High Spirits

Notes from a giant Baul music festival

Bauls perform for a crowd at the Dol Purnima Utsab in Seuria. Jan Møller Hansen
Elections 2024
01 May, 2014

IN THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING on 15 March, as the moon set to make way for the morning sun, the air in the town of Seuria, in Kushtia district on Bangladesh’s western border, reverberated with the sound of thousands of singing voices and accompanying ektaras. Amid a haze of marijuana smoke, lakhs of Bauls and other devotees thronged the shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah, a mystic philosopher and poet revered as the founder of Baul music, for the Dol Purnima Utsab. All around, Bauls gathered in makeshift, informal circles to engage in sadhu-shongos (spiritual discourses) and try to recall some of Lalon’s forgotten songs.

Fakir Muhammad Ali Shah, the khadem (custodian) of the shrine, where Lalon lies buried, told me the twice-yearly festival “has a lot of significance in terms of our cosmology.” Besides honouring Lalon, who died in 1890, the gathering also celebrates the birth of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a sixteenth-century saint, since many Bauls believe Lalon was a later incarnation of this scion of the Vaishnavite movement. Little is known about Lalon’s life, though there is no shortage of legends. Shah told me that Lalon landed up in Seuria as a teenager, semi-comatose and suffering from smallpox, aboard a banana-leaf raft carried by the Kaliganga River, in 1774 (the year he is believed to have been born). He arrived between 1 and 3 Choitro on the Bengali calendar, which corresponds to the full moon in March. “Fokir Lalon, at some point, began observing these three auspicious days as his abirbhaabdibosh”—roughly, his “date of arrival.” Bauls have celebrated those days ever since.

Elsewhere in the shrine, I met fifteen-year-old Jibon from Hatiya village in Sadar Upazila, around twenty-five kilometres from Seuria. Jibon is crippled and blind, and could have been mistaken for one of the thousands of ailing people who visit the shrine every year in hope of miracle cures. But Jibon, a devout Baul, had come to sing some of Lalon’s songs for the crowd. He had been waiting, as had thousands of musicians and singers from across the subcontinent, for a turn on the main stage since early in the morning on 15 March, the first day of this year’s festival. Shah estimated that around 450 performers played on the main stage over the festival’s five days—extended this year from the customary three. He also put the total number of musicians in attendance at over five thousand, with Bauls also performing constantly at more than four hundred small gatherings around the shrine, making this one of the world’s largest annual Baul gatherings.

At 3.30 am on the second day of the festival, Jibon finally got his chance. After a full day of performances, the audience initially showed little interest in the young boy on stage. But it took Jibon only a minute to get the crowd on its feet as he launched into a popular Lalon song in his unexpectedly low, gravelly voice. Admirers threw taka notes at the stage, and Jibon, with a beaming smile and a magnetic stage presence, obliged shouted demands for an encore.

I headed backstage, where Jibon was busy counting the money he had received, carefully passing his fingers over the notes, one by one. “There is something in Lalon’s songs which just draws me to them,” he said. “I feel a sense of peace and calmness whenever I sing.” His uncle, Ayub Biswas, told me Jibon was “born lame and blind and did not have any interest in singing.” The boy’s father was a marfati (an accomplished Sufi mystic) and a devotee of Lalon, and was killed soon after Jibon’s birth in a family dispute. Soon after, “the young boy astonishingly developed a deep husky voice and started singing Lalon’s songs.” Jibon quickly grew popular in and around his village, Ayub said, and people gave him money wherever he sang.

Jibon’s seemingly miraculous talent is not surprising to Bauls. Maqsoodul Haque, a popular singer and a researcher on Bauls, explained that according to their belief, a person’s soul continues to live on even after he or she leaves the “physical state.” “Since Jibon’s father was a powerful marfati saint who left his physical state in an unnatural manner,” he said, many Bauls may think “he transmitted his powers on to his son, which finds reflection through his voice and songs.”