Accepted Paper:

Untouchable songs: The epistemology of sacred singing in rural Bengal  

Author:

Carola Lorea (IIAS)

Paper short abstract:

A local Bengali proverb (gane jnan) equates songs with knowledge. Focusing on the local system of oral exegesis of Bengali Tantric songs, I discuss how an ethnography of metaphorical speech can challenge conventional academic ways of studying sacred songs.

Paper long abstract:

A rich corpus of Bengali Tantric songs, transmitted among low-caste rural practitioners, generally known as Baul, represents an encyclopedia of beliefs on the body and the universe, promoting equality and a metaphysics of love.

Listening to, memorizing and performing songs is perceived as a means to attain supreme knowledge, a ritual and meditative practice to attain liberation (sangit sadhana), as well as a path to self-realization (gane siddhi).

According to local beliefs on the body and the cosmos, sound is related to the bodily substance of seed, and singing, requiring breath control, is related to yoga. Equally performed on public stages as well as in private gatherings of initiated disciples, Baul songs conceal their esoteric teachings through a complex web of ambiguous meanings, enigmatic statements and a thick embroidery of metaphors: an idiolect known as ulta bhasha, the upside-down language of songs. Listeners and performers are positioned at different levels of the protocol of access to the songs' knowledge. This demands a methodological attention to the practitioners' semantic and emotive values associated with songs. Conducting an ethnography of (metaphorical) speech (Hymes 1962; Basso 1976), I looked at ways in which the local system of oral exegesis can contribute to the academic study of sacred songs.

Decolonising Tantric studies from below, and integrating local perspectives on metaphor, meaning and singing, this paper looks at Bengali songs of low-caste practitioners and their sophisticated interpretative devices as a model to evade from the constraints of both textual and ethnomusicological approaches to sacred songs.

Panel P042
Knowing by singing: song, acoustic ecologies and the overflow of meaning