Folklore, Religion and the Songs of a Bengali Madman

A Journey Between Performance and the Politics of Cultural Representation

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Carola Erika Lorea
Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture, Volume 22
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    Brill
    , August
     2016.
     350 pages.
     $163.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9789004324701.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since the nineteenth century, the Bāul community of Bengal has occupied a central place in Bengali religious and cultural imagination as a symbol of the individual’s quest for inner spiritual realization and societal harmony. This community, however, has been grossly understudied in Western academic circles largely because scholarly interest in Bengal’s religious history has been understandably focused on the spread of Śākta and Vaiṣṇavite devotionalism in the region as well as on the formation of Bengali religious discourse in the colonial period. Carola Erika Lorea’s Folklore, Religion, and the Songs of a Bengali Madman is thus a welcome addition to the study of Bengali religious history that uses the life and writings of the eccentric Bengali spiritual teacher, Bhabā Pāglā (1902-1984), to better understand how Bāuls have been represented in both scholarly literature and in Bengali popular culture.

Lorea notes that the term ‘Bāul’ is an umbrella term that is used to refer to a diverse group of non-institutionalized Tantric religious communities drawn from the lower castes of Hindu and Muslim society. Given the heterodox nature of Bāul practice, Bāuls have been largely secretive about their practices, which have been transmitted orally through spiritual teachers and through devotional poetry that couches the socially transgressive nature of Bāul teachings in deeply esoteric imagery understood only by select initiates (29-30). The highly romanticized image of the Bāul as the lonely itinerant minstrel in search of inner spiritual realization and social harmony was largely the product of nineteenth century Bengali nationalist authors who sought to use the Bāuls as the basis for a cohesive national identity that cut across religious and social boundaries (32-36). Later Bāul scholarship, however, reacted against the romanticized image of the otherworldly Bāul by emphasizing either the body-centered aspects of Bāul religious practice or by interpreting Bāul poetry as an expression of the marginalized against the oppression of religious and social orthodoxy (36-38). These categories, in turn, set up another dichotomy in Bāul scholarship between a true practitioner (sādhak) of esoteric Bāul practice and the Bāuperformer (gāyak) who compromises his spiritual practice by choosing to make a living by singing Bāul poetry in various public venues (210-14).

When Lorea turns her attention to Bhabā Pāglā, she argues that he seems to have taken the Bāul strategy of spiritual concealment a step further, cultivating a more respectable public image by maintaining a Kālī temple and writing more conventional Śākta and Vaiṣṇavite devotional poetry for public consumption (53-62). The popularity of these compositions with urban Bengali audiences and the frequency with which they were sung by professional non-Bāul singers resulted in Bhabā being excluded from most printed collections of Bāul anthologies and being dismissed as a type of poseur who wrote Bāul-themed poetry for urbanites (44-53). In Bāul circles, on the other hand, Bhabā has been regarded as a realized Bāul master by practitioners who learned his compositions orally from him or others. Furthermore, these practitioners not only reject the claim that Bhabā is a “fake” Bāul, but also the distinction made between the Bāul practitioner and the Bāul performer. As Lorea’s detailed analysis of the performative contexts for Bhabā’s poetry reveals, the very performance of Bhabā’s songs constitutes a type of spiritual practice that entails carefully selecting Bhabā’s poetry to match the performance setting and the audience’s level of spiritual knowledge (177-80, 215-25). Thus Lorea again emphasizes the constantly evolving and fluid nature of the Bāul tradition and how that tradition has become increasingly globalized by Bāul performers who travel abroad or take advantage of modern technology to transmit Bāul teachings.

The strength of this volume lies in the sensitivity that Lorea brings to her subject matter as well as the comprehensiveness of both her fieldwork and her consideration of methodological issues related to Bāul scholarship. It is, however, this very desire for comprehensiveness that causes the book to periodically digress and lose its focus. For example, one understands why Lorea wants to focus her final chapter on discussing the vitality of the Bāul tradition in the digital age, but her failure to mention Bhāba’s poetry except in passing makes the chapter almost out of place with respect to the rest of the book. In a similar fashion, the small section on Bhāba’s relationship to the low-caste religious community known as the Namaḥśūdras (196-99) is an extremely important topic that requires deeper research, but it also tends to distract from her overarching theme about the tension between fluidity and fixedness in both popular and scholarly representations of the Bāul community. These concerns, however, far from undermine the value of Lorea’s study. Folkore, Religion, and the Songs of a Bengali Madman provides fascinating insights not only into the life of a religious figure whose cult is steadily rising in Bengal, but also poses important questions about how scholars need to re-evaluate their methodological approaches to the study of the Bāuls and folklore traditions in general. Folklore, Religion, and the Songs of a Bengali Madman, is highly recommended for specialists in Bengali religious history, and while one may need a little patience to work through some of its sections, it is well worth the effort for what is an extremely fascinating, thoughtful, and important piece of research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shandip Saha is associate professor of religious studies at Athabasca University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carola Erika Lorea, PhD (2015), University of Rome, is a researcher in Bengali oral traditions. She has published books on Bengali language and literature, translations of contemporary Bengali authors and several articles on the folklore and sacred songs of the Bauls of West Bengal.

Keywords: 

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