Townsend Rd, Kolkata
- Will you tell us the meaning
of the song you just sang?
- Joy Guru! Lalan Shah here seems to be saying that the quarrel over the inhabited house is never ending. In our body, there are six temptations— anger, desire, etc. Each of these temptations has seventy behavioral patterns. So, there are six main temptations and their various manifestations. These have to be conquered. It is possible to conquer or control these through utterance/ zikr (of the supreme one). Every minute, you need to utter the name of the supreme one or your guru— you have to perform ibadat/ devotion. Every hour, you have to perform this utterance three to three and a half thousand times. So you can calculate how many such utterances you have to perform in twenty-four hours. Also, you have to eat, sometimes even fast. Sadhana/ practice is a form of knowledge which emanates from the guru, it is very difficult and rigorous. Practice begins by a disciplining of the body, through which you can eventually attain the supreme one. For this, you need a guru. This is a sadhana/ practice involving the material body. Sadhana can be of two types- of the material body and of emotions/ bhava. The songs of Lalan Shah focus on sadhana through the material body, by controlling the physical body.
- So where do you live?
- I live in Nadia, village Gourbhanga.
- Give us a brief history of your life.
- My parents were both initiated with a guru. Ilahi Dada was the name of the guru. My mother was his disciple. As a young boy, I remember my father’s mother, Zahera Bibi, who was a fakir. The famous Azhar Fakir, father of Mansur Fakir, was a close friend of my grandmother. They used to chat at our house. I was around ten years old and I remember our house being a place where such gatherings would happen of various fakirs, who along with my grandmother, practiced sadhana and music. I often used to sit in and listen to these sadhus and gurus. I used to love listening to them speak. Musical gatherings were very common at our place. I was slowly inspired by them and used to tell my grandmother that this path intrigued me. This sadhana of the body— which is your material possession— allows you a glimpse of the supreme one, of Allah or Ishwar. Thus, I slowly began sitting with these sadhus. Slowly, I also started learning singing. Me, my father, Ansar Fakir, Mansur Fakir, Khaibar Fakir— all the fakirs of our village used to congregate at our place and we used to practice music. And one fine day, I felt like performing songs publicly. So I began performing in public. After some time, I felt the need to enter the world of bodily sadhana. This is the prime practice. My mother advised me to not get married and become a sannyasi. And I am still following her advice. One day a Lalan song inspired me deeply— “Oh! When will the dust of the sadhu’s feet touch my body? / Touched by the sadhu’s feet, your body becomes as precious as gold…” My mother agreed to my disposition, and I began hunting for a sadhu. I thus began my singing career and also started seeking the company of sadhus. In these sadhu gatherings, I was also given initiation into bodily practice/ sadhana and made to understand how Lalan’s songs revolved around such practice. I realized the importance of this mode of practice and began performing the zikr/ utterance of the supreme one. I began practicing disciplining of the body through utterance/ zikr from a very young age. I also began studying the verses of Lalan. There is a song by Lalan— “Resplendent in his agelessness, he assumes a form through formlessness; / only those with foresight can see…” Lalan has said vis-à-vis Allah that sometimes he takes the form of air and returns to air. I began visiting Data Huzoor in Patharchapri in Birbhum. Travelling thus, I also visited Ajmer Sharif. You have to walk for thirteen to fourteen days to reach Ajmer Sharif on foot. I could only walk for three or four days. It is a hard journey, the journey of a pilgrim. After returning, I opened an ashram at my house. There are daylong musical gatherings at our ashram. My prime sadhana is Fakir sadhana and this is the sole objective of my life. It is a very difficult form of sadhana. Even Lalan himself describes his repeated failures, so how can we even think of succeeding? Lalan Shah, who is a great Pir, had sacrificed everything, and yet couldn’t achieve success. He has shown us the path. We have to conquer temptations such as desire and anger. First we need to conquer desire. And that is a very difficult thing indeed. Performing ibadat/ devotion and zikr/ utterance is the most important objective of the Fakir way of life. One has to retain the life force. Swami Vivekananda, too, had advocated the same. This can be achieved through a bodily sadhana.
Within this path of sadhana, concentration plays a major role. The one, who concentrates or focuses on the guru, doesn’t need to fear anything. After repeatedly uttering the name of the guru, he or she reaches the state of Fanafillah. This utterance, as Lalan himself has said, cannot be taught to every disciple, as not everyone is capable of such utterance. In the final stages of this utterance, one can obtain a vision of the divine one. “The clay puppet that is made to dance (by the puppeteer)/ is killed and brought to life again/ when the Sai wishes to show himself/ Lalan says, only then can he be perceived.” If you yourself cannot perceive Allah, no one else can make you perceive. Someone who promises to show you Allah is actually a fake, according to Lalan Shah. I myself have been initiated by Data Huzoor. They organized gatherings of fakirs at Damodar. The Fakirs there would exchange various words of wisdom. They would speak about the ways in which to obtain a vision of the divine, if one is a true devotee. The Murshid will show himself and then disappear into the air. I have read some verses by Lalan. I perform his songs, and am a devoted follower. From a very young age, I have been performing his songs. And although I have learnt, I try to interpret his words in my own way. People have their individual paths; no one can walk another’s path. Lalan says, “Each goes his own way in the world of samsara/ Futile is your house, your wealth, your pursuits”. According to Lalan, the world is a dream, an illusion. Once you wake up, you realize you have acquired nothing. The world is an illusion, dharma or your faith is the only truth. And this Dharma can be followed through the sadhana of the body. The body eats from the soil, goes back to the soil. Allah cannot be achieved in one life alone. I love that song by Lalan— “My devotion finds its fruition/ in knowing who I am.” Lalan here seems to be saying that through sadhana, one can obtain a vision of one’s past births. And indeed you can see your previous incarnations if you are a true Fakir. But you can’t tell that to anyone. If the Guru so initiates, you can see who you were, where you were born, etc.
So, according to Lalan, the means of attaining Allah is through the sadhana of the worldly body. You have to perform zikr. “Concentrate upon his name and his form/ If you worship his impression, in your mind you will perceive Allah/ the phrase La-Illaha-Illalah on your lips…” Only by the performance of zikr, one can perceive Allah. But one needs to be devoted to sadhana. Lalan says, “Many can proclaim, yet only two among a crore can perceive…” In India, a land of a hundred and fifty crore people, there will hardly be fifteen or twenty Pirs/ realized souls. Yet, being optimistic, everyone wants a vision of Allah. But only the true devotee, one who practices sadhana, one who has his eyes cast at the feet of his guru, one whose mind in fixated on the divine one, he alone can attain Allah.
- You mention that you were initiated at an early age. How old were you then?
- I was around ten or twelve. In our path, you need worldly experience in order to fully enter the world of bodily sadhana. So you need to start early. Forty is roughly the age from which you can fully immerse yourself into sadhana. But, prior to that, you need to start understanding and practicing the dharma, so that by forty, you are ready. You can’t start growing new crops in the dry season. No matter how much manure you put, even if the plants grow, the fruits won’t come. Lalan has said that once the age is past, you cannot be initiated any more. So, one needs to start at the proper time. You can’t wait till you have enjoyed the world of samsara. If that was the case, everyone would have become a Pir. But people nonetheless hold on to optimism. Those who have the guru’s blessings will be able to come close to Allah. Lalan too says that once the right age is past, one can’t practice sadhana.
- How old are you at present?
- I am around 42-43.
- At present we are seeing a great congregation of Fakir at Gourbhanga. Were they always there?
- Yes. Earlier too, Fakirs were here, and more used to come from Bangladesh to Gourbhanga. Azhar Fakir and also my grandmother, Zahera Bibi, were from here. There were atleast twenty or thirty Fakirs then in our village. Now there are around fifty-sixty performing fakirs and five-six ashrams in our village. It0’s all the blessing of Lalan Shah that our village has such a dedicated tradition of fakirs. At morning, during the day, at evening, at night, there is perpetual music at our village. People come from various parts of the country, also abroad. Music is also taught to young murids. They gain knowledge from the gurus.
- All these ashrams you talk about were established just last year. What was the picture like earlier?
- The ashrams are about twenty to twenty-five years old.
- But. Weren’t these
established last year?
- In a more formal way yes. But the gatherings were always there prior to that. The rooms were straw huts, places of informal gathering of fakirs. The sadhus and gurus would congregate here and talk. They would often perform one or two songs. But the performances were not on the scale that we see now. Then, people would discuss, talk more (regarding discourses of practice and sadhana) rather than perform songs.
- So what do you feel regarding this transition?
- It is a good thing indeed, much better than what used to be. Now, Fakir songs have percolated into every household, people are learning these forms. Earlier, there was a pressure from the fundamentalist Shariati groups of Islam. Now, that has almost disappeared.
- What was the fundamentalist pressure earlier?
- It’s still there, although less. Music, etc. is seen as haraam/ sin. The ashrams would be broken down; we would be forbidden to perform. Well, society today is more educated; people too are observing and changing their outlook. They realize that humanity is above all these- Dharma, Hindu, Muslim. Lalan too says the same thing.
- So, at present how many Fakir artists are there in your village?
- Around fifty to sixty. Additionally, there are around two hundred in training with a guru.
- You perform in a lot of places right?
- So which places have you been to?
- In India, I have travelled to Bombay and Delhi. Abroad, I have travelled in Europe— London, Switzerland, France. I have also performed in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
- But people abroad do not
understand the language in which you sing.
- But the supreme one, just like the sun, is everywhere. Any sensitive being can resonate with my music. They know what this Fakir is singing. Through music, one can attain the divine. And this resonates with the ones who are sensitive. There are two kinds of Fakirs— the performing Bauls who only sing but are not into sadhana and those who practice sadhana and at the same time also perform songs. The former are mainly householders, they only sing and dance, but do not practice bodily sadhana. One who is both a performer and also a practitioner (of bodily sadhana) is likely to more easily resonate with the receptive and sensitive souls. He can easily conquer the hearts of a hundred thousand. He has that capability, that spiritual power. He knows the Fakir tradition inside out. Yet, these kinds of fakirs are rare to come by.
- So which category do you fall
- That’s difficult for me to say. It is for people to decide (smiles).
- The common people who listen to you may not be attuned to the discourse of bodily sadhana. And yet, they are able to glean some meaning from your songs, right?
- There are four ways— Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat, Marfat. Shariatis are true to the written word, Tariqat adherents follow the actions of the Prophet, Haqiqat adherents strive to know the truth of our being and nature and avoid sin/ haraam, and the Marfatis straightaway begin their search for the divine, and journey into an altogether different realm.
- So who appreciates your songs more- those who already have a certain knowledge about these discourses or the ones that are absolutely uninitiated?
- Those who have some knowledge of course appreciate more. The uninitiated ones simply listen to the music and go their own way. But the ones who really seek to know more about bodily sadhana try and grasp the meaning of the song. Many among them wish to seek a guru, come to him and receive knowledge and instruction. The ones who truly have such a bent of mine will definitely seek out a guru and initiate themselves.
- So in order to fully initiate yourself, how many years do you have to spend with a guru at his abode?
- Let me tell you something. A man, despite remaining devoted throughout his life, may not obtain the divine one. But then, he may attain another birth. Lalan says that human deeds determine your birth. If one engages in bad deeds, he or she will reincarnate as an animal- dog, goat, sheep, etc. but one who leads a devotee’s life, even though he or she may not attain the divine in one birth, will definitely return in human form to continue his or her devotion in the next birth. Lalan says the sleep of a prophet can equal a hundred thousand human years on this planet. It is very difficult to attain a human birth. One needs to pass through eighty cycles of birth before attaining a human birth. So, if a devotee’s sadhana remains incomplete in one life, he or she will definitely return in a human form to complete that sadhana.
- Do you have any other sources of income?
- See, if I only run after material wealth and gain, my sadhana will remain incomplete. I can’t become a nabi or a true devotee if I only pursue material gain. I am devoted to Data Huzoor. I follow his instructions and lead my life accordingly. He is a very renowned saint, and does not easily commit himself to induct disciples. Lalan says, “Allah is bound to the disciple’s threshold.” Allah reveals himself to the true devotee. This knowledge, however, is solely dependent on the guru. The guru shows you the way of devotion and it is by rigorously following this form of sadhana that one can get to perceive Allah. The prophet will never reveal himself directly, but through the guru. The prophet says that you have to keep practicing utterance, and sooner or later he shall reward you by revealing himself.
- You also have a lot of followers in the cities, right?
- So who do you think understands your songs more— people, like us, in cities, or the villagers?
- People in the villages also understand my songs. But they are simple and less clever than people of the cities. In the cities, not everyone wants to embark on the path of sadhana. Many simply wish to understand it objectively. In the villages however, those who pursue a guru do so with complete sincerity. Their approach is not objective. In the cities, life is fast. But if the divine one so wishes, a person from the big city too can embark on the path of sadhana. Most cannot attain Allah in one birth. One needs a certain disposition of the mind to start such a form of sadhana. The Guru understands exactly what the disciple is seeking, and accordingly, will initiate him or her. Lalan has said— “The prophet has displayed precious gems in his shop/ what you wish, you buy.” So too, the Guru understands exactly what a disciple may be seeking and initiates him or her accordingly.
- So how many disciples do you have at present?
- I don’t have any disciples as of now. I am still striving to be the perfect disciple of Data Huzoor. So I haven’t begun taking disciples. These days, a guru may have up to four or five thousand disciples. This is impossible. Lalan had only three or four disciples. But these days Gurus have their own forms of knowledge I suppose. They alone know what form of sadhana they are engaged in. It is not easy to have a disciple. “If you wish to perceive the flower so shall you/ even though the seed may not have yet been planted.” Lalan seems to be saying, that a disciple is one who may even be born without a seed being planted. That is the mark of a true disciple. It is actually a very difficult process to initiate another into being your disciple.
- So are you happy with the path on which you have embarked?
- Yes, immensely. It’s a beautiful but rigorous path. I haven’t succeeded in this one life, but I still consider myself rewarded. It indeed is a wonderful path.
- Do you believe in re-incarnation?
- I think it may be possible to believe in rebirth. This is possible only through sadhana, where one can perceive what one was in the previous life. Everyone has a certain goal to reach, more so if you are a true devotee seeking the divine one. Consider a goat or a dog. They have the cage (body) yet no power of speech. You call a dog, it comes. The dog too is under the will of Allah. You give it food and it will eat. It has all other faculties except speech. So human beings have been created as the most evolved, because they possess the power of speech. Allah has given humans this capacity so that they are able to utter his name. But we have forgotten it, trapped ourselves in the world of illusion. Lalan has said, “Passing through extreme torments, I have attained this human form/ yet, forgotten have I those, after coming to earth; / O Guru! Make me the vassal at your feet!” So, trapped in this world of maha-maya (grand illusion), we forget all that we had to endure for attaining this human birth. For someone who sincerely embarks on the path of sadhana, the guru shall be able to show him all that he has endured in his previous births and now forgotten, trapped within illusion. The Guru shall show him the merits he accumulated through sadhana in his previous births. It is not possible to attain Allah in one life.
- So how do you see yourself in your next birth?
- I cannot predict that. If my sadhana is true, my merits shall be carried forward. I live with the hope that I shall be able to attain a human birth again. A true devotee can see his previous lives.
- So what do you find most difficult within this path which you have embarked on?
- It is a very difficult path, one of the most in the world. I do not know if I shall be able to achieve what I seek in this one life. No one can guarantee whether a devotee, even if his faith is true, will be able to attain the divine. Lalan has said, and so have other sadhus, that peace is more important than happiness. Lalan has said, “It is a dangerous thing, if this desire takes hold/ it doesn’t leave your side, it enslaves you/ The Guru observes all…” If your desire for Allah is true, he will manifest himself to you.
- So what role do women play within the Fakir tradition? Why are there lesser female Fakirs than male Fakirs?
- Well, Fakirs have to perform their utterance. This requires a particular context, a place, a time. The moment has to be right. A person does not inhabit the mode of sadhana all twenty-hours in a day. The sadhana of men and women are different. The two belong to different levels. Women practice primary forms of sadhana. Yet, one cannot stay within this primary form for the entirety of one’s life. It is like school level, university level, etc. The first step is to renounce desire. Once you renounce desire, you are able to perceive a strange form of transcendental beauty. You have to forsake desire of the flesh in order to perceive Allah. A young girl is like a young boy. She has not yet reached adolescence, hence not known desire. But once she attains adolescence, desire takes hold. It is very difficult for a woman to renounce desire. Only if she begins her sadhana pre puberty, when she is still like a young boy, can she hope to become a fakir. Woman is supreme in all other aspects. And yet, this path is most difficult for her to emulate. Woman is Fatema. Each practices her or his sadhana according to her or his capability.
- You mentioned that your grandmother, Zahera Bibi, was a fakir? How did she embark upon this path?
- Yes, my paternal grandmother! At that time in our village, a few wandering fakirs would make an occasional appearance. She received her initiations from them and was the first one to initiate me as a child. She was widowed at a young age. I never saw my paternal grandfather. My grandmother raised her two sons- my father, Mujibur and uncle, Fatibur on her own for twenty-five years. She had a very difficult life, living on her own and also pursuing her sadhana. She was the one to initiate me into the fundamental aspects of the Fakir way of life. I realized it was a very difficult path right at the outset. My grandmother used to tell me that if my devotion was genuine, I would eventually find a guru and receive a full initiation. That is how I started keeping company with the sadhus and gurus.
- Who else is there in your family? Do you have brothers and sisters?
- Yes, I have my parents, four brothers and a sister. There is a small ashram at my house. My parents as well as my brothers are initiated with gurus. We all follow the Fakir way of life. This is a very important tradition that we wish to maintain and continue.
- Are your brothers performing
Fakirs or do they also practice the Fakir way of life?
- No, they don’t sing. Some keep the company of sadhus. Not everyone is capable of following the rigorous path of sadhana. You need Allah’s blessings for that. There are also other members who are part of the ashram but not directly related to our family- like Arban, Babu, Golam, etc. Khaibar Fakir, Mansur Fakir, Anwar Fakir, Moinaruddin, Ashraf Fakir, Babur Ali, Mehboob, Shohrab— they are all fakirs from our village. We all perform music. Now few of us also have disciples.
- So how many of you are there in total?
- Around three hundred are there who are initiated with a guru. Besides, there are around fifty resident performers in our village. Every evening, there are musical performances at our ashram.
- Out of all these people, is there anyone in particular you think who was attained a vision of the divine?
- I will not be able to say that. Only the guru and the disciple know. They know and sense in their hearts who has become a prophet by attaining the vision. “If you go with the crazy one, you too shall become crazy,” Lalan has stated. The one who shaves his head alone knows how far he has proceeded on the path of sadhana. If I tell anyone I have seen Data Huzoor, or Lalan Shah, or the khwaja, they may not believe me. It is for you alone to understand and sense that you will attain a vision of the divine. It stays within the mind. The true devotee can know and perceive. Others cannot know. Lalan has shown us the path of sadhana through which we can attain a vision of Allah. But if we proclaim that we have achieved such vision, we are in a way disrespecting him, because not everyone is capable of fully following the path shown to us by Lalan, as it is extremely rigorous.
- Apart from Lalan, there are other realized Fakirs too.
- Yes, there are others. But they come later. The path which Lalan showed is indeed the most difficult and rigorous. To us, he is the one who has spoken the true language of the Quran in Bengali. He is the one who has shown us the way of bodily practice. There was another Fakir, Lal Shashi, around five hundred years ago, but he could not attain the level that Lalan did. And there are many who came after Lalan, who used his songs and the philosophy contained therein to compose their own songs. Allah has revealed himself in the Quran and Lalan has revealed the Quran to us in Bengali. Lalan has said, “Those who believe not in the Prophet are muhayats and kafirs in this world/ thus is said in the Quran.”
- How many songs did Lalan compose?
- I have seen around five thousand. Besides, there are around five or six hundred small devotional songs. I have also heard twenty or fifty songs which can be attributed to Lalan and have been passed down orally. These oral transmissions occur through generations of fakirs. There are many fakir elders in our village who know and sing these songs. Lalan’s songs are so powerful, that if you follow just one composition in its entirety, you can reach the stage of divinity. Lalan’s verses are like gold, which will sparkle even if they fall on earth.
 A metaphor of the human body
 A reference to Vaishnavism and the tradition of bhakti
 The term comes from Sufi or Dervish practice, where the ultimate aim is seen as spiritual extinction or a complete effacement in God (fan?’ fi’llah or fenafillah)
 A crore equals 10 million in the Indian numbering system.
 Samsara here refers to the institution of marriage and the life of the householder, where one weds and procreates.
 The reference here is to textual Islam versus a more heterogeneous mix of practices which fall under Islamic cultural practice. Shariati Islam refers to strictly textual interpretations of Islam which put primacy upon the Quran and Hadiths alone. The latter three— Tariqat, Haqiqat and Marfat Islam refer to a diverse range of practices which draw upon a range of religio-cultural discourses. Sufi, Fakir, Dervish practices focus not so much on the Sharia or written word but the latter three modalities of practice.
 It may be noted here that there is no concept of reincarnation within orthodox forms of Semitic faiths. Shariat Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, does not adhere to the notion of previous lives, a concept intrinsic to the Indic faiths- Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea attributed by Akkash to Lalan here is intrinsic to the Indic religions— Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and the notion of karma determining a person’s next birth. What Akkash Fakir seems to be expostulating here is a complex Sufi tradition which draws upon not one but multiple forms of religious practice in the Indian subcontinent.
 Fatema or Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, the Prophet, is held as one of the four perfect women in Islamic tradition.
Kolkata, West Bengal
- Tell us your name and your address.
- My name is Bedana Fakir. My address is Fajirnagar, P.S. Thanarpara, P.O. Fajirnagar, district- Nadia.
- It is not often that we see a woman becoming a Fakir. Please tell us your history, right from your childhood and how you came to choose this path.
- We had no Fakir tradition in my paternal family. However, after two or five years after I was married, my husband became a Fakir. At that time, I had no understanding of this tradition. So I didn’t become a Fakir. I told my husband, “You become one but I shall not!” For five years, he travelled on his own, performing songs, keeping the company of sadhus. He had wanted me to accompany him, but I didn’t. At first, I told him that I did not like this path. Then, slowly, over the course of five years, he explained to me the ways of the Fakirs. I began to gradually develop an inclination towards it. I began to understand that this was a good path. I asked him to take me to a sadhu congregation to observe and learn. I went there and after what I heard and observed, I had a change of heart. I thus embraced the Fakir way of life. After hearing their words and music, I realized that I could learn so much. I began to regularly visit these congregations and also began singing a few verses. They loved my voice and would ask me to sing. Once I went with them to Bolpur and sang. Thereafter I kept coming to Kolkata for five or six years and performed at Jadavpur. I have also performed at various other places in Kolkata. I have performed at five or six venues in Kolkata.
- So there were no Fakirs in your paternal side of the family?
- No. There were none.
- At what age did you get married?
- I was married at the age of fourteen. Now I am around forty-five years old. It has been two years since my husband passed away. He was a real lover of the Fakir way of life. It is solely because of his devotion and diligence that I too have come so far on the path of Fakir sadhana. I have reached attainment in this path only because he initiated me.
- Can you tell us the name of your husband?
- Manarul Fakir.
- So you need a guru to initiate you into this tradition?
- Yes. Unless you have a murshid to show you the path, you will not be able to understand even your own being. You have to bow your head before a murshid. It is the murshid who conveys to us who we are and what is our essence. We too had no understanding whatsoever. It is only from the guru that we received our initiation. Even the lyrics of the great one (mahajan) that we sing— this too has come to us through sadhana. Learning the songs isn’t enough; we have to learn the ways of the Fakir tradition. And the guru is the one who initiates us.
- Who was your guru?
- My guru is still alive. His name is Mohizuddin Fakir.
- How many siblings do you have?
- I have two sisters and three brothers. Of them, two of us have become Fakirs. Me and a younger brother.
- You mentioned that you initially disliked the Fakir way of life.
- Yes, that is because I had no understanding of it. Also, it wasn’t part of our family tradition. It is only after coming into contact with the sadhus that my husband understood this path. He initiated himself with a guru. Initially, he tried to draw me towards it but did not succeed. After two to five years, I slowly began to understand it and since then, I have been immersed in sadhana. The lyrics themselves reveal the methods of practicing sadhana. Unless you inhabit this world of practice, you shall not be able to interpret or comprehend the meanings of the songs. These days, most are simply performing Fakirs. They are simply performing artists and do not understand anything about sadhana. We first became sadhu Fakirs and practiced sadhana. It is only after we managed to communicate with our own bodies that we began reciting the great one’s words.
- This form of sadhana which you mention is extremely rigorous, right?
- It is very rigorous. This knowledge vis-à-vis sadhana is a transmitted form of knowledge; it is not something apparent or something that you can yourself learn through experience. It needs to be transmitted to you through a guru. I cannot speak openly about it. The knowledge resides with the guru. According to Islam, There are four ways— Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat, Marfat. The path of the sadhus falls under Marfat Islam.
- So what do you mean by Marfat Islam?
- Marfat Islam refers to a set of secret practices, and understanding your own body and self. The guru initiates you into the ways of understanding and disciplining the body through practice. You need a guru for initiating you and cannot learn these on your own. The guru is our master. You cannot self-study without a master. This too is a form of study, a study of your own body; and the guru is the master who initiates you. The Pir or the Murshid teaches us what lies within our bodies.
- So you have been residing at Gourbhanga from a very young age?
- Yes. It is my neighbouring village. I travel there regularly. I perform there too on a regular basis. I have performed in many houses there.
- So you said you are around 44-45 years old now. It has been many years that you have been living the life of a Fakir.
- I have been performing music for twenty years.
- Do you notice any difference in the place (Gourbhanga) when you first began singing twenty years ago and now?
- These days, things are different. In those days, most people would ask me not to become a Fakir, as it was not a good path. I did not listen to them, told them instead that I should be the judge once I had experienced this path for myself. Now they too know that it’s a good path, as I am not doing anything bad. So now they have stopped commenting. Yet although they have changed their attitude, they know that it’s a difficult path and not many of them can choose it. Most people refuse to embark on this path; and they have told me as much. It’s been eighteen years that I have started wandering for alms. We have started an ashram in an open space, leaving behind the enclosure of the house. I have left my own house. It’s been eighteen years that I have been in the ashram living with the sadhus. I wander around for alms, keep the company of sadhus, and give service to the needy. Sometimes this also costs a lot of money, as much as twenty to twenty- five thousand. Last Agrahayana, one of our senior sadhus left behind his mortal body. That was the same date on which we had to go out wandering for alms. He was given samadhi, and whatever we collected was used to feed the people who came to the funeral. These days, a lot of people praise us. True, they cannot become Fakirs like us, but they extend help towards us. They love the merriment, love listening to the songs, the congregations and the feasts. They don’t see our presence in a negative way.
- It’s not often that we come across a female Fakir. When you embarked upon this path, were there any in your village?
- No, there weren’t any. Actually, there was a woman, the wife of Khejmut Fakir. Both the husband and wife followed the Fakir tradition. They were also an inspiration for me and my husband. We wanted to emulate them and be devoted to a guru. Slowly, the four of us got together and started visiting the guru’s ashram together. Khejmut still sings, my husband couldn’t sing. I have studied in school till standard four, so I was able to write down the lyrics of the songs. Khejmut came to Kolkata with the guru’s blessings, and so did we. This is a good path, but not everyone is capable of practicing it. You require a lot of knowledge for sadhana.
- Did you face any obstacles because you were a woman? Did people comment that women shouldn’t become Fakirs?
- Yes, a lot of people said that me, being a woman, shouldn’t have embarked on this path. But my husband stood up for me. He told people that I was his wife and would accompany him wherever he went. I also responded by saying that my husband being the epitome for me, I had to follow his wishes. This was how we chose to respond to the society around us who were critical. The guru taught me, and I was initiated. People who did not understand this tradition chose to comment. But now those same people say that I had manifested extreme wisdom by doing what no girl had dared to do. They praise me and my husband. No one from Fajirnagar took to wandering for alms. Yes, Hindus have had such traditions, but you hardly see it among Muslims. A lot of people in those days mistook us for Hindus. They would not believe we could be Muslim fakirs. They would tell us that we were Hindus in previous lives and hence took to this path. But, all that has transpired has only been possible with the blessings of the guru. The guru’s words are greater than all uttered words. The guru favoured us with his blessings. So, we succeeded, through our faith in the guru. If you don’t have faith in the guru, you can never attain success in this path. You have to follow each of the guru’s words. Only then, will your sadhana find fruition. The guru keeps on imparting knowledge stepwise, and you need to follow each and every step. And once you begin practicing, you realize of your own accord whether this mode of practice is good or not. I have been married for thirty years and been practicing the Fakir way of life for twenty-five years, barring the initial five years of my marriage. After practicing sadhana for five years, we began learning the lyrics and music. The verses contain everything, and it is because we had been practicing sadhana before starting to learn the verses that we were able to interpret their meanings.
- Do the Mullahs or those who abide by the Sharia law oppose you?
- Yes, they do. In the beginning, they opposed us becoming Fakirs. But my guru didn’t pay heed to them, to these obstacles. My guru would tell them that each person has to answer for his or her own self. Another cannot take the moral charge. He would tell them that we would do as we like and we would face our own judgments individually, as and when our time came. He told them that they need not comment on something they had no understanding of. He refused to obey their diktat. Later they admitted their mistake; other people too admitted their mistakes and realized that my guru was right. When he left his mortal body, he did it through his sadhana. Others couldn’t, because they did not have the blessings of the guru. On a full-moon day, in the evening, my guru left behind his mortal body of his own accord, while performing his sadhana. He realized that his mortal clock had completed its minutes, and left behind his mortal body.
- Do you stay very close to the India-Bangladesh border?
- We do, although the border is not immediately adjacent to us.
- Do you face any obstacles on account of this?
- No. these days, a lot of people seek out a Pir or a guru, even though not all of them end up as Fakirs. A lot of people attempt, but do not succeed. Only those who have absolute devotion to the guru can succeed. The Guru is synonymous with your own being. In order to understand your own being, you need to follow every word of the guru. You need to believe in him. Otherwise you can never understand your own being or come to terms with your body. Only some succeed. Others don’t, although they try.
- It has been two years since your husband passed away. So, are you continuing the Fakir way of life? Do you continue to perform music?
- I used to regularly perform when my husband was alive. My child loves listening to me sing and also learns music from me. Yet whenever I start singing, we both begin to weep. I weep because I miss my husband and, along with him, those days when I was a regularly performing Fakir. People often tell me that the sadhana, which my husband initiated me into, remains within me and my music.
- How many children do you have?
- I have just one child, a daughter.
- Has she been learnt music?
- Not, not formally. But her husband has. His name is Athar and he plays the dotara. Athar’s father was a maulana in a mosque for twenty years. He could recite the Quran by heart and yet, he was unable to interpret anything written therein. Once when asked by a Fakir the meaning of a particular verse from the Quran, my son-in-law’s father couldn’t answer. The Fakir told him the exact verse, its location in the Quran and its interpretation. The Fakir asked him several questions. But my son-in-law’s father, despite being so well read in orthodox Islam, couldn’t answer a single one. That is when he realized that real knowledge comes through transmission and not simply by mugging up. He thereafter gave up his position as maulana. He gave up his forms of orthodoxy— keeping roza fast and reciting namaaz. He realized that the real way of understanding Allah was by following the words of the guru. He realized the error in his methodology and went out in search of a guru. He initiated himself with a sadhu. People were completely wonderstruck seeing a maulana choose this path. They started questioning him. He responded by saying that since he found no meaning any more in namaaz and roza, he had no right anymore to teach these erroneous methodologies to the mass. He said that others who chose these ways (of namaaz and roza) could continue doing so, but he found no meaning in these practices any longer. Now he has become a realized Fakir and has three hundred disciples. The one who was so much rooted in orthodoxy, himself gave these up and went in search of a guru. The true forms of interpretation can come only by deconstructing the body and the self. He now has three hundred disciples and they have organized a huge congregation on the 5th of the coming Vesak month, spending an amount of 20-25 thousand. My son-in-law is his father’s only child. I married my daughter off within this family. Both our families are implicated within the Fakir tradition. Their family also goes around wandering for alms. And now that my daughter has been married off, I wish to permanently live in an ashram in the company of sadhus. Both the families— mine as well as my in-laws’— are initiated into the discourse of the human self and body. There are around two-hundred people in Fajirnagar who are now initiated with a guru. Yet, very few have been able to reach an advanced stage of Fakir practice. The family of Khejmut Fakir, me and my in-laws’ family— we are the only ones who truly practice these advanced forms of sadhana. If you lay eyes on the father of my son-in-law, you will see a glow in him, a reddish halo like the colour of an apple. He is around 60-65 years old, but he is in a perfect state of health.
- Do you have any disciple?
- Yes, I have six disciples. But they have merely taken my name (as their guru). They do not seriously wish to pursue the Fakir tradition and have never asked me to give them the knowledge. They haven’t asked me and I haven’t told them. It is a rigorous path. Only if you ask for it can I initiate you. Just like I can give you water only when you ask for it. If you don’t ask, I will not go on asking you if you want a drink of water. The Fakir tradition is also like that. If you have devotion, if you crave to know, you need to come and ask for that knowledge from the guru. My disciples merely wanted to be initiated with a guru; they wanted the guru’s name; they did not truly want to become fakirs. All my six disciples are from this neighbourhood. After my husband’s demise, they do not even bother to ask me how I am doing. I am all on my own. I communicate with my own self, go around begging alms alone. I have no one. Sometimes, I weep alone. When my husband was alive, we would practice music all throughout the day, for twenty-four hours. If I forgot a line, he would remind me. He would write down lyrics for me, and ask me to learn the song and sing it to him.
- Do you have any land which you cultivate?
- No. I go around asking for alms, and that is how I manage my own expenses. I sometimes worry how I am going to sustain the expenses incurred during the congregations (of sadhus). It has been eighteen years that I took to wandering for alms, the way the Hindus do. Since then, we have also been regularly organizing such congregations. My guru wanted me to continue these. After he left behind his mortal body, I followed his wishes for two years. But now that I am alone, I do not know how to arrange for money for doing so. It costs around twenty to twenty-five thousand. So you have been coming to Kolkata regularly for the past six or seven years?
- It has been more than that, around ten years.
- Have you performed elsewhere?
- I have been to Kolkata only. I performed once at Tollygunge. Karthik was there too.
- Do you have any recording of your songs?
- There is one CD of our performance at Jadavpur. I performed two songs and played the dotara. I was taken there by Halim Fakir. He was given a CD of the performances. I asked the organizer and got a copy the cassette. It is at my home.
- Have any other women been inspired by you at your village in Fajirnagar?
Tompson Road, Kolkata
Aditi: Please tell us how you came to choose this path/ way of life.
Bodo: The words ‘Baul’ and ‘fakir’ have several connotations. Who are the Bauls and fakirs? They are those who seek meaning amidst air, they are those that can perceive the almighty. However, fakirs have a duty to serve. Today, a lot of educated young men and women are doctors or engineers or teachers by profession. Similarly, if you want to become a fakir, you need to be duty bound towards and culpable before the almighty. Unless you perform this duty diligently, you cannot become a fakir. So what is this duty? You need to perform zikr/ utterance and worship. You also need to fast. When we visit Daata Baba’s shrine, often four or five days elapse before we realize that we have gone without food or taken a bath. We simply sit and meditate and focus our thoughts on Daata Baba and the almighty. We sit and utter His name. It is said that if you partake of the elixir of immortality, all feelings of earthly hunger secede. Performing zikr/ utterance and pranayam are synonymous to partaking of such elixir, and we forget our hungers-of-the-body. In order to become a fakir, in order for the almighty to respond to your call, you need to undergo a certain amount of penance. You observe so many people roaming amidst the wilderness, their hair unkempt and gone wild, alms bags strung across their shoulders. So many people roam the streets, calling the almighty, wanting to attain him, craving to know him.
Aditi: At what age did you get initiated into this path?
Bodo: I was initiated into this path at a very young age. My father too was a fakir. He would take an hour for every single song he performed. Why so? Within his performance, he would spend a long time simply invoking the Guru. His songs evoked a deep feeling, a sense of yearning. As children, we used to wonder in amazement at this yearning for the almighty, for Allah and for the guru. From a very early age, I have been observing penance. We became fakirs only after undergoing a certain duty towards the almighty. These days, people become fakirs in name only, without undergoing any duty at all. You have to perform a certain ethical duty towards Allah. Such duty is called pairobi. Yet, most fakirs you see today- fakirs in name only- do not even know the language of fakirs. The fakirs have their own linguistic register; yet, most do not know it at all.
Aditi: Yes, it’s true, especially for commoners like us. We don’t understand many of the words which have coded meanings.
Bodo: I will give you an example (quotes in Arabic and translates) “Says Mirazul, “I didn’t meet you today, O Supreme One!” You see, this is the Arabic language. Mirazul had an encounter with Allah Rasul. He had a meeting and a communion with the supreme one. So, what quality did Mirazul possess which enabled him to attain such proximity with the supreme one? It was the quality of Utterance. The supreme one has a hundred and one names, and one often does not know which name to invoke Him by. In order to know it, you need to initiate yourself with a guru— a pir or murshid. So, Lalan says in one of his songs—
Make no Mistake! The one who is Murshid is also Rasul! He is Allah too!
So says not Lalan, but the Q’uran!
Another song contains a similar message—
The earth has not the capability to devour this flesh!
If only your body has been burned to ashes by the Murshid’s flame!
Aditi: So your own father was your guru?
Bodo: My initial training in music was from my father. Thereafter, I have been associated with various sadhus at different points of time in life. Presently, my guru is Gani Pagol of Bangladesh. He resides in Jugirghopa village under Gangni police station.
Aditi: From what age did you embark on this path?
Bodo: I do not remember the precise age, but I was indeed very young, still in my dotted half pants, when I first picked up the dotara. Today, this dotara costs five thousand rupees. When I had bought it, it had cost only fifty rupees.
Aditi: So did you grow up in Gourbhanga?
Bodo: Yes, our house is in Gourbhanga. I kept the company of a lot of sadhus at Gourbhanga. Those days, a lot of such sadhus would visit Gourbhanga. Many like Jhoru Kol, Bhelu Kana and Tetul Das would regularly come over from Bangladesh. They would sing and perform so wonderfully. You just do not witness such performances these days. Their performances would move the onlooker to tears. They would lose themselves within their love for the divine. They would become the epitome of love itself. Their eyes would be flooded with tears and we would be moved to tears as well. These days, you have functions, but you do not witness such levels of devotion and such performances. These days, congregations of sadhus too seem to be dwindling. Instead, we have functions where people perform for money.
Aditi: Do you think those older people were perhaps more honest in their music and their devotion? I just asked the same question to Akkas (fakir) in fact.
Bodo: Yes, they were. Even when they would speak, the words would come flowing from their heart. And the Almighty would hear these words uttered from the heart with such honesty. These days, people do not utter from the heart. They simply parrot what they have heard from others. Performances, too, have become so mechanical.
Aditi: So what is your opinion regarding the fakirs who are taking up this path now?
Bodo: Well, out of one hundred who take up initiation, maybe one or two become true fakirs. But not everyone can become a Baul or a fakir. There was a Lalan mela being held at Krishnanagar in the Nadia district. There was a fakir who was visiting from Bangladesh. He told me, “Golam! I have seen three kinds of sadhus in your country— one kind is the fakir who only has the garb/ dress of a fakir; another kind is the fakir who knows (janne-wala), another kind is the one who does/ acts (karne-wala). The three are not the same.” The fakir who does or acts has been around since centuries. They usually remain aloof in this world of fake fakirs; they hide themselves in their little niches. You have to seek them out and you have to know them. You need to ponder whether a fakir you meet is true or not.
Aditi: Do you have many disciples?
Bodo: Yes, I have a few disciples and followers.
Aditi: Has anyone been initiated with you as Guru?
Bodo: Yes. Just as I emulate other fakirs, there are those that also observe and emulate me. There are also those who learn songs from me and emulate me in their performance.
Aditi: At present, how many fakirs are there in Gourbhanga?
Bodo: At present, there are many fakirs in Gourbhanga. In my father’s time, there used to be only twelve or thirteen. Now, there are around two hundred. There are five ashrams in our village.
Aditi: Who do these ashrams belong to?
Bodo: There is one that was started by Munsir Fakir. There is another that was jointly begun by Akkas Fakir and me. Akkas also had his own ashram. There is another that was started by Akbar Khan, and yet another that was established by Ashraf Fakir.
Aditi: You perform at a lot of functions these days. Are there times when you also congregate among yourselves and sing devotional songs?
Bodo: Yes, of course. Such devotional songs are an integral part of our everyday life. Whenever we are congregated at our ashram, we practice music. We also discuss various things, not at all related to our family lives. The home is the place for all mundane familial matters. Such matters should not even be discussed within the ashram. If one wishes to talk about petty things, one can do so in the streets, but not in the ashram. Once seated inside the ashram, you need to focus your thoughts on the divine, speak about the divine and about the guru, and speak from your heart. You focus your mind on music and through it, on the supreme one. Such things are not possible at home and hence, we need to step into the ashram from time to time.
Aditi: Apart from your regular visits to Kolkata, which places have you travelled to?
Bodo: I have been to London thrice. I have also been to Paris, Tunisia, Switzerland, China, Denmark and Malaysia. I have been to Dhaka four times. Although my address is in India, Bangladesh is like a second home to me. In my mind, Bengal is one and I travel to and fro very often.
Aditi: Out of all these places where you have performed before an audience, which sticks out within your memory?
Bodo: I liked London and Paris the most.
Aditi: Were the people there more receptive?
Bodo: How did they receive me? How did they perceive the meaning of my words? Well, it is possible for words to be translated from Bengali to English. But more important than the exact meaning of the words is the ability to communicate feelings. I gave them love, affection and inspiration and received the same from them in turn.
Aditi: You mentioned especially liking London and Paris. Most people there do not understand Bengali. So in which language did you communicate?
Bodo: They understood the language of feelings as well as the language of music. Devotional feeling has its own language and so does music. These languages can be performed as well as emulated, without necessarily comprehending the precise meanings of the words sung. It is possible to glean the essence of a song through music and feeling alone. The person will understand what your heart wants to say. This is how I would communicate with them and they were pleased.
Aditi: So you have two kinds of disciples— those that understand the essence of your songs and those like us who do not understand the language at all. Who do you think enjoys your songs more?
Bodo: I am from Bengal. Those who understand Bengali will be able to comprehend some of the meaning of my songs. I have performed abroad a number of times. And yet, among those who do not have any grasp over Bengali, I have seen people being deeply moved. On such occasions, someone would often translate a couple of words or sometimes provide a gist of the song. So, we found a good audience abroad who were receptive to these songs, although the lyrics were in Bengali.
Aditi: Are there a lot of Arabic and Persian words in the songs?
Bodo: Yes, I already mentioned an example of the use of Arabic words in our songs. There are a lot of regional words too. So, the songs of fakirs, especially those by Lalan Shah, are very poly-lingual. They have words which are distinctly regional in original, along with Bengali, Arabic, Persian and Urdu words. You will find the influence of a diverse gamut of languages if you have a keen ear for them.
Aditi: How do you like this way of life that you have selected for yourself?
Bodo: This path for me has given me the very meaning of my life. This is my path of love, my path to attain the almighty. This is also the path for the liberation of the soul. The songs that I perform are not so much meant for an audience, but rather as sustenance for my own soul. The songs I sing are meant to be sung solely for my own self. There is no problem in there being an audience. There is also no problem if someone gets up and leaves in the middle of a performance. The songs are intended solely for the self. I am the performer and the listener too. There is a song—
Music is food for my love,
Consuming purges my soul,
Fasting is a punishment,
My body perishes…
Aditi: You perform both in cities as well as in villages. What differences do you perceive in an audience from a village and an audience in a big town?
Bodo: There was a time when we would perform only in villages. The people in the big cities only knew us later, once they became familiar with the essence of our songs. It is only then that we began performing in the big cities as well. If people in cities were non-receptive, why would we keep coming back to perform? Increasingly, people not just in big cities, but also abroad, have become more and more receptive to our kind of music.
Aditi: Music has its own language after all.
Bodo: Well, you can give me any American beat or rhythm, and I can compose and perform a song to it. I have experienced such a thing before. Music from all across the world synthesize into one. Sometimes, when we perform abroad, the hoardings we put up ask the people to know and pass on that knowledge, to hear and sing with us. Each time I travel abroad, I wish to gain some knowledge and also wish to pass on some of what I know.
Aditi: Do you have any foreign disciples?
Bodo: I have a Portuguese disciple from Spain who is a journalist. I also have friends in London and Denmark. They also try to learn Bengali from me.
Aditi: Have you also taught them music?
Bodo: No, not yet. But they want to know the meaning of my songs and I, through casual conversation, try and explain the meanings of the words. I have another friend from Jamaica.
Aditi: Jamaicans have a keen sense of music.
Bodo: Indeed, they do have a fascinating sense of music. My eyes perceive every one as a sadhu.
Aditi: Maybe, because you yourself a sadhu, you perceive every person as such. So, what do you feel was your strongest impediment in this path of sadhana?
Bodo: I cannot give you the answer in words. Rather, let me attempt to sing and provide you with an answer. Let me narrate an incident! Goutam Ghosh, the director and a close friend of mine, wanted me to give him a Sufi song for a television soap he was making on the life of Rammohun Roy. I wanted him to listen to five songs and select one. However, right after I performed the first, he selected it. I asked him why not listen to the second song before making a choice. Your question reminds me of this incident. Let me now attempt to formulate an answer through a song, “Who are you submerging yourself on the banks of the river?” What is this river? This is a song based upon the metaphysics of the body (deha-tattva). This river resides inside the human body. It is not a physical river like the Khori or the Mayurakshi. It is not a meandering river. It is constantly in flow within the body. So the song goes—
Who are you submerging yourself on the banks of the river?
We will have great fun finding out—
Who are you, on the banks of the river, at a time when Kartick flies?
When the fire takes hold within your body,
You will tie holy threads and medallions on your neck,
Will these redeem you if the water inside your mind has run dry?
Where does the water run dry? On the banks of the river! If you want to practice true sadhana and attain liberation from the body, you have to first conquer the demons inside you. Such an injunction is also given in the Q’uran— “Do not turn amanat (loyalty) into khayanat (breach of trust)!” There is another song—
Do not obstruct the direction, from which the river flows,
The Q’uran says it is immortal!
You cannot obstruct the flow of the river. If you intend to do so, the river will run dry and on the dry soil, a thousand ants will gather and devour you. But if you can maintain the flow, even the lord Yama will bow before you. It is indeed very difficult to become a fakir. There are many impediments and inner struggles. You have to continuously perform Ibadat/ Devotion through an utterance of the name of the divine. Only the person who has already embarked on this path knows these struggles. It is impossible for others to know. I cannot even explain these to someone who is uninitiated. I cannot express through words what I feel within my heart. In case you happen to embark on this path, you shall attain such realization yourself. Once, a gathering comprising me and others embarked from Delhi to the dargah of Khwaja Baba in Ajmer Sharif. Hundred and sixty people began the walk, but only seventeen completed it. I and my brother were among the seventeen. The road isn’t a physical one. It’s a metaphorical journey through human hell. Only after you manage to cross it, can you walk on the other road— that of ideal sadhana. If you fail on this road, you fail on that too. So how does one become a fakir? There are many struggles, many duties and many forms of ibadat to be performed. You need to forget to take your meals and keep uttering the names of Allah and Daata Baba. When we visit the shrine of Daata Baba, we feel his presence around us all the time; we feel as if he has come and sat down with us. But he never reveals his identity. He is clever. It is you who has to perceive him. If you call him, he will respond. If you call Allah, He too shall respond. After all, you are His disciple, bound to Him. So He is compelled to respond to your call.
Aditi: Have you ever perceived the Almighty?
Bodo: Yes, I have. He listens to you. He will come to you and yet is clever enough not to reveal Himself.
Aditi: How many members are there in your family?
Bodo: I have three sons, two daughters-in-law, my grandchildren and the one who presides over the kitchen— my wife.
Aditi: Have all of them embarked upon this path?
Bodo: One of my sons is initiated into Baul music. The other two love music, but they mostly tend to ours fields and crops. Maybe, they too shall become fakirs one day.
Aditi: How many siblings do you have?
Bodo: We are four brothers and four sisters. All of us four brothers are fakirs. My sisters too are initiated with gurus. Although they are now part of their husband’s families and have become home-makers, they have been initiated with gurus. They have also influenced their husbands into seeking out gurus.
Aditi: Tell us the names of your brothers.
Bodo: The name of my eldest brother is Abdul Rashid Khan, the one after him is called Arman Ali Khan Fakir, I, Golam Fakir, am the third, and my younger brother is named Babu Fakir.
Aditi: I would like to know a little more about women and the fakir way of life. Are women, too, allowed to become fakirs?
Bodo: How are women like? See, if women want, they can inspire you to become a fakir. Death, life and love are in their hands. If men are kites, they are the kite-flyers, as they are the ones that hold the spool of thread. They can make us saints. They can also lead us astray. They protect and nurture us. There is a song—
If you know the ground on which to sow,
A hundred and thirty harvests will you grow;
Allah is angered by loud cries and wails.
The Kazis, Mullahs old and young say—
Namaaz is a debt we all need to repay.
So says Lalan, unless you know where to pray,
What use is namaaz anyway?
We fakirs consider that place as synonymous with the Rahmah. The namaaz is to be dedicated to it. You have to repay your debt to it through namaaz. Otherwise, your prayer will prove meaningless. But these are things that should not be said. You cannot explain it to most people as most would not understand.
Aditi: Do you have any CDs of your songs? How many?
Bodo: Quite a few! Around four or five I think. I do not particularly wish to keep any copy with me.
Aditi: Do you like being recorded?
Bodo: I do not like to listen to recorded voices. I would rather hear myself sing.
Aditi: Haven’t you also worked in the movies?
Bodo: Yes, in the film Moner Manush. Goutam Ghosh had approached me for the role. After I had given him the Sufi song for his television soap, he called me again and invited me over to the house of the actor Prosenjit. Seated in chairs, we heard Ghosh read out the whole script to us. Prosenjit himself was seated on my right. I told him, “Listen! O crazy one! I do not watch films or television. But I have heard from peoples’ mouths that you are a major actor of Bengali cinema. So, if you want to play the role of the Great Fakir, you have to inculcate the mannerisms of one, as you are not a real fakir. If you study the mannerisms of real fakirs and then proceed to shoot the film, it will prove greatly beneficial for you.” He immediately touched my feet and asked me to guide him. I said that I could not shoulder such a great responsibility. So I asked my second eldest brother to assist him. My brother strived a lot in his efforts to guide him. I too assisted them. He is a very good human being. Whatever we would instruct him, he tried his best to follow.
Aditi: How did you like working in and being part of the film?
Bodo: I had a new experience in life. It was also an achievement for us that a film on Bauls and fakirs became the talk of every household and was screened in every home on television sets. People came to know and understand more about fakirs. Lalan has said, “It is easy to awaken desire, hard to awaken the mind.” Let people know and understand the meaning of these words. Lalan has said in another song—
Love is but one, though the paths are two
Some to heaven travel, others to hell go!
Both paths in this very world dwell
So hear what Lalan has to tell—
Let not the wrong love hold its sway!
If to love you yearn, let the sadhu show the way!
Indeed, love is the same, although some end up taking the path to hell, and others end up walking to heaven.
Aditi: Do you indeed think that this is the path to liberation?
Bodo: I think every human being, irrespective of whether he or she is Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain or Buddhist, needs to at least know this path. Let them try to follow it a little, let them search within themselves. Let them at least attempt to understand what we are trying to say through our songs. There is saying, “Think before you act, after-thought is of no use!” If you wish to embark on this path, you need to think before you do so. There is another song-
Within the heart there is a strange factory,
Only by diving in will you find the jewel,
If you keep floating, it will elude you.
Such is the essence of the Baul way of life. But before you to dive in, you first need to observe and attempt to learn.
Aditi: Do you have any other profession?
Bodo: No, this is my only way of life. My only duty is to the almighty. I go wherever I find the man-of-the-heart.
Aditi: Have you found many such people?
Bodo: I believe everyone is innately good and has the capacity of becoming a fakir or a sadhu. As I told you before, my eyes perceive in every person a sadhu.
Aditi: So the “easy man” has to be sought.
Bodo: Yes the “easy man” has to be sought, perceived and known.
Aditi: And that is what is precisely so difficult to do.
Bodo: Yes, finding him is difficult. Thus goes a song—
Go about your Salaat O Learned Momin!
Know him without the aid of namaaz,
The true believer alone can find him,
In this life itself, not post death!
Unless I find Allah or Khwaja Baba or Daata Baba in this life, what use is attaining Him after death?
Aditi: Do you believe in rebirth?
Bodo: No! I don’t believe in there being anything after death. Unless I find meaning and happiness in this life, what use are these to me after death? Lalan has said, “When in this life I could not attain you, can I attain you after death!” Unless I cannot communicate with the Divine in this very life, there is no guarantee that I shall do so after death. Sadhu! Sadhu!
Jhaudia, Jalangi, Murshidabad
“My full name is Rashid Golam Fakir. I am presently a resident of the village called Jhaudiya, which is located at Charan-khana in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal.” ?(‘Rashid’ is the name of his guru, which he uses as his first name, in order to avoid being mistaken for his namesake, Golam Fakir, who happens to be another Baul artist. He was born in the village Jhaudiya which is located at a distance of two kilometres from the border of Bangladesh. He lived for a while in the ashrama (residence of a religious community and their guru) of his guru in order to train himself in Baul philosophy and music. Presently, he visits his guru’s ashrama once or twice every year.)
Q: “How were you initiated into Fakir music and Fakir philosophy? How did you meet your guru?” (When he was in class seven, egged by his classmates Golam had smoked tobacco. And while he was high on tobacco he met a congregation of sadhus. He was influenced by their words of wisdom. And in these words he discovered the path to self-liberation and nirvana. These sadhus influenced him to embrace the Baul way of life and handed him the iktara. Before this, while in school, Golam would sing songs from Bengali films. The sadhus were impressed by his vocal talent and taught him Baul music. He started living with these Baul sadhus and began travelling from place to place performing the songs taught by them. He also began searching for a ‘kamel-mukammel’ guru, i.e., one who had found and perfected for himself the path of self-liberation. Golam had been regularly performing Baul music at an ashrama even before he had come in contact with such a self-emancipated guru. He had participated in a lot of Baul congregations at this ashrama. He thus spent seven to eight years of his life performing Baul music even before he had found his guru. He spent these years of his life in close proximity with the sadhus and, dressed in white attire, travelled to various ashramas and mazhars (holy place in Islam, similar to a dargah or shrine) with them.)
“It was around this time that my guru came to this country. India is believed to be the land of sadhus and wise men. Those in Bangladesh who are initiated into the philosophy of the sadhus harbour a great respect for India. My guru, along with a few other sadhus, had come to visit this country. However, they failed to leave an impression on the people of my region where they performed their music. My guru, Abdul Rashid Sarkar, then asked the people of the area whether they knew of any ashrama nearby where the sadhus would find peace and would be able to perform their music. The person of who he asked this question happened to be acquainted with me. He was the one who first brought my guru to my ashrama. I had sung a song from a Bengali film called ‘Sukheo Kende Othey Mon’ (‘My heart weeps even when happy’) in which the famous actor Uttam Kumar had played the role of the protagonist. On beholding my guru, my eyes had welled up with tears. I was filled with such immense happiness on beholding him! A great man had set foot in my ashrama! I am getting goose bumps now when I recall that moment. And he is such a great artist that he requires no musical accompaniment. The sound of every instrument, the flute, the harmonium, the dhol (barrel), seems to emit from his voice. He simply began to string on a kettle as he sang. And every passer-by on the street flocked to my ashrama to catch a glimpse of this unique performer. Soon there was a crowd. And my guru said to me, ‘Crazy sadhu you are! I have loved your ashrama immensely. I have to leave on some work to Berhampore. But I intend to return in two days.’ Even as those two days passed and he did not return I travelled to Berhampore to meet him. There I witnessed a lot of disciples gathered at his ashrama. All of them were singing his praises. I had not decided till that point that I wanted a guru. I had kept awake to hear his words of wisdom. Towards dawn, he asked me to become his disciple. It was then that I knew that I had been searching for an individual like him, whose heart mirrored the same love for humankind as mine. And I embraced his disciple-hood.
