Most Westerners, if they know the Bauls at all, remember the non sequitur of a couple of members of this Bengali sect standing next to Bob Dylan on the cover of Dylan's milestone album "John Wesley Harding." The story goes that Dylan was depressed, and his foster-father/manager, Albert Grossman, arranged for the seer-singers to visit Woodstock to cheer up our poet laureate.

Apocryphal? I would agree, if my introduction to the Bauls weren't remarkably similar.

I'd gone to India as a recent recruit of The Dharma Bums, a group that had been invited to play the World Festival of Sacred Music in May. Unaccustomed to international travel, I got to the concert site in Bangalore dazed, sick, and terrified.

I came thoroughly awake at sound check. It's fear that does it. Peering out at 800 empty seats at the local college auditorium, fighting with squealing mikes, a smattering of hangers-on understandably unimpressed with the wretched sounds coming from our throats. When the concert began, I settled in to my seat to suffer the humiliation of watching a whole show of spiritually advanced musicians make contact with a highest being--before we came out and sucked.

Then four men dressed in flowing golden-orange gowns sauntered onstage, smiling. They sat, acknowledging applause. The oldest and straightest was blind.

The Bauls call themselves spiritual anarchists because they declare themselves to be Hindus and true Moslems--acknowledging no contradiction. Their home base is Calcutta, the Indian city famous for its "black hole," where everything is cut to the bone, spirituality included.

Seven months a year, the Bauls wander as musician mendicants, accepting alms for song. The remainder of the year, they return to their families and resume their "day job" of walking the cars of the hell-trains of Calcutta, performing their bloodless open-heart surgery for half-rupees and blessings.

The first of the four--the wasted remains of a handsome man--stood, commencing to wail and slowly, on bell-jangling feet, to dance. At the end of a long, thin arm he thumbed a one-stringed harp's single note, his voice so filled with mournful joy that tears instantaneously began to splash my cheek. He seemed to cry out: "All you see before you is yours Lord, do with me what you will." A single tooth flashed against the scarlet hole of this mouth, ecstasy-laced red eyes pinched shut, then opened again to pilot bare feet to a resting place. As he sat, we rained applause.

A smaller, more powerful black swan of a man stands. His voice, unlike his comrade's, is virile and revved up to matinee-idol pitch. Ink-pools for eyes flash in his youthful, bearded face. Against his ribs is braced a drum featuring a string stitched to the sounding skin; the string is attached to a brass ball held in one hand while a pick held in the other hand plays against the tightening string, creating a ghostly, ululating tone.

Above this ghoulish accompaniment, a fierce and fiery voice reigns. The black swan plucks out a wobbling volley, then points his pick hand straight at a member of the audience. What proceeds is a wedding of power and passion as might have caused Otis Redding to reconsider his singing career. Our applause is thunderous. He makes the prayer sign at chest, and sits.

Up rises Oedipus at Colonnus, his eyes shameless wounds, never to heal; the fourth Baul, a young drummer, takes the elbow of this guru he walks beside every day, his master now singing and smiling. With each step, the blind man comments with even greater vigor at another even more extraordinary development in this, his dialogue with God. The guide prods him to the edge of the stage; once there, Oedipus raises both his hands and commences to crow for joy, connecting with such power as we, the audience, cry out to tell him where we are and to thank him, almost as a lover cries in gratitude. Hearing this, he redoubles his effort. At the very edge of the huge stage, the other three are bent, whipping up a small storm of accompaniment. Oedipus suddenly twists his head halfway between heaven and earth, and straight into the hot stage lights he peers as three shrill notes shoot from his small, misshapen mouth, making it all stop. He is with God already; what remains here with us is merely a witness to the beyond.

What else matters? Certainly not our performance. My only ambition at present is to be nearer the Bauls.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad