Fakir Lalon Shah in one of his famous verses said “only worshiping your mother, will lead you to the address of your father” signaling that among Bauls there are no gender biases. Yet as we look back at the evolution of Baul music, there are incredibly no references or names of any female exponents, practitioners or Gurus for that matter. One reason may well have been the entrenched patriarchy in our culture was more malicious in the ages gone by, with women being assigned back seats. The other and more significant aspect could be that on the Sufi paradigm of Bauls and Islamic spirituality, the complex gnosis or Ma’arefat schools of thought, demands that secrecies centering spiritual transmission chains are best protected and preserved by women – not men.
Over 200 years ago when “women’s right” was unknown in our - or any other part of the world, among Bauls it was a complete part and parcel of their belief system. Women hold commanding position among Baul as even today and are in many case equated above the male for they not only take on the pain of bearing and rearing children, they have traditionally assisted the male in all cumbersome burdens in activities within our agrarian society. That is not all, other than agriculture, among the hundreds of household chores that they actively participate in, as well as shouldering the protection and preservation of esoteric secrecies in the belief system, most Baul women are also volunteers in the para-military auxiliary forces Ansar and VDP, and have firearms training – everything from pistols, rifles to sub-machineguns!
Nonetheless, over times and the historical transformation of Baul music what has stood apart – is for reasons unknown, and despite the dominant male singers in the genre, the female voice has a uniquely compelling ability to convey the pangs, pathos and the deep meanings of Baul songs. Although there are no empirical evidence to the same, many a musicologist have argued that Baul music is essentially a female musical form that has been usurped by the male!
Whatever the case may be, among the very few women mentioned in scholarly books on Bauls, we across the earliest name of Layli Begum. From the Kushtia/Chuadanga region, she came into prominence in the 1960’s courtesy of the radio. Staying true to Akhara traditions the name of Kangalini Sufiya who at age 14 left the comforts of her home and ventured out to be a Baul singer is the most prominent. Sufiya is one of the most extensively travelled Baul singer and has visited the US, UK and other European countries and as far off as China, Korea. At age 70 and in very poor health her on-stage presence today continues to enthrall audience as much as her wit, self deprecating humor and candor are legendary. Sufiya has also been featured in the ground breaking academic book “Women Renunciation in South Asia” where she is extensively quoted on Baul sexuality.
Among the notable female Bauls from the Akhara tradition, Aklima Begum whose ancestor can be traced back to the earliest “shiri” or “transmission ladder” of Lalon is noteworthy. Aklima has been a practicing Baul as well as a householder and has staked her claim as an outstanding artist and performer since the late 1970s. It was post the appearance of Farida Parvin in the early 1970s that female Baul performers were getting noticed and other than the quality of their voices, they immediately started receiving rave responses from listeners who earlier had no inclination to listen to Baul music at all.
Between 1980 to the late 1990’s outstanding singers such as Shehnaz Beli from Abdalpur, Kushtia were rocking the Akharas as well as major folk festivals all across Bangladesh, yet their appearance in the mainstream Bangladesh Television was limited. This was mainly because of intense competition among Bauls, and also apathy of the state run institute to embark upon proper research or creating database of artists. Shehnaz for instance was rarely heard in Bangladesh, yet was well known among the diaspora Bengalis all across the Middle East, Europe and America before her albums back at home finally brought her to media and national limelight – that too after 2000.
Among artists still holding on to Akhara traditions and not known in the mainstream despite their tremendous performance and skills as artists are; Zahura Begum from Harishpur, Harinakundu, Jhenaidah, Onjoli Durga Ghosh from Bheramara, Kushtia and Kohinoor Akhter Golapi from Seuria, Kushtia are mentionable. There is undoubtedly hundreds more female Baul artist worthy of mention all across the far flung corners of Bangladesh, who regrettably cannot be mentioned in this series, given space constraints.
The advent of the new millennium saw the arrival of the folk-rock fusion band Bangla’s first album Kingkortobbobimurho in 2002, that set a new milestone on the way forward with Baul music. The multi talented vocalist of the band Anusheh Anadil, through her perseverance created a niche audience comprising Dhaka’s educated elite and their English medium school and University going children. She sent waves down rural Bangladesh where for years her association with masters of the Akhara tradition such as Fakir Rob Shah and teacher Shafi Mondol among others, gave her rendition of Lalon’s song an unsurpassed acceptability at the grassroots... Taking Baul music to newer heights, in 2007 Bangla performed with likes of Bono of U2, Bob Geldof and Youssou N’Dour in a concert tour of Germany. Baul music thanks to Anusheh earned the millennium prefix of “cool” to Baul music!
Following closely on heel with Bangla is the band Lalon – whose lead vocalist Nigar Sumi set new standards of fusing Baul music with rock. Their performances attract audiences all across Bangladesh, as much as they have toured the UK and elsewhere in Europe, the feather to their cap came during a packed performance at the hallowed precincts of the United Nations Headquarters in New York on June 15 of this year with the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in rapt attendance.
Maqsoodul Haque is a jazz-rock fusion musician and cultural researcher who is writing a series on the transformation of Baul music.