Netai Chandra Das Baul
interviewed at 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!
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Interviewed by Aditi Sircar
Camera: Shubhankar Bhar
Audio: Partha Barman