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Book review: Contradictory Lives

The Bauls of West Bengal and Bangladesh are a religious group renown for wandering the countryside, begging for alms, singing and performing their music. In practice and belief, they combine elements from the wider Vaishnava community and unorthodox esoteric elements from tantric-oriented groups such as the Sahajiyas and Sufism. Bauls are opposed to the caste system, sectarianism and argue that truth cannot be found in texts, rituals, or temples. They hold women in high regard and view them as gurus in relation to their male partners. This “ideal” image of Bauls, as nonconformist mystics dominates both academic and popular representations, but says little of their actual lives, and in particular, the lives of women Bauls.

Contradictory LivesLisa I. Knight’s Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh (Oxford University Press 2011, 218pp, h/bk) is a sensitive and engaging ethnographic account of the everyday lives of Baul women in Bangladesh and India, and how they negotiate agency and respond to various contradictory expectations – between the cultural expectations of Bauls as unencumbered by social restraints and concerns and cultural expectations of how women should behave. Knight frames Baul women as “encumbered actors”, pointing out that “unlike their male peers, they are never completely unencumbered by societal restraints and expectations” – they have responsibilities as mothers and wives, and are “encumbered by a patriarchy that legitimizes Baul men’s performance and itinerancy and devalues women’s public contributions”. She focuses on how Baul women, despite the various encumberances – patriarchy, tradition, family, gurus, and patrons actively create meaningful lives for themselves – sometimes challenging the status quo, but equally sometimes seemingly acquiesing to the expectations of normative society. A key point which Knight makes in this respect is that for Baul women “resistance and defiance are not always the most useful or feasible ways to respond. Sometimes the most effective response is to give the appearance of upholding norms. In fact challenging the status quo can create a very difficult life, a reality that should not be overlooked. Therefore trying to determine how much agency a person has cannot always be done by observing their actions – and the results of their actions – since sometimes their choice not to act is not merely passivity.” (pp7-8)

Contradictory Lives is divided into two sections. The first part: “Multiple Sites” situates Baul women’s place within in particular locales, communities, and discourses. In the second chapter, Knight argues that both popular and scholarly discourses on Bauls tend to marginalise women, and examines how popular bhandralok (the Bengali elite) discourse, drawing on romanticised images of Baul males as wandering, solitary, sadhu-minstrels – an image influenced strongly by the work of Rabindranath Tagore – tends to reinforce the view that “real Bauls” are men, and that women, when they are present, only exist to serve the men This view, Knight shows, is also present in much of the scholarly literature on Bauls – particularly in respect to women as “assistants” (but not equal actors) in Baul sexo-yogic rituals, with the implication that Baul women do not do sadhana for themselves or have knowledge of it. These discourses tend, Knight argues, to either marginalise women, or lead to an expectation that Baul women should behave just like Baul men. Knight explains that for many urban Bengalis, Bauls represent an idealised connection to a “pristine” village life and a longing for an experience of the Divine, and that these images colour expectations of how Bauls are supposed to look and behave. She recounts a meeting with a journalist in Dhaka where she was asked to produce some photographs of Baul women: “When the photos I brought showed women who who looked like ordinary women with their hair tied back and wearing printed green or blue saris, my interviewer looked disappointed … from these photos – even one of Kangalini Sufia, the most famous Baul singer in Bangladesh – the journalist could not recognise them as Bauls.”(p42)

Chapter four provides a sensitive portrayal of how Baul women secure respect and support from their non-Baul neighbours, drawing on the normative paradigms such as the Bengali “good woman” even as their public performances and social critiques challenge those norms. Knight shows how Baul women draw on the gendered norms of their cultures in order to demand respect.

Chapter 5 examines the songs and performances of Baul women, which frequently present Baul critiques on social, caste, and gender discrimination. Some Baul women’s songs also act to shame Baul men who abandon their wives and abuse alcohol.

In Chapter 6, Knight turns to Baul renunciation. Knight draws a distinction between Baul and Brahmanical modalities of sannyas and argues that Baul couples take sannyas as a means of gaining legitimisation and respect from their bhadralok patrons. Although partner-orientated sannyas is the norm, Baul women can and sometimes do pursue this course alone. In spite of the obstacles they face, renunciation enables Baul women to live alone in society.

In her conclusion, Knight explains that Baul women share Baul ideology on gender equality and understand that their relative mobility and independence distinguishes them from their non-Baul female peers. Yet at the same time, Baul women recognise the structures that limit their movements, and whilst they do not agree with these limitations, they draw upon them in order to articulate their concerns as mothers and wives.

Readers expecting to find lurid details of Baul esoteric sexual practices will be disappointed. As Rina, one of Knight’s Baul informants stresses, these are secret and can only be understood through direct engagement with the Baul path under the direction of a guru … “that real Bauls do not identify themselves as Bauls, or at least they do not advertise their identity, and will not blurt out Baul secrets to just anyone” (p125). Rather, I would say that the strength of Contradictory Lives is that it counters the romantic idealisation of marginal religious groups such as the Bauls, and provides a sensitive and rich portrayal of how Baul women live their everyday lives, negotiating and managing everyday concerns.

Baul Archive (performances, interviews, film, bibliography)
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