FROM AKHRA TO FUSION: TRANSFORMATION OF BAUL MUSIC (PART-12)

Baul music from 70’s to the 90’s – heading for millennium challenges and new fusion genres
Maqsoodul Haque

There were two clear reasons for their hesitation

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Bangladesh Rock Music (popularly called band music) was never lagging behind in its appreciation and performance of Baul music. Post 1971, among the five legends of Bangla rock such as Azam Khan, Ferdaus Waheed, Feroze Shai, Fakir Alamgir and Pilu Mumtaz the use of folk music motifs interspersed with Baul, Jari, Shari, Kirtan, Maizbhandari, Fakiri, Ma’arefoti and Deho Tottyo into their repertoire was the usual fare. Yet when it came to presentation of Fakir Lalon Shah’s music – there were negligible efforts among the doyen’s of Bangla rock and there are no public records available of the same.

There were two clear reasons for their hesitation. One was, the Akhara-new instruments controversy was at its height among academics and intellectuals post the Liberation War, and contributed to distance them from Lalon. The other was after the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15th August 1975, military dictators and their ilk had undertaken a covert ‘Islamization’ agenda and anything that presented secular aspects of our culture, were either trivialized or completely ignored- if not totally banned.  Media was at the mercy of our military masters, and Bauls were viewed with suspicion, their lyrics vetted, sometimes replaced with sectarian words, and their performances heavily regulated.

However there has always been a silver lining in our heavily darkened cultural cloud. As has happened in various stages of Bangladesh’s cultural history, whenever faced with stiff resistance or repression, exponents of our culture have always stepped back and re-strategised. The Bengali genes of resilience has always activated itself to carve out newer niches in its creative expression and those in turn has championed newer, more robust and progressive branching out of culture. 

By 1990’s the typically cliche understanding of Bauls had to a great extent started to recede, with newer artist making their presence felt in both Radio and Television as well as live performances. The Government of Bangladesh regardless of whosoever was in power (including ruthless military dictators), never failed to accommodate Baul artist in any national level cultural delegations abroad. Baul music spread to Europe, America, all of the Middle East and to South East Asia, and while they shared platforms with other musical genres of Bangladesh, they never failed to rock. In one such performance during an international music festival in the mid-70’s at Wembley Stadium in London, Kangalini Sufiya who was allotted to sing only one song, stole the limelight after tumultuous encores from a dancing and clapping Western audience compelled her to sing for over an hour in the classic Akhara tradition with minimal use of instruments!

The strength, energy and prowess of Baul artist such as Abdur Rahman Boyati, Kangalini Sufiya, Mumtaz Begum (now an elected MP in the Jatiyo Shangshad), Shah Abdul Karim, Shahjahan Munshi, Shahnaz Beli etc, made them sensations in their own rights.  Over the years, Baul music could shed off its “palli geeti” or “moromi sangeet” tag and emerge as a potent independent genre, with the Government giving it the adequate importance and recognition it so badly deserved over centuries. It was perhaps at this point in our history, that folk musicians of all genres started claiming themselves Bauls.

By the mid 90’s the burgeoning cassette industry made Baul music of all traditions widely acceptable at all levels, and greatly enlarged urban listener’s base. Hundreds of Baul artists were recorded and their works distributed – with some topping sales in unbelievable figures. An album by Mujib Pardesi for instance sold an astronomical 10 million copies in six month. Although not always accurate in its presentation, many cinemas and TV drama serials of the time projected Bauls lifestyle, and in small dosages their philosophy.  All these positive projections saw by early nineties Baul becoming a fashion and accessory statement with the famous international model and fashion designer Bibi Russell presenting her “gamcha” (thin cotton towels) line of dresses to a world audience. Bibi used Baul music during catwalks in international ramps.

What was a matter of great pride was given all that was happening around Baul music and their controversial and unorthodox lifestyle - was a progressive movement among the educated and informed young in major urban centers all across Bangladesh. The important social indicator for this trend was the deepening political divides and the incessant attempts at per force “Islamisation” that has seen the dangerous rise of religious bigotry at all ends of our sociopolitical spectrum. Under the circumstances, disenchanted citizens specially the young found their answer and solace in Lalon, and the two yearly festivals surrounding the great Sage today witnesses hundred upon thousand and ever growing number of new seekers from cities converging at his Shrine, with many preferring as in the ancient times - to go under the tutelage of a Baul Guru.

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