interviewed at Kolkata, West Bengal
February 25, 2015
- Tell us your name and your address.
- My name is Bedana Fakir. My address is Fajirnagar, P.S. Thanarpara, P.O. Fajirnagar, district- Nadia.
- It is not often that we see a woman becoming a Fakir. Please tell us your history, right from your childhood and how you came to choose this path.
- We had no Fakir tradition in my paternal family. However, after two or five years after I was married, my husband became a Fakir. At that time, I had no understanding of this tradition. So I didn’t become a Fakir. I told my husband, “You become one but I shall not!” For five years, he travelled on his own, performing songs, keeping the company of sadhus. He had wanted me to accompany him, but I didn’t. At first, I told him that I did not like this path. Then, slowly, over the course of five years, he explained to me the ways of the Fakirs. I began to gradually develop an inclination towards it. I began to understand that this was a good path. I asked him to take me to a sadhu congregation to observe and learn. I went there and after what I heard and observed, I had a change of heart. I thus embraced the Fakir way of life. After hearing their words and music, I realized that I could learn so much. I began to regularly visit these congregations and also began singing a few verses. They loved my voice and would ask me to sing. Once I went with them to Bolpur and sang. Thereafter I kept coming to Kolkata for five or six years and performed at Jadavpur. I have also performed at various other places in Kolkata. I have performed at five or six venues in Kolkata.
- So there were no Fakirs in your paternal side of the family?
- No. There were none.
- At what age did you get married?
- I was married at the age of fourteen. Now I am around forty-five years old. It has been two years since my husband passed away. He was a real lover of the Fakir way of life. It is solely because of his devotion and diligence that I too have come so far on the path of Fakir sadhana. I have reached attainment in this path only because he initiated me.
- Can you tell us the name of your husband?
- Manarul Fakir.
- So you need a guru to initiate you into this tradition?
- Yes. Unless you have a murshid to show you the path, you will not be able to understand even your own being. You have to bow your head before a murshid. It is the murshid who conveys to us who we are and what is our essence. We too had no understanding whatsoever. It is only from the guru that we received our initiation. Even the lyrics of the great one (mahajan) that we sing— this too has come to us through sadhana. Learning the songs isn’t enough; we have to learn the ways of the Fakir tradition. And the guru is the one who initiates us.
- Who was your guru?
- My guru is still alive. His name is Mohizuddin Fakir.
- How many siblings do you have?
- I have two sisters and three brothers. Of them, two of us have become Fakirs. Me and a younger brother.
- You mentioned that you initially disliked the Fakir way of life.
- Yes, that is because I had no understanding of it. Also, it wasn’t part of our family tradition. It is only after coming into contact with the sadhus that my husband understood this path. He initiated himself with a guru. Initially, he tried to draw me towards it but did not succeed. After two to five years, I slowly began to understand it and since then, I have been immersed in sadhana. The lyrics themselves reveal the methods of practicing sadhana. Unless you inhabit this world of practice, you shall not be able to interpret or comprehend the meanings of the songs. These days, most are simply performing Fakirs. They are simply performing artists and do not understand anything about sadhana. We first became sadhu Fakirs and practiced sadhana. It is only after we managed to communicate with our own bodies that we began reciting the great one’s words.
- This form of sadhana which you mention is extremely rigorous, right?
- It is very rigorous. This knowledge vis-à-vis sadhana is a transmitted form of knowledge; it is not something apparent or something that you can yourself learn through experience. It needs to be transmitted to you through a guru. I cannot speak openly about it. The knowledge resides with the guru. According to Islam, There are four ways— Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat, Marfat. The path of the sadhus falls under Marfat Islam.
- So what do you mean by Marfat Islam?
- Marfat Islam refers to a set of secret practices, and understanding your own body and self. The guru initiates you into the ways of understanding and disciplining the body through practice. You need a guru for initiating you and cannot learn these on your own. The guru is our master. You cannot self-study without a master. This too is a form of study, a study of your own body; and the guru is the master who initiates you. The Pir or the Murshid teaches us what lies within our bodies.
- So you have been residing at Gourbhanga from a very young age?
- Yes. It is my neighbouring village. I travel there regularly. I perform there too on a regular basis. I have performed in many houses there.
