interviewed at 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.
Interviewed by Aditi Sircar
Camera: Sakyadeb Chowdhury
Audio: Tapan Bhattacharya
Translator: Parjanya Sen