional experience of each Baul” (18).
Shaktinath Jha (2010) argues that those researchers who are “unaware of shadhana” or experiential and meditative learning of Baul tradition cannot “fathom” Baul tradition, and they “wrongly articulated” the tradition as “mystic” and “ungraspable” which is nothing but mere “exoticization” of the culture (12). Bauls in Bangladesh emphasize on both the spiritual teachings of Baul guru in a Baul community or a Baul school of thoughts and the spiritual understanding of a Baul in a community which may differ from the teaching of his or her guru. The main aspect of Baul religion is the spiritual understanding of an individual Baul building and expanding on the teaching of his or her guru. Therefore, perhaps, it is more appropriate to use the term spirituality instead of “cult,” “sect,” and even “religion.”
According to Upendranath Bhattacharya (1957), Abdul Wahab (2011), Anwarul Karim (2016), Abu Ishahak Hossain (2015), Baul Taskir Ali (2018), Carola Erika Lorea (2016) and Jeanne Openshaw (2002), the word Baul has multidimensional meaning based on its geographical and philosophical origin. Majority of Baul practitioners in Bangladesh and some scholars of Baul culture believe the word means “mad,” “a person who understands the philosophy of air and water,” “wise,” “non-conformist,” “spiritual,” and “eco-centric.” Bauls are somewhat marginalized nomadic communities in the rural and urban areas of Bangladesh and in some places of West Bengal, India. Baul spirituality is inclusive, incorporating meditative and sexual-yogic practices and borrowing (and improvising) beliefs from many monotheistic and polytheistic religions. Baul philosophy presents the non-religious, anti-materialist, and humanist concepts. Bauls do not follow any scriptural dogma, and their spiritual practices evolve with time and with their oral tradition. Each Baul school of thoughts centers a guru who teach the initiated disciples his or her songs, music, and performances disseminating the philosophies of the guru’s Baul school of thoughts. However, there is no distinct categorization of Baul school of thoughts, and many Baul communities have both similar and different belief systems. After spending many years with different Baul communities in Bangladesh learning their music and philosophy, I observed most of the Bauls in Bangladesh call themselves Baul-fakirs, the humble Baul practitioners and performers who believe in a simple and anti-materialist life placing humanism and nature above all human endeavors.
While performing the ethnographic research for my doctoral research project on Baul literature and music in Bangladesh, I came across one of such Baul-Fakir in Sunamganj district located in north-eastern Bangladesh within Sylhet division. He delivered fragments of his biography while I interviewed him. He was born on February 01, 1958, at West Sultanpur in Sunamganj. Both his father, Nazar Ali, and mother, Golchera Bibi were popular folk musicians in Sunamganj. Taskir Ali is a grihi Baul who is married to Rahima Begum, and they are the parents of three daughters Taslima Akhter (Ruhena), Alimun Nessa, and Alatun Rubina, and a son Al-Amin. Baul Taskir Ali grew up listening to popular practitioner Baul musicians in his area such as Kamal Pasha, Shah Abdul Karim, and Durbin Shah. Later in life, he was initiated to the Baul school of Sylhet and became the disciple of Durbin Shah (1920-1977). He wears the traditional clothes of Baul-Fakirs in Bangladesh, the white and loose outfit resembling kafon, the death shroud of Muslims, idealizing jante-mora, “the obtainment of the spiritual liberation, through ‘killing’ the vices of the soul, ‘dying before living’” (Kibreah 2016, 35). He has many honorary awards from Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and Sunamganj District Composers’ Forum. He performed in national radio and television and private television channels in Bangladesh. Taskir Ali composed more than one thousand and five hundred Baul songs; however, he lost most of them in a few unfortunate events. In 2001, he lost two collections of his songs due to the flood in Sylhet. He was attacked and harassed by Islamic fundamentalists at Jakiganj, Sylhet, where he lost a collection of 450 songs. Baul Taskir Ali’s Songs (2014) is the only collection of his songs which has been published so far.
