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German foreign policy in South Asia
 
Taking the Bauls back to the people
The Baul tradition of Bangladesh finds support from Germany

April 22, 2008

Strong, long-standing cultural ties have underlined Germany’s relations with South Asia, a region that is home to a sixth of the world’s population. Interaction on economic, scientific and technological fronts is buttressed by a continuing flow of intellectual exchange, sharing and understanding. One such example of cooperation is a project for the preservation of the Baul music tradition of Bangladesh, implemented by a local NGO in cooperation with the German Embassy in Dhaka.

The Bauls are mystic minstrels who have wandered the countryside of Bangladesh and West Bengal in India for centuries, earning their living from singing devotional songs. Baul poetry, music, song and dance belong to a devotional tradition influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Bengali Vasinavism and Sufi Islam, yet retaining a distinct identity of their own. The Baul music and way of life have left their mark on Bengali culture, particularly the compositions of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Today, though the Baul movement has regained some of its popularity, the tradition is endangered because it is difficult to sustain this unorthodox way of life. No longer supported adequately by the community, the Bauls have limited financial resources and have to divide their time between practising Baul songs and earning a livelihood. As a consequence, young Bauls are loosing their cultural roots. The special way of singing and performing Baul songs, as also the skill of playing typical Baul instruments like the Ektara, Dotara, Khanjani or Dhol, are at risk.

The Pally Baul Samaj Unnayan Sangstha (PBSUS), an NGO in Bangladesh, recently carried out a campaign to preserve this cultural heritage and support Baul artists. The German Foreign Office provided 31,500 euros to support this project. A countrywide talent hunt was conducted in the Baul community to find the top 10 singers and instrumentalists practising the tradition. A music album containing twenty of the most popular Baul songs was recorded with the selected performers and the album was promoted with live concerts around the six divisional towns of Bangladesh.

Bauls have a rich oral tradition of thousands of songs dealing with issues of humanism and peace as well as day-to-day problems of life. The preservation project has prepared a selection of several hundred Baul songs in CD and book format, which were formally released on 12th March 2008. These are now being distributed for wider dissemination to archives, cultural and press institutes as well as universities. Very few famous old Baul singers are alive in Bangladesh, and only about twenty of them can still perform. Video documentaries on these artists were prepared as part of the project, to preserve their unique style of singing and performing Baul songs.

The Bauls have reached out to millions with their unique message of tolerance and communal amity that transcends boundaries of faith and politics. Pressures of penury, however, have eroded this carefree tradition like none other. There is hope, though, as help comes not just from those who have experienced this tradition, but also from nations and cultures far ashore.



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