The Ektara: traditional music instrument of the Bauls, wandering minstrels from Bengal
Parvathy Baul CD cover
Bauls are the wandering minstrels of the Indian subcontinent whose history traces back to the 15th century as mentioned by the literary sources of the Bengal region, the territory of modern Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. These musicians can be recognized by their specific style of clothing and a significant set of musical instruments, often used by Bauls in a one-man-band style to accompany mysterious songs filled with a deep sense of mysticism.
The central musical instrument for Bauls is the ektara, perhaps the simplest stringed instrument in India which name literally means "one-string". While singing, often accompanied by an expressive dance, the performer holds ektara in one hand plucking the string with the index finger of the same hand for extracting drone notes in a variety of rhythmic patterns. It is easier for the singers to drive their vocals in accordance with the drone-note described in Western music theory as the organ point.
Perhaps the key role in introducing the Baul traditions to the rest of the world was played by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous Indian polymath, poet, composer, and artist whose work largely shaped the literature and music of Bengal. Many of Tagore’s poems are permeated with the Baul ideology, while his songs are often based on melodies borrowed from their rich repertoire.
In the 1930s, Tagore often talked about Bauls in his European speeches while his essays included in The Religion of Man gives the most concise description of Baul's philosophy:
"The Bauls are an ancient group of wandering minstrels from Bengal, who believe in simplicity in life and love. They are similar to the Buddhists in their belief in a fulfillment which is reached by love's emancipating us from the dominance of self."
The Baul movement reached its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but even today there are many festivals gathering adherents of Bauls philosophy, their mystical songs accompanying any rural fair in West Bengal and Bangladesh.
One of the most famous contemporary singers representing Bauls internationally is Parvathy Baul, who considers it her personal mission to bring the gap between the esoteric world of Baul traditions and other musicians in India and around the world.
Listen to Kichudin Mone Mone performed by Parvathy Baul:
Parvathy Baul performs a vast repertoire of traditional songs as well as her own compositions, adding explanatory speeches in English in her recitals. She skilfully accompanies her expressive singing by playing the ektara and the duggi drum along with the graceful dance movements.