Sanatan Das Baul
interviewed at 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.
Interviewed by Kartik Das Baul
Produced and Directed by Aditi Sircar
Camera : Shubhankar Bhar
Audio: Dhiman Karmakar
Translated by Parjanya Sen