- So you said you are around 44-45 years old now. It has been many years that you have been living the life of a Fakir.
- I have been performing music for twenty years.
- Do you notice any difference in the place (Gourbhanga) when you first began singing twenty years ago and now?
- These days, things are different. In those days, most people would ask me not to become a Fakir, as it was not a good path. I did not listen to them, told them instead that I should be the judge once I had experienced this path for myself. Now they too know that it’s a good path, as I am not doing anything bad. So now they have stopped commenting. Yet although they have changed their attitude, they know that it’s a difficult path and not many of them can choose it. Most people refuse to embark on this path; and they have told me as much. It’s been eighteen years that I have started wandering for alms. We have started an ashram in an open space, leaving behind the enclosure of the house. I have left my own house. It’s been eighteen years that I have been in the ashram living with the sadhus. I wander around for alms, keep the company of sadhus, and give service to the needy. Sometimes this also costs a lot of money, as much as twenty to twenty- five thousand. Last Agrahayana, one of our senior sadhus left behind his mortal body. That was the same date on which we had to go out wandering for alms. He was given samadhi, and whatever we collected was used to feed the people who came to the funeral. These days, a lot of people praise us. True, they cannot become Fakirs like us, but they extend help towards us. They love the merriment, love listening to the songs, the congregations and the feasts. They don’t see our presence in a negative way.
- It’s not often that we come across a female Fakir. When you embarked upon this path, were there any in your village?
- No, there weren’t any. Actually, there was a woman, the wife of Khejmut Fakir. Both the husband and wife followed the Fakir tradition. They were also an inspiration for me and my husband. We wanted to emulate them and be devoted to a guru. Slowly, the four of us got together and started visiting the guru’s ashram together. Khejmut still sings, my husband couldn’t sing. I have studied in school till standard four, so I was able to write down the lyrics of the songs. Khejmut came to Kolkata with the guru’s blessings, and so did we. This is a good path, but not everyone is capable of practicing it. You require a lot of knowledge for sadhana.
- Did you face any obstacles because you were a woman? Did people comment that women shouldn’t become Fakirs?
- Yes, a lot of people said that me, being a woman, shouldn’t have embarked on this path. But my husband stood up for me. He told people that I was his wife and would accompany him wherever he went. I also responded by saying that my husband being the epitome for me, I had to follow his wishes. This was how we chose to respond to the society around us who were critical. The guru taught me, and I was initiated. People who did not understand this tradition chose to comment. But now those same people say that I had manifested extreme wisdom by doing what no girl had dared to do. They praise me and my husband. No one from Fajirnagar took to wandering for alms. Yes, Hindus have had such traditions, but you hardly see it among Muslims. A lot of people in those days mistook us for Hindus. They would not believe we could be Muslim fakirs. They would tell us that we were Hindus in previous lives and hence took to this path. But, all that has transpired has only been possible with the blessings of the guru. The guru’s words are greater than all uttered words. The guru favoured us with his blessings. So, we succeeded, through our faith in the guru. If you don’t have faith in the guru, you can never attain success in this path. You have to follow each of the guru’s words. Only then, will your sadhana find fruition. The guru keeps on imparting knowledge stepwise, and you need to follow each and every step. And once you begin practicing, you realize of your own accord whether this mode of practice is good or not. I have been married for thirty years and been practicing the Fakir way of life for twenty-five years, barring the initial five years of my marriage. After practicing sadhana for five years, we began learning the lyrics and music. The verses contain everything, and it is because we had been practicing sadhana before starting to learn the verses that we were able to interpret their meanings.
- Do the Mullahs or those who abide by the Sharia law oppose you?
- Yes, they do. In the beginning, they opposed us becoming Fakirs. But my guru didn’t pay heed to them, to these obstacles. My guru would tell them that each person has to answer for his or her own self. Another cannot take the moral charge. He would tell them that we would do as we like and we would face our own judgments individually, as and when our time came. He told them that they need not comment on something they had no understanding of. He refused to obey their diktat. Later they admitted their mistake; other people too admitted their mistakes and realized that my guru was right. When he left his mortal body, he did it through his sadhana. Others couldn’t, because they did not have the blessings of the guru. On a full-moon day, in the evening, my guru left behind his mortal body of his own accord, while performing his sadhana. He realized that his mortal clock had completed its minutes, and left behind his mortal body.