The diverse spiritualties of his songs are one of the vital examples of heterogeneity in Baul music and philosophy in Bangladesh. Taskir Ali’s oral repertoire of songs is heterogeneous in conveying spiritual beliefs and social satires. Mohammad Subas Uddin (2013) argues that the bishomashatto or heterogeneity in perspectives in the oral literature of Baul poets in Sunamgonj allow them to caricature the materialism, anti-nature activities, religious fundamentalism, internet-obsessions, and many more social issues in contemporary Bangladesh (12). While drawing attention to the spiritualities of anti-materialism, eco-centrism, secularism, and patriotism, this paper explores the heterogeneous themes and perspectives of the songs of Baul Taskir Ali criticizing and protesting against problematic social practices in contemporary Bangladesh.
Songs against materialism
The aesthetic of anti-materialism in his songs identifies the isolation of the individual and criticizes the obsession of material achievement in Bangladeshi communities. In the interview, he expressed that he was “disappointed” seeing the “rise of lov (greed) and bostupooja (materialism)” among the inhabitants of Sunamgonj in the last two decades (Ali, 2018). He criticizes the roles of consumptions playing to support the continuity of capitalism in Bangladesh. In the following song, he condemns the obsession about “manufactured toys,” the materials rural communities consume without thinking about the necessity of these advertised products.
Do not put your mind
Into the manufactured toys.
They reduce your soul,
Cut down your sensibility,
Cut down your spiritual self.
O my pastoral dwellers!
These toys are manufactured
In the factory of an authority,
Who are intoxicated
By the illusion of power.
The authority advertises
And you play like puppets
Baul Taskir says,
Resist! Resist! Resist!
(Ali 2014, 33, from the song “Defeated by Toys”)
Taskir Ali warns the people of Sunamgonj that the “toys” are obstacles in understanding the meaning of self. Baul spirituality is a journey to one’s understanding of self and views the world through one’s self, not what is told by the outside authorities. The “toys” for which the “intoxicated” “authority” advertises is a trap to turn the people into consumers. He also sings to point out deceptive behavior of consumer culture where a profit-seeking company manipulates the people to become “puppets” and to buy their products. Baul Taskir sings to show how such manipulation reduces the “sensibility” of a person, eventually causing the reduction of his “soul” and “spiritual” existence. Therefore, the “toys” are the materials which keep the Bangladeshis occupied and isolating them while the people ignore the relationship among family members and neighbors. He calls the people in the villages to “resist” and raise their voice of protest against the practices of consumer capitalism that degrades and disorients the spiritual lives of rural people.
He also protests against social media and calls them the “virus” in society. He recently observed how social media create division among people of different religions in Bangladesh. He points out the online behavior of Bangladeshis engrossed in the hate promoted through social media. In the following song, he describes that social media is another product of the materialist world created to control human beings.
A virus entered the homes of Bengal
Be aware! As you don’t know who gets affected.
In the era of madness,
Virus causes hate, corruption, and killing.
Even intellectuals are afraid,
So, they are silent.
We are all Bangladeshis with all sacred religions,
Hindu-Muslim-Buddhist-Christian, all the same,
But the virus creates division as you see and believe from your screen,
The virus causes the chaos and crimes
Then it becomes the judge and punishes the criminal
You kill yourselves, and the people outside laugh.
Baul Taskir says in poetry and music
Don’t blame me later as I always warned you.
(Ali 2014, 31, from the song “Virus Entered the Homes of Bengal”)
Taskir Ali shows the truth about social media which promote hate and chaos. While I interviewed him in 2018, he talked about the “ajib nijo-prem” or the disoriented self-love this online culture introduced to rural communities. It is obvious that he is talking about the toxic narcissism social media endorses. In the song above, he points out the control social media have over human behavior promoting religious conflict and hate crimes in his communities. When he sings about the “people outside,” he refers to the people who control and own social media. He warns us how the authorities take advantage of our materialist ideology and become both the criminal and judge for our communities. For him, social media is a disease for rural communities in Bangladesh. He is concerned about the future of Bangladesh; therefore, these anti-materialist songs are his musical protest against rising consumer capitalism in Bangladesh.
