interviewed at Shubhash Pally, Shyambati, Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Birbhum
- My name is Gopal Das.
- Tell us the place of your birth and your biography.
- I was born in the village Gopalnagar. I studied for a while at New Garia High School. My mother passed away when I was very young, only twenty-one days old! I do not remember anything about her. I was raised by my paternal aunt. My father too passed away eventually. We were so poor we did not even receive regular meals. It was poverty that drew me to Santiniketan. I started working in Santiniketan. Music was always there in my heart. My father and my elder brothers too were singers. However, they were not Baul singers. They sang devotional songs of Hari (Krishna). I started working as domestic help in the house of a person. The house where I worked had a tradition of never giving alms to beggars. Although I was a domestic help, I was like the son of the house. I used to sing for them and they would give me money. My employer (babu) was a regular consumer of alcohol. The alcohol he drank would cost three Rupees and fifty Paisa a peg at the time. I used to go procure the alcohol for him. He would give me thirty Paisa as tips every time! I started smoking bidi. I would spend part of the tips money on tobacco and with the rest, I would get singers to sing me songs (for ten or five Paisa each!) After a few years, I left my job at this place. I was fired after I had an accident. I lost one of my eyes in the accident! Then I started singing for money. Those days, I had a group. We would travel in a lorry and sing popular Hindi songs! I would play empty tin cans as accompanying musical instrument. We lived on the lorry and led a gypsy kind of life. Most of the times, the drivers (who were our prime audience) would be drunk and give us some money! They would often pay for my meals. They made money by selling petrol and diesel. They would say, “Gopalda, do sing a song for us!” I would occasionally work as conductor too. Eventually, I embarked upon the Baul way of life. My physical blindness made me realize that the Baul way of life contained tremendous knowledge and understanding of human life and the mystery of being. The Baul way of life had an acute understanding of the human body, of the idea of pleasure and erotic play and desire. I thus eventually sought out a guru. The guru who initiated me is Sanatan Das Baul. The guru who taught me music was Gour Hari Das Baul (not Gour Khyapa who passed away recently!) My guru is still alive. His birthplace is Nichinta village in the Birbhum district. He is the guru who taught me. Besides them, I have learnt music from many Baul gurus. Even Basu (Basudeb Das Baul) is my guru! You too can be considered my guru, if I learn a song from you! I have ended up collecting a lot of songs from different Bauls. I have gone from door to door singing and begging for alms. This was after I became blind following the accident I mentioned. I lived the life of a mendicant Baul, singing and begging for alms, for fourteen or fifteen years. I simultaneously also went about collecting songs. Only recently, have I been sitting at home, as I am too old now to live the life of a mendicant. I am not able to walk long distances these days! I only perform at a few programs with Basu. If someone invites me, I go and perform. I do not go unless I am invited. I have three sons! The eldest works in the business of roof shuttering. My second eldest son is a performer like me. He can play various instruments. My youngest son is pursuing a Ph. D. on the Bauls of rural Bengal from Visva-Bharati University. My grandson, now eleven years old, learns music from Basu. He comes regularly for his music lessons at seven in the evening. He is a fairly decent singer! This is the story of my life! My ancestral home is Gopalnagar, although presently, I live in Subhash Pally in Santiniketan.
- You mentioned having collected a lot of songs. Are all of these Baul songs?
- No, I have collected all kinds of songs- Baul, folk, Bhawaiya, Jhumur(1)., etc all. Whatever song I liked, I ended up learning the melody and writing down the lyrics.
- Do you sing all kinds of songs or only Baul songs?
- No, I sing all kinds of folk music! However, I am not able to sing all genres of folk music to perfection. (laughs)
- What musical instruments can you play?
- I mostly play the khamak. When I lived the life of a mendicant Baul, I would play the dotara and sing to its tune.
- At what age did you become the disciple of Sanatan Das Baul?
- I was approximately twenty-six or twenty-seven years old when I became his disciple.
- How long were you under his tutelage?
- He would visit Santiniketan often. Santiniketan was a fixed part of his performance itinerary. One of my guru brothers and I took our initiations with Sanatan Baba at the same time. There was a gentleman named Sataru Murase who came from Japan to Santinektan to conduct research on the Bauls. He loved me a lot! He used to travel around with me a lot, and taped many of my performances. Most Bengalis are blessed with a good sense of memory. I too am a Bengali! I have thus ended up collecting many songs from different Bauls. Whatever song I liked, I committed to memory and wrote down later. I have also collected many songs composed by Sanatan Das Baul.
- Have you ever travelled abroad to perform?
- Yes, I have travelled to Japan and Europe.
- Which countries have you travelled to and performed at?
- I have performed at Barcelona and Madrid in Spain. During my Japan tour, I performed at sixteen different venues on sixteen different islands.
- How did you feel performing at these places?
- I enjoyed performing at these places. I loved the audience abroad.
- But they do not understand the language of the songs!
- We had a bilingual interpreter/ translator who accompanied us on the trips.
- What do you feel about this Baul way of life?
- Baul life you mean?
- Yes, this path that you embarked on… what are your feelings now in retrospect?
- It was because I loved the Baul way of life that I chose to embark upon this path! Otherwise it would never have been possible! I have been sitting with you guys for so long, since morning, and one of my disciples has served us tea. It is because I love this way of life that I am sitting here with you and giving this interview.
- Whose songs do you enjoy singing the most?
- I sing songs composed by many. It is difficult to single out one in particular. Nowadays, if you ask this question to most Bauls, the name of Lalan would immediately come to their lips. Some might say Bhoba Pagla. I sing songs by Lalan, Bhoba Pagla, Haradhan Das Baul (not the one from Belur!), Haripada and many others. I even know and sing songs by composers prior to Lalan. I also sing songs by Nilkantha and Gagan Harkara(2). There are songs by many composers I know and sing. Whose name should I take in response to your question? I am not too obsessed with Lalan. I focus on songs by composers who pre-dated Lalan. I try to bring them back from oblivion! They have given us a lot! They have given us our means of livelihood. These days, most composers/ performers attempt to publicize their songs by referencing the name of Lalan. Lalan has indeed composed many great songs! But most Bauls fail to see beyond him! Also, there are many songs attributed to him which have been composed by others! I myself have heard songs that were composed by Gosain Biplab, that were passed off Lalan’s composition. I have heard many such cases, but have no authority to call them out. If I point them out, they would mock me saying that I have become a master of Baul music. Hence, it is best to remain quiet.
- So you love this way of life?
- Yes! I am now sixty-one years old. Next year, I shall be sixty-two. I shall be gone within another three or four years!
- Why do you say that?
- I have lived my life! There is no more purpose left for me. I do not want to waste any more food resources of this planet. Let my successors consume these resources and carry forward the Baul lineage! ??- Do you have any cassette or recordings of your songs?
- No! I have never wanted to record my songs. I have lived the life of an itinerant, a wanderer. I even entered domestic life on compulsion. I have fathered three sons. I have one grandson too. However, I never had a daughter! Even my eldest son, who is married, has two sons. Unfortunately, we never had a daughter in the house!
- Your daughters-in-law are akin to your daughters.
-Yes, that they are! My wife has become deaf now. If I ask her to fetch me tea, she fetches me water and vice-versa. Such is life!
- All right then! Joy Guru! Tomorrow we shall listen to you sing! ??- All right, you shall!
- Do also perform a dance for us while you sing!
- All right, you let Basu know of a convenient time and I shall be there.
- Around seven o’clock then tomorrow! Joy Guru!
- Joy Guru!
(1) Different kinds of folk music popular in different parts of Eastern India and Bangladesh.
(2) Gaganchandra Dam (1845-1910 CE) was a renowned Bengali Baul poet.
Recorded in Santiniketan on March 3, 2013
Directed by Aditi Sircar
Camera by Jesse Alk
Translated by Parjanya Sen
Edited by Rhonda Granger