13, Oct 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
Bauls or traditional folk singers from West Bengal’s Birbhum region have had an especially harrowing time during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly during the Lockdown period. And now, even though the Lockdown has been lifted gradually, they are still struggling to put their lives back on track.
Who are the Bauls?
Sung by wandering minstrels Baul is at once, the art, and the artist. Baul is a special folklore art form, and the community gained recognition through Lalon’s songs. The Bauls would go from village to village singing songs to the tune of the single stringed Ektara.
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Bauls of Birbhum
Several thousand Baul artists call Birbhum their home, and the district is hailed as the land of Baul, as the community lives in and around Bolpur. Their survival depends on what they earn as folk singers. A few Bauls also earn their living by singing at various hotels in Bolpur, at the Sonajhuri Haat and even at public and private events when the opportunity arises. In 2005, UNESCO had taken special note of Baul music. As a result, the demand for Baul artists from Birbhum in Lalmati had increased.
Impact of Covid-19
However, as soon as the Covid lockdown was announced, Bauls were forced to sit at home. Although the state government has implemented a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000/- (one thousand rupees), it is often irregular and never enough. The gradual lifting of the lockdown hasn’t led to an increase in work options either. Many Baul artists and their families are near starvation.
“Ever since I was a child, I have been playing ektara, dotara, violin and khanjuri and singing in different areas. I have been singing on the roads since I was 14 years old. The songs are my whole life and dream. I have sung in different parts of India,” Jagannath Das, a Baul artist from Shantiniketan in Birbhum district, recalls his heydays fondly.
“Our life depends on the income that comes from our songs. But our music stopped since Corona started, and so our earnings have stopped too. I have become unemployed. Not just me, many artists and musicians like me are unemployed and living with great difficulty. There is no music anywhere” he laments. His family is dependent on his earnings, and now they have gone many a day without a single meal. He fears for his future, “How will the days ahead be? I don’t know.”
Some images of traditional Baul artists may be viewed here:
Another Baul artist said that now the artists cannot even gather or travel to sing and earn. Nothing changes with the meagre “artist allowance” that the government gives, as it reaches only a few. Most of the artists are left out of the allowance scheme. “We have no way to go without songs, we have no fields, no trade, so the government needs to pay special attention to Baul,” he said.
The condition of these artists is one of the saddest. They are a living heritage, and their songs were once said to bring joy and peace to whoever was lucky to hear them. Now the music seems to be dying. Unless the government steps up to stop this artform from extinction.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.