Among all folk and street music of India, the music of Rajasthan and the music of the Bauls of Bengal have captured the imagination of music lovers all over the world. Baul is not just one of the many things unique to Bengal. This wandering music cult has a special place in the history of world music. Originally, the Bauls were nonconformists, who rejected the traditional social norms to form a distinct sect that upheld music as their religion. Baul is also the name given to the genre of folk music developed by this creative cult. It’s easy to identify a Baul singer from his uncut, often coiled hair, saffron robe, necklace of beads made of basil (Tulsi) stems, and of course the single-stringed instrument, the Ektara. Music is their only source of sustenance. They live on whatever they are offered by villagers in return, and travel from place to place, as if they were on a vehicle of ecstasy.
Bauls croon from their hearts and pour out their feelings and emotions in their songs. But they never bother to write down their songs. Theirs is essentially an oral tradition, and it is said of Lalan Fakir (1774-1890), the greatest of all Bauls, that he continued to compose and sing songs for decades without ever stopping to correct them or put them on paper. It was only after his death that people thought of collecting and compiling his rich repertoire. Even today, most Bauls live in small huts. They live in couples but are not supposed to have children, mostly they adopt abandoned children to whom they teach everything they know. Twice a week, they go to villages to collect food, mostly rice and vegetables. The verses of Baul poetry can come from past or present composers, and they always include sacred teachings related to righteous practice and life style.
The living space of Bauls is called Akhara. It is similar to an Ashram, with the difference that men and women live together, considering each other as spiritual partners. Each year, Bauls organise a big meeting where they exchange songs, experiences and spiritual teachings. Among the contemporary Baul singers, the names of Purna Das Baul, Jatin Das Baul, Biswanath Das Baul, Paban Das Baul and Bapi Das Baul are prominent. Purna Das Baul is undisputedly the reigning king of the Baul community today.