Monday, 15 April 2019

M is for...Music...Mystics... n... Melting Pot

Get into the Mood this Morning with the Missing Link, a band from West Bengal, here with their Kritodasi Maa (Slave Mother) -

And also take a listen to Miles, a hugely popular band from Bangladesh with their track called Firiye Dao (Give back) -

Mystics. Musicians. Melting pot.

As always M is Music all the way, and it's Massive in any culture. Lots to share today, so Reader, prepare thyself! Bengali music is a smorgasbord of influences starting with Vedic religious chanting and assimilating a whole array of Perso-Arabian, Turkish, Portuguese and other Western influences to become what it is today.

Nudging in a quick timeline here, Bengali music traces its roots back to Sanskrit religious chants, the Vedas were chanted and transmitted orally in Bengal from around 1600 BCE.  The Charyapada, a book of Buddhist songs of praise, is the earliest extant old Bengali poetry/chants, dating back to at least the 9th century. The Gita Govinda, composed in Sanskrit by Jayadev, an eastern Indian poet writing in the 12th century, went on to influence Bengali music down the ages. Indian music, including Bengali music, comprises Marga sangeet (Classical music) with a complex system of ragas and raginis, and Deshi/Lok sangeet (Local/Folk music).

Bengali music evolved under the patronage of powerful dynasties such as the Malla kings and Baro Bhuiyan and also through spiritual movements such as the Bhakti cult all through the Middle Ages. The coming of Islam and the Islamic rule in Bengal from the 13th century onwards also added its own notes to Bengali music. Then Tagore was born in 1861 and turned out to be the single most influential element in the Bengali music scene, radically changing, and straddling it from the late 19th century. Independent Bengali bands evolved from the 1970’s onwards inspired by indigenous folk and western traditions. In short, the Bengali music scene, like Bengal itself, is a Melting pot. Read a detailed analysis of the evolution of Bengali music here.

Moheener Ghoraguli

Moheener Ghoraguli (Moheen’s Horses) was an independent Bengali band formed in 1975, the first of the indie bands and a trailblazer. They spearheaded the musical genre called Jibonmukhi (lit life-facing) which reflected contemporary, urban Bengali socio-cultural realities at a time when Bengali mainstream music was still mired in a romantic and idyllic paradigm, trying to find its feet in a post-Rabindranath, post-Nazrul world. Across the border Bangladesh had just gained its freedom. In West Bengal, a political movement called ‘Naxalite’ had upended Bengali lives and consciousnesses.

There was a disconnect between the ground realities and the lyrics/melodies that established composers/singers offered just then, and Moheener Ghoraguli jumped in to bridge the gap. Their music and lyrics were edgy, they sang about urban alienation, they drew from myriad Western and indigenous traditions and described themselves as ‘Baul Jazz.’ (What’s Baul? Go onto the next section.)  

Like Van Gogh, they were not wildly popular in their own time. In the 90’s, a reassessment led to their music being compiled into an album – Abar Bochhor Kuri Pore (Again, After Twenty Years) which saw the success and critical acclaim that had eluded the band in the 70’s. Read more about them here and listen to their signature song Prithibita Naki Chhoto Hote Hote (The Earth supposedly has got smaller and smaller..) which has acquired cult status and has been covered by many artistes.

Mystical Minstrels

One of the distinctive musical cults of Bengal is that of the wandering, mystical minstrels known as Baul (Bah-ull). They are easily recognised by their saffron robes, dreadlocks, their ektara and prayer beads made of the sacred basil.

No-one quite knows the origins of the Bauls. Bauls themselves claim that the tradition goes back thousands of years. Historians have tentatively traced them as far back as 900 CE. Since their entire philosophy and musical repertoire is oral and transmitted generationally through a guru-shishya (master-disciple) tradition - most of the songs have been written down for the first time only at the end of the 19th century, therefore pegging a date to them is difficult.  What is quite indisputable though is that Baul music is an integral part of Bengal and there is no Bengali artiste/writer/poet/lyricist who has not been influenced by this movement, including Rabindranath Tagore.

So who or what is Baul? The Baul movement belongs to an unorthodox devotional tradition combining elements from Hinduism, Sufi Islam and Buddhism but different from all three. They have no special deities, no shrines, no religious symbols. Their ideology is centred around the human body in which the divine resides. They eschew social norms and manufactured barriers – such as the caste classification of Hindu society. Their ‘sadhana’ or pursuit/objective is to unite with the Divine through music and a set of Baul practices revealed only to practitioners.

The music is simple, the instruments used are the ektara (a single stringed lute) and a characteristic drum and cymbals combo. The lyrics are couched in everyday language but contain hidden symbolism. The songs are often about the love between Radha-Krishna, the Indian mythological made-for-each-other Divine Couple (note that they are not married, their love is characterised by longing and separation).

Any discussion on Bauls is incomplete without mentioning Lalon Fakir (1774-1890, also known as Lalon Shah, Lalon Sai and Mahatma Lalon) – he is the most famous of them all, the singer-songwriter whose many hundreds of compositions are sung today across Bangladesh and West Bengal and even across the oceans. Because Purna Das Baul took Baul music westwards in the 60’s. Read more about the Bauls and Lalon here.  And listen to a Baul number sung by a Bengali band called The Milliputs below:

And before I end - it's the Bengali New Year, so for all those who are Bengali by birth, domicile or marriage - Shubho Noboborsho! May the new year bring you joy and peace. 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019


  1. As always I learn from you.
    I had never heard of the Bauls before this morning and will have to explore further.
    Mega thanks.

    1. They aren't known outside Bengal sadly, they should be. Sublime music makers.

  2. Interesting to learn the Baul ideology centers around the human body where the divine resides.

    1. The Sufi and the Vedic combine in miraculous ways in Bengali music.

  3. Shobh noboborsho to you, a great post on mystics and music, didn't knew about baul before your post, thanks for the share. Kichu din is a very melodious song indeed.

    1. Glad you enjoyed's a lovely number.

  4. How entertaining that I was listening to an Indian playlist on spotify when I opened your blog! I'm an Indo-phile, but speak none of the languages, so I don't understand the music. I just know what I like. I'm happy I found you through AtoZ. I'll be back.
    Doesn't Speak Klingon

  5. enjoy Bengali New Year - I like the idea of mystical minstrels spreading music through the land. Lots of haunting tunes.
    Music Monday should be a requirement

    1. Music Monday should be a fundamental right!

  6. Oh, didn't know about the Bengali New Year, Happy New Year!!
    M = Mobilier

  7. I'm grateful for your introduction to the Bauls - thank you.

  8. So much music to listen to today! and Happy New Year to you!

  9. You're gonna have to join me on Monday's Mewsic Moves Me, my friend. This would be a great platform to bring to an American audience mewsic from your culture. It would be great discovery for me for sure. I enjoyed your mewsic selections very much here. You even had me moving in my chair. ;)

    A2Z Little Mermaid art sketch “Max’