Songs on secular thoughts
Taskir Ali’s heterogeneous songs also present the aesthetics of secularism. Baul spirituality is popularly called the spirituality of humanism. Bauls believe God resides in all beings, and only through cherishing human bonding and empathizing with other humans one can establish the spiritual closeness with God. In Taskir Ali’s view, all religions are sacred and knowledge trove for celebrating humanity through divinity. He explains that religion works as a “purifier of the soul” when social ideology “corrupts” the mind of mass people (Ali, 2018). In the next song, he sings about the “poor souls” who does not understand religion instead involve in “bottomless” arguments on the superiority of one religion over others.
O poor souls!
As you filter your water
You need to filter your soul
Through respecting religions.
Know they are equal
Combining all forms of divinity
To lead you to humanity.
(Ali 2014, 55, from the song “God in Us”)
The extensive repertoire of his songs on secularism celebrates humanism going beyond the ideology promoted by religious institutions. He observes the institutions more involved in explaining how they promote the differences among religions rather than talking about similarities. He condemns the practices of religious institutions prescribing the fear of God instead of love for God. He believes true spirituality is possible when one loves God through loving His creations. Loving other beings is the first step of the staircase that goes to “ultimate achievement,” the spiritual relationship with God. So he sings:
Know the verses of all religion.
They are all unique, the food of your soul.
Humanism is God, God is humanism.
Light the light of your neighbors’ house
God will light his house for you.
Your ultimate achievement!
(Ali 2014, 57, from the song “Humanism is God”)
Taskir Ali also has a unique perspective on atheists. While most Bangladeshis condemns atheism, he says atheism is just another belief celebrating humanism. He believes that atheists celebrate all human endeavors and fights for human rights; therefore, they are people of people and for people. So he sings:
Baul Taskir knows the atheists are only for humans.
They are humans Bauls love and God loves,
They know not!
(Ali 2014, 66, from the song “Atheists my Brothers”)
Taskir’s inclusive secular thoughts are unique unlike many other folk poets in his area. Many of his songs deal with deep spiritual thoughts similar to humanist approaches of other South Asian lives religions. The songs on secular aesthetics also explain the relationship between body and soul and between human soul and nature.
Taskir Ali posits nature as the central theme of in many of his heterogeneous songs. Following the tradition of many popular and legendary eco-centric Bauls like Lalon Sai (1772-1890) and Radharaman Dutta (1833-1915) in Bangladesh, Taskir Ali believes that nature should be the preferred beyond all human endeavors. In present Bangladesh, environmental consciousness has become the momentum for a body of oral literary and musical texts that investigate how humans relate to the natural world. His eco-centric songs refer to themes addressing human relations to the environment, nature, the ecology and the universe at large.
His song-texts elaborate and examine the vital relationship between human and nature. Nature is portrayed as a guru: the leader, the guide, the earthly provider. Following the Baul spirituality, nature is a living being which reassures the humankind’s existence within it. For Taskir Ali, nature is a pioneer for one’s spiritual support and for being a meditator who can show humanity the way to the insight of the “forever truth.” Taskir Ali claims that no one can walk through human experience and existence without submitting to nature. He argues that the Baul can establish a bonding with nature is a “complete” Baul. Only then, the Baul can understand the spirituality and divinity through nature. Therefore, nature is to be glorified with utter devotion as man glorifies God. So Taskir Ali sings:
Mother nature is your forever truth.
Your spirit and your spiritual selves
Make your complete
If you let mother nature lead.
Both nature and God
Fulfill your shadhana (spiritual meditation).
