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“Playing the Football of Love on the Field of the Body” 1 : The Contemporary Repertoire of Baul Songs

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Abstract This article analyzes the contemporary repertoire of a very popular genre of Bengali folk songs, performed by itinerant singers and practitioners of an esoteric cult known as Bauls. Considering the recent popularization and commercialization of Baul songs and their interference with the urban milieu, the discourse on the authenticity of Baul songs is explored from an inter-disciplinary perspective that embraces orality-literacy studies as well as social studies on cultural tourism, underlining the limits of previous academic works on the subject. This article offers, as an original contribution, the first results of ongoing fieldwork among the disciples of a śākta saint and composer of Baul songs known as Bhaba Pagla. Through discussion of the lyrics of songs performed in contemporary Baul festivals, this article argues that the contamination of Baul songs by urban élites and middle-class audiences, far from deteriorating the oral tradition, may enrich the vocabulary of the compositions and reinforce the underlying belief system. Contrarily to the popular and academic view of today’s Bauls, that labels the entertaining performer as a corrupted ally of show business, the priority of gānsādhanā (singing as a practice for self-realization) may be interpreted as an efficient way to conceal heterodox esoteric rituals vis-à-vis the increasing interest of cultural tourists in Baul culture and performances, protecting the secrecy of the tradition through an innovative and negotiated version of sandhyā-bhāṣā (twilight-language), the literary device that has accompanied Bengali esoteric songs since their origins.

Affiliations: 1: La Sapienza University; Jadavpur University


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