interviewed at 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!
Interviewed by Aditi Sircar
Camera: Jesse Alk