Living a bohemian life in France, Mimlu Sen witnesses a performance by the Baul, a group of wandering mystic-minstrels from West Bengal. Captivated by the music, and by one of the musicians in particular, she returns to the country of her childhood: "yearning for the deep familiar breath of India". What follows is a love story on several levels. Sen, whose life had already included a spell in jail for political insurgency and a ménage à trois in Paris, pledges herself to the mystic as his boshtomi (lifemate). The Honey Gatherers recounts her adventures in rural Bengal.
The Bauls' philosophy synthesises elements of Sufism, Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism and is concerned with enlightening the body through song. Sen gains a privileged view of their secret world, as they make their way from shanty town to village, from fair to festival, generally among the lowest castes of Indian society. "I was shocked and disorientated by the extreme poverty and sudden violence of this way of life," she writes. But she is also mesmerised by the mystics' freedom and dignity, their claims to divine knowledge, and their courage to live on their own terms.
Combining anthropology and travelogue, The Honey Gatherers is more than just a book about the Bauls, however. Sen's own journey from upper-class Shillong to Europe and then back into the hinterlands of Bengal adds an important element to the narrative. She brings an outsider's perspective to the changing world of the Bauls, confronted by the rapid globalisation of India. Most successfully, her patient exploration of complex Baul philosophies conveys that the world has forgotten how to listen to, or look at, the poorest in society, and risks missing one of our greatest repositories of knowledge in the process.
The "honey gathering" of the title is a term for the collecting of alms in the rural villages, which was once the principal means of income for the Bauls. Despite musicians such as Paban das Baul gaining a profile on the international stage, the Bauls' basic means of subsistence is becoming less dependable, with some of them even forced into prostitution. "Only a handful of the Baul singers and sages, who lived in the remote ashrams, were still in contact with the songs' deep meaning," Sen writes. "The rich rustic world that was the fount of their inspiration was drying up."
But The Honey Gatherers is an optimistic rebuttal to any notion that the Bauls' days may be numbered. One hopes these free spirits, wearing patchwork robes to symbolise the multiplicity of all religious sources, may be travelling on the wings of song for some time to come. "If songs can define territory, in the manner of migratory birds, then the map that describes the journey of the Baul singers today goes well beyond the borders of present day West Bengal and Bangladesh," Sen writes. "It follows vertical directions into mystic spheres and travels horizontally around the globe, via the new networks of world music."
'All Kinds of Magic: A Quest for Meaning in a Material World' by Piers Moore Ede is published by Bloomsbury
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