He had also interviewed my music. Having heard that I was a singer, he had handed me the iktara and asked me to perform in front of all his disciples. My erstwhile guru had been a woman named Mumtaz, who is a renowned artist from Bangladesh. Earlier, she was a Baul performer. Now she sings contemporary tunes as well. My guru, on hearing me sing, had said that if I continued taking lessons from my guru-ma I would become an established artist myself in two or three months. It was thus that he gave me his name. He introduced me to everyone as his singer-disciple.
He also told me that in the month of Chaitra (corresponding to the month March in the English calendar) I was to attend a congregation of devotees at his shrine in Bangladesh to understand their philosophy better. Around eight to ten of us went to the congregation. There I also met Mumtaz and she gave me bakhshish (a monetary tip).”
Q: Is Mumtaz your guru’s wife? Yes, his second wife. At present, however, they do not live together. They separated on 21st February last year. Mumtaz has married again, although even now she considers him as her sole guru. She brought out an album last year called ‘Shesh Nishwas’ (The Last Breath) where she sung songs composed by him and was full of eulogy for him. Today, whatever she has achieved for herself is owing to my guru. She has said as much herself in her various radio interviews. It was Rashid Sarkar who had invested two thousand taka for Mumtaz’s first recording on radio. Today Mumtaz is a renowned figure. Yet even today, although she has another husband, she deems Rashid Sarkar as her guru. By doing so, perhaps she even runs the risk of inviting social criticism. This year when I had visited the sadhu congregation in Bangladesh, Mumtaz had stood on the stage and said that she herself was one of the many disciples of Rashid assembled there. She is not only a renowned artist now; she also has been elected as the representative of a political party and contests the elections. Because of this, she can no longer devote as much time as she used to among the sadhus. Yet her heart belongs here.
My guru had asked me to remain with him in Bangladesh. But I am deeply attached to this country. So I would regularly visit his ashrama after two or three months. At that time, the border situation had been normal. Common people like us were able to travel between the two countries without any hassle. My home is near the border. I would have no trouble visiting my guru in Bangladesh.”
Q: So you were in class seven when you began your association with sadhus? (From a very early age Golam felt himself drawn to the sadhus and their way of life. At that time, the sadhus, considering him too young, had tried to keep him at bay. Yet, he would not heed their words of caution and sit with them at their congregations. And when in class nine, he completely embraced their lifestyle. His choice of this life eventually led to problems at his home. That is when he left home and began living with them. He would cook for them regularly.)
Q: Were your parents displeased? Did they disapprove of your choice? What problems did you have to face? (Initially Golam’s parents thought that keeping company with sadhus would hamper his studies. They had also been upset with the sadhus themselves. They thought their son was going astray. But now they have accepted him. According to Golam, now they know that he has not wasted his life. Rather, he has fashioned his life the way he perceived himself. They also keep receiving compliments about their son from others.)?
“A performer’s voice is a gift which has been bestowed upon him/her by the One above. Not everyone is lucky enough to be blessed with such a gift. I will attempt to hold onto it as long as I can.”
Q: So the guru who taught you music (sikkha-guru) and the guru who initiated you into the Baul way of life (dikkha-guru) are the one and same person? “Yes.” (In the earlier years of his life, he associated himself with sadhus of this country, by whose words he was greatly influenced. He would believe in and value the philosophy incumbent within these words. His guru identified him as a sadhu the very first moment he saw him. He would fondly call Golam ‘bharater sadhu’ (the Indian sadhu). Clad in white attire, in a white panjabi (a long kameez of tunic length) and white lungi (a piece of cloth which covers the lower half of the body and is worn in a skirt-like fashion) it was in this way that he had first travelled to his guru’s durbar in Bangladesh.)
Q: Who were these other seven or eight men you mention who travelled with you to Bangladesh when you first visited the durbar of your guru?
Who were the composers whose songs you learnt from your guru? Whose songs do you like singing the most?” (Golam says that there is a great demand for Lalon’s songs in India. Besides, according to him, Lalon’s lyrics are easily accessible. Thus he initially began by performing Lalon’s songs. Golam also mentions a Baul artist by the name of Mamun-Nadia who is from Bangladesh but whose guru’s abode is in the Nadia district of West Bengal. He released his first cassette with the pseudonym ‘Mamun-Nadia’ which was also his way of paying tribute to his guru. Golam had been influenced by Mamun’s music and performed these, along with Lalon’s songs. After he entered his guru’s disciple-hood, however, Golam learnt a lot of songs written and composed by Rashid. Rashid’s book ‘Manushe Thake Allah’ (In the Human does Allah reside) contains around a hundred and fifty songs composed by him. Besides, there are numerous other songs which have not been compiled in book form but which Golam has learnt directly from Rashid.)
Q: “How were the tunes of Mamun-Nadia’s songs? Would you sing a few lines?” Mamun-Nadia comes from the Faridabad district of Bangladesh, where in Mokshed-Alisha there are a lot of Bauls and Fakirs who perform the songs of Lalon. Mamun claims he sings Lalon’s songs exactly the way they were composed. He claims his renditions are the original tunes of Lalon. There are a lot of different renditions and versions of Lalon’s music. I personally think that none of these can be called ‘original’. Each performer appropriates the tune in her/his way. I will sing a couple of lines—
“O fate! This did you ordain
Living by the sea, of thirst
The chataki died in vain…”
Q: Mamun-Nadia would claim this was the ‘original’ tune? Yes, such was his claim. I have met him a number of times, at my guru’s durbar, at the Lalan Shah Mazhar, at sadhu congregations and at the Lalon Academy in Bangladesh.
Q: “Do you have any siblings?” “Yes.”
Q: “Are they also into Baul music?” They sing informally. They don’t practice music as a profession. You might ask where I got it from. Some people hold the opinion that Baul music has to be in your blood for you to sing it, or it is a family tradition which is passed down from one generation to the other. My mother is illiterate. But she could sing. When she was young, she would sing by herself while in her garden, while reclining on the bed, while going through her regular household chores. But she never performed on stage. Her immediate society was not such as would allow her to embrace singing as a profession. I think I have my ability to sing from her. I have never heard my father singing.”
Q: “What was your father’s occupation?” “My father is an old man now. We have some land in the village. He looks after these.”
Q: “And your brothers?” One of my brothers had a shop which sells fertilizers. Besides that, he is a seasonal farmer.”
Q: “You don’t have any sisters?” I am the eldest. I have a sister immediately younger than me, then a brother, then two more sisters younger to him. We are two brothers and three sisters.”
Q: “So you have embraced the Fakir way of life?” Yes. I have embraced the Sufi tradition.”
Q: “So what are the differences between the Baul and the Fakir way of life according to you? There is no difference at all as far as the philosophical content is concerned. The difference is only in the realm of language and the rhetoric deployed by the philosophy. Otherwise both faiths are the same, the sadhus are the same, their mannerisms are the same, and the air, water and food they partake of are the same. I personally think that all the religions which exist in our world, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, and Buddhism are made by human beings themselves. There exists an original faith, which is the faith/religion of humanity, the Maker of which did not assign any name or caste to any individual. The Maker created them all as equal, as human beings, and vested within them the attributes of humanity, of intelligence, of conscience. The Maker created human beings as the most superior of all species. We merely deploy different rhetoric to mark out who is a Baul and who is a Fakir. We often hyphenate these identities. In reality, they share a philosophical proximity and are not different from each other. The difference is only on the level of language. Some say ‘Jol’ and some use the word ‘paani’, both of which means water. Within their individual rhetoric, the Supreme One may be varyingly called Allah or Bhagwan. But there is no difference in the crux of their philosophy. This is what my conscience seems to tell me. And many knowledgeable people seem to think the same as well. The crux of all the shashtras (religious doctrines) is that human beings need to demolish their sense of the ‘I’, their individualism. Our different religions engage with this through different rhetorics, some worship in the mosque, some in the temple, and some in the church. They each deploy their individual language of worship. The Bible is the word of the Supreme One, so is the Quran, so are the Vedas. Each of them seem to say that despite being the most advanced of the species on earth human beings often act in selfish and barbaric ways. And whenever wherever a sin is committed, it is the Supreme One who sends an emissary. Hazrat Muhammad was such an emissary of the Supreme One who had been asked to come to this earth and deliver us. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was another such emissary. They are supra human beings, they are sent here to address and cleanse us of our sins. Each was sent in a different avatar, with a different language to help bring us back to the path ordained for us by the Supreme One. Every human is born from the mother’s womb. Within Baul-Fakir philosophy, it is believed that inside the mother’s womb the child has his palms joined in a prayer to the Supreme One and seems to be saying, ‘Release me into this world. Liberate me. When on earth, we will worship your name and sing your praises.’ Yet, after they come to this world, human beings get enmeshed in maya (temptation/illusion) which traps them like a spider’s net. They forget that they have been sent here on a mission. They forget the prayer they offered to their Creator while in the mother’s womb
Contrary to what biological and medical sciences believe, that organisms are automatically born within an environment which supports life, I think that behind the very act of Creation lies some greater purpose which the Maker has envisioned. What these sciences say may be partly true, but let me ask you a question. It’s been scientifically deduced that some planets in the solar system may contain water. Water being essential for any form of life to thrive, tell me then, why is there no life on these planets? Our philosophy tells us that the human race was created in one day’s span. We are their descendants whose source can thus be heuristically traced back. Within our philosophy, it is thought that the purpose behind our creation, indeed the very source of Creation and of life itself lies inside us human beings. A man and a woman come together to create life. Thus, the great poet has said
‘Is to create in human capacity?
For whoever creates
Lies hidden within creation.’—
This means that within every human being is located another human being. But perhaps, I should not be telling you all this.”
Q: Why not? You have learnt this from the sadhus, now let us learn from you. Perhaps you do need to know all this. We, the sadhus and the fakirs distinguish between two kinds of human knowledge, one we call scientific knowledge and the other is called transcendental knowledge. People without special wisdom, in other words, common people who pursue this scientific knowledge, who travel to London, America and other countries abroad in pursuit of this knowledge, they have lost sight of the purpose for which their creation took place. Despite making new scientific discoveries everyday, they have forgotten the purpose with which they were created, i.e., to attain self-liberation through nirvana. They are lost in the labyrinth of earthly maya.”
(He digresses here to mention a person who has accompanied the interviewer and the group. Golam refers to a Sher (a rhyming couplet in Urdu) which this person has narrated. Golam says that the Sher describes how a baby when born is clad in a small piece of cloth which has no pocket. And the same individual leaves the world clad in nothing but a kafan (piece of white cloth in which Muslims wrap their dead before burial) which too does not have a pocket. According to this person whom Golam mentions, the pocket symbolizes the maya by which the people of this world find themselves engulfed. Golam says that people are seized by an obsessive and competitive desire for amassing wealth. He says that these people seem to forget that it is the Supreme One who has sent them here and who will also eventually recall them. There will then come the judgement day when each of these individuals would have to pass through the test of right/wrong, just/unjust actions, their sins and good deeds and their truths and lies—)
“Among the eight thousand species on this planet, human beings are the only ones that possess a conscience. And yet, we incessantly misuse it. Our conscience is no longer operative for it lies buried under layers of sand. According to the Hadith (a compilation of sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad and his followers/ companions) there lies within every human being an essence which is called the ‘Kalpa’. It is in this ‘Kalpa’ that the Supreme One resides. It is also stated in the Vedas that long ago, during the Satya-Yuga (Era of Truth) divine energy was vested within human beings themselves. But they misused it. Thus, this divinity was seized from them and concealed within philosophical wisdom. Some deities suggested that it be buried deep beneath the earth’s surface. The Supreme One said, ‘No, humans will one day dig deep enough to reach the earth’s core.’? And today, we know some mines are indeed much deeper than the sea bed. Then some other deities suggested this energy be hidden amidst the vastness of the sky. The Creator said, ‘No, Humans will also reach there one day.’ And today that too has happened. Humans have travelled to the moon, sent satellites to other planets. So where could this energy be concealed? The Creator then decided that it would have to be concealed within humans themselves. For they would indeed search the entire planet, traverse the skies and scourge the earth’s layers; but they would never look within their own selves. So, you see divinity is within us. It is said in the Hadith ‘Allah resides amidst the caverns of the human body’. Within the mortal human’s ‘Kalpa’ is the abode of Allah. In the Vedas it is stated that within the mind of every creature, Krishna resides in the form of the soul. We seek everywhere, but we almost never introspect. Lalon has written as much in a song—
‘Know yourself and you will have known
For who knows not the self never perceives the Unknown.’—
Then there is another song—
‘On knowing who I am my sadhana’s end will I attain
Yet, I cannot know myself; with possessions my body is laden.’—
We are always seeking the Absolute in different places. But it is clearly stated in the Hadith, and in the Shashtra that The Absolute resides within the human, which if we perceive once, we will have perceived Allah.
Q: And is it this you sought within your guru?” I have seen a lot of gurus. I will refrain from calling any of them incompetent. One of my guru’s principal teachings is that there can be no division on the basis of religion, whether one is Hindu, or Mussalman, or Christian. A lot of people belonging to the Buddhist faith are regular visitors at my guru’s durbar. All religions of the world culminate in the religion of humanity, and within the Baul and Fakir philosophy. My guru taught us never to dislike other religious systems and to respect the faith which is practised by others. He was an extremely kind-hearted individual detached from the ways of this world. He would seldom sleep of his own accord, get up at the crack of dawn and impart his teachings among us. We would also devote an hour to bodily exercises, such as practising the pranayam (an exercise which involves holding the breath). He would show us the correct way of performing these exercises, of inhaling and exhaling during them. He lives the life of a Fakir in a unique and different way. Bangladesh is a Muslim country. A lot of people there hold very right-wing conservative views vis-a-vis Islam. A renowned Alem (leader) who is presently a Member-of-Parliament has voiced his stringent view of the Fakirs. The way people like him interpret Islam cannot be justified. My guru is fearless about these matters. He openly critiqued such viewpoints in his album. So, when this MP’s words reached my guru’s ears, he simply said ‘No alem in Bangladesh can contest whatever I have said by referring to the Hadith. There are a lot of obstacles in our way. Such obstacles and adverse situations have always existed in history. In fact, we find great references of such incidents in the Mahabharata.
Q: How is the situation of Fakirs in the place where you live? Do they still face adversity? At present the situation is better. But there was a time when Fakirs were ostracized in our village. They were not allowed to venture outside the house, they were not allowed to procure food and groceries from the local shops, and they were not allowed to walk freely on the streets. Once the house of a fakir in our village was cordoned off and besieged by angry mobs. But nothing of this nature occurred in the locality where I live. My guru is well versed in the Quran and the Hadith. He, and a lot of other sadhus like him, confronted these people and explained to them that the Fakir tradition is indeed mentioned in the Hadith. They were explained how it is necessary to receive knowledge from a Guru, referred to as pir in Islam, in order to attain self-liberation. My guru would cite sections from the Hadith and the Quran to help these people comprehend that the Fakir tradition does not go against Islam. As a result, his disciples, including myself, never had to confront such adversity. The people have been enlightened. My father and my paternal uncles have indeed been very supportive to me. I have my own ashrama which I established last year and which I dedicated to my guru. Whenever there is a congregation or a musical performance organized here, my relatives as well the local people throng to my ashrama.
Q: So presently, Fakirs do not face social stigma in Murshidabad? Presently. But in Bangladesh under the Jamaat-E-Islam regime, Fakirs were discriminated against and persecuted. Many of them had to flee to this country. They took refuge at various religious shrines in Ajmer and Delhi. Here, they live in comparative peace and can pursue their music and faith. There were instances in Bangladesh when their hair was shaved off. This is only one of numerous such instances of persecution, owing to which they had fled the country. My house is situated near the border. From time to time, there have been some repercussions of this form of persecution in our village, where a lot of people had been swayed by conservative views. But after the Awami League government came to power in Bangladesh, the situation has been relatively peaceful for the Fakirs. As a result, the situation in our village is also calmer.”
Q: Aren’t Bauls and Fakirs required to regularly practice the rituals pertaining to sex and copulation? We are ‘grihastha-sadhus’ (sadhus who have entered the socially sanctioned structure of heterosexual marriage and family), unlike sannyasis and brahmacharies who have renounced marriage. Many sannyasis hold the opinion that sexual union with a woman impedes the way to self-liberation. But I will cite two examples to the contrary from two religious doctrines. In the Hindu Shashtra there is a tale where the sannyasi called Nimai renounces his married life with Bishnupriya and embraces fully the life ordained for a sannyasi. Yet, had he not first consummated a physical union with the woman, he would never have been able to fully embrace the life of renunciation. I feel that the pursuit of self-liberation remains incomplete without wedlock and sexual union with a woman. In Islam too there is the story of Hazrat Billal. It was prognosticated that Billal would die in seven days and that he would not attain heaven (behesto). In his life he had been so detached from the material world, that the doors of behesto should have been open for him. Yet he had not married. And in Islam, according to the Hadith, marriage to a woman is a duty. Although Billal knew that he would die in seven days, he did not try lying to a woman and coercing her into marriage. Billal’s father went to the house of a woman named Nadiya with the proposal of marriage and she decided to wed Billal of her own volition. She is believed to have said that if she had not committed any sin in her life, her husband would not die. After his marriage to Nadiya, Billal was blessed with another seventy years of mortality. A Fakir by the name of Osman was sheltered in Billal’s house. It is said that when the Farista (angel) of death came to Billal’s door to take his life, the Fakir Osman would not let him cross the threshold. Osman had said, ‘I have partaken of bread in this house. You cannot kill here.’ Fearful of incurring the Fakir’s wrath, the angel of death returned to Allah’s durbar empty handed and narrated these events to him. Allah wanted to know who this person was who defied the angel of death. On inquiring, He found out that this Fakir was indeed a great man of Allah himself. As such, Allah could not turn down the Fakir’s words. So what could be done? Allah had given Billal seven years of mortal life; the Fakir shed his tears for Billal and placed a teardrop beside the seven years ordained by Allah. Thus, Billal was blessed with seventy years of mortality.
In the union of man and woman lies the only true faith. The great purpose of the Creator is concealed within the very act of creation. Not only in human beings but also in animals and insects there are the masculine and the feminine that unite sexually to create life. This is Allah, the Maker’s purpose which is concealed in the very act of sexual union between the man and the woman. Such a union is even superior to the metaphysical union between deities, so is believed. The Maker has concealed Himself within human creation, and the Maker resides within both man and woman as they unite together through the act of copulation. Man and woman are the two halves of the Maker according to those learned in our philosophy.
Q: How did you meet Mallika? He had been travelling to various places with the sadhus. He believes that women occupy themselves with the household and want to mother children. He believed that marrying any such woman would impede his pursuit of his faith. He was seeking a woman who understood the philosophy of Fakirs and who knew music. He met Mallika at a musical congregation in Berhampore. Mallika herself had wanted to marry a Fakir like him. He explains that the Baul tradition has been part of Mallika’s paternal family for generations. In the village where Mallika comes from, almost everybody has embraced the Baul-Fakir way of life. Golam was the apt bachelor for her. Once they met, they liked each other and it was thus they got married. Golam says in the interview that the eleventh of next month is their wedding anniversary.
Q: You travel and perform together now? Yes.
Q: In which places in the country have you performed? He has performed in Kolkata, in the Budge-budge area in the South 24 Parganas, and in Midnapur. He once participated in a concert in Delhi where renowned vocalists like Manna Dey and Suresh Wadkar had performed. He has also sung at various mazhars in Delhi and Ajmer. Besides, he has been to Bhutan, Siliguri and Jharkhand where he has performed Baul music. He would often travel to his guru’s durbar is Bangladesh. When there, he would often be called to perform in other places such as Dhaka and Kushtiya.
Q: How old are you now? If you consider my age since birth, I am around thirty-seven or thirty-eight. But, I have been born into this world of Baul sadhana for twenty years now. It has been thirteen years since I have been born into my guru’s disciple-hood.
Q: “What pleasure do you obtain by following this path? This path is one of pleasure. The people of this world are busy in their pursuit of scientific knowledge. The transcendental knowledge can only be attained by the sadhus and the Fakirs, who have been taught by the guru and who have the apposite respect for their guru. Raja Harish-Chandra was one such great person. Transcendental knowledge is available only to those who have succeeded in abolishing their sense of the ‘I’. According to me a foreigner who is trained in all forms of scientific knowledge is highly inferior when compared to a Fakir or a sadhu. I feel his/her entire life is a waste.
Let me then share with you the crux of our philosophy. When a farmer plants seeds in the soil, these are often destroyed by rodents and pests and even by unfavourable natural circumstances. The farmer spends hours of labour behind them, spends a lot of money on procuring them and the fertilizers, and yet all his effort goes to waste. He repeats his labour once, twice, thrice, but eventually tires. He ends up unhappy and not at peace with himself. Human beings are also similarly harvested. The man possesses the seed with which he impregnates the fertile ground of the woman’s body. She possesses the egg. It is when the seed and the egg unite that a human child is reaped. Most men keep shedding their seed anywhere and everywhere. They do not comprehend how precious this seed is. Bauls, sadhus and Fakirs understand the import of this seed. And it is with this knowledge that they practise their rites of desire. They do not waste their seed without reason because it contains the source of human life, which is of greatest value. The animals in the wilderness, the cows and the goats copulate only in accordance with a seasonal cycle. Human beings do not adhere to any such cycle. Only the sadhus and sages engage in sexual union with a woman in accordance with the cycle. They fulfil their sexual desires, but they do not waste the paternal energy (pitri-sattwa). They preserve this energy because they know that their seed is the source of creation. And this is the way of perceiving the Maker, the path of true faith. The foreigners are ignorant and so are the common men because they do not follow this path, because they keep dissipating their seed everywhere. This ‘Bindu-sadhana’ is the most primary of all sadhanas. And within it lies the great mystery of Creation. We need to discover it. Truth be told, we keep going to the woman to satiate our sexual desires and thus, we keep depleting ourselves. Those who practise this faith know how to satiate the woman’s desire and also preserve their energy. This knowledge is imparted by the guru to his disciples.”
Q: When your guru had first handed you the iktara and asked you to sing, which song had you sung? I sang the song I mentioned earlier, ‘Living by the sea, of thirst/ the chataki died in vain.’ This song has a symbolic meaning. The chataki resembles the sadhu. The world has plenty of water. Yet the monsoon-bird (chataki) drinks only the rain drop which falls from the sky. It does not drink the water that has touched the ground. The sadhus are of a similar inclination when it comes to knowledge. The song thus goes—
‘No other water it drinks,
It fulfils its promise to the rain.
The chataki died in vain…
To the dark cloud it prays
Which in another land strays;
Its soul caught in its beak
Its life-force grows weak.
So says Lalon
Don’t forget my song?
Which Shiraj-Shahid did forget
No second chance did he get!
So remember my words, and
Your purpose you will attain.
The chataki died in vain. —
If we fail to perceive this knowledge, we will never be able to preserve the energy. Lalon has said that human life is not easily achieved. Therefore, when we do attain it, we need to understand the purpose with which the Creator made us. The Maker is concealed within our very selves. Even in this Kali-Yuga (era of darkness) it is possible to perceive the Absolute which lies within our very selves. Then only can we attain liberation from the self.
Bagan Para, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
Tell us your name. My name is Dhananjay Khyapa.
Where is your house? My house is located in a village under the Amodpur post office near Kagaj Road, Chholanipara. That is where I have been living.
Have you been living there since childhood? No. I was born in a place called Nanu-Bazaar. There were some problems I faced as a child in Nanu-Bazaar. As a reason, I was intitiated into Baul from a very early age. I had to travel to and from Amodpur by bus. And that was a time I could not even afford to pay the bus fare. Some days the conductor would be kind enough not to take money from me. It was too long a distance for me to walk up and down from Nanu-Bazaar everyday. So I relocated myself to Amodpur. There I began living on the footpath in a makeshift hut. And this makeshift hut has been my home ever since.
So how were you initiated into the Baul way of life? My father as well as my brother would perform kirtans (chants) extolling Hari (Krishna). But they did not perform Baul music. They would travel round villages, performing these kirtans. Often, his disciples would ask my father to perform these rounds in the early hours of dawn when it was still dark. I would often accompany him on his musical rounds. When I was small, there was no electricity in small villages such as ours. I would hold up a brass hurricane lamp and walk ahead of him. Often, I would also perform one or two songs. After a while my brother, Manohar Das, started learning Baul music. Observing him, I felt even I could take it up. So one day I picked up my brother’s iktara and began practising. But who would I learn Baul music from? My first music guru was Gobind Das Goswami of Nanu-Bazaar. After his death, I became a disciple of Narottam Das. And after his death, Dulal Das was my next guru. One after another, they have all been my gurus. I never gave up the practise of Baul, as you can see.
Are you also a disciple of Bhoba Khyapa? I consider myself crazy. I had once traveled to this place, where a great one gave me this (points to an object in his garb). It was his will that I wear it. (He makes a gesture of reverence towards this person he mentions). I wear it still. It has been a long time since I last showed it to someone.
All right, then.
Bagan Para, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
What is your name? My name is Fazlu Samui.
Where is your house? My house is at Ghurisha under Elambazaar police station.
How long have you been into Baul music? I have been singing since I was 16 years old.
What is your age now? I should be around 45 to 50.
Where have you learnt music? My guru was within the family… I learnt from my uncle.
His name? His name is Torab Ali Shah.
Does anyone else in your house sing? Yes some of them do.
Do you have any children? Yes.
Are they into music as well? Yes, they are. They are too young, just kids ...at present they are learning.
Will they make good singers? Sure, if they are trained properly.
I tried to contact you over phone once or twice...,
Oh, had you called?.
Um... last month, I think..
Yes.? And I had also called you once earlier.
Oh! Was I out of station last month? Or did we speak over phone?.
No. We had spoken once earlier. You had said we would speak again. But... (coughs).
Are you ill? What are you suffering from?
It’s my health...I have arthritis..
You have been suffering from arthritis?
For how long have you been suffering like this?
I think it has been more than six months now.
Has it been more than six months? Are there signs of recovery?
No, the pain shows no sign of abetting. It aches here (points to his shoulder), here (his arms), here (his legs) and in various other parts of my body..
So Gnoshaida, how old are you now?
I am very old...indeed very, very old. What else should I say?
Come on, tell me. How old do you think you are now?
One hundred and four years.
One hundred and four years!
All right... Let me begin by first asking you, how many years has it been since the start of this great Utsav1?
Well, this Utsav... although I have forgotten the exact month, I came here in the year 1362 by the Bengali calendar. We began this Utsav in the year 1362 and it has been going on ever since..
Where had you lived before that? I mean, where did you spend your childhood?
Well, before coming here the two of us travelled to various places, like a couple of wandering itinerants..
We had thereafter established an Ashrama2?
In Burdwan. But I eventually left the Ashrama. There were a lot of hassles. The establishment and functioning of an Ashrama involves a lot of hassles. My own sadhana3 was getting hampered. That is the main reason why I left the Ashrama life. One has to live a very hectic and crowded life in an Ashrama. And that is why I left that life. From there we went to Nandarampur. After some time, we left Nandarampur and came here. I don’t wish to procure land and build a house for ourselves. That cannot bring me happiness. I do not wish that.
I know. You never had any such wish. What I want to know is why did you opt for Baul sadhana and this Baul way of life?
Why did I?
Well I saw... even Rabindranath Tagore had embraced Baul in his later years. He has done a lot for the people of this world. But in his later years, he too embraced the Baul way of life. There lies a philosophy within the Baul; it remains hidden, not every individual can have access to it. It is said that “the Baul does not sell his rice in the market” which means that every individual cannot have access to the Baul philosophy. The ‘rice’ cannot be sold. This means that a Baul will never disclose what lies concealed within the philosophy. There are certain aspects of the Baul philosophy which are meant to remain concealed.
These things will never be divulged by a Baul.
A Baul will share this secret only if she/he encounters another individual who manifests a similar way of thinking.
If the Baul begins telling it to every individual, what will happen?
It will likely be misconstrued. And that individual will narrate it to others. Without a proper insight, it will only inspire disgust. This is why when asked about her/his philosophy, the Baul only answers partially. She/he provides only a surface knowledge of this philosophy.
Can you please provide some insight into the Vaishnava-Sahajiya philosophy? What is it actually? What path does it advocate? I am not enquiring about the secret rites of the Sahajiya philosophy, but I want to know the basic essence of the philosophy.