(Ali 2014, 71, from the song “Nature is the Center”)
Taskir Ali’s spirituality presents nature as a refuge from the materialist world. He asks his fellow countrymen to go and meditate in nature so that all can understand how mother earth provides solace in the society involved in a race of meaningless gains. He believes that when one learns to celebrate the wilderness, one can forget the meaningless materials and become a part of nature. As he grew up in the district of Sylhet in Bangladesh, he repetitively refers to the Sylheti wilderness that is under frequent rainfall. His eco-centric aesthetics in songs notably emphasize on the ecosystems of vegetation and its relationship with rainfall. Sylhet has vast green forests with varieties of animals. His songs seem to have a compassion for animals and trees in the forests, so, he sings about the protection of vegetation and the ecosystem to keep mother nature in balance. He asks the people of Sylhet to show kindness towards the trees and animals in nature. In return, he believes, nature will also show kindness to us. He sings:
Nature nurtures our soul
As it nurtures its forests and animals.
As her children, we must nurture
Her support systems.
Empathy and sympathy for the wild
Will bring you the kindness of mighty mother.
(Ali 2014, 73, from the song “I in the Forest”)
Taskir Ali’s songs on eco-centric aesthetics can have a significant contribution in comprehending the traditional and age-old environmentalism in folklore in Bengal. His dedication towards the sustainability of the landscape in his region presents his love for his land and also his patriotism for his country.
Songs on patriotism
The aesthetics of patriotism in Taskir Ali’s songs are simply inviting all his countrymen to love their homeland and protect its culture. These songs are celebrating community bonding and cultural diversity in Bangladesh. He celebrates the independence of Bangladesh and commemorates the martyrs during the liberation war in 1971. Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan on December 16, 1971, and more than thirty million people including women and children were killed during the war. Baul Taskir pays tribute to the women who were raped and tortured in 1971 and explains the significance of the victory and sovereignty of the country. He stresses to keep the cultural diversity and the unity among religious groups so that the independence of the country remains forever. He sings:
We are the citizens of independent Bangladesh
Flying the flag and cheering Joy Bangla.
The celebration of victory has the history of tears
Some lost their children, some saw their mother raped,
All cultures and all religions come under one umbrella
To celebrate the country and its people.
Know that many culture and many religions
Keep the country alive.
(Ali 2014, 23, from the song “Sing for your Country”)
When referring to “all cultures,” he points out the culture of many indigenous communities in Bangladesh. Narratives on Bangladeshi patriotism tend to ignore the indigenous cultures and languages in the mainstream national endeavors in the country. Taskir Ali grew up with many indigenous communities in the Sylhet area, and he is well aware of their language and culture. He never fails to mention how his experience with indigenous communities enriched his Baul spirituality. Therefore, he acknowledges their contributions in shaping nationhood and pluralism in many patriotic Baul songs and performances.
Apart from the aesthetic values explored above, the heterogeneity of Taskir Ali’s songs includes Sufi thoughts, feminism, anti-colonialism, subaltern rights, and so forth. Many of his metaphoric songs have obscure and unpredictable aspects which need further research attention. In this article, I tried to present a short introduction of a few of his heterogeneous songs from the vast repertoire of his musical creations. According to Mohammad Subash Uddin (2014), Sylhet district has more than seven hundred and fifty folk poets and Bauls (17), and most of their poetry and music are unexplored even in Bangladesh. Baul Taskir Ali is one of these folk treasure troves who does not have any institutional education but achieved his wisdom from Baul tradition and the landscapes of Sylhet. His humanist, anti-materialist, secular, eco-centric, and patriotic songs are the art-forms perhaps representing unique aesthetics of heterogeneity.
Ali, Taskir. Interview by Golam Rabbani. Research Interview. Sunamgonj, Sylhet, 26 July 2018.
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About the Author
Golam Rabbani is a PhD candidate and a recipient of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship Award at the Cultural Studies Program, Queen’s University, Canada. He teaches as an Assistant Professor (on study leave at present) at the Department of English, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. As a grantee of Erasmus Mundus Scholarship, he also studied and taught in Belgium. His interdisciplinary doctoral project studies the influence of consumer capitalism on changing literature and music of Baul culture in Bangladesh. Some of his recently published research articles and conference papers concentrate on eco-critical and cognitive approaches in Baul culture, Darwinism in novels, pedophilia, and patriarchy in Bangladeshi film, voyeurism in media, hetero-imperialism in films, alienation and segregation in postcolonial texts, naturalism and expressionism in plays and so forth.