Paban Das Baul

India

The Bauls are Bengal's mystical wandering minstrels, keepers of a carnivalesque rave culture that is more than five centuries old. An anarchic sect of nomads, outcastes and ascetics, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings which have been passed down for generations. They are regarded by many as being mentally unhinged by their asceticism - in Bengali the word Baul means 'mad' or 'possessed'; in the villages of West Bengal they are described as 'holy fools'; in Calcutta they are described as 'God's troubadours'. They refer to each other as 'khepa', meaning 'furious'. Carrying hand drums and simple stringed instruments, they travel Bengal's farms and villages, temples and shrines, bus-stops and wells, performing songs of love, desire and mysticism, carrying nothing but a patchwork quilt. They literally sing for their supper most nights.

They are a subversive sect who take great delight in flouting the taboos of Bengali society, happily defying all distinctions of caste or religion. In a region awash with Islamic fundamentalism, right-wing Hindu nationalism and a particularly chaotic brand of Marxism, the Bauls mix the mystical Islam of Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Vaishanvism and Tantra. For them God resides in the heart of the individual - the body IS the temple. They are also infamous for using the sexual urge as a means of reaching the divine, through the medium of Tantric sex.

Paban is a rare Baul in that he is Westernised (he and Mimlu lived in Paris until recently) and he is not illiterate - he has taught himself to read, not just Bengali, but Hindi, English and French. He is also an accomplished painter.