They are the same thing. The two things you mention, the secret rites and the Sahajiya philosophy, they are one and the same. What you refer to as Sahajiya cannot be explained without referring to its secret rites. To explain the former, I will have to disclose the latter. A lot of people have asked me these questions. There was a woman who had asked me this once, and I had at once removed my clothes. She had had the courage to ask me questions about our secret rituals. And I had asked her back “Do you know what courage is?” and thereafter unclothed myself. She did not ask me anything after that. She did not have true courage. It takes true courage to interrogate the Sahajiya philosophy. If she had remained even after I had unclothed myself, I would have known that she possessed that courage. But she failed the test. And that is the ultimate test of your courage. You have to perceive the maternal within our philosophy. The maternal energy resides within Baul philosophy, and we have to worship that energy as mother during our sadhana. Yet, despite our repeated attempts at comprehending this energy, we have not succeeded. And so, we stray from our true path. If we succeed in following this path, it reveals itself to be? the path of enlightenment.?
An individual needs the guidance of a guru in order to pursue this sadhana. Am I right in thinking this?
Yes. Without the guidance of a guru, you cannot understand this philosophy. Hence there is that song – “Without the guru, you cannot know the unknown...” The guru tells you how to reach the other shore. You cannot tread this path without her/his guidance. We can explain and illustrate certain things. But every disciple does not have the same perceptive capability. So she/ he can only receive up to the extent that her/his capability allows. Even if the disciple initially has a limited perceptivity but shows an enthusiasm in sadhana, she/he is eventually able to comprehend and grasp the philosophy. If the disciple lacks enthusiasm, we might disseminate our learning, but she/he is not likely to practise it at home. And the next time they come, I immediately understand that they have not been practising. We provide them with a set of prescribed rules as to how to pursue this sadhana, but most of the boys and girls these days do not pursue or practise it sincerely.? Had they shown a certain devotion, we too would have felt enthused enough to guide them. But we rarely encounter such disciples any more. For you see, the Sahajiya is a complex philosophy... As the famous song goes—
“The Sahajiya is not sahaj (easy),
Complex is its essence.
You have to immerse the self,?
You have to see, to comprehend
And know that it’s one of a kind.”—
You see, the Sahajiya philosophy is unique and unlike any other. That is what this song is trying to state. Becoming a disciple may not be enough. For disciples, too, are not of one kind. There are few who manifest an eagerness to progress. These are the ones amongst whom we feel enthused to disseminate our learning. We think, here is someone who is progressing so well, it is through her/him that posterity will remember my name. This is how some of us tend to think.
You must be having many, many disciples? So, how many disciples do you have?
I cannot say. I have never kept track of their number.
Who was your guru?
One of my gurus was Krishnachand Goswami. My other guru was Bhagwandas Brajbhashi. Bhagwandas Brajbhashi lived in Vrindavana. And Krishnachand Goswami belonged to the Jessore district. He was a highly accomplished and learned person. None of them are alive today.
Yes, both of them are dead. My guru was one hundred and thirty-five years old when he died. He had come here to visit me at that age. And it was here that he died.
Tell me, how does the philosophy of the Bauls differ from the Vaishnava philosophy and other such philosophies?
There is not much difference. The disparities are more often than not exaggerated. At some basic level, each of these philosophies is closely interlinked with the other. Consider this as an example. Some of the worshippers of Goddess Kali practise the same rituals that we do. If you scrutinize these practices closely, you will find that they are very, very similar. ‘Ekameva Dwitiya Nasti4.’? That is what you will observe, ‘Ekameva Dwitiya Nasti.’ People do not understand this basic truth; hence there exist such feud and intolerance. Therein lies their mistake. I do not see things their way. Hence, these feuds hold no meaning for me. Sadhus and people with different beliefs are always welcome in my home. And why should I feel otherwise? Every person is ultimately in search of the Absolute. Those that harbour these feuds bring about their own downfall as well as the downfall of their faith. I think one should only have more respect for someone who follows a different path.
Can you explain the Sahajiya philosophy a bit? Can you tell me something about the path it advocates?
Why didn’t you enquire into this earlier? Why didn’t you enquire into this when you were younger? Now, ruminate in your mind the words spoken by the Great Ones. The easiest way of explaining the ‘Sahajiya’ philosophy would be by exemplifying Ramakrishna and Sarada Ma.? Ramakrishna had even worshipped Sarada Ma. He had addressed her as mother. For now, this much should suffice. I cannot explain anything beyond this.
But, both the male and female are required for pursuing sadhana, isn’t that so?
Yes, both are required. It would be erroneous if someone was to say that only the male is required and not the female. Both are required and both will have to practise the rites. Both must practise as per the individual capability of each. Otherwise, the mantra given by the guru will be rendered useless. My guru would come to visit me every subsequent year. He would observe me performing the rites and also test me. He would assess me to check how far I was progressing. I had spent really happy moments with him. As long as he was alive, I spent my days in happiness and contentment. And when my guru would come to visit me, he wouldn’t wish to go anywhere else. He would remain in my house for days at length...a month, two months, maybe even more.? Returning to the Sahajiya philosophy, there is a proverb that runs ‘even the basic Sahajiya is not sahaj (easy)/ for it is difficult, complex and esoteric.’ There are several stages one passes through during the process of sadhana. There are three kinds of eros, of which one is the piriti (love). This, too, is of three kinds— sthyayi (the permanent) sthiti (the abiding) and vilaas (pleasure).? One has to know the sthyayi and the sthiti in order to pursue vilaas. Ramkrishna, for example, had addressed/worshipped the yoni (vulva) of Sarada Ma as mother. This is simple if only it is so performed. But if one cannot hold oneself, especially at the crucial moment, the entire ritual ceases to have any meaning. It is highly difficult to master this.
Yes, it seems very difficult. The bauls whom I see...do all of them pursue this sadhana?
Most of them... Well, I have encountered this in various places. They do practise, but not in the way this sadhana was pursued in ancient times. There are indeed a lot of differences, the disparity is jarring. What can you call these? You see, this is the reason why I have not visited an Ashrama in fourteen or fifteen years. What will I go there and ask? No one will be able to provide answers to my enquiries. So, what is the use of my going there? If they were at least able to understand/ follow my words, my going there would still be fruitful. But even that cannot be expected any more.
Is that so? Do they not learn from you?
Maybe they will listen to what I have to say. But they will have forgotten it by the time I leave.
So, is this sadhana coming to an end??
No, it will not come to a total end. There will be a few who will keep pursuing it diligently, although their number is very limited. So, it will not come to a total end.
You mean to say that one or two will keep pursuing it assiduously?
Yes, but a half-hearted pursuit is futile. The sadhana will only be meaningful if one pursues it with absolute sincerity.
So, for an individual pursuing this sadhana, the first step is self-comprehension, right?
Yes, one has to first understand herself/ himself. One has to understand the concept of the Shat-Chakras5 (Six Wheels) and the way of transgressing these. One has to know the methods of sadhana and the ways of offering devotion. Only after the individual has mastered all these can she/ he embark on this path. Otherwise, her/his pursuit will only lead to inertia. And a state of inertia cannot provide inner peace.? I may memorize few words from a book and then argue with people, but I will only be speaking nonsense. Such learning is futile. You have witnessed, haven’t you, when I was in Kolkata there was not a single person who could sustain an argument with me?
Yes, so I saw.
It is all very complex.
Yes, so it is.
Yes, and I am not afraid of a confrontation with anyone. And that is how I used to be. It is only after coming here, in these last three or four years, that I have become like this.
Yes. It seems strange seeing you like this. I have seen you travelling from place to place, explaining things to others, helping others...All right, I seem to have troubled you enough...
It’s no trouble at all. All of you must keep coming.
Yes, I will. I will try coming next year.
All right. But tell me something, how long does it take to complete your learning? Can I suppose that...
Are you referring to the sadhana?
Well, if you are pursuing it sincerely, it might take you anytime between three to twelve years to master it. It might even take longer. But if one shows real devotion, one should be able to master it in twelve years. Nevertheless, one has to try very hard. How to, when do, in which way go about it, how to awaken the shat-chakras...these are things the individual has to eventually master. Without awakening the shat-chakras, you cannot pursue your sadhana further. There are many ways of awakening these shat-chakras. But you cannot follow these. You have to follow the path prescribed in our philosophy. Only then will you discover the essence of the Sahajiya philosophy. And if you do not tread this path, then the Sahajiya philosophy will elude you. There are always two roads aren’t there? It depends on you as to which one you opt for.
Well Gnoshai, this is part of an archive, an online website. You can access it through a computer. The gurus who were there, who have shown the path to others, those who are presently practising it... I am trying to interview as many of them as I can. This archive would have been left incomplete without you. I had heard that you weren’t well. But I decided to visit you nonetheless.
I am glad that you could come. It’s been quite some time since I last met you.
Yes, we haven’t met in quite a long while. All right, I won’t inconvenience you any further. Ma Gnonshai could not recognize me at first. She must have been thinking ‘who is this woman?’ How long have you stayed together with Ma Gnoshai?
Yes, she could not recognize you.
All right then.
It is raining. Wait a while till the rain stops.
Bagan Para, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
My name is Lakshman Das. The name of my village is Jaydeb Kenduli in the Birbhum district. The name of my Ashram is Tamaltal Ashram. I am the sole adopted son of Sudhir Baba. I have grown up under his guidance.
For how many years have you been singing?
I have been singing Baul songs for the last twenty-seven years, from a very young age that is.
How old are you now?
Since what age have you been singing?
Since the age of ten, when I was reading in class one.
Who are your gurus?
Sudhir Baba. Sudhir Das Baul. I have learnt from him.
Do you stay there?
Yes I live in his ashram.
Do you have any other occupation?
No, my sole occupation is music.
Has any cassette or CD by you been released?
Yea, a cassette.
When was it released?
Have you ever been abroad?
No, not abroad. But I have performed within India.
In various parts of West Bengal. Besides that, Kerala, Shilchor and Halflong in Assam and Benaras. I have been to various parts of India.
Malda (during Ramkeli Mela)
Tell me your name. My name is Mallika Akar. I have come from Jhaudiya.
Where is Jhaudiya located? Jhaudiya is in Jolong. Jolong is a district in Murshidabad.
All right. How long have you been here? I have been here for four years. I got married four years ago. Before this, I used to live in a village called Kumir-doho. Kumir-doho is situated in the Tentuliya region near the Lalbaag police station. My father’s house is in this village. My paternal village is a place where a lot of sadhus and fakirs reside. We have three akharas in our village. The mahantos (heads) of these akharas are initiated into the worship of mother Sati. My father, too, is initiated into her worship. The people of these akharas chant tunes dedicated to the goddess, who is symbolized by the colour red. A singer by the name of Sulaiman who belonged to Jolong visited my paternal village once. He was the one who introduced the songs of Lalon Fakir to our community. The people of my village were won over by these songs. A lot of them chose Sulaiman as their guru and became his disciples. It was here that my father first learnt the songs of Lalon. My father is both a performer and a devotee. He is also my guru. He has not only taught me singing, but has also imparted to me knowledge of the philosophy of bauls and fakirs.
What is your father’s name? My father’s name is Chand-Barik Sheikh. My father found an immense pleasure in these songs. We are two sisters. He would sit us on either side of him and teach us music.
This time you speak of, when your father taught you and your sister music, it was a time when women performers were not encouraged. Isn’t that so? So, your father seems to have been a very simple-minded man? Yes, my father was a very simple-minded person. He would not set much store by what people around us said or thought. A lot of criticism would come from our immediate society. But my father paid no heed to these. Whatever was said, he continued to teach his daughters music. He wanted to bring us up as sons. That is the way he thought and functioned.
Have you studied? Yes. Since the time I was very small, my village has been hospitable to sadhus and their music. Ours was a house where music was a part of our diurnal life. As a child, I found myself overwhelmed by the music of the sadhus and by the frequent performances which took place in my house. I would flit around the house during these occasions giving incense sticks embedded in empty coconut shells to these sadhus. I was very young then. And I found myself falling in love with this way of life. My father had taught me music in my childhood, but at one point he decided against it for fear that it would harm my studies. I was obsessed with music and would spend all my time rehearsing and singing. There was an old harmonium in the house but upset with my obsession, my father sold it. Then, when I was in class six, I decided I would resume my music lessons when I grew up. I sang these one or two songs which I knew at the time, and I studied. It was only after I completed my higher secondary exams and didn’t have much on my hands that I decided to resume singing.
What songs did you sing then? I sang the songs of Lalon.
What were these one or two songs which you mention and which you sang at the time? There is a song by Lalon which I used to sing as a child:
‘Oh! What strange business
This losing of your caste!
The true path escapes all gaze (2)
All deny it, none remain steadfast.
People ask Lalon
‘Are you Hindu or Mussalman?’
They ask ‘Who are you?’
Lalon smiles, ‘I have no clue.’
Did you learn all these songs from your father? Yes, I have learnt these songs from him.
Did you grandfather also sing? Yes. My forefathers had always shared a close bond with the sadhus. My grandfather too was a singer. He would sing the Al-Kab songs. These songs were very popular then.
And your mother? My mother does not know how to sing.
This sister you mention, is she younger to or older than you? She is younger to me. Her name is Moushumi Khatun. She is currently a student of B.A. first year. She sings quite well.
Does she perform publicly? She has been performing at cultural programmes in her school and college. She does not otherwise perform in public, the way I do. She is oriented more towards her academics.
So, you resumed music when you were in class six? Yes. That’s when I took it up again.
And was another harmonium purchased? Yes, another harmonium was procured. And my father would play it as he began giving me lessons once more. And I also began performing publicly in a couple of programs.
You must have been very upset when he first sold off the harmonium? Yes, I had been upset and I had wept. It had hurt me.
So, your father has taught you music as well as the philosophy of this life? Yes. I would sing these songs without fully grasping their philosophical content. This was a world where music was perceived as a form of worship. Yet, as a child, I could not fully comprehend what these songs were trying to say.? When I was older this woman, our neighbour, who was herself initiated into this way of life, first explained to me some of this philosophy.?? She explained to me the concepts of deha-tattwa (the philosophy of the body) and what was meant by the conservation of paternal energy. I would sing these songs to her, and she would reveal to me how these were implicated within the philosophy of deha tattwa. She would tell me ‘yes, that’s correct’, and ‘no, this is not the correct way of articulation.’ I also thought of marrying a sadhu. And while I was seeking my prospective husband who I knew would be a sadhu, I met Golam Fakir. I have been married to him for four years now. And it’s been four years since I have completely embraced this form of sadhana.
Where did you first see Golam Fakir? I had seen him at a congregation in Dom-Kul, where Baul-Fakir utsav takes place. When I had first seen him, I didn’t know then that he was unmarried. So, during this occasion at Dom-Kul, I was informed by someone from Gourkhana that Golam Fakir had not yet married. I thought then that marrying him would be beneficial for me. Within our Muslim community, it is not easy for a woman to pursue a profession where she performs in front of the public. We are not even allowed to venture openly outside the house, let alone listen to music. I had thought then that this community would never give me an opportunity of performing before people. Quitting singing would be akin to death for me. That’s how I felt then.
You have just told me something I was about to ask you. The fact that despite being a Muslim woman, you chose the life of a singer, didn’t this pose problems from your community? Didn’t your family raise any objection? My father’s side of the family never had a problem with it. Both my parents are very happy with what I have chosen for myself. Whenever I perform on stage, whenever each such performance is appreciated, my parents become ecstatic. That’s been the case, always. There would be those one or two outsiders passing snide remarks. My paternal family would pay these no heed. But I sometimes have to face criticism from my husband’s side of the family. When neighbours pass remarks among themselves or voice their opinion before my mother-in-law, she gets upset. But she has never asked me to give up my music. But I understand that they occasionally feel bad about the things people say.
And what does Golam say about this? Does he have a problem with you performing in public? No, he tells me that he would never allow himself to clamp down on this talent I have. He tells me I am free to continue singing if I so choose.
Why did you like Golam? Was it the way he sang, or his looks? What was it that attracted you to him? I had wanted to find someone with whom I would be able practice my sadhana. I had thus made up mind to marry a baul or a fakir. I had wanted us both to be able to practice our sadhana together. When I first saw him, I knew at once that he was a true devotee of this philosophy. And I also heard him sing. Often some bauls are very learned in this philosophy, but they are not learned in the ways of the society. He is equally learned in both. I saw that marrying him would be really advantageous to me. I thought marrying him would bring me happiness and fulfilment.
So whose compositions do you love the most? I love the songs by Lalon. And I love performing his songs everywhere. I also sing songs composed by others, such as those by Rajjak, Kamal Das, Kamal Sarkar, Jadrendu and Banju. But I am not particularly apt in singing these.
So you love Lalon’s songs the most? Yes, I love his songs and the philosophy behind them.
Do you perform the rituals which are particular to sadhus and fakirs? I am referring to the sexual rites. Do you regularly perform these? These rituals require regular practice don’t they? Yes, I practise them.
And do you love this way of life? Yes. I have been born into this way of life. I witnessed it as a child in my father’s house. I love this path. It brings me a lot of happiness.
So, with regard to these sexual rites which form part of the Baul and Fakiri philosophy, some of the more staunch followers avow non-procreation. What is your opinion on this? Do you think that this is the right stance to have? Or do you think otherwise? I think that this is the right stance to have. Within our philosophy, conservation of the paternal energy assumes prime significance. And I consider this stance of non-procreation correct.
Do you follow this vis-?-vis your own life? Yes, I try to maintain this stance in my own life.
What is Golam’s take on this? He thinks likewise.
All right. Now that you have discovered this path of emancipation, perhaps it is right that you should avow its principles. What songs have you learnt from Golam? After I married Golam Fakir, he taught me some songs of Rashid Sarkar. I also learnt some Bangladeshi tunes from him.
Has your family always belonged to this side of Bengal? Does any member, of either your paternal or maternal side, have ties with Bangladesh? No.
Have you ever been to Bangladesh yourself? No, I haven’t been able to go there yet.
So, you have never visited the Ashram of Golam’s guru? No, I haven’t been there.
All right. Sing a few lines of a song close to your heart. We can conclude our interview with the song. Sing some lines from a song which has inspired you in your life. This is the first song I learnt from my father. I will sing a few lines from it—
‘Oh! What strange business
This losing of your caste!
The true path escapes all gaze (2)
All deny it, none remain steadfast.
Oh! What strange business…
What caste did you carry?
When you first came to be?
And what caste will you wear
On shedding your mortality? (2)
Ponder on this you do not!
Oh! What strange business…
Wonderful! There is something else I meant to ask you. You said you studied till your Higher Secondary. Why did you discontinue your academic education after that? Was it because you wanted to become a sadhu? Was it because you wanted to renounce the world to attain this knowledge? No. We weren’t very well off. My father would somehow sustain us when I had still been studying. My sister was growing up. We had to ensure her education as well. It was due to financial constraints that I decided to discontinue my academic education.
Besides being a performer, do you have any other occupation? Yes, I teach in a primary school.
That is what I had been meaning to ask. Tell me the name of the school where you teach. The school is situated in the village where I come from. It is called Kumir-doho Primary School.
What do you teach there? I teach four grades, classes one, two, three and four. I am assigned classes whenever there is a need, or when the teacher scheduled to take the class is absent. And as a class teacher, I am assigned to class three.
So you have to travel there everyday? Yes, I travel there from Jolong.
How long does it take you? Around two hours and a half.
You mean two and a half hours each way? Yes.
How do you travel? I go there after every two days. The days I am assigned classes I usually stay back at my father’s house. I take the classes for the next day and come back to Jolong.
I am surprised by the fact that you kept up both your academics and your music with such persistence despite the fact that in your religion, a girl runs the risk of facing various impediments. You have, indeed, achieved a lot.
Well, the village where I come from has been witness to the influx of gurus and sadhus. Regular programmes are held there. And these are liked by everyone. It is not really possible to distinguish between Hindus and Muslims there. The Tulsi tree is almost unanimously revered in every household. My mother, as well as my paternal aunts, wear the sakha on their wrists and the sindur on their forehead1. In my house, despite the fact that we are Muslim, we have the practise of decorating the floor with alpana2 on festive occasions. There is no clear way of segregating the Hindus from the Muslims. There are around two hundred and twenty houses in our village. Amongst these, around a hundred and twenty households have embraced or are in some way affiliated to the Baul way of life. Some of the people who follow Islam are recent migrants. Their forefathers are not of this village. They settled in our village, and now there are about a hundred houses whose members are followers of Islam.
You and your paternal family are Muslims? Yes, we are Muslims. But not narrowly so, as we are initiated into the Baul way of life.
Tell me, how is it possible that nearly every person within a village is initiated into the Baul way of life? This philosophy has been coming down to us over generations. Our ancestors were initiated into the worship of mother Sati.
All of them? Yes, all of them. Some people embraced Lalon’s philosophy. But that was a later development. Initially, all were initiated into the worship of mother Sati. My father too was among them.
Are there any temples dedicated to this goddess? There are some akharas.
Are there also songs and hymns which are dedicated to mother Sati? If so, how do these songs go? These are mostly songs with an affective quality. My father can sing these well.
Sing a few lines for me. I do not know how to sing them. They are quite difficult. I cannot sing those tunes very well. Besides, the lyrics are also complex.
How are the lyrics like? ‘The Mughals, the English and the Dutch’, ‘O Brother! The One Creator has created us both’, these are some of the songs. The lyrics seem to be those of Baul songs, but the tune is different. It is slower in pace, sung like Rabindra-Sangeet3. Once, there was a riot in our village, between the Bauls and the Muslims. Our village, even today, has no ritual of animal sacrifice. Some Muslims, who had arrived and settled there newly, wanted to begin this ritual. They wanted to sacrifice cows within the village. The Bauls protested as they wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen. The matter was taken to the police station. Following this, any such sacrifice was rendered forbidden within the village limits. Whoever wanted to slaughter cows would have to do so outside the village and bring the meat. Cows cannot be slaughtered within our village limits. It has been prohibited by the government and enforced by the police station. A riot had broken out over this issue, at the time when I was very young.
Besides this incident, there is a general ambience of peace in your village? Yes, there is peace. That has never been a problem in our village. And under general circumstances, it is very difficult to distinguish between Hindus and Muslims. It was just these few people, who had arrived new to the village, and had set their mind to sacrificing cows.
Golam was telling me that your family abides by a certain high spirituality and that people in your house do not eat meat.
Yes, it’s true. My forefathers never allowed any meat to be brought inside the house. My mother, father and grandfather were vegetarians. My father and two paternal uncles never ate any fish. I, however, eat fish.
This is another thing which strikes me as very strange. Despite being a Muslim, it’s extremely surprising that you or your family do not eat meat. As far as I know, Muslims are hardly ever vegetarians. What do you suppose can be the reason for this? Has it got something to do with the worship of mother Sati? Yes, a prohibition (on consumption of flesh) was made by the guru of the akhara.
In your village, the Hindu and Muslim religions have become almost synonymous, haven’t they? Yes.
All right. Thank you!
Townsend Rd, Kolkata
Aditi: Tell us your name, the place of your birth and how you happened to choose the fakir way of life.
Moslem: My home is in Balura, under Tehatta police station, P.O. Tarunipur, District Nadia. As a sixteen-year old kid, I used to regularly visit this place called Pir-Talaa (1) where sadhus would assemble. I used to visit this place on Thursdays. That is how I slowly began to develop a sense of devotional attachment to Baul music. I am unlettered and have never received formal education. All I have is the knowledge which was passed on to me orally by those sadhus. Slowly, I developed a keen ear for music, began singing Baul songs and eventually became a singer. I would memorize these songs and gradually, a numerous number of these became nestled within my heart. Now, even if I sing continuously for twenty-four hours, my supply of songs will not run out. These songs flow from within me.
I also initiated myself with a guru. His name was Ghiasuddin Biswas and he happened to live beside my house. His guru was also a man from Tarunipur named Pratap Pramanik. I started roaming around the streets along with them. My parents were angered and called me a vagabond. They would constantly chastise me and even refused to give me rice. More and more, I started travelling with my guru and participating in congregations of sadhus. Eventually, I distanced myself from my family altogether. I travelled to Murshidabad, Dhaka, Pakistan, Mymensingh, Barisal, Chittagong, Meherpur and various other places. I was not yet married then. I became so intoxicated with Baul music and this way of life that whenever I would hear about a congregation of sadhus gathered somewhere, I would immediately go there. My parents, by now, had given up on me completely. However, they did give me some money and asked me to build a separate house/ establishment for myself. After all, they were parents. They thought that if I were to die, they should at least be able to bury me. Yet, if I were to die on the road somewhere on any of my travels, they would not even be able to receive my body. So they were keen that even if I wouldn’t return to the family, at least I should have a home nearby my ancestral house. My father bought me a small piece of land. I built a hut there and surrounded it with bamboo fencing. Yet, each time I was gone for about a month or so, I would return to see that these fences had been broken down by miscreants. My guru finally advised me to find a girl to marry. So I found myself a girl and got married. However, we still had no means to provide for ourselves. I was living the life of an ascetic, and my parents had already refused to feed me, let alone feed my new wife. It is then that I finally took up the alms bag and started doing madhukari (2). People would give us some money, and sometimes a cup of rice. I wanted to be remain completely immersed in sadhana and refuse familial ties altogether. But that was not meant to be. My wife became pregnant and I was saddled with an added responsibility. I began to weep before my guru that I had failed in my sadhana and I had failed to become a true Baul. My guru consoled me and told me that whatever had happened was good, and my wife had received a guardian through the child, someone who would look after her eventually if I were to leave one day. I named my son Lalan Mondal. I continued my music and the life of madhukari. Slowly, I also began accumulating disciples. This Wednesday we have a mahotsava (3) to honour the death anniversary of my father. It is an annual event which I observe. My surname was Mondal. Now, I am known as Moslem Fakir. No one calls me by the name ‘Mondal’ anymore. People see me and exclaim, “There goes Moslem Fakir!” I had never even been to Kolkata in my life. It is only recently, over the past couple of years or so, that other sadhus have been taking me there. I do not know any place apart from where I was born and grew up in. I have trouble walking as I am pretty old now. The others bring me to Kolkata and I come. I even struggle on stage. My body trembles and I hold the microphone stand for support. Successive governments, be it the earlier ruling party or the present one, have never paid us any attention. It is the almighty who looks after us. Such is my life, O Mother! (4) The path is good. I think that out of all the belief systems in the world, this is the best way of life. But I could never attain complete success in this path. I became enmeshed within familial ties.
Within Islamic cultural practice, there are four ways— Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat and Marfat (5). Within Hindu cultural practice, pranayam (6) and bhajan (7) play an important role. In Islam, you have to offer regular daimi namaaz (8). All of these practices are geared towards materiality. In order to fully comprehend the inner metaphysics, you need the guidance of a guru or mursheed. The human body is instinctual like that of an animal, a dog. It functions based purely on instinctive behavior like that of a dog. The guru has to guide you into rising beyond the material body. The word Marfat refers to the act of killing (mar) these instinctual desires/ cravings of the materialistic body— envy, spite, sexual desire, anger and intoxication. One has to inculcate a certain attitude of indifference. Such a philosophy goes beyond religion and caste. Even Adam was a human being. There is a famous Lalan song—
The Brahmin, the Chandal, the Chamar and the Mochi (9)—
Are all cleansed by the same water!
The water is the same; all human beings are the same; the seed (10) is the same, the mother is the same. Within this Baul way of life, you see mursheed, mureed (11), mathor (12), chandal/ dome, scavenger, rag-picker, all cook together and eat food from the same plate. But the Bauls and Fakirs have no proper place within either Hindu or Muslim societies. Hindus are very conscious about their caste.
Aditi: What is your full name?
Moslem: I used to be called Moslem Mondal at my father’s house. After I took to the streets, I acquired the name Moslem Fakir.
Aditi: What were the techniques that your guru taught you?
Moslem: I am not allowed to speak regarding those. I have been proscribed by my guru against doing so. In any case, you will not be able to follow any of those techniques. You need to be initiated with a guru first. Only that guru can slowly guide you on this path. The body is a system which needs to be known. There are fourteen tiers and twenty-nine houses within it (13). But it is difficult to explain these esoteric practices to you. There is a saying, “Don’t speak about your deeds to others/ you are yours alone.” In order to know these, you need to first hold the hand of a guru for guidance. The guru will gradually initiate you. This is not like any other form of education where you can learn by reading a book. This involves your own body, and ways of controlling, disciplining and illuminating the body. You need to set a trap in order to perceive the supreme one. There is someone called god. You have to perceive him. “The back of the mirror is opaque, the glass alone cannot contain your form/ you first need to perceive your Self/ in order to perceive Narayan.” (14) The back of the mirror has to be opaque in order for the glass to reflect the image. There has to be a material object behind the mirror. The body, too, is an object which is opaque, but is necessary to contain the mirror that reflects the supreme. But you first need to discipline this material body. This is the main framework of our sadhana/ practice. You still have time to learn and know. It is difficult to obtain a human life. You need to pass through a ten million births in order to obtain this life which is capable of attaining liberation.
