The inclusion of newer instruments and artist saw the Baul music genre getting enlarged and well defined engaging and captivating larger audience numbers across a very wide spectrum, as well as connecting urban listeners to their nostalgic roots. The trend led on to the creation of versatile musicians as well as performers that not only enriched the form in a complex and highly competitive musical environment, guaranteeing Baul music’s survival for posterity. By late eighteenth century the invention of microphone and “chonga mike” (improvised bull horn speakers) and amplifications meant that by early 19th century, Baul music had effectively moved out of village Akharas to thanas and district towns and to urban city centers including Kolkata, with Dhaka emerging in importance much later.
As a genre it was quickly lapped up in particular by aficionados who were not Bauls in any way but shilpis. These were vocal artists with no understanding about the deep spirituality associated with Baul music. Singing and performances by “shokher Baul” such as Baul pretenders as they were condescendingly referred to by Shadhus and Fakirs have since times post the transition of Lalon been the bone of contentions and many a sore debates. Since Baul music was by now open source and available aplenty in the national heritage, it was natural that many artists as well as vested interest staked a claim. The debate around the times centered on why one has to undergo the rigor of Baul life just to be able to sing the songs of Lalon? The Shadus and Fakirs are the legitimate stakeholder’s insisted that this was just not music but an ancient tradition, and wanted its authenticity retained under any circumstances.
The above debate continues as until today and it will be no error of judgment to state that the Sadhus and Fakirs arguments merit understanding and appreciation. For one, by 1920 Baul pretenders had in more ways than one usurped the tradition, and distortions became rampant and routine. Despite the many vagaries of the times, and the hazards advancements in technologies brings with it in society, the ancient Akhara institutions as this series of articles has repeatedly pointed, prevailed. It has painstakingly preserved and continues to nurture all aspects of Baul music. It is in recognition to the continuity of the tradition and maintaining consistent criteria’s both in music and spirituality, that on the 26th November, 2005, UNESCO is Paris, declared Baul Music as “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
However historical records indicate that differences of opinion into holding on to Akhara authenticity started immediately after the transition of Lalon. Disputes raging for several years among disciples on possession of the Lalon Shrine in Seuria, greatly divided and weakened the Baul community. The important shift to assimilation of Baul music with Palli Geeti (general folk music) is believed to have been started in 1920 by Khoda Buksh Shah, Sr, who was a living, walking archive. He had consigned most of the estimated 1200 verses of Lalon into memory and was also a famed vocalist. His real talent lay elsewhere, and it was in his deep understanding of the class division in society and evolving a strategy as how best to ensure transmission of Lalon’s songs. He went on to perform yeomen service to our culture and ancient traditions.
Bauls have always been a marginalized and ostracized community given their unorthodox lifestyle and belief system, they challenged sensibilities of the dominant Kolkata based Brahmin and Muslim elite, who considered them no more than a “subordinate class of riffraff’s.” It was Khoda Buksh Shah Sr, who saw the strides folk music other than Baul was making among the elite and had become acceptable from fairs, to markets to the sitting rooms of the affluent. Buksh Sr, looked at working on a critical mix of talent, trend and evolving technologies, without in anyway compromising with the Akhara tradition. Baul music’s entrance into Bengali folk music was not an accident. It was an exercise in subterfuge, a planned and calculated interventionist maneuvering. “Fusion” as we know it today became institutionalised in Baul music at this point.