“How many know how to (make) love?” Semantic understanding of Bengali Bāul songs and politics of power in the lineage of Bhaba Pagla

  • Carola Erika Lorea International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden; South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg
Keywords: folk-songs, oral exegesis, Sandhyā Bhāṣā, polysemy, institutionalization, Bhakti, Tantra, reception, hinduization


The songs performed by the Bāuls of Bengal are characterized by a charmingly enigmatic language by which terms and practices related to the dimension of sexuality and ontogenesis are concealed under the veil of intriguing metaphors. While the orature of the Bāuls has been widely explored from the literary as well as the religious point of view, the question of the semantic reception of the songs has rarely been considered. The semantics of these songs concerns the fundamental opposition between man and woman, as the only unborn difference Bāuls acknowledge in human beings. The foundation of such a difference lies in the sexually active body. Although, for a meaningful practice of ritualized sexual encounter (yugala-sādhanā), male-female identities (svabhāb) have to be transcended, and male practitioners are recommended to adopt a feminine nature (nārī bhāb). This article will focus on the problem of the interpretation and understanding of Bāul songs revealing how a diverse typology of listeners or performers can differently explain the meaning of a song and its allegorical images related to the microcosmic body of the practitioner.

The analysis of the interpretations of a selected sample of ‘songs of practice’ (sādhanā saṅgīt) composed by the saint-songwriter Bhaba Pagla (1902 – 1984) will show how the lyrics are understood and explained on different levels according to the social and religious background of the informant: a superficial, literal layer; a bhakti-oriented metaphysical layer; and an esoteric-Tantric layer, decoded and orally transmitted by living gurus. Combining the approach of the contextual theory of the study of folklore and verbal arts with the theories on the interpretation of metaphors and the semiotics of reception, I will try to show how different exegeses of the same songs – collected during an ethnographic investigation in the field – can at times encourage the institutionalization of a cult purified from its embarrassing ‘Tantric’ aspect or, in other cases, reinforce the system of beliefs about bodily fluids and sexuality of an esoteric community. The problem of the heterogeneity of oral interpretations and the polysemy of songs’ meanings will lead to a discussion on the politics of power that entangle emerging Bengali cults and their negotiation between universalism and esoteric secrecy.


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Author Biography

Carola Erika Lorea, International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden; South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg
Carola E. Lorea is currently a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden and a research fellow at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg. She was conferred a PhD in Asian languages and cultures at the University of Rome Sapienza in 2015 with a dissertation on the songs of the heterodox Bengali saint-composer Bhaba Pagla and their performative context. She published the research monograph Folklore, Religion and the Songs of a Bengali Madman: a Journey Between Performance and the Politics of Cultural Representation (Brill 2016), several articles on Bengali oral traditions, literary translations of Bengali poets and novelists, as well as a manual for Italian learners of Bengali language.


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