Aditi: How do I learn these?
Moslem: Initiation is only possible through a guru. You have to become a disciple.
Aditi: How long does this learning process take?
Moslem: That depends completely on you. Those who are diligent can learn within a year. And some will never learn, even in a hundred years. “Devotion and Dedication are the seeds of love/ for the Almighty to perceive you.” You have to let go of commercial practices and material needs, within which most of us are immersed today. You have to undergo sadhana in order to become a sadhu. All of you are too much preoccupied in materiality and hence fail to comprehend. There is a supreme being, whichever name you call him by, and it is only the guru who can teach you the correct way of attaining him. You need to practice sadhana. “That which we have never seen/ Is always right in front of us/ Ignorant, we push it off to the left and right/ Yet it encircles us.” Maybe you may not have perceived it. But it is perceivable.
Aditi: Have you perceived?
Moslem: I cannot say that. It is like shouting aloud that I have ten million rupees. It is wrong to even ask these questions. You are so educated. Yet, you, just like everyone else, has pride/ ego. And this ego brings about your downfall. If everyone in the world realized this, they would all become ascetics. Most believe in god, but cannot perceive him. It is because they are incapable of setting the trap. In order to ensnare the bird, you need to first set a trap, O crazy one! It is not through shrewdness that you can catch the bird. You need to know how to set the trap. Don’t you first need to pick up a pen in order to be able to write? Even an orphan or a very poor person is capable of such learning! But shrewdness is not the way. All great men including Lalan or Shiraz began by first being ignorant. None of them chose the path of shrewdness. You still have time on your hands. At least you can make a start and maybe you will end up learning just the first letter of the alphabet. There is no end to learning.
Aditi: Were your parents also fakirs?
Moslem: My father had a guru. He was also received some formal education.
Aditi: Did you ever go to a school?
Moslem: No, I used to tend to the cows and the fields. Early each morning, I would take the oxen to plow the fields, as instructed by my father. It is only once I started my visits to Pir-Talaa, that I started feeling a pull towards this way of life. I realized I needed the guidance of a guru. And as I mentioned before, I found a guru who happened to live nearby. He too was a farmer. I began travelling around with him.
Aditi: Do you perceive any difference among your audience then and now?
Moslem: Earlier there were no microphones, and you just had the iktara. We used to congregate and perform in the open, below trees and in bamboo fields. The sadhus would perform with just their duggi and iktara and we used to listen. People in those days would never accept rice or any other food from a fakir. There were very few of us in those days. Today, you have big festivals and melas. Even the government organizes a few of them. When I was young, things were different. Two or three fakirs would congregate and sing, a couple of people would come to listen, they would all cook rice and eat and that was more or less how things were like. Now, you have big congregations such as the Lalan mela. You have committees that organize these.
Aditi: Do you prefer how things were then or how they are now?
Moslem: I am comfortable with both. My inner matter prevents me from seeing anything or anyone as bad. My brothers will not have me. Even I do not go to their houses. I will not commit any crime or misdeed. I go out of the house early in the morning. Some kind mother offers me tea and a few vegetables. I will return home, eat these and rest. I refrain from visiting any neighbour or relative. I live the life of a mendicant. When I feel like, I simply pick up my duggi or iktara and start singing. I do not care what time of day it is. I am immersed in my own self. When I sing, the song takes hold of me and it begins to rain heavily inside me. I only have Allah. No relative, neither my father nor my brothers, have ever cared for me. Only Allah watches over and looks after me. I only have Allah as my support. I cannot seek any support from the material world which has turned its back on me. Allah will watch over me. Even my own son does not look after me.
Aditi: Why is that?
Moslem: He has no need to be served by me. He has discarded me. He is no longer mine. Kun Fayakun! (15) A gun has its weight because of the bullets inside it. Once the trigger is pressed and the gun is emptied of its bullets, it becomes light. We are like that gun. We are born today and we die tomorrow. No one will accompany us in death. When I die, people will weep for a couple of days for their own selfish reasons. My wife may weep as her support will be no more. But she should seek her support in Allah as I cannot render the kind of support that He might. This house may remain, these material things may remain but none of these matter. So Durdu Shah writes,
There is no need for another’s love
It is your love that suffices.
Your love alone that has driven me crazy!
There is truly no need for another’s love. No human being, police or law-keeper, can harm me because I am correct before the almighty. I am an old man, unlettered and blind. But the knowledge bestowed by my guru is my staff which supports me when I walk. I shall be able to find my way anywhere. I don’t crave money or any material object. I get to eat every day, just as any rich person with 500 bighas of land gets to eat every day. Both of us will turn into earth one day. So why compete?
Aditi: Tell me something about the Baul ceremonies which are organized in your village.
Moslem: There are many events which are organized. There are three events that recently took place. A Baul event is scheduled for the Twelfth.
Aditi: When did you first come to Kolkata?
Moslem: It has been two or three years that I have been regularly coming to Kolkata. No one knows me here. Nor do I know anyone. I feel a bit intimidated to come. I will ask you one thing Mother, embark on this path, and fulfill what you are destined for. It will do you good. Building a cemented house will not give you anything. I have never done so. Such things are useless. You and I both eat the same rice; we both inhabit the same world. And yet, you cannot obtain a vision of the divine, no matter how many times you may invoke the name of Krishna.
The one who knows how to call,
The Lord answers to him alone!
The Lord lets himself be caught
Within the heart that is true!
You have to know how to call him and he will respond. He will surround you and follow you everywhere. It is the disciple who holds the thread by which the Lord is bonded. If you are a true devotee, he will cross mountains and forests to come to you and surround you always. If your love is true, even if you were to abandon the Lord, he would not abandon you. He is tied to you by your devotion.
How does the unknown bird enter and leave this cage? (16)
Catch the bird! How will you? You will have to set the trap, through your faith, and latch onto him. If your faith is untrue, even if you were to break your head, he wouldn’t come. So Mother! You still have time! I may be unlettered and a village simpleton, but I understand these basic things. There are true fakirs in our village. People only run after money in big cities. I have no need to run after the almighty. He runs after me! What is the un-known bird which I have kept as pet within this cage? Who resides in this body-house? Have wisdom from these words!
I bear the tattered rag on my neck,
I have traded my caste to fill my stomach,
Alas, where will you abandon me and go?
I dare you to come to me!
For I am the devotee at your blessed feet!
Let me comprehend your justice
If you give me pain, I shall accept it within my breast,
As long as I draw breath.
You will have to undergo a lot of struggles to attain him.
Aditi: Isn’t the path very difficult?
Moslem: Yes! Only by passing through these struggles, will you attain the divine. He is indeed there and he awaits our call.
Fulfilling the devotee’s desire
Who utters his name,
The Friend-of-all will arrive
Pulled by your devotion!
He doesn’t reside among devatas or celestial beings. As Lalan says, even the devatas crave a mortal birth. Why would they wish to descend to the earth as mortals, to that Ganga the waters of which are used in their worship? What is their need? You have to understand how blessed you are to have obtained this human birth. The devatas who we garland every day and before whose altars we burn incense, too, crave a mortal birth. Adam is every human being on this earth. Each of us is Adam.
Aditi: Has your son also chosen this way of life?
Moslem: He has not yet embarked on this path. He lives abroad.
Moslem: In Saudi Arabia.
Aditi: What does he do there?
Moslem: He works as a cook in a hostel. He lives on his own. I have told him he doesn’t need to look after me, but after his own self. I beg for alms. We are two of us, me and my wife, and a small cup of rice suffices for us both. I need to simply travel to a couple of houses to obtain that. Why should I care for more?
Aditi: Is your son married?
Moslem: Yes, he is married. But I don’t care for anything familial. I sleep on a broken bed, eat my rice, perform my music and am content. I can even go to bed after having only a cup of tea. What do I need money for? I speak from my heart. Mother, you need to look inside you. Spectacles cannot improve your inner sight. If there is an opaque object behind your mirror, the eyes will automatically gain their sight. Spectacles are for bhodroloks. We need to open the inner eye first! You need to practice sadhana in order to toughen the durability of the opaque object to better the reflection. Yes, sadhana is the only way of attaining happiness and fulfillment. You need to conserve that which is inside you, not let it be dissipated. One may love to eat, but there will come a time when food will no longer interest you, be it meat or curd or sweets.
Aditi: Can you tell us the similarities and differences between Bauls and Fakirs?
Moslem: There is no such difference! This path has existed since times immemorial, no matter which name you call it by- Aul, Baul, Sai or Darbesh! (17) It is much later that people begun theorizing and writing, realizing that these are all ways of life which deal with the disciplining of the body. Unless I cannot conserve the object/ seed, I shall not be able to pursue my sadhana. How can you know the way? You have to search among people and seek out a guru who can guide you. The guru may initially refuse you for the first few days, then, driven by your curiosity, he will ultimately accept you as a disciple and initiate you. You have to convince your guru through your questions— what happens when we die? Does our body live beyond death? The guru will eventually tell you— “Mother, observe and seek a while longer! It is only when you are absolutely certain that I shall initiate you into this way of life!” You will have to convince him to give you the weapon; you need to convince him first that you are capable of bearing it. It is only then that the sadhu will tell you the way and give you a certain set of practices. You will have to practice these and report to him after five days or so. Once you start practicing these, you will begin to realize the difference such practices bring to your life. You will narrate these to the guru. The guru will then give you another set of practices.
There was a girl once whose mother became very sick. They were mendicants without any money and she was sitting on the streets when a doctor happened to pass by. On asking her what was wrong, she narrated how her mother lay at home, afflicted by a fever. The doctor gave her some medicines free of charge and also asked her to give coconut water to her mother the next morning. The girl had no money to buy a coconut. So she went to the village headman’s house and asked for a coconut from their tree. She told the headman that her mother lay sick and she wanted the coconut for her. The cruel headman told her to climb onto the tree and pluck one for herself. But the little girl was too small to climb the tree. Desperate and helpless, she began weeping below the tree when a sadhu happened to pass by begging for alms. Seeing the little girl cry, he asked her what was wrong. When she had told the sadhu her story, the sadhu gave her a mantra to chant. As she began chanting, the tree suddenly lowered itself and she found she could easily reach out and pluck two coconuts. She went home and fed one to her mother. The village headman, when he found this out, went over to her house to ask her how she had managed to pluck the coconuts. She told the headman that a sadhu who was passing by had given her a mantra on chanting which the tree itself came within her reach. The headman wanted the mantra from her but the girl refused. The headman kept coming back to her but she kept refusing him. One day, the sadhu happened to be passing by again, and the girl narrated to him all that had occurred. The sadhu asked her to give that mantra to the headman adding that even if she were to do so, he would be incapable of retaining it. The headman, when he received the mantra from the girl, kept on chanting it, but the tree would not lower itself. The headman chastised the girl for giving him the wrong mantra but the girl maintained that she had given him the correct one.
The morale of the story is that you need to be capable of bearing the fruit and the tree itself will come to you.
(1) Literally meaning a place where Pirs or holy men congregate.
(2) The word madhukari comes from the word madhukar, which refers to bees collecting nectar from flower to flower. The term is used in a broader sense to refer to the act of collecting alms by travelling ascetics.
(3) Grand congregation.
(4) A common way of addressing an unknown lady.
(5) The reference here is to textual Islam versus a more heterogeneous mix of practices which fall under Islamic cultural practice. Shariati Islam refers to strictly textual interpretations of Islam which put primacy upon the Q’uran and Hadiths alone. The latter three— Tariqat, Haqiqat and Marfat Islam refer to a diverse range of practices which draw upon a range of religio-cultural discourses. Sufi, Fakir, Dervish practices focus not so much on the Sharia or written word but the latter three modalities of practice.
(6) A kind of yogic mediatation.
(7) Devotional songs.
(8) Daily prayers at stipulated regular intervals.
(9) Refers to the caste-system within Brahminism. The Brahmin or ‘twice born’ (dvija) is hailed as the purest and highest caste within Brahminical hierarchy; the ‘Chandal’, ‘Chamar’ and ‘Mochi’ are seen as low castes. The ‘Chandal’ or ‘Dome’ seen as the lowest of the low, is born out of the union between a Brahmin woman and a Shudra man. Considered absolute Untouchables, they were entrusted with the task of burning dead bodies and completely ostracized by society, living almost entirely outside human community. Even their shadows were considered as impure. The ‘Chamar’ or leather-worker and the ‘Mochi’ or shoe-maker were also considered low castes, though not ostracized to the extent that the ‘Chandal’ was. The Shramana faiths- Buddhism and Jainism in particular- strongly opposed the Brahminical caste system.
(11) Mursheed- teacher; Mureed- disciple.
(12) One who cleans toilets and sewers, also considered as an outcaste.
(13) The Bauls, like other tantric yogic practitioners, conceive of the body as having two forms: the first form is the material or gross body (sthula sharira) made up of the skeleton, muscles, organs, etc., which has nine or ten openings or doors— ears, nostrils, eyes, mouth, anus and the sexual organ. Within Baul esotericism, the tenth door may often refer to the female sexual organ.
The second form is also an invisible subtle body, called sukshma sharira. The Baul conception of the subtle body for the most part resembles that of the Hindu and Buddhist Tantras. The Bauls adopted from the Tantras the system of chakras (centers) arranged along the spinal column from the perineum to the top of the head.
(14) Narayan or Narayana is the Vedic deity often hailed as the supreme god. He is also commonly referred to as Vishnu and is part of the holy trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
(15) An Arabic phrase that occurs in the Q’uran. It translates as “Be, and it is!”
(16) A famous song by Lalan.
(17) These, along with the Kartabhajas are usually believed to be the Sahajiya sects, though they are often not acknowledged as such.
Shonajhuri, Khoai, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
Tell us your name. My name is Nitai Chandra Das Baul. I am now living in a village called Kalipur near Siuri.
Were you born there? I was born in the district of Birbhum. As you travel from Siuri, halfway towards Amodpur, there is a village called Allaharbandi. That is the place where I was born.
How old are you now? I have crossed fifty-three, am stepping into my fifty-fourth year.
Since how many years have you been practising Baul sadhana? I was initiated into this sadhana after my college life.
How old were you then? Seventeen? Eighteen? No, around twenty-one or twenty-two. I have been practising ever since.
So, you finished your schooling and also college. How is it that you left academics and opted instead for the Baul way of life? Well, this has been handed down to me over generations. You can almost call it genetic. My father and my paternal uncles were singers. My father sang devotional songs of Krishna. Before him, my grandfather was a high priest in Gaya. He was also devoted to music. So, I suppose you could say that music is in my genes. Besides performing these devotional songs, my father was also into theatre and opera. He was also a connoisseur of classical Dhrupad music. He could also perform kirtans and Kavi-songs (these are usually competitions where rival poets compose and perform their numbers, often impromptu, before a gathered audience). It was towards the end of his life that my father became a Baul. I lost him when I was ten years old. Thereafter, I grew up in the house of my maternal uncle.
In this place where I grew up, there was a band of amateur Baul performers. I would often pen the lyrics of the songs they sang. I also thereby ended up automatically memorizing these lines and committing them to memory. I would perform these songs during social occasions at my school and college. I would use the table as a musical instrument and play it like the tabla. This is how I ended up giving my first performance as a Baul.
How old were you when you gave your first performance? It was 1984. I was then twenty-seven years old. Thereafter, I began giving more such performances. This is how I entered the Baul way of life.
So, you never had a guru who trained you into the music and the philosophy? Well, I never had a guru in the traditional Baul sense of the term. You see, I would perform at these various social gatherings at my college and also accompany my paternal uncle during his performances. I would often visit these akharas (congregations) where I would meet a lot of sadhus and Vaishnavites. I gleaned a lot of my philosophical knowledge about Baul from them.
In which college did you study? I studied at Vidyasagar College in Siuri. I had memorized these few songs the lyrics of which I had penned. Besides, I would also perform with my paternal uncle at his request. This is also how I slowly got over my initial stage inhibition. And during those times, sadhus would show a certain esteem for an educated young person. When I would visit these akharas, they would call me to them, and teach me some of their lyrics and tunes. This is how I learnt the songs composed by the great Baul gurus. Each of the sadhus who I met, like Kanai Khyapa, Brajesh, Kalu Das and Shashanka to name a few, taught me something or the other. Besides, I also had the opportunity of learning music from my uncle’s guru. I would also go and visit Biswanath Das Baul and Devdas Baul in Bolpur. I have performed in a lot of programs with Devdas Baul. I greatly admired his style of performance, especially his dance movements, how he would keep rhythm with the anklet on his feet. When it comes to Baul dance, I consider him my guru. This is how I have slowly made a place for myself among the Bauls.
Have you ever performed outside West Bengal? Both me and Radhashyam Das Baul had been invited to perform at the national folk singers’ congregation, organized and sponsored by the EZCC. That is when we travelled across eight states in the country. Singers from around twelve states in the country had participated in this festival. There had around three hundred and sixty artists who had performed their music.
In which states did you travel? Gurgaon, Goa, Baroda, Surat, Daman and Diu, Jaipur…these were some of the cities where we performed. This was held in 1988, and around three hundred and fifty of us travelled from place to place for a period of thirty-seven days. It has been one of the most memorable events of my life, and is a constant motivating force for my career as a Baul artist.
Have you ever traveled outside India? On October 23, 2002 I travelled for the first time to Japan. We toured Japan for ten days.
Was this tour arranged by Sadhanda? Was it he who contacted you and asked you to perform in Japan? No, no one contacted me. We were selected directly from the stage. A few sadhus and devotees of the great Baba of Shirdi had come from Japan. They saw me perform on stage. After the performance, one of them came up to me and asked whether the idea of going abroad appealed to me. He did not even mention Japan. I said yes, the idea did appeal to me. Then he noted down my name. Thereafter, he selected two of me, me and Shankar Das. We had wanted a woman performer and Sandhya was selected. The three of us went to Japan.
Baul is not only about music. It entails a distinct way of life, along with certain rites and practices. So, do you practise these or do you only identify yourself as a Baul singer? I am afraid that this question of yours can have no easy answer. I strongly believe that the first form of music which manifested itself in this world was Baul music, because Baul music is born out of the very essence of humanity which Baul embodies. The human body was created by the Maker and it is Baul philosophy which enables its preservation and perpetuation, which protects it, secures it and facilitates self-knowledge. This philosophy, this dharma and karma, has been handed down to us over many generations. Buddhism and many other such faiths draw their source from Baul. When a person begins to realize this knowledge, she/ he can no longer refrain from following it. But she or he would not answer your question in the affirmative, saying ‘yes, I practice Baul’. You can never obtain the answer to this. You will get this answer only when you perceive the inner essence of that person, when you yourself have attained this knowledge.
After you, is anyone else in your family into Baul music? Yes, my son. But he is concentrating on his academics now.
What does he study? He is just a child. He is studying in the ninth grade.
Does he sing? Yes, he loves music. During the social functions at his school, he performs the songs of Rabindranath Tagore and one or two of the Baul songs. But he is still too young to be a professional singer.
All right. Jai Guru!
HMV Studio, Dum Dum, Kolkata, West BengalI. What is your name?
N. My name is Nityo Gopal Das.
I. What is your father’s name and where do you live?
N. My father’s name is Viswanath Das Baul. We live in the borpurush family [conventionally understood as family of a man and his unmarried consort]; our entire family are Bauls; even my grandparents were Bauls. I still sing Baul.
I. I How did you learn to sing?
N. I learned from a singing school like setting. From many teachers. I learned from them and listened to them. That is how I slowly learned.
I. What does being a Baul mean?
N. We are Bauls from birth. But how am I a Baul? Others can wear red (orange?) clothing and pretend they are Bauls, but not everyone who wears red clothes are Bauls. Many people act like Bauls, but real Bauls are few. Others wear Baul clothes and sing like Bauls to survive, but they are not real Bauls. To become a Baul it is not enough just to say you are one. It isn’t easy. You have to work hard and go to a teacher and become his servant to become one. You have to stay with your teacher. How many have done this? A few.
I. What is your grandmother’s name.
N. My grandmother’s name was Jozmai (?) Dasi.
I. Did your mother sing?
N. Yes, my mother used to sing a little but not professionally.
I. What is your mother’s name?
N. Her name is Padmaboti Das.
I. Who else sings in your family?
N. My older brother, little sister and I and my grandparents, as well as other aunts and uncles. Our entire family members are Bauls.
I. Who did you learn to sing from and who is your teacher/
N. My teacher is my father. I learned to sing from him.
I. Now who are your teachers?
N. The people who are my teachers are the people who teach me about God, about knowledge, about health. When I see them, I think of them as my teachers and I respect them and learn from them.
I. Did you decide to become a singer or did someone compel you to become one?
N. In the evening my father used to sit me down and say, “We are Baul children and have to learn this to survive. We can’t work in the fields. I can’t send you to school, because I have no money. But learn this, learn to sing. “ And sometimes my father used to beg for food. My grandmother used to beg for food, and I used to go with her. We used to play the drums and cymbals. Whatever we used to get from the people, we would cook and eat it. That is how I grew up.
I. Now that you are older, and you know how to sing, do you still beg for food?
N. Yes, I still go begging when I want to. I just did 2 hours ago, begging for food.
I. Did you just sing in your own area or elsewhere?
N. Yes, I went around the country and outside, too. I met a lot of different people, and I like to beg for things. I feel like this is my fate.
I. Do you beg only in this country or outside, too?
N. Yes, I have been to 15-16 other places to beg, like Germany, Poland, London, Paris, Holland, Belgium, Israel, etc.
I. Which country did you like the most?
N. I liked all of Europe, but Italy is my favorite.
I. Do you have any albums out?
N. Yes, I have 3 out. And about 10-12 in the market. They are doing well in the market. Village people buy them. I have sung both Baul and other types of songs. Peopled said I should go to a company and record them. After that, they came onto the market.
I. Who gave you these songs to sing?
N. People have written these songs, and I sing them. Companies will take them.
I. Will you always be a Baul singer or do something else?
N. No, we are born Bauls, and my father has done this since we were children, so I will do this until I meet God.
Shonajhuri, Khoai, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
Tell us your name. My name is Radheshyam Das Baul. I am from a village called Basaipura which comes under the purview of the Ashagram panchayat located in Block number one of the Rampurhat district in West Bengal. My father was not a literate person. Since I was three or four years old, I remember him devoted to music. He came from a vey poor family. He would train young boys in music and together, they would perform the devotional songs of Krishna. My father would play the tabla as part of a local musical theatre group. His name was Tarapada Das. My mother is still living. Since the time I was eight or nine years old, I began picking up songs by hearing my father sing. These I would sing, almost verbatim, without understanding the lyrics. It was only later in my life that I came in contact with the great singers such as Purna Das Baul, Lakshman Das Baul and Sujit Das Baul. I would visit them regularly. Although I had studied till the ninth grade, I could not appear for my school final exams as our house caught fire and all our belongings, along with my books were incinerated. I had my S.F. exams. We now have the Madhyamik exams at the 10th level and the Higher Secondary exams at the 12th level. In 1972, when I was still a student, we had only one board exam during our school life. It was known as the S.F. exam. I could not appear for it. Also, around this time my father’s mental health became unstable. As I am the eldest among six sisters and three brothers, the responsibility for the sustenance of our family came on my shoulders. I left academics and began working as a farmer. But I did not let go of music. I trained in Hindustani classical music under Jagannath Majhi of Birbhum. I completed the first, second and third years of my musical training. Thereafter, I once again embraced Baul music. I performed on the All-India radio (Akashvani, Kolkata) on October 27, 1979. Thereafter, I continued performing for the radio. I have never really invited to perform on Doordarshan (national television). I do not know if I will ever perform on television. I do not entertain such hopes either. As a practicing Baul, I depend on the goodwill of my Maker. And it really depends on the government, if they decide to throw a few crumbs to a cawing crow. This may sound very acerbic and critical to some, but believe me, as a Baul, I consider the shade of a tree as the most tranquil of places. It is here that I can connect to the self within me, to the mind inside me. I can converse with this self. I do not usually share these experiences with anyone, as you know Bauls are noted for their secrecy. The Bauls worship the formless, who exists as air does. And like air, we are never in stasis, for we are itinerants. We smoke weed under the shade of the trees, we do not think it as vice. Some of us smoke cigarettes and bidis, but a lot of us restrain ourselves from even that. Weed is the only thing almost all of us smoke unanimously. Those who practice sadhana restrain themselves from consuming any intoxicant. It is Govind to whom their will is betrothed, how can they yield themselves to any other form of intoxication? They practice their sadhana under the shades of the trees and on reaching home; they give expression to the wisdom they thus attain through music. They write songs and set them to tune. They perform these songs to teach others and to enable them to understand that there exists something called faith. They enrich tradition and maintain it. A lot of us Bauls have come here. And among our audience, some have been so inspired that they have embraced the Baul way of life. Whenever you hear of words of true spiritual wisdom, your spiritual conscience gets awakened. This conscience then attempts to hear and imbibe those words of wisdom. And will eventually draw the person towards the path of sadhana. You will feel then ‘I am You, You are me’ (his gesture indicates that by ‘You’ he is referring to the Maker). You will feel the Maker resonate within your self, your being. Thus, the great composer has said—
‘This Bird within I know not/ which inhabits this cage
How will it fly?’—
We are always so anxious to conserve this Self. Yet, once the breath leaves, the body is inanimate, dead. How does the Self enter us, how and where does it go? These are some of the questions which Baul philosophers seek the answers to, and they communicate the answers they obtain through their songs.
Have you ever performed outside West Bengal? I have performed in Rajasthan, Ajmer, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, Goa, Daman and Diu, Panjim, Aizwal, Mizoram, Dimapur, Dibrugarh, Madras, Pondicherry and in a lot of other cities and states. Kartik Das Baul and my friend Nitai (who just performed before you) accompanied me on these tours. I have never traveled outside India.
Has a CD or cassette been released? No. Not yet. But I do not know whether it will be released in future. I have been associated with this world of music for forty-two years now. Yet I feel I have learnt nothing. There is still so much to grasp, so much to comprehend. There is a famous song by Tagore—
‘My day passes, as evening dawns, I strive to sing to Your tune…’—
Rabindranath Tagore wrote his lyrics and composed his tune to the words and tune of an old Baul song. That is how he achieved so much fame, by embracing the Baul.
So what are your feelings and perceptions about this Baul way of life? There is an old Baul saying—
‘The moment passed
All there was to say,
Could not be uttered’—
At this age whatever I know, had I comprehended earlier, I would have considered my life fulfilled. Now when I crossed fifty, were I to tell a twelve year old boy to embrace Brahmacharya, he would laugh it me. This is what our world has come to.
Do you have any son or daughter? I have a son and a daughter. My daughter started singing after she finished her madhyamik exams. Now she is married and lives with her in-laws. She has a son who studies in the tenth standard. He is training in classical music. He is completing his second year. I am certain he will initiate himself into Baul sooner or later. He is the son of a Baul and unless he comprehends it, how else will he articulate the music which surges within him? He has to follow the rules of the grahak, kumbhak and pranayam. Only then can he attain true musical knowledge. The harmonium has three tiers. Similarly, within our body also there are three tiers. Each of these must be in tune for you to sing perfectly. We express this musical schema onto the single string of the iktara.—
(sings) ‘Oh Guru! Strum my beloved iktara to your tune’.—
As you can see, the iktara has two parts, the tumba (gourd) and the string. It resembles the musical structure of our body (he points from his waist to his head, thus comparing the iktara and the human body). The ‘ear’ serves the purpose of tuning. The Baul singer is capable of reconciling the music which emanates from the iktara and the khanjani (an instrument which has a bell like sound and is clapped between two hands to keep the rhythm) with the music which resides within the body. You too are a Baul, if you are capable of thus reconciling. Once you achieve this reconciliation within yourself, you stand fulfilled, there remains no need. It does not then really matter if you dress in a salwar kameez or a suit or a saffron colored garment. The Baul does not feel any need. He smiles and speaks with all, and sits and sings beneath the tree— ‘Bastumi (female Baul or sadhika) accompany me!’ And to the sadhika, I sing ‘During the day go out for alms, in the evenings massage oil on my body. Hail Hari (Krishna)!’ We are aware that without our Seva-Dasi (woman who serves) we cannot embark on the path of sadhana. Thus, in each of our families we have our wives who serve us as our Seva-Dasis. We cannot journey without them. When we are invited to perform in other places outside the state, we go. Yet, like the string pulls the kite, we too are pulled back to the women.
All right. Jai Guru! Jai Guru! I could only say as much. Thank you. Let there be more such programs where we Bauls can perform. It gives us immense pleasure.
Certainly! It gives us pleasure too.
HMV Studio, Dum Dum, Kolkata, West Bengal
My name is Rina Das Baul. My house is at Bolpur Shantiniketan. I live in a village in Paruldanga, near Shantiniketan. The place is called Hishabithi(?) colony.
Where were you born? I was born in the same village, Paruldanga.
Did you get married in Paruldanga? No, not in Paruldanga, but in the place where Chandidas and Rajokini lived...
What is the name of the place? Nanur.
What made you came back to Paruldanga… how long have you been living here? I came back to Paruldanga after my marriage. I am married to Dibakar. We came back to Paruldanga so we could continue with Baul music. Nanur is too remote a village to provide the facilities that we have in Paruldanga.
When did you start singing? My grandfather was a baul. Music has come down to me through ancestry. So I have been learning since my birth. My father is a baul, my brother sings. I also have followed the same path. I have two children. I hope they will take after me. I am associated with this line but as I learn more I will be able to guide them better. They are already showing themselves to be keen.
So music has come down to you through ancestry? Did your mother sing too? My mother could sing. But she never went outside to perform. My grandfather performed in presence of Rabindranath. He could sing very well. He had so many things to offer, which we never realized then. When we did it was too late, he was dying. I remember a few lines of a song he used to sing “Lau amader mojar torkari, O lauke koto korbo mushuri...lau amader mojar torkari (The gourd is wondrous, varied are its uses).” My husband knows a few of these songs. I often think about my grandfather. He never had the facilities or opportunities that we now have. I wish he had had the opportunity. We would have benefited. There were so many archaic songs and tunes …all that is lost.
What is your father’s name?
His name is Sujit Das Baul.
Did your father not learn from your grandfather? No. The times were different. The image of a baul as perceived was not as it is now. Even my grandfather was sceptical about a woman learning Baul music. He regretted that even someone as experienced as him did not get an audience. Nevertheless my grandfather expressed great happiness as I began singing quite well. But he could never see me perform… he had died by the time I began performing.
Since when have you been performing? I was fourteen years old at the time. I had married Dibakar. We began our travelling performances after my marriage. We are continuing that still.
How did you meet Dibakar? My father knew Dibakar. Ours was an arranged marriage. My father always wanted me to marry a Baul. He was in love with the baul life. My father had been in a government service. But he chose the life of a baul over the security of a government job. Such was his inclination towards music.
Performing in public, don’t you face any impediments as a woman or at home? No, I don’t face any impediments. My in-laws are happy that I sing. Even the people of my village love me very much. They love me for my music. I am invited to perform the opening number in all major village programs. I am respected and adored in my village.
You must have been to many places in India to perform? Yes.
To which places have you been? I have been abroad just once. It was Paris. Also other places like Delhi, Mumbai… I have been there.
How many children do you have? I have a son and a daughter.
What are their ages? The girl is fifteen, and the boy is seven.
What are their names? My daughter’s name is Pratima Das and my son is named Purnendu Das.
Are they into music as well? Yes. My daughter sings. Even my son has a strong inclination towards music. Both of them are in love with music.
Do you wish for them to remain in this path? Definitely! Even without my influence they will follow this path. My daughter has already informed me of her intention to become a baul singer. She keeps asking me to sing various songs for her. She also is attracted to the Mahajani identity. What surprises me is her immense attraction towards these songs without any deeper knowledge of their meaning. The same goes for the boy. He likes all types of music but baul music is clearly his preference. Some of his favourite songs are ‘moner moto baul pelam na (I haven’t found a Baul to my liking)’ and ‘desh bideshe manush jaye (people travel to different countries)’. What gives me immense pleasure is that both my son and daughter like all types of music but they are much more enthusiastic about my baul music.
You were born in a baul family and you have chosen this baul life. So, what do you think of this life now? It’s a unique world. No other world offers such fulfilment and no other profession can bring such happiness. It is more than just a profession for me! Both of us are very happy. In fact our feelings cannot be expressed in words.
Has any of your music been released on CD /cassette? Once we went to Bangladesh. We had been performing the songs of my Mahajana, Bhoba Pagla, in Dhaka. The organizers recorded the songs and later gave us a CD. Also, we have recorded a CD at a studio. Not much is available in the market. The CD that we recorded is there with us. If anyone shows an interest, we give her/him this CD.
What kind of songs do you like to sing? I love the songs of Lalan the most. Although I can’t sing them very well they are nevertheless my favourites. And I like all kinds of music. I like the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, those that are influenced by baul music, the others I don’t know much of. And I sing the songs of Bhoba Pagla. I had begun my musical training with my husband Dibakar with the songs of Lalan, and they are still my favourites.
Who are you formal initiator and formal trainer? My formal initiator was Bhoba Pagla. There are certain things that we have to learn during our training and there are certain things that we have to do as well. I have performed these with my Dharmaraja guru. His ashram is at Bordhoman, Jamalpur.
Have you learnt these practices in that ashram? Yes.
Do you still practice them? Yes.
Who was you music guru? My music guru is Dibakar. Before that it was my father and before that my grandfather. But Dibakar has been my sole guru ever since I began performing in public.
Khayerboni, Shonamukhi, Bankura
(Sonaton Das) Shanti Babu had asked me whether a programme of Baul and Fakir singers could be organized on the last day. I told him, “Organize such an event and see how people respond to it.” Not everyone is capable of appreciating Baul/ Fakir music. One has to be a trained listener in order to glean the finer philosophical nuances of these songs. Even the rhythm has a certain philosophical subtext which can only be perceived by a trained listener. If one perceives these finer meanings and nuances, only then will she/he be able to truly appreciate the song. Yet, he insisted that we perform, so people would be entertained. So, there was a programme, comprising of both Bauls and Fakirs among whom slots were divided. It began in the afternoon and lasted around two hours and a half.
(Kartik Das Baul) These days, almost any performer can claim to be a Baul. You sang a song with a complex philosophical content; the performers who sang after you faded in comparison.
People who claim to be Bauls do not really know much. Most of them simply came for the food. They knew that if they sang they would get free food.
(Kartik Das) Yes, you are right. They would be given good meals for three consecutive days if they sang.
Yes, they saw this as a chance to visit the Paush Mela, in addition to getting free food and a little remuneration. A lot of Bauls came from Malda.
(Kartik Das) Yes, and also from the 24 Parganas.
The Bauls from Malda have no talent whatsoever, if you ask my opinion. They can only smoke ganja (marijuana) and they saw this as an opportunity to have night-long fun. Shame on them! Their activities did not let me sleep all night. All they did was dope!?
(Kartik Das) Do you remember the time when under the influence of ganja those boys from Bhubandanga burnt their blankets?
There was this one Baul I knew a few years ago who was equally addicted to both ganja and alcohol. Most of the times, he would in a state of utter inebriation and sleep. I remember, on the morning following the last day of the Mela, we were packing our bags and preparing to leave and he was still lying there, asleep and inebriated. I was told by someone in Bolpur that he was once severely beaten up by his fellows who were also into ganja. Following this incident, he fled to Naihati and remained there for a while. Now, perhaps, he has moved to Kolkata.
(Kartik Das) Bauls were lesser in number earlier. These days almost anyone can claim to be a Baul.
I first went to Tamaltala years ago where I had met Purna Das Baul and his children. There were five or six of us there, which included me, Dinabandhu Baul and Tribhanga Khyapa. Nitai Khyapa had advised me to reach there by the 7th day of Paush. Accordingly, I had started two or three days in advance, walked through Guskara and reached there before the others did. I walked along the railway line and reached Bolpur on the morning of the 7th day. There, I was made to wait and had the occasion of seeing Jawaharlal Nehru’s convoy pass. The police had cleared the streets to make way for the minister’s convoy. After that, we were allowed to proceed. I was searching for the Mela ground. As I entered through a big gate someone pointed out to me a direction to the left; the person told me that I was likely to find other Bauls there. I went there and spotted a few Bauls. At first I didn’t talk to anyone. I mostly kept to myself as I roamed and surveyed the place. Then, someone approached me. He was an elderly person by the name of Hari Babu. He asked me, “When did you come, young one?” I told him I had just arrived. He asked me where my home was. I said I came from Sonamukhi in Bankura. He then asked me how I had heard of the Mela. I told him that my guru, Nitai Khyapa, had told me and had asked me to visit the same. He also asked me whether I had had something to eat. When I said ‘No I hadn’t’ he took me to an adjoining ground where there were a few food stalls and a wooden Ferris-wheel. He bought me a packet of muri and told me that he would return during lunchtime with some food. I was to remain with the other Bauls there and bathe in the pond with them. He also told me that he would hear me sing in the afternoon after 4 p.m. He said “Since you have introduced yourself as the disciple of Nitai Khyapa all your responsibilities are mine.” He returned during lunchtime and after a nice wholesome meal which he had brought with him, he handed me the duggi and the iktara and asked me to sing a song by Nitai Khyapa. I sang. He praised me. But no-one joined me in my singing. They were more interested in joining Dinabandhu Baul who was rolling a joint of ganja. Hari Babu also provided me dinner. At night, I stayed at the Singur Sadan, where the visiting Bauls would be put up.?? ?
I was there for two days. I was given three rupees (in those days, you could buy 12 kilograms of rice for three rupees). It took me another two days to walk back. I continued visiting the place each year for the next two years consecutively. After two or three such visits, I bought a second-hand bicycle for myself. I had to pay a total sum of rupees eighty in instalments of twenty each after every three months. I used my bicycle on my later visits. I would stay the night at an ashrama and reach there on the 7th day of Paush. For a few years the bicycle was my mode of transportation to the Paush Mela. Then came a time when a lot of theft began to be reported at the Mela. It was no longer safe to take the bicycle with me. By this time also bus services had started. Yet, we didn’t have enough money to buy the bus tickets. You see, they would hardly pay us three to five rupees! If most of it went away into paying for the bus ride, what would I bring back home? We would have to resort again to begging. Shanti Babu promised us that he would look into this. It was Shanti Babu who asked Debi Chatterjee, the then in-charge, to pay me fifty rupees. He told Debi Chatterjee, “Sonaton Baul is a good performer. And he is poor. You will henceforth ensure that he gets fifty rupees every time he comes to perform at the Mela.” And then onwards, I began to receive fifty rupees every time I visited the Paush Mela.?? ?
I remember one occasion when some performers had come over to perform Rabindrasangeet at the Sangeet Bhavan with duggi, iktara, tabla and harmonium. They had left the stage after their performance but had forgotten to take the musical instruments. I seized the opportunity and performed some Baul numbers for the audience, dancing as I sang. As the performers had forgotten about the instruments, I asked my fellows to keep them in adjoining room of the akhara. I remember covering them with a towel. I later informed Shanti Babu of the whereabouts of the missing instruments which he then discovered safely tucked away under the towel (smiles at the recollection). He told me that anyone else would have made away with them. But Sonaton Baul isn’t just anyone else!
Since how many years have you been going to Shantiniketan to the Paush Mela?
I first went there in 1360 according to the Bengali calendar (corresponding to 1953 in the English calendar).
Since what age have you been singing?
I have singing since the age of twelve or thirteen.
At which places have you performed?
I come from Bangladesh. My ancestral house is in Khulna, Bangladesh. It was in Khulna that I first started singing. Thereafter, I sang on trains. I sang on the train which journeyed from Khulna to Bongaon. Then I would sing again as the train returned to Khulna. When we received news that Bengal was going to be partitioned, I, along with my father, mother and younger brother boarded the train and left our ancestral home forever. We left everything there for the Muslims to plunder(1). We were in Bongaon for around fifteen days. My father, my mother and I would leave in the morning and travel from place to place singing for alms. My younger brother remained alone at home. A bowl of cooked rice would be kept behind for him, covered with a cane basket.? I eventually ended up in Burdwan where I stayed for three or four months. Near the city, there was a Dharmashala. I stayed there for those months and sang for alms in the streets. It was thus as an itinerant singer that I visited many places like Kashi (modern Varanasi), Gaya and Baidyanath. I eventually ended up in a village called Baghadi near Tribeni in Magrahat. The villagers were enamoured with my father’s singing. They apportioned some land for us in the village and insisted that we build a house there and remain with them. The village had a high school, near which we built our hut. The villagers supplied us with all the raw materials such as bamboo and straw. We lived there for a while. Then came a time when the high school authorities decided to renovate and extend the school area. They told my father they needed the land on which our hut stood and that they would compensate and buy us land elsewhere for building a house. Accordingly, a three-acre land was bought adjacent to the road leading to Tribeni. My father was given some money and we built a house there. Our chief occupation was to roam the streets singing for alms. My father was also a singer. I first learnt music from my grandfather.
What was the name of your grandfather?
My grandfather’s name was Ramdass Thakur. And my father was called Jagabandhu Das Thakur. My paternal uncle’s name is Dinabandhu.
Were your father and grandfather Bauls?
Yes. I had two paternal aunts, Keshta Dasi and Hari Dasi. They would sing along with my grandfather wherever he performed. One of them played the kartal. My grandfather played the dholak and my father played the harmonium. Every evening, we would all sit together and sing. And during the day, we would go out singing for alms, sometimes together in a group, at other times individually. This was our way of life. ?In the year 1340 there was a great famine in Bengal. The English held the helm of power. They catered to the Muslims(2). And during the famine, poor people like us were handed out millet and maize. These were inedible. The maize could still be fried, but the millet was too dry to be eaten. ?
We have suffered many hardships. My paternal aunt lived at our ancestral home in Khulna for a while. But she too left that land when she perceived the impending partition. On one side, the Muslims established their rule, on the other side the Bengalis. All that can be called family belongings we were able to stuff inside a couple of cane baskets. This is how we have lived and survived. I have travelled to various places— Gaya, Kashi, Baidhyanath, lived in Burdwan for two or three months, and thereafter while living in Magrahat, I once again sang on trains for alms.
How long have you lived here in this village of Khairbani?
I first came here in the year 1359 (according to the Bengali calendar) in the month of Aghran (mid-February to mid-March).
How old are you now?
I am in my eighty-fifth year (at this point the son intervenes and says his father is eighty-seven or eighty-eight years old).
It was from here that I first visited Shantiniketan and the Paush Mela following the advice of my guru. It would take me two or three days to walk the entire way. I would often put up with the sadhus at their akhara.
Would you tell us something about the ‘Sahajiya’ philosophy?
The word ‘Sahajiya’ sounds nice. Remember that song I sang?—
“The moon appears suddenly at noon one day? ‘How will the night pass’ wonder I in dismay!”—
Even the person who composed the song will not be able to explain its meaning. Regarding ‘Sahajiya’, I have heard this said that it is a faith which originated in the teachings of Chandidass Rajakini. Thereafter it proliferated, first in Vrindavana where it took the form of the Vrindavana lila(3). It is related to the notion of ‘parakiya’(4). Krishna did not shed his semen when he was intimate with the Gopis in Vrindavana; not did he do so whilst he was in Mathura thereafter. It was when he moved to Dwarka finally that he decided to marry and settle down into a family life. He married Satyabhama and Rukmini and only after marriage did he impregnate their wombs with his children. That is how Krishna practised ‘parakiya’, as did Chandidass Rajakini later, much after him. But hardly any Baul today practises ‘parakiya’. I will narrate an incident. A woman from Purulia had an operation performed on her so she couldn’t conceive. Thereafter, she went off to Birbhum and became a ‘sadhu’. People who were not aware of this began to call her a true ‘sadhu’. No one cared to find out the truth. This is what ‘Sahajiya’ today has become! Shame on these people! In ‘Sahajiya’ there will be ‘Shringara’ (referring to sexual activity) but no semen will be shed. It is a very difficult practice. I am yet to meet someone who, under the pangs of desire, can withdraw the phallus before ejaculation. There is a procedure which, once mastered, the ejaculation may be controlled, even when the phallus isn’t withdrawn; although the clothes may be soiled. For, “It is not easy to curb this water of love!” This can only be attained through ‘sadhana’ which has to be learnt from the guru. In order to become a true Baul, you need to master the art of ‘parakiya’.
People are born, they die. Humanity deteriorates; people are re-born. But the great Mahadeva (Shiva) was only born once. He is eternal, according to the ‘Shiva Purana’.? Parvati had once asked him, “Lord Bholanath, I have seen that all the gods have reincarnations, they are born again and again. Yet, you remain eternal, you have no incarnation. I do not know when you were born. But I am blessed, that in my various re-incarnations, I have been united with you as my lord.” Shiva answered, “Parvati, you cannot comprehend the meaning of this; you are not meant to do so, and neither is anybody else.”??(Sings)
“Behold the three daughters of Mahadeva,
Each of whom is eternal…
He spends his time in the smasan(5)
Smeared all over with ash.” –
It is difficult to comprehend the meaning of the song. The Lord Mahadeva has three daughters— Durga, Kali and Ganga. According to the ‘Shiva Purana’, they represent three aspects of nature, the totality of which is represented by Mahadeva himself. They are eternal. All the other gods have their re-incarnations in every generation, except Mahadeva who is eternal.
What is your opinion about the younger generation of Baul performers?
As performers they are good. However, the numbers of Bauls who practice true ‘sadhana’ are far less today. In future, there will be fewer of them still. Maybe one or two will remain. But these people never advertise themselves. You need a ‘guru’ in order to learn true ‘sadhana’. But these days, it is difficult to come across such a guru. And without a guru, how will you learn? It is difficult to predict the future. Perhaps, a few will remain who practise true ‘sadhana’.
There are two kinds of Bauls— the ‘performing Baul’ and the Baul who practises ‘sadhana’ (the ‘Sadhak Baul’). My guru, Nitai Khyapa was both.
Who were your gurus?
Nitai Khyapa was the guru who taught me Baul music. The first guru who taught me how to sing was my grandfather. In this respect, my father is also my guru. During my travels, I have encountered many individuals; some were great men, some were performers. I learnt from each of them. In a way, all of them are my gurus. In the adult years of my life, when I had come to West Bengal, I met Manohar Khyapa of Jayadeva. He heard me singing and initiated me into his disciple-hood. I had gone with Nitai Khyapa to Jayadeva. I was entering into my manhood and not fully out of my adolescent years yet. A little stubble had begun growing on my face. Manohar Khyapa gave me some money for the bus fare and asked me to come to Jayadeva again the following year. He said he would initiate me into his disciple-hood. Manohar Khyapa thus became my guru in my grown-up years. I have not had any guru since. I don’t get time to visit all my gurus. I remember when I would go to visit Nitai Khyapa, I would carry ‘ganja’ for him and I would sing for alms on the way. Whatever rice I would be given, I would take for him. I would stay with him for some three days and then return. I would walk all the way to his abode at Betarbon in Burdwan. I would learn some new songs from him and practise some older songs which he had taught me earlier; these I would rehearse once back home.
Our household comprised of three members— me, my guru-ma (referring possibly to the wife of his guru) and my wife. Each of us would go out singing for alms. That was our livelihood. People would give us a handful of rice or muri as alms.
Can you please tell us something about the traditional significance of Jayadeva? How and why do Bauls relate themselves to Jayadeva?? ?
I do not know if Jayadeva composed or sang songs. (At this point his elder son, Bishwanath Das, intervenes and says that Jayadeva did give public performances and he cites some historical account of the reign of Lakshman Sena which corroborates the same).
So what draws the Bauls to the Jayadeva Mela?
It is difficult to put in words. The Jayadeva Mela takes place in the village to Kenduli. Devotees, on the day of ‘Makar Sankranti’(6), would go down to the Ganges in Katwa to take a holy bathe. The goddess made her appearance to her devotees and said, “You don’t need to come to the Ganges to take a bathe. I will visit Jayadeva on the day of the Makar Sankranti.” Since then, the devotees visit Jayadeva on that occasion. Some, who arrive a day earlier, are fortunate to witness a rise in the water level of the Ajay River. This is a sign that the goddess has made her appearance.
But not everyone is blessed with this sight, are they?
It is visible. There is a visible rise in the water level of the river. Not all devotees can make their way to the Ganga-Sagar Mela. Many of them come to Jayadeva in Kenduli on that occasion. They bathe in the river. A lot of sadhus assemble there as well. They build makeshift huts, beg for alms and remain there for a while in the company of each other. It is said within popular discourse that Lord Krishna had taken the avatar of Jayadeva and visited Padmavati and eaten food cooked by her. Many say that Krishna’s footprint can still be seen there. He had made his appearance in the form of Jayadeva. Another such footprint can be seen at Vrindavana. Devotees who visit the same in Vrindavana prostrate themselves and role on the ground to pay homage to it. Roopsanatan had lived there for a while. Water from the Ganges comes to Jayadeva, and at dawn on the day of ‘Makar Sankranti’ devotees bathe in those holy waters. Now a temple has also been built there.
Is it therefore to mark this occasion that Bauls visit Jayadeva and perform their songs???? ?
Not Bauls in particular. But sadhus visit there and chant the praises of Krishna in the form of songs. ?
Is this how Baul music originated?
No, Baul music originates with Lord Mahadeva. Once, while telling Parvati about Hari (Lord Krishna), he started speaking in a certain melody, and began playing his damaru. This is how Baul music originated. Mahadeva would tell Parvati about Hari, and he did so in the form of songs. It has been coming down to us. Some practise ‘sadhana’, others only sing. They are only concerned about earning their livelihood and singing fetches them their daily meal. Today, with the advent of the radio and the television, there is an increased demand for Baul songs. People pay to listen to these songs. So, ‘sadhana’ has been relegated to the background.
Have you ever travelled abroad? In which year?
I visited London in 1984, Paris in 1987 and America in 1991. Within the country, I have travelled to Silchar, Bombay and Delhi to perform. Often, these trips would be arranged by some party and I would be asked to perform.
Have you released any cassette or CD?
I haven’t released one. The ones who have released have ownership (copyright) over it. I was once asked by Akashvani to perform for them. But they said they won’t be able to pay me anything for it. They told me, “If you record for us, your song will play on the radio frequently. People will hear your voice and know about you.”? I retorted and said, “If you do not pay me, how am I even supposed to travel down to your studio?? And what will I eat? How will I feed my guru-ma and my wife?” They would not even pay me for the bus fare. I refused to record for them.
I have spoken a lot. Now, let it be. Narayan! All of you are much younger to me. Remain on the true path, be good to others, it will pay off one day!
1 The ‘Partition of Bengal’ into East and West Bengal along with the creation of Assam and Sylhet as a separate ‘Chief-Commissionership’ was effected in British India in 1905 by Lord Curzon. In 1947, India was declared independent of colonial rule; however, the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan where the erstwhile East Bengal became East Pakistan, an area with a majority of Muslim population. The year 1971 saw the Bangladesh Liberation War following which Bangladesh declared itself independent of Pakistan, established itself as a separate and independent nation-state and established Bengali as its national language.
2 Sonaton Das is likely referring here to the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy which was adopted by the English administrators in British India and resulted in much communal strife between Hindus and Muslims.
3 the word ‘lila’ refers to a conceptualization of the universe as a playground of the gods within Hinduism.
4 ‘Parakiya’ bhava means ‘relating or belonging to another’ as opposed to ‘Svakiya’, which means ‘living for the self’. Within Baul philosophy, ‘Parakiya’ would mean ‘love for the sake of love’, i.e., love which unlike ‘Svakiya’ is not bound to individualistic notions of self and family.
Also, ‘Parakiya’ is an important concept within Vaishnavism where heterosexual marriage is not seen as the most significant relationship and the concept thus begins to envelop the possibility of ‘love’ or ‘desire’ outside the structure of heterosexual marriage. ‘Parakiya’ thus transgresses social norms and demonstrates, for example, Radha's ‘love’ for Krishna where she is shown as willing to flout social conventions and pursue the beloved.
5 ‘Smasan’? refers to the place where the dead are cremated.
6 ‘Makar Sankranti’ is the day which marks the transition of the Sun into?the Makara?rashi?(Capricorn) on its celestial path. Traditionally, it is believed to signal the beginning of a new harvest season (spring) in?India.
HMV Studio, Dum Dum, Kolkata, West Bengal
Interviewer: What is your name and where do you live? My name is Sandhya Rani Das, and I live at Bolpur, Shantiniketan in Birbhum district.
How long have you lived there? I have lived there about 21 years.
Where did you live before that? Before that I lived in Chittoronjon in Asansol. I used to sing and dance there from the age of 5. From that time, I have made the dotara my life mate along with Baul songs at saddhu festivals. Since I was little I have followed other Baul singers. I have sung at different temples and festivals since I was little, but the Baul songs are my favorite.
Since you were 5 years old, you have loved Baul songs and the dotara---why not any other types of songs? The reason I started was because my father had financial problems, very bad problems. We had a lot of family members. I had little brothers and sisters and my Dad was elderly. From time to time, I used to go begging. After doing that I used to come back and whatever I made from here and there, I used to come home around 2-3 p.m., and whatever I used to get—lentils, rice, etc.—I gathered all of it and cooked it and ate with my family.
How did you learn about Baul songs? I used to go to many places to visit. And I used to hear many people singing Baul songs. And I used to ask myself, what is Baul? What is Baul? With the hope of learning Baul I used to go to many Jaydeb festivals. I used to go to Lubashon (?) and many other places. And “What is Baul?”, I wanted to learn what it is. That is why I have come along this line since I was little.
Was your father a Baul singer? Yes, he was a Baul singer. My entire family are Baul singers. My brothers and sisters and parents were Baul singers. They all used to sing Baul songs.
Who was your first Baul singing teacher? My first teacher was my father.
What is your father’s name? Nagon Sarkar Baul.
After, how did you become a Baul? I learned the songs from my father, and after learning them, I used to go to many festivals, and to the Jaydeb festival. There were many Baul singers there.
What are their names? Monohor Khepa, Alakhepa, Sudhir Baba, and Bane Madup—they were a ll Baul singers, and I went to them to know how to become a Baul singer. It’s not just singing. I wanted to learn what a Baul singer was. I knew some and I learned some from them.
How did you learn to play the dotara and long have you played it? I learned from my father how to play the dotara. I have been playing it for 25 years. I love to play it. Because my father’s original place was in Bangladesh, that is why I used to see my father play the dotara. That sound is my favorite. In my heart I used to feel that I want to learn how to play. After that I used to see many Baul singers play the dotara and sing. Then I came to like it a lot, and I wanted t learn how to play. I used to beg my father everyday, “Father, Father, I want to learn how to play.” And this is where I am now.
What other instruments can you play? The ektara, the dugduggi, the harmonium, the dotara, drums, and cymbals.
Before you came to Bolpur, did you used to sing? And why did you come to Bolpur? I got married in Bolpur. My husband also sings. My brother-in-law and my father-in-law and the entire family also sing.
What is your father-in-law’s name? My father-in-law’s name is Biswanath Das Baul and my husband’s name is Nityo Gopal Das Baul. That’s why I came to a Baul family, and I am very happy here.
Where did you meet Nityo Gopal? I met Nityo Gopal at the Jaydeb festival. There we both liked each other. And he also sings and I sing, and after that we got married.
How long have you been married? 20 years.
Do you go to Chittoronjon? Yes, I do go, but my father is gone; he died, and my mother is dead, too. Only my little brothers and sisters are there, so I go sometimes. And I go to many places and programs.
Did your father used to do anything else besides singing? No, he didn’t; mother used to sing, too, as well as my brothers and sisters. But they are all married now. They all used to sing. My brothers are still here. Even after, the teachers were still here and Pagla Baba is my husband’s teacher. Also my father-in-law’s teacher, too. Pagla Baba did a program at a school. That day I really wanted to learn from him. I really liked it. One place I went to sing and my father really liked it. He said “I really like to hear you sing. I think in the future you will become a great singer.” I don’t know how far what I can be, everything is up to God. I couldn’t go toward the singing line because I was busy with family life. I loved listening to and singing songs. I really love it. Even when I am at home, and I hear that there is a Baul singer there, I feel like just leaving and going there. I really love it.
Have you gone abroad to sing? Outside of India? Yes, I went outside India in 2004 for the first time to Japan. I liked it. I went to Japan to sing Baul songs. I sang at the Shantiniketan festival, and there were some women from Japan there who heard me sing. They asked me if I wanted to go abroad, and I said ‘yes’, I want to see how much fun it is in Japan. I won’t know until I go. So I went to see abroad to Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo. That was the first program I did. And I did other programs in Japan; they very much enjoyed it and so did I. Besides that and India, I’ve done many programs.
Did you go anywhere else, other than Japan? Besides Japan, I went to two more countries but I can’t remember their names.
Did you go to Japan by yourself? I went with one of my brothers, Shiv Shankar Das Baul; he also sings Baul songs. And with another person I know, Nityanando Das Baul. He sings at the Poush Mela and he took us.
How many recordings do you have? 22 albums.
Where did you publish your recordings? In Kolkata. DWM company and some others.
Is there a new album coming out? Yes, there is a new album coming soon, at the Poush Mela , and it will have ten songs in the album.
Do you sing your own songs or what others write for you? I sing my own songs and what others from my village have written. I mostly sing the songs written by the village people. We like to sing the village songs to the city folks to let them know how village folks live.
Okay, well thank you for the interview; it went very well.
Joy guru, joy guru! I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Town Hall, Kolkata
Subha: Regarding the terminology of ‘Fakir’ and ‘Baul’, in the last few years we have seen a rise of such terminology, and it does seem to refer to nationality and in some peculiar way to religion. This is strange, because ‘Baul’ is meant to be above these traditional religious frameworks. Would you like to comment?
Shaktinath Jha (responds in Bengali to the Bauls): Certain categories are created by the ‘bhodrolok(1)and imposed on us from above. Suppose there is a requirement of ten Fakirs. The family name of Golam (referring to Golam Fakir) is not ‘Fakir’. But this title is given to him so that he becomes marketable. Other such examples include Mansoor Ali Khan and Lokman Shaikh who have appropriated for themselves the title of ‘Fakir’. They have done so in order to fit themselves within this category.
Those among us who are studies in language and linguistics; we know that ‘Fakra’ is a Turkish word and entered the Bengali vocabulary via Arabian. In the Turkish community, there were eighty different kinds (categories) of Fakirs. These are still extant. In fact, there is a proverb in Bengali “I will make you dance like a Turkish.” This too is an allusion to the Fakirs. If you have ever been to Istanbul, you can still see these practices. Sometimes they are also telecast over television. For a while these practices had been banned there but are now again on the rise. Do we have any of these Fakir Communities or traditions in our country? When a word is borrowed from English to Bengali, we don’t call it a ‘Christian’ word. Yet, owing to an unhealthy political campaign, we mark certain medieval Iranian or Semitic loan words as ‘Muslim’. This is a strange practice! Ramprasad Sen was neither Muslim nor a Fakir. Yet, in his musical compositions he uses the word ‘Fakir’— ‘Fikire Fakir Kare Boshe Achho Rajkumari’ (O proud princess, yonder you sit, / having depleted me/ of my opportunity.) Lalan didn’t just call himself a Fakir. In his words, Caitanya at a very young age chose a life of Fakir-hood. In orthodox Baul/Fakir tradition, once you are initiated into this way of life, you have to renounce all material possessions, property and wealth. Lalan Shah had done the same. Harinath Majumdar (Kangal (2) Harinath), disciple of Lalan, who swept the entire undivided Bengal into a frenzy of Baul music, was known as ‘Fakir Chand’. Even Nilkantha Mukhopadhyay, who was a high-caste (‘Kulin’) Brahmin, has used the term ‘Fakir’.
Even Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather is said to have taken the guise of ‘Fakir’. What I am trying to put forth is this— within the Bengali language, the term ‘Fakir’ has a completely different meaning altogether. Linguistically or even etymologically, it simply refers to a group of people who have renounced the material world or maybe are just in a state of mendicancy. It does to refer at all to a ‘religious’ community of any sort. It is thus not an ‘Islamic’ or a communal word at all. Owing to the Islamization of Bangladesh in recent times, this word was imposed as a category from above and a ‘fatwa’ was issued for the destruction of this community. There is a book written in Bengali on the subject. It is called Baul Dhongsher Fatwa (The Fatwa for the Destruction of Bauls). We, who have done some research on the subject, know that some words, in due course of time, loose their original inflection and begin to sound the same. The word ‘Baul’ has parallels not only in Persian and Arabic, but also in the Buddhist language; it occurs four times in the Charchapad (3). ?Examples would include bajule and bayura. Similar words also exist in Sanskrit. Etymologically the word ‘Baul’ thus has various roots. Uma (referring to Umarani Das who is sitting in the audience) does not identify herself as ‘Baul’ in her everyday life. She does so only when she identifies herself before people like us because if she doesn’t identify as a ‘Baul’, nobody would invite her to perform. We have thus emptied the words of their original meaning, invented these categories and thrust them upon these people and upon society. Within the Muslim community, the word/category ‘Baul’ was eventually done away with. And I can cite numerous such examples where the word ‘Fakir’ occurs within Hinduism. If you read the writing of Akshay Kumar Dutta, you will know exactly what I am talking about. The person who constituted the Ghosh-para (referring to the neighbourhood where people belonging to the ‘Ghosh’ community dwell) called himself ‘Fakir Thakur’. It is we who have created the categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Mussalman’; ‘Baul’ and ‘Fakir’. It is ironical that people who have critiqued and questioned the very notions and boundaries of caste and religion are being forced back by us into those very same boxes owing to the imposition of the categories of ‘Baul and ‘Fakir’. This is lamentable!
I have made one small error, allow me to rectify. Within Islamic tradition also the word ‘Fakir’ has existed. Someone resides in the 24 Parganas and sings the songs of ‘Muskil Asaan’ will know what I mean. There are a group of people within the Islamic community who choose a life of renunciation and mendicancy and identify themselves as ‘Fakirs’.
In recent years, the term ‘Sufi’ has come in vogue. All of you know that the terms ‘Sufi’, ‘Fakir’ and ‘Darbesh’ are synonyms. Also, ‘Sufi’ is an Anglicised word. The root word in Arabic is ‘Tasauf’. Within Islam, a lot of people wish to create a separate identity for themselves by the use of the term ‘Sufi’.? And the Europeans and Americans, who control the world, see ‘Sufi’ Islam as more innocuous and acceptable to orthodox Islam. Hence the identity ‘Sufi’ is gaining currency. However, this too is an imposition from above. People who have researched on the Bauls of Bengal such as Enamul Haque, in his book Bonge Sufi Probhab (The Influence of Sufism in Bengal) published in 1935, has refrained from naming the Bauls of Bengal as ‘Sufis’. Neither has Rizvi in his renowned book ever used the term ‘Sufi’ to refer to Bauls. There may be Sufi elements, on Buddhist elements on Nath elements in Baul philosophy and music, but Bauls are Bauls. Outside Bengal (here I am referring to both Bengals) the word ‘Baul’ does not exist. It is a localized identity, practise, music, philosophy, whichever way we choose to see it. Other similar traditions may exist, influenced in various degrees by the Bhakti movement, but none are as radical as the Bauls. ‘Love’ is not their only point of focus. The ‘Baul’ tradition openly critiques concepts of caste and skin colour and openly renounces any notion of the ‘material’, whether it is the human body or wealth and private property. Their struggle against all such existing systems is an ancient one and has been continuing for generations. And they are carrying on their struggle, against a society which believes in class and categories through their music, but more so through their philosophy and their way of life.
Shaktinath is here referring to the bourgeois middle-class ‘gentleman’ of Bengal.
2.‘Kangal’ literally means a mendicant and in the context of Baul/fakir, symbolizes someone who has renounced all wealth and material possessions.
3. The oldest written text of the Bengali language.
Translator: Parjanya Sen
Shubhash Pally, Shyambati, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
Aditi: Tell me your name
Subhamoy: My name is Subhamoy Das.
A: Tell me the full story from your childhood of how you joined this Baul world.
S: Since I was little, I wanted to do music. I studied in school, and at the same time did a bit of music. People came to the house, and we’d sit, and I’d play ghungur and dubki. In that way, I started leaning in the Baul direction.
My studies didn’t go well. My parents didn’t force me; they said, “you do what you want to do.” In that way, I came into the Baul line.
Now I travel around performing, often with my father, for three months or so at a time.
A: When did you start playing music?
S: I’ve been playing music since I was about four.
A: Tell a bit about how you learned around the house, from your mom, etc.
S: My father didn’t want to teach me music. He wanted me to go to school. I used to do music around the house, wandering around. When I forgot a verse, I would ask, “Ma, what’s the next verse?” and then my mother would remind me of it. Then my father understood that I would be a musician. He never forced me. I learned music in that way; my father was my guru. First, my mom was my guru, since she taught me first. Then my father.
A: What’s the instrument that you play?
S: I play dubki.
A: Why dubki?
S: I don’t know why I chose dubki. I can play all of the instruments more or less. I first saw the dubki at the house, I watched it and liked the sound. I learned from my father. Then my father had a student whose name was Robi. I watched him play. Then I learned some from Tinkori Chakraborti.
A: What kind of songs did you learn then, when you first learned from your mom?
S: Baul songs, folk songs, all types.
A: What’s your age now?
S: Now my age is 20+.
A: What instruments do you play now?
S: Among Baul instruments, I play anandalahiri, what they
call khamak. I can play that, dubki, a bit of dotara; I haven’t been able to
learn everything yet. But I play all of
the instruments a bit.
A: And what’s this instrument by your side?
S: This is a Western instrument, mandolin. I’m trying this a bit now, learning a little bit.
A: How are you learning?
S: There’s a guy named Diptanshu Roy whom I first heard play it. He showed me some things.
A: Do you play concerts? Or what do you do now?
S: Music is my profession, I don’t do anything else.
A: What do you want to do in the future?
S: I want to do this.
A: Are you married?
S: I haven’t married.
A: And what do you want to do for the rest of your life?
S: This, Baul music.
A: How do you like this Baul life?
S: This life is very good. Bauls don’t have any fixed address: sometimes the foot of a tree, sometimes a three-story house. That’s this life. That’s how I’ll spend my whole life. Through doing music, I meet lots of people, socialize, do music, play on lots of good stages. Through music I get all this. Many things. I really like it.
A: Where have you played concerts?
S: I haven’t been abroad yet. I’m travelled all over India: Kerala, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Assam etc.
A: What’s your favorite place to play? Villages, Kolkata, Kerala, Bangalore, Chennai?
S: Of all places, I think, Kolkata people really appreciate and understand Baul songs. Most village people don’t appreciate it and understand much. There are a few, but they’re mostly older. Now there are so many types of music to hear, and because of that people don’t want to hear Baul songs as much. Kolkata people really pay attention; they sit and listen. I get the most satisfaction playing concerts in Kolkata.
A: Play a bit of what you’ve learned on that instrument.
Bali Para, Simantapally, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
Tell us your name. My name is Sufia Begum.
Where is your house? My house is in Murshidabad, in the village Bhikampur, P.O. Diptinagar, Police Station Berhampore, Zila Murshidabad.
So when did you start singing Fakir songs? From whom did you learn music? How were you initiated into it? My father was not a Fakir. He was a Maulana Sahib versed in the Sharia. My mother is also not a Fakir. None of my brothers are into music. I was twelve when I began learning music. But I had no formal training then. I would listen to the radio and pick up songs. There was a Fakir residing near our house. He had an akhara in the open field. He used to regularly perform in the akhara. I was drawn to him by his singing. I went and asked him to teach me. He asked me, “Are you sure you want to learn singing? Your father does not sing, you mother does not sing either, nor do your brothers, or anyone in your family.” I told him I was serious about learning music. He then told me “Your songs will be invaluable. Yet no one appreciate you.” I told him, “Let it be so. Let no one appreciate me. Yet, I want to learn music from you.”
That’s how I was initiated into music, beginning with the radio and then moving on to the akhara where I was under the tutelage of this Fakir. I was trained to sing and to play the instrument alongside. People came up with a lot of comments. My mother beat me up. My father threw me out of the house. And yet, I was not deterred. I was in love with music. I thought if I could sing my life would have some meaning and purpose to it. I was quite stubborn in my pursuit. And that is how I entered the world of music.
My father died when I was young. My mother had to face a lot of difficulties in raising her children single-handedly. All of us were young then.
How many siblings do you have? We are six siblings, three brothers and three sisters. My mother raised us alone. She eventually married me off and I moved here. But I never lost my attachment to music. I am still devoted to it. The name of the guru who first taught me (Shikkha-Guru) is Nitai Sadhu Bairagya, and the name of the guru with whom I am initiated (Dikkha-Guru) is Niranjan Shah. The name of my guru from whom I learnt music is Niresh Thunna.
Do all of your gurus hail from Murshidabad? No, no.
Then? My original home is in Bangladesh.
Where? I lived in Kushtia in Bangladesh.
So when did you leave Kushtia? It has been a long time, almost thirty years, since I left Kushtia.
So, as a child, did you learn music in Kushtia? Yes, in Kushtia.
Who is the first person to whom you went for lessons? The one whose name I just mentioned—Niresh Thunna. He was the first guru who taught me music. All my three gurus are from Bangladesh. My sikkha-guru, Nitai Sadhu Bairagya, left Bangladesh. He is no more in this world. My dikkha-guru, Niranjan Shah has also passed away. So has my music guru, Niresh Thunna.
Is your mother still living? Yes, she is living. She is in Bangladesh. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how she is, whether at all she is alive.
Aren’t you in touch with her? No. I never went back.
Why? Did they dislike the fact that you chose music as your profession? Yes.
What would they say? They could not understand why I wanted to learn music. They would tell me, “You are a girl. Why do you need to go out in public? Why do you have to cast aside all your shame? You should remain at home. You will get married and go to your husband’s house and look after the family. Why do you need to go out in public and sing?” I would reply, “Even if I have to get married and move to my in-law’s house, I cannot discontinue singing. Music is my life. It is also my profession, my way of earning my daily meal. I have to sing.”
To which places have you been to perform? I have not travelled far. I mostly sing in different villages. I once, however, went to Bombay to perform at a program organized by the government. I have also been to Delhi and to Kolkata. Besides, I keep travelling regularly to various places in Malda and Farakka.
Are you married? Yes.
And your husband is not opposed to you singing? No, he doesn’t oppose. I had informed him prior to our marriage. I had told him if he was opposed to my singing, he need not marry me. I didn’t need to enter into married life. I would rather have lived on my own if marriage meant parting with music. Thankfully, he was and has been very understanding. He agreed to marry me and he has never opposed my singing.
And he doesn’t mind the fact that you keep travelling from place to place as a performer? No, he does not mind.
Do you have children? I have one son and one daughter.
Do they learn music? No, they do not learn music. I have married off my daughter. My son is younger. Since there was no one to take care of the house when I was out performing in various places, he would remain at home and look after the house.
So why didn’t they learn music? Because I never initiated them into it.
Why? Because the Sharia forbids it, and the people who live by the Book do not take kindly to it. Especially in the place where I come from, there are certain proscriptions and social taboos.
What are the problems faced? Oh, there are lots of problems. People say, “A girl shouldn’t learn music. Her place is in the house.” They are equally critical of a boy learning music as they are of the opinion that being a man, his mettle is more suited to hard physical labour. It is because of these views prevalent in our society that I haven’t initiated my children into music.
But you have faced all this in your life, haven’t you? I have, but my children needn’t. Not everyone’s life need to be like mine.
So how do you like a Fakir way of life? I really like it. I won’t be able to survive without it; I need to be able to reach out to people with my music. I need to be among people, need to sing to them, need to hear what they have to say to me. This is how a Fakir’s life is meant to be. I love this Baul way of life. In fact, I do not know how else to live my life.
How old are you now? I am forty.
And at what age did you start learning music? From the age of twelve.
It’s been a long journey. But you still have miles to go. Thank you for your time.
Fairlawn Hotel, Kolkata
Tell me your full name.
My name is Suhkdev Das Baul.
Tell me your full address.
I am the son of Lakkhan Das Baul. I live at Siuri in the Birbhum district. My house is very near to the Vidyasagar College. Post-office is Siuri. This is my address.
Have you been at Siuri since your childhood?
No, I have not been at Siuri since my childhood. I was born at Siuri. But I left the place at a young age and moved to the Mallarpur village. I studied for a while there. And I grew up there as well. After that, I returned to Siuri.
Is Siuri located in the village Mallarpur?
Quite close to the village Mallarpur, in a place called Mehedinagar.
And where is that?
Well, very close to Mallarpur, within walking distance from Mallarpur.
In the district Birbhum?
Yes, in Birbhum itself. Rampurhat, Mallarpur, Tarapith... it is situated on the road that runs from Siuri to Tarapith.
All right. You completed your studies there and then you returned to Siuri?
That’s right. I have returned once again to Siuri.
All right, shall we begin? I’ll ask you some questions.
I have asked the same question to Lakkhanda (Lakkhan Das Baul)... and now I’ll ask you...I have been hearing Baul music for quite some time now... I have noticed that sometimes the tunes keep differing...even for the same lyrics... sometimes I get the feel that some of these tunes are very old...and these are the numbers that I keep hearing again and again... with time many of these older tunes have undergone a lot of change... Can you offer me your perspective on this...the older tunes and the newer ones, even for the same lyrics, do not sound similar... have the older ones really undergone a change? Or has nothing changed at all? What do you think?
No, they have changed significantly. For example, certain Bauls prefer to the older versions intact. And they perform these in more or less the exact same way they have been performed over the years. That’s how they prefer singing these to people. And there are some newer artists... you would know that there are a number of newer artists performing today...and our society too has undergone a transition... many of these transitions have made their way into these songs as we hear them today... as every person hears them today. For example, Hindi music, Bengali bands and a lot of other elements have shown their influence on Baul music. The popular Hindi songs or those from the Bengali bands are usually speedier numbers. Some of the newer Baul artists think that if they perform their numbers in a similar way they will be able to reach out to more of the masses. They think that they will appeal more people this way. And yet there are some people who do not want to listen to these transmutations...they prefer listening to the older, more un-infiltrated versions of the songs. Some prefer these transmutations, some don’t. That is how the scenario is today.
What do you think— are these changes influenced by the guru? Or are they brought about by the individual singer herself/ himself?
No, the guru is likely to teach the older version. You see, some composer and lyricist had composed these numbers...she/ he would certainly not have changed it... therefore the guru will never instruct her/ his student to alter a tune or give a new tune to the song. So it’s mostly the individual performers who bring about these changes in trying to keep pace with society.
Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking as well. And I would like to know if you share my opinion on another thing— the older songs would have a lot of lyrical and vocal intricacies; these I do not hear anymore. Are they not sung anymore? What would be your take on this?
Not exactly. It would not be accurate to say that these are not sung anymore. The fact is that there are fewer audiences today to listen to these lyrics. Every Baul performer is acquainted with these older lyrics. We have a collection of many of these lyrics. I have songs written by my grandfather’s father and his father before that. We have all those songs with us. We can perform them. But if we perform these numbers at any musical congregation, we usually find only a handful of audience remaining seated; the rest get up and leave after some time. Most of these lyrics are very complex and difficult to comprehend. People have difficulty in understanding them. People who have been initiated into Baul music or been trained by a guru may somewhat comprehend them. That is why elderly performers like us and more so the younger artists do not place a great impetus on these lyrics. Most of the present generation prefers less complex, lighter music. And yet some people who may be into Baul music often sit back and discuss the various implications of the song and its lyrics. But the present-day youth are not eager enough to visit a Baul congregation. They like listening to music the pleasure of which can be derived without too much effort at comprehension. That is why we do not perform these older, more complex numbers any more. We tend to perform those numbers which will be eagerly received by the present-day youth. And hence the older songs are usually not performed at the congregations. If we sing them, we will not be able to retain the audience’s attention. These are the various reasons why many of these lyrics have gone out of use.
Can you cite an example? Please sing two lines of a very old Baul number.
For example... ‘The world sinks in eternal darkness, extinct are the guru’s wisdom words/ In vain you seek the unknown pedestal, for you can sing no more the extolling song...’
And how does the tune go?
(sings) The world sinks in eternal darkness,
Extinct are the guru’s wisdom words
In vain you seek the unknown pedestal,
For you can sing no more the extolling song.
Extinct are the guru’s wisdom words...
You worship Kali with the five vices
Offering human sacrifices night and day,
You cannot walk straight on the virtuous path,
And your forehead remains forever cut.
Extinct are the guru’s wisdom words...
The world sinks... (repeats first verse)
Whose lines are these?
These lines are by Aha-ur. Aha-ur Goswami.
Now let me ask you something. What I feel on hearing Baul music is that it has its own uniqueness of tune. How much of this do you think is influenced by indigenous and folk tunes?
No. Baul music is ancient. It has been in practice since ages. Folk and indigenous tunes were not in existence prior to Baul songs. Folk tunes came later. Where did these originate from? They are actually a bifurcation from Baul music. Today we include different kinds of songs within the genre of folk music, songs like those composed by individual poets during the poetic duels and other such kinds of folk songs. These are all derived from Baul music. You see, folk is different from Baul. What do we mean by folk music? Let us first try and understand that. For example, the things we keep seeing everyday with our eyes; the poet perceives something new within these everyday sights which triggers off his inspiration. Thus he composes his lines. Then a composer gives a certain tune to this poet’s words. And what thus originates is referred to as folk music. And what is Baul? Bauls have an insight into the human mind. They are always in search of people with whom they can mentally bond. They are always in search of people among whom they can spread this love that they nurture within themselves. They are poets of love. And those that have a saintly disposition are always seeking the Absolute; they are the ones who possess all knowledge of the human body. And it is from this body that they create their music, their lyrics and their songs. There are many such great composers, who compose new lyrics and give tunes to these lyrics. And these are the songs we call Baul music. Baul has its own aesthetics that involve other aesthetics as well, for example the aesthetics of the human body, the knowledge of the hidden elements, etc. There are various ramifications, various phases. And baul music incorporates all these transitions. These transitions form part of Baul music. Folk music does not have these transitions. For example, whenever there is a guru-disciple performance, we witness many of these transitions being performed. When a folk performer sings on stage, he can begin with any number...sing any number of his choice. A baul performer cannot do that. He will begin by invoking the Guru and then proceed slowly towards the central philosophical content. Folk performances need not have these transitions. This is the basic structural difference between Baul and folk music, from the performance point of view.
Do Baul tunes also have these transitions?
Yes, they do.
My next question to you would be— do Baul and Fakir / Darveshi songs have any variation in tune even for the same lyrics?
No, not exactly. There are various kinds of Baul singers. For example, the Fakirs belong to the Muslim sect. The Bauls belong to the Hindu sect or the Vaishnava sect. Each has its own way of expression; in this the Muslim singers differ from the Baul singers. The words of the song might differ. It may be noticed that the feeling/ emotion is accentuated in the same notes for both, and yet the words chosen for expression may be different. The Fakir songs often have a different tune; besides the Fakir way of performing and self-expression is also different. The Bauls too have their own unique way of performance and self-expression. Each is different from the other.
So, how are the Fakir tunes like? Sing a few lines for me. And how are the Baul tunes like? How exactly does one distinguish one from the other? What are the markers of this differentiation?
Well Aditidi, Baul music is not of one distinct type. There are different kinds of tunes. I will sing one such tune for you. The song is about Krishna leaving Braja... I will sing a few lines of this song—
(sings) Radha has sent me from Braja to fetch you
And I am come to know your mind.
Radha has sent me from Braja to fetch you...
And here I am, Brinda, capable of calamity,
Here I am, to take you with me
Binding your wrists in the fetters of love.—
This is a Baul tune. Now listen to the tune of a Fakir song. The Fakir songs are different from their Baul counterparts. The gait, mannerisms and attire of Fakirs are different. For example, the Bauls dress in five kinds of cloth, which they call the ‘Pancharashik’ or the ‘Guduri’. Often, you will notice that Fakirs too dress in five kinds of cloth. Yet what marks the difference is the presence of the colour black. The colour black always forms part of the Fakir attire, along with their Darveshi necklace. The Bauls wear the colour saffron, and a necklace. There exists a difference of colour in the chosen attire of the two. Are how are the Fakir songs different? I will sing one—
(sings) Ashraf-Ul-Auliya, Chiragesh Chistiya
Blessed was the beloved Khwaja.
Prithviraj could work his miracles no more
And futile became many lives.
At the end Jaipal too was rendered helpless
Took the holy oath and embraced Islam.
Blessed was the beloved Khwaja.
Ashraf-Ul-Auliya, Chiragesh Chistiya
Blessed was the beloved Khwaja.
The instruments of Bauls and Fakirs are different too, aren’t they?
Yes, their instruments are different. You will see that the Fakirs usually use instruments like the ‘Dubki’ and the hand ‘Dhol’. Besides, you will also notice an instrument that looks like a tong laced with bell-chimes; Sadhus too use this kind of a tong. And you will also notice an instrument that resembles the violin. I can’t recall its name at this moment. But the instrument very much resembles and sounds like the violin. The Bauls, on the other hand, use instruments like the ‘Duggi’ and the ‘Iktara’. The first aspect of a Baul’s identity is his Duggi and Iktara. The next is the instrument of love, what we call the ‘Prem Lahari’ or the ‘Gabbu’. The other instruments frequently used by the Bauls include the ‘Kartal’ and the ‘Khol’. These can be of varied types and each of them is an aspect of the Baul identity.
Are their dance moves also different?
Yes. The Bauls dance to the beat of their anklets and to the tune of the ‘Duggi’ which they play. The Fakirs only dance rarely. They usually stand rooted to a spot when they perform. They rely more on facial expressions and hand gestures to convey the meaning of their song.
What I personally feel is that the Fakir songs are often somewhat repetitive. They keep repeating their lines and tune. I think the Fakir songs have lesser variations. What is your opinion on this?
Yes, The Fakirs often keep re-iterating the same refrain. The Baul songs are more varied, in terms of their melody. The Fakirs keep repeating the same tune which forms the central crux of their song. Let me sing one number for you; you will see that it keeps harping back to the central musical motif—
“I have been a sinner
Through the different phases of my life.
Lord, my sins know no bounds.
Lord, absolve my many sins through Your virtue.”—
The tunes of the Fakir songs, as they have come down to us over generations, are often quite similar to each other.
In the case of Baul songs, the name of the composer/ lyricist is usually incorporated as part of the lyrics of the song. Does the same hold true for Fakir songs as well?
- Yes, its does if the lyrics have been composed by a renowned or revered
composer. Fakirs too have their list of renowned poets and lyricists. Some of them are from Bangladesh, others are from India. These composers can be identified through their lyrics, in which their name or surname appears as a signature mark. But the present-day performers will only get to hear these compositions from the older artists.
Are you alluding to composers like Dur-Duh-Shah and Pandu-Shah?
Pandu-Shah and also composers like Hasanraja. They are revered composers and you will get to hear their names in the numbers performed by the older generation of artists. Newer performers today tend to omit those lines that allude to the name of the poet/ composer.
I think that many of the newer artists are not even familiar with the lyrics in their entirety…
Not all Bauls and Fakirs come from the same district. Some are from Birbhum, some from Purulia, some from North Bengal and others from Bangladesh. Besides their differing dialects, how does one understand where a particular Baul or Fakir is coming from?
It is primarily the dialect that marks out their locality. If you visit Purulia, you will hear a different dialect. When they are speaking amongst themselves, you might not be able to comprehend. When performers come from different places, they are not able to fully relinquish this native dialect. Then the listener understands that this particular performer is coming from this particular place.
(Conversation over phone, not part of the interview)
You are referring here to the dialectical difference. If we leave that aside, do we also hear a variation in tune even when the song they are performing might be the same? Furthermore, are there also differences in their dance moves and voice tones?
Yes, there are those differences as well. If there is a congregation of Baul performers from Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia, you will immediately be able to single out the Baul performer from Birbhum by hearing her/him sing. Likewise, when you hear a Baul singer from Bangladesh, you at once know where she/he is from. The same holds true for a performer from Purulia. The place where they come from can easily be perceived by observing the difference in their manner of performance.
I understand. Even if they are all singing the same song, there exist certain subtle differences in their rendering of the song.
Yes, there will be those perceivable subtle differences.
Even with respect to the tune of the song?
Not just with respect to tune, but also in the way certain words are used and re-iterated. A performer from Birbhum tends to use phrases such as “Bholar mon (the mind that derives its self-identification from Shiva)”, “Khyapar mon (the fervent mind)” and “Pagol mon (the insane mind)”. But you will not hear such phrases in the songs of Baul performers coming from other areas. A performer’s native affiliation manifests itself in a certain way through her/his performance. As a result she/he will sing the song in a way that at once marks her/him out as a performer from Birbhum. Even when a song begins on a more or less general note, the performer soon lapses back to her/ his native elements.
Are most Bauls based in Birbhum?
The name Birbhum is contingent with ‘Baul’. People from our country as well as abroad are drawn primarily to the Bauls of Birbhum. In this respect, Birbhum has become quite a hallowed and renowned place.
Why this concentration of Bauls in Birbhum?
This has to do with an aesthetic of pleasure. You, for instance, have come here to talk to us. Baul aesthetic evokes a certain pleasure. Once you have experienced it, it will be ingrained within you. You are bound to seek more and you will likely travel to various places seeking out of Baul performers. And the Bauls of Birbhum evoke a unique kind of pleasure.
Tell me something… Baul is a distinct way of life, a practice of self enrichment through mysticism… yet, there are various sub-sects within Baul, such as the followers of Vishnu, the followers of Shiva, the Sufis and the Muslims. Which aspect of their identity assumes priority to them? Is it their identity as a Baul or their religious affiliation, i.e., a follower of Shiva or a Muslim? Which gets precedence to their— their religion or them being a Baul?
See, whatever religion the person belongs to, whether she/he is a follower of Vishnu or Shiva, she/ he will prioritize the Baul identity. The feeling within her/him that I want to embrace the Baul way of life , I want to sing Baul songs, I want to appeal to peoples’ sensibilities , that is what assumes the prior impetus. The feeling with which she/he embarks upon the Baul way of life assumes priority for her/him. Where this feeling is concerned, there is no boundary of religion or class. To her/him it is the devotion to the Baul life and the dedication to Baul music which become important.
I would like to ask you another thing. The names of Radha and Krishna are often invoked in Baul songs. Likewise, the name of Allah is often invoked in Sufi songs. Are these different appellations for the self that exists within?
Yes, these are the different names of the inner self. They are always on a quest to discover this very inner self. And these are people who are guided solely by love. They want to spread this love among the people of the society, among the world. Those great ones that had immersed themselves completely in this fervour, those are the ones we refer to as the ‘Thakurs’. None of us have actually seen Radha or Krishna, for none of us were even born then. We see them only in pictures. We are people belonging to this generation. And we have never actually seen any of these mythical figures. Yet we know that it was this same fervour that guided them, the same fervour of love that guides us too. It is this love that we seek and it is this quest that fuels our wander thirst. We keep travelling all over the country and abroad, wherever our quest leads us to. And that is why we keep singing the praises of Radha and Krishna and Allah, because we think of them as those who had immersed themselves in the fervour of love. And there are people among us who have done the same, people of the likes of Chandidas Rajakini, Chintaram, Billo-Mangal and Chintamani.
Bauls and Fakirs do not visit temples and mosques on a regular basis, or so I have heard. Then why do you think the names of Radha-Krishna and Allah recur so frequently in their songs?
That is a significant question. The first thing to keep in mind is that the Bauls are guided solely by their inner feelings, and they are always seeking other people like them. They do not usually like worshipping deities and goddesses; and we need to know why. We never pause to think that these gods and goddesses exist within our own bodies. Take for example this simple fact—we keep speaking incessantly. Do we ever wonder who the one is who keeps speaking from within us? No, we don’t. If we ask ourselves that, we will never be able to reach an answer. Who is the one who speaks? The one who speaks is the Absolute. And it is we who are preventing ourselves from perceiving the Absolute that exists within us. My god exists within my being, who I have failed to perceive. If I run to mosques and temples, will I be able to perceive him unless I first recognize the existence of the Absolute within me? And all our worship and devotion is geared towards perceiving this Absolute. If I fail to perceive the one within then I will failed to perceive god. That is why Bauls believe in revering their own body and mind and through this devotion and knowledge of the human mind and body they keep constantly seeking the Absolute vis-à-vis their inner self.
There is another important question that I want to ask you, if Bauls have children do they still remain Bauls? I mean to say that I have heard that conceiving children is proscribed by the Baul way of life. Once she/he has had children she/he does not remain a Baul any longer. Do you believe this? Is the Bauls’ disciplining of their body and their sexual acts not contingent with their having children?
It would not be correct to say that they no longer remain a Baul. Let us first know who the ones are who do not conceive children. They are usually those that have left the family life and have embraced the Sanyasa way of life. These people abnegate the possibility of conceiving a child. The cult of Baul has been coming down since ages. In order to eternize the Baul, we need to procreate. Take me for example, being a Baul had I abstained from having children, how would I ensure my community’s perpetuation? If we stopped procreating, the Baul way of life would eventually come to an end. So having children is a necessity. Only those who have embraced the Sanyasa way of life do not have children. The dharma of Sanyasa believes in self-abstention when it comes to having a child, but the Bauls may have children.
Then tell me something… I have heard of the Baul’s secret rituals regarding the disciplining of the erotic acts and one’s sexual self. These form a crucial part of the Baul philosophy of the human body, don’t they?
Yes, you are speaking of the ritual of ‘Rati-Sadhana’ (sexual rites)…
We need to first know when these practices are inculcated. Some of us might sow their seeds. But the moment one is initiated into the Baul way of life, i.e., the moment one becomes the disciple of a guru, one’s learning of the ‘Deha-Tattva’ (philosophy of the body) begins. The guru initiates her/him into the rites of ‘Rati-sadhana’. Why? In order to enable the disciple to conserve his body. If we are not initiated by the guru, what do we end up doing? We end up dissipating our energy through sexual activity. Our body is gradually eroded. To prevent it from dissipating, the guru initiates us into these rites. If you give your semen somewhere and a plant is sown, then the energy does not go to waste. However if this energy is wasted elsewhere through sexual activities that are unproductive, then that leads to a gradual erosion of your body. It is in order to prevent this useless dissipation that we practice the rite of ‘Rati-sadhana’.
I have also heard that many Bauls have gurus who are not Bauls themselves. Is it true?
It can be. Maybe they are not Bauls but they practice this way of life.
I do not mean the Baul artists, or the ones who sing Baul songs. I am referring to those that aren’t Baul at all.
I will call them devotees. Those that are of such a disposition, they are the devotees of the Baul way of life. They have aspired to and achieved the state of a sadhu. Hence their knowledge is unparalleled. As a result they can guide others. What does a guru do? He teaches you the mantra. And imparts knowledge? The sadhus. As sadhus they impart knowledge and wisdom and as gurus they provide the mantra. Yet, in spite of receiving so much knowledge, I have not been able to totally part with my nature. I have dreams while asleep. So much dirt fills our minds, so many ill thoughts and ill ways. The Sadhus impart so much knowledge, and yet what keeps happening? I keep having these dreams when asleep.
The Bauls usually have two gurus—the one who teaches them (‘Sikkha-guru’) and the one who initiates them (‘Dikkha-guru’)? Do the two need to be different people always?
No. That isn’t necessary. It’s not always necessary that the one who teaches (‘Sikkha guru’) has to be a Baul. Who am I referring to as the ‘Sikkha guru’? The one who imparts me knowledge on ‘Deha- Tattva’, how I need to discipline my body through the practice o ‘Rati-sadhana’. This knowledge is usually imparted by the ‘Sikkha-guru’. However, the guru who teaches Baul music is usually a different person. Yet it is often seen that the ‘Sikkha guru’ also sings Baul music. In such a case, the same person serves as both. But the person who imparts such knowledge need not necessarily be a Baul always.
There is something else that I would like to know. Not all Bauls are singers or performing artists. If (let us suppose) that the musical aspect of the Baul identity comes to an end one day, will the community itself cease to exist?
No. That will never happen. The music may cease. But the Bauls have always been there, and they will continue to exist. If such a day does come to pass, what will be lost are the melodies of the Baul songs. The songs might themselves undergo a revival after a span of fifty or hundred years. But by then, their tunes will have changed. The defining elements of the older songs will have likely been lost and we might hear something new altogether. The listeners would not even know what the older songs had been like.
In order to become a Baul, practicing the Baul way of life is essential. But does one need to sing as well?
No, there is no such compulsion.
Does one have to sing in order to qualify as a Baul? Is that a must?
There are many who do not sing Baul. But they love Baul music. Many such people are a devoted audience. And that is how they partake of the Baul fervour. They are neither artists nor performers.
No, I am not referring to those who listen to Baul music. I am referring specifically to the Bauls themselves.
Yes, I am coming to that. A person who performs Baul music is often likely to have a lesser repertoire than someone who is a devoted listener. The latter need not be a Baul artist or performer. But by thus partaking of the Baul fervour he too ascribes somewhere to the Baul identity.
Who are your gurus?
Are you referring to the one from whom I learnt Baul music?
Well, then my guru would be my father.
I was referring to your ‘Sikkha guru’ and ‘Dikkha guru’…
Ok. My two gurus are different people. My ‘Dikkha –guru’ lives in Mallarpur, near the Mallarpur bazaar. His name is Paltu Banerjee. And my ‘Sikkha-guru’ is Paramananda Goswami who is based in Murshidabad. These are my two gurus. But my initiation into Baul music began with my father. I learnt from him for a considerable period of time.
Do you practice the Baul way of life and the Baul rituals that you have learnt?
Some of them. I do not always get the time. But I need to keep practising them to ensure the continuance of my learning. But I am not able to practise regularly, which is a necessity. I am usually caught up with work. We have families. And in order to run the family we need to travel to various places to perform. And this acts as an impediment to our ‘Baul-Sadhana’.
When you encounter people like us, does this thought ever cross your mind— had I not been a Baul but a regular artist or performer, would my life be better? How do you like the Baul way of life?
There are differences between the life of a Baul and a regular artist. I love the Baul way of life. You see the Bauls are the carefree sort. If you tell them to perform in an open meadow under a tree, they are at once ready to oblige. They will think ‘I will be performing under the shade of a tree in open air. What a joyous opportunity! I will be singing in an open meadow’. A Baul will happily acclimatize to such a situation. But regular artists, especially those who have garnered a reputation for themselves, will flinch if asked to perform in an open meadow beneath a tree. They require sophisticated equipments, a band and a good microphone. They will not be able to perform without a good mike. But if you tell a Baul, “There is no microphone available, you will have to sing loud enough to be audible” the Bauls will happily perform without the mike in open air. That is what I mean when I refer to a certain carefree-ness in their attitude. And this is the attitude that I have within me and love. It is the Baul fervour that assumes priority to us.
Do you have children?
Yes, I do.
How many children do you have?
I have a son and two daughters.
Do they practise Baul music?
Well, they practise occasionally. It is too early yet to say which path my son might follow. As for my daughters, they are studying in schools. And whenever they find some free time amidst their studies, they practise Baul music.
Besides being a Baul performer, do you have any other profession?
No, music is my profession. I am not involved with anything else or in any other work.
Jay Guru. And thank you so much, Aditidi.
Shonajhuri, Khoai, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
My name is Sukhdeb Das Bairagya. My ancestral home is situated in the Tattho Sanskriti subdivision in Rampurhat in the Birbhum district. I belong to the Panchayat area numbered two. My whole family is into music. I have grown up in this ambience and been associated with Baul music since the age of six.
How old are you now? I am thirty-nine years old now. I have been learning music ever since I was six.
Who was your guru? I got my initial training from my father.
What’s your father’s name? My father was Ishwar Pashupati Das Bairagyo. I learnt music from various people after my initial training from him. My formal initiation into music was by Bhuban Mohan Goswami. I was trained by Purna Chandra Goswami who is from the village Haridebpur in Murshidabad. It is from him that I have received my training in music which I keep practicing even now. I sing various old tunes which were composed by great singers like Radhamohon Gonshai, Lalon Fakir, Matam Chand, Uttam Chand, Guru Chand and Hari Chand.
Do you practice any other occupation? I used to make silk handicrafts. But my health is failing me. Continuous travel to perform in various places has rendered my nerves weak. I cannot toil much anymore. Somehow I manage to make both ends meet.
And what about your children? My children are studying besides being involved with music. They are worried about their father’s failing health. But I have to keep going with the hope of future happiness and prosperity.
Any CD or Cassette that has been released? None. I was awarded the first prize in the 2006 All-Bengal music congregation held at Tattho Sanskriti in Birbhum. I have also performed at Rabindra Sadan. My program was recorded at Krishi Darshan in Shantiniketan in 2006. Now it plays on the Shantiniketan Doordarshan.
Q: Tell us your name and the place where you live. My name is Tarapada Baul. I live in Ghoshpara situated in Neemtala, Maheshpur. It is a village in the Malda district.
Q: What is the name of this musical instrument you play? It’s called the ‘sarinda’.
Q: How did you learn to play it? Also, tell us your background history. You are not from here, are you? You are from Bangladesh. Tell us something about your childhood, about your parents. I learnt to play this instrument from my father at a very early age. I was born in a place called Bikrampur in Dhaka, Bangladesh. My father played the ‘sarinda’. He was the one who taught me how to play it.
Q: What was your father’s name? His name was Bhakta Das Baul.
Q: Tell us something more about your father. How was he initiated into Baul music? You claim for yourself the surname ‘Baul’... Yes.
Q: So tell us something about his initiation into Baul music? We are a family of Bauls. My forefathers have been Bauls since the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (a 16th century social reformer who is believed to have originated the cult of ‘Gaudiya Vaishnavism’. His followers regard him as the re-incarnation of Krishna.) Through close alliance with the cult of Chaitanya, our family embraced Vaishnavism. We have practised this faith ever since. The founder of this faith within our family was my forefather, Sudharam Baul Thakur. My father’s guru, who initiated him into the Baul way of life, was Jitendra Nath Baul. His ashrama is located in a village called Nashwindik in Bangladesh. The person who looked after the asharama temple was known as Ramdas Baul Thakur. And the person who looked after the akhara was called Sanatan Baul Thakur. He was born in a place called Shantipur in Nadia (also the birthplace of Chaitanya). He was born to a Brahman family. He left home after the ‘Paitya’ ceremony was performed on him (the ‘paitya’ or the ‘janeu’ is a sacred thread which symbolizes the second birth among the Brahmans, considered to be ‘dvijra’ or ‘twice-born’. Accordingly, a special ceremony is conducted when the male child reaches a certain age, in which the thread is wrapped around his body and he symbolically attains a second birth); thereafter he initiated himself into the sadhana of the mother goddess and through his devotion, he discovered her. Following that, he embraced the Baul way of life. He is believed to be one of the founders of the Baul path.
Q: Very few people play the ‘sarinda’. What do you think is the main reason for that? The ‘sarinda’ is not only a musical instrument played as accompaniment to Baul music. It is also part of the ritual of sadhana (practice). There are three strings in the ‘sarinda’ which hold the three notes of the ‘Saptak’ — ‘Shadj’ (the first and last notes which hold one scale), ‘Madhyam’ (the fourth note) and ‘Pancham’ (the fifth note) (the ‘Saptak’ means the ‘sequence of seven notes’ which forms the basic musical structure of Indian classical music). The ‘sarinda’ is capable of holding these three notes over the three ranges of the ‘Saptak’ known as ‘Udara’, ‘Mudara’ and ‘Tara’. Besides this, the ‘sarinda’ is its very tonal structure, resembles the anatomical human body. In the philosophical realm Ira, Pingala and Shushamya are the three women who embody the world of sadhana. The three strings of the ‘sarinda’ resemble these three women. For these reasons, the ‘sarinda’ is not merely a musical instrument. It is a crucial component of Baul sadhana itself.
Q: How many siblings do you have? Are you the only one who has taken up Baul music? We are four brothers. I am the second eldest. It has been two years since my older brother has passed away. The brother immediately younger than me also passed away three years ago. Two of us, me and my youngest brother are living.
Q: So how exactly did you learn to play this instrument in your childhood? Was it by listening to your father? I spent my childhood years in Bangladesh. I studied in a school. The rest of my time I would spend mostly at home. In his spare time, my father would teach me how to play the ‘sarinda’. We came to India as immigrants without a home. As Bauls, we had to rely on alms and food given to us by others. I and my younger brother would accompany my father as he travelled from place to place, singing. I would play the ‘sarinda’ and my father would sing. Those were my first instances of playing before other people.
Q: I have heard that your father could play a host of other instruments? Yes.
Q: Where did he learn to play these? He learnt from various people.
Q: What are the instruments he could play? And who did he learn each of these from? I don’t recall all their names. My father could play the ‘tabla’ and the ‘pakhwaaz’. He also knew how to play the ‘khol’ although he did not play it too often.
Q: What about the ‘khanjani’? Yes, he played that too. Like the ‘sarinda’, the ‘khanjani’ also is an integral part of Baul music. My father could play that.
Q: Tell me about your first public performance? Where did you perform? By whom were you invited to perform? We were invited to perform at a programme held in Mohammad Ali Park, Kolkata. Nabani Das Baul and his son, Purna Das were also performing there. Our group comprised of my father, me and my two brothers. We were introduced to Nabani Das and his son and the two families formed a cordial association. We have remained close since, although my father and two brothers have passed away.
Q: Tell us about that incident you were narrating a while earlier, where someone requested you to play the ‘sarinda’ as an accompaniment to his vocal performance? Oh, yes! He had come to perform in Malda. He came to our house and told my father, ‘With your permission, I want your son to perform with me. I want him to play the ‘sarinda’ while I sing.’ That’s how I ended up playing with him on stage. I played the ‘sarinda’ while he sang.
Q: How old are you now? I am sixty-nine years old.
Q: How many children do you have? I have four children, three sons and a daughter. My daughter has passed away. Presently, three are living.
Q: Have any of them taken up music as their profession? No.
Q: Why? My second eldest son was learning the ‘tabla’. But after receiving an injury in the hand, his lessons were discontinued for a while. He did not wish to pursue it again later. Presently, none of them are into music.
Q: So what are their occupations? They work. Two of my sons are farmers. The other takes up sporadic jobs.
Q: You are not into Baul music any more. You sing songs from the Ramayana. Tell us a little more about the kind of music you sing now? At present, I am into devotional music. Besides songs from the Ramayana, I sing ‘bhajans’, ‘kirtans’ and ‘shyama sangeet’ (songs eulogizing the goddess Kali).
Q: Why don’t you sing Baul songs any longer? I consider myself a modern Baul. Hence, I do not sing the older Baul songs anymore, except those which contain a devotional or spiritual element in them. I do not sing songs which engage with the body.
Q: Do you give most of your public performances in Malda? Presently, my ill health does not permit me to go on tours or venture outside the district. So, most of my public performances are limited to Malda.
Q: In which places have you performed earlier? I have been invited to various places to play the ‘sarinda’ and sing ‘kirtans’. I have performed at Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, Dhupguri, Assam, Dhupri, Bilaspur and Dumka in Upper Assam. On two occasions, I was invited to Jamshedpur to perform ‘kirtans’ based on the Ramayana.
Q: Do you perform in Kolkata? I travel to Kolkata often. I have a group of disciples living there. I go to visit them and we give group performances at various places in Kolkata and in the Howrah district. Earlier I would regularly perform at a place called Kachrapara. I don’t perform there any longer. And it’s been four years since I last visited Kolkata.
Q; Are there presently any Bauls in Malda? We don’t presently have any Baul clan in Malda. However, there are many singers who sing Baul songs and they identify themselves as Bauls. But we do not have any practising Bauls in Malda. Ours is the only family here which is identified as Baul.
Q: Aren’t there many Bauls in North Bengal? Yes, there are many in North Bengal. And I have some relatives identifying themselves as Bauls who live in Kolkata and in Agartala.
Q: Aren’t there a lot of Bauls in Balurghat? Well, they may identify themselves as Bauls, but they are different from us. I do not consider them to be authentic Bauls, although they identify themselves as such.
Q: Tell us a little more about your acquaintance with Nabani Das, Purna Das and Lakshman Das Baul. I met them for the first time during the program in Mohammad Ali Park. As I mentioned before, my father, I and my brother were invited to perform there by a person called Tarapada Lahiri. He was a folk singer and performed on the radio. He was the one who introduced us to Nabani Das and Purna Das.
Q: Which year was this? We immigrated in 1950. This was around two years after that, in 1952 according to the English calendar. Q: So this was many years ago? Yes, I was around thirteen years old at the time. We left Bangladesh when I was eleven.
Q: And the acquaintance between the two families was maintained? Yes, after that initial meeting, our acquaintance remained. I visit Purna Das whenever I go to Kolkata. He is very affectionate towards me. I haven’t met him these past few years as I haven’t been able to travel down to Kolkata. I have also remained in touch with Lakshman Das. He had come down to Malda once. He visited me then.
Q: Why do you think that the Baul way of life is fast disappearing? Well, ‘Baul’ is a faith. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to safeguard and protect this faith. Despite our best efforts, it is true that the number of Bauls is constantly on the decrease. The older ones are dying out. And many among the younger ones opt out of this path.
Q: So do you have any disciples who learn the ‘sarinda’ from you? No, my father had many disciples. But I haven’t taken any.
Q: If you don’t take any disciples this art will eventually die with you. Well, I haven’t found any diligent or worthy disciple. And with passing years, I have lost the will to teach. Perhaps it’s true. Whatever art Saraswati blessed me with will perhaps die with me. I tried teaching my sons, but that did not yield any positive result.
Q: What about your grandchildren? Well, I am trying to teach my grandson how to play the ‘sarinda’. I also try teaching him vocal music.
Q: What wood is the ‘sarinda’ made from? It’s made from the wood of the jackfruit tree. And it’s made from one piece of wood. There are no multiple pieces joined together.
Q: Did the instrument you play now belong to your father? Yes, this belonged to my father. And I take exceptionally good care of it.
Q: So how old is this instrument? It is around eighty years old. He died at the age of seventy-eight. During his lifetime, he played this instrument. And before him, this instrument belonged to his guru. He had given it to my father.
Q: What was the name of this guru? His name was Sarada Baul.
Q: Where did he live? He lived in East Bengal. His birthplace was Bikrampur.
Q: Do you remember Sally Grossman? She came here with Lakshman Das in the year 1967. Do you remember the two ‘mem-sahibs’? They had made a film on your father. Do you remember them? I remember them coming here. But I don’t recall them making any film, although I later heard from others that they had indeed made a film on my father. There is a place here called Ramkel where an annual congregation is held every year. My father had performed there with Lakshman Das Baul. As far as I recall, the sahibs were present during that occasion. They may have taken photographs of my father and may have recorded his performance on tape.
Q: What were the two songs you performed before us today morning? Guru Tomar Charan Pabo Bole Mane Baro Asha Chhilo! (Oh Guru! I had hoped to find shelter at your feet).
Q: Whose composition is this? I do not know the name of the composer.
Q: Was it composed in East Bengal or in West Bengal? It was composed in East Bengal. The next song I sang was Mano-Majhi Jeno Kar Daak Shona Jaye (Whose Call do I hear, oh the Ferry-man of My Mind?) This song was composed by another famous composer of East Bengal. Q: What is the name of the composer? His name is Man-Mohan Dutta. But he doesn’t use his name as part of the lyrics of his songs.
Q: Can you sing a few lines of the Ramayana? I can’t sing them with the ‘sarinda’. Those songs are sung with the harmonium.
Q: You have a performance today? Yes.
Q: Where? In a house adjacent to my own.
Q: Sing for us a song with the ‘sarinda’, perhaps a composition by your father which you learnt from him.
There was a person who played the ‘sarinda’. But he lives outside Malda. Apart from me, there is no one in Malda who plays this instrument.
Q: There are very few people who can play the ‘sarinda’. Yes, there are indeed very few. One of my nephews, who lived in Kolkata, played it magnificently. He has now passed away. He lived in Behala. The people of his neighbourhood were entranced by his music. He had a disciple by the name of Nitai. He now plays the ‘sarinda’. He, too, is quite good at it.
Q: Where does Nitai stay? I do not quite recall the name of the place, possibly Ranaghat or maybe perhaps near Bangaon. I don’t remember the exact name of the place. You see these names? (points to the ‘sarinda’) My father performed at Silchar in 1975. There, a person was so enamoured by his performance that he gave my father a gold chain. It was wrapped around the ‘sarinda’. I have recently removed it and have kept it elsewhere. You see my father’s name, Bhakta Das Baul, inscribed here. And here, you see inscribed the name of the musician who made this ‘sarinda’, Makhan Pal. Hem Poddar, the name of the person who gifted it to my father’s guru, is inscribed here (points to the arm of the ‘sarinda’). I take extremely good care of this instrument.
HMV Studio, Dum Dum, Kolkata, West Bengal
My name is Umarani Das
Where do you stay? I used to live in Tollygunge before. Now I have built a house at Sonarpur.
Where were you born? At Tollygunge.
How many years were you there? Well...it’s been ten years that I have been living at Sonarpur. Before this, I lived in Tollygunge.
How were you initiated into Baul music? Well...my father, my paternal uncle, most of the ancestral family on my father’s side were into Kirtan music. I was born into this family. Bauls would sing here. And my father would sing Kirtan with them. I was seven years old when I would accompany my father on his rounds of Madhogiri...and I used to accompany him on his Kirtan rounds as well. A person named Tarapado Adhikari came from Bangladesh to perform here. He saw me playing the Khol and asked my father if he could have me as his disciple. He said, ‘I will teach her.’ My father replied, “Ok, my daughter stays with me. Whenever you come down here, you can teach her.” This is how I came to be associated with Baul music.
How many years have passed? A lot of days have passed. Ever since I was seven, I have been associated with this profession. The ustad who taught me the Khol was Foni Boiddyo. My association with Baul music began through them. It is continuing to this day. Women don’t usually play the Khol, do they? It’s a strange story. Quite an incident actually! I used to accompany my father. He used to sing at a Marwari family every month, and he would take me along with him. I used to play the Kartal. After singing, my father and his mates would venture aside to smoke, leaving their instruments behind. And I would pick up the Khol and play. Then one day I was chanced upon by Foni Boiddyo, my father’s nephew. He saw me playing the khol. I was a small child then and the khol was too big for me. I couldn’t reach both sides. My would-be-guru came up to my father and told him he wanted to take me under his tutelage. My father told him that the khol was not meant for women, and that he was better off teaching my brother. And my father bought a khol for my brother. But my guru said that my brother, who he was already teaching, would be no good with the instrument. He would teach me instead. That’s how I was initiated, by my father’s nephew.
How old were you then? I was seven or eight years old. Since then I have been playing the khol. I had been playing it as a child, quite spontaneously on my own. It was my guru who taught me. I consider myself very lucky. My guru would mount me on his shoulders and take me along to every place where he would perform. I was a kid then. Like a doll, he carried me on his shoulders. I owe my learning to him. Without him, this would not have been feasible. It is his blessing that I can play the khol today. And I have learnt Baul music from Tarapado Adhikari. He is no more today. He lived in Bangladesh. Besides music, I learnt the Baul dance and rituals from him.
In which places have you performed? I have performed at various places within India.
And have you been abroad? Yes, I have been abroad.
With Tarapado? Yes, with him. How many times? To which places have you been? Eight times. I have been to Paris, Switzerland, Africa, America, Spain, Morocco and lastly to Germany.
Why did you stop the tours? Well, I go abroad only when someone sponsors me. If someone decides to sponsor me again, I will possibly go.
Which places have you toured within India? I have been to Delhi, to Tripura and I have done local programs at Midnapur and Nadia. I have been to Tripura twice or thrice.
Has your CD or Cassette been released? Ten years ago, a person named Swapan released a cassette from Sa Re Ga.which had my songs. There, I sang the songs of Bhoba Pagla. There was no CD, only a cassette. None has been released since.
Have you taken any disciples to whom you teach the khol? No I haven’t. I am quite hot-headed. And I was beaten up often by my guru. If I take disciples, they too are likely to get a good thrashing. So I have scared off any would-be students. Besides, the khol is complicated, the Tabla is easier. I play Tabla bols (beats) on the khol. I also had a ustad who taught me the table. His name was Tabla Thakur. I learnt my table bols from him. Now I play them on the khol.
And do you play the tabla as well? The tabla is played in a similar way, though in a reverse manner. I am more dexterous with the khol. I play the tabla bols on my khol.