- Do you stay very close to the India-Bangladesh border?
- We do, although the border is not immediately adjacent to us.
- Do you face any obstacles on account of this?
- No. these days, a lot of people seek out a Pir or a guru, even though not all of them end up as Fakirs. A lot of people attempt, but do not succeed. Only those who have absolute devotion to the guru can succeed. The Guru is synonymous with your own being. In order to understand your own being, you need to follow every word of the guru. You need to believe in him. Otherwise you can never understand your own being or come to terms with your body. Only some succeed. Others don’t, although they try.
- It has been two years since your husband passed away. So, are you continuing the Fakir way of life? Do you continue to perform music?
- I used to regularly perform when my husband was alive. My child loves listening to me sing and also learns music from me. Yet whenever I start singing, we both begin to weep. I weep because I miss my husband and, along with him, those days when I was a regularly performing Fakir. People often tell me that the sadhana, which my husband initiated me into, remains within me and my music.
- How many children do you have?
- I have just one child, a daughter.
- Has she been learnt music?
- Not, not formally. But her husband has. His name is Athar and he plays the dotara. Athar’s father was a maulana in a mosque for twenty years. He could recite the Quran by heart and yet, he was unable to interpret anything written therein. Once when asked by a Fakir the meaning of a particular verse from the Quran, my son-in-law’s father couldn’t answer. The Fakir told him the exact verse, its location in the Quran and its interpretation. The Fakir asked him several questions. But my son-in-law’s father, despite being so well read in orthodox Islam, couldn’t answer a single one. That is when he realized that real knowledge comes through transmission and not simply by mugging up. He thereafter gave up his position as maulana. He gave up his forms of orthodoxy— keeping roza fast and reciting namaaz. He realized that the real way of understanding Allah was by following the words of the guru. He realized the error in his methodology and went out in search of a guru. He initiated himself with a sadhu. People were completely wonderstruck seeing a maulana choose this path. They started questioning him. He responded by saying that since he found no meaning any more in namaaz and roza, he had no right anymore to teach these erroneous methodologies to the mass. He said that others who chose these ways (of namaaz and roza) could continue doing so, but he found no meaning in these practices any longer. Now he has become a realized Fakir and has three hundred disciples. The one who was so much rooted in orthodoxy, himself gave these up and went in search of a guru. The true forms of interpretation can come only by deconstructing the body and the self. He now has three hundred disciples and they have organized a huge congregation on the 5th of the coming Vesak month, spending an amount of 20-25 thousand. My son-in-law is his father’s only child. I married my daughter off within this family. Both our families are implicated within the Fakir tradition. Their family also goes around wandering for alms. And now that my daughter has been married off, I wish to permanently live in an ashram in the company of sadhus. Both the families— mine as well as my in-laws’— are initiated into the discourse of the human self and body. There are around two-hundred people in Fajirnagar who are now initiated with a guru. Yet, very few have been able to reach an advanced stage of Fakir practice. The family of Khejmut Fakir, me and my in-laws’ family— we are the only ones who truly practice these advanced forms of sadhana. If you lay eyes on the father of my son-in-law, you will see a glow in him, a reddish halo like the colour of an apple. He is around 60-65 years old, but he is in a perfect state of health.
- Do you have any disciple?
- Yes, I have six disciples. But they have merely taken my name (as their guru). They do not seriously wish to pursue the Fakir tradition and have never asked me to give them the knowledge. They haven’t asked me and I haven’t told them. It is a rigorous path. Only if you ask for it can I initiate you. Just like I can give you water only when you ask for it. If you don’t ask, I will not go on asking you if you want a drink of water. The Fakir tradition is also like that. If you have devotion, if you crave to know, you need to come and ask for that knowledge from the guru. My disciples merely wanted to be initiated with a guru; they wanted the guru’s name; they did not truly want to become fakirs. All my six disciples are from this neighbourhood. After my husband’s demise, they do not even bother to ask me how I am doing. I am all on my own. I communicate with my own self, go around begging alms alone. I have no one. Sometimes, I weep alone. When my husband was alive, we would practice music all throughout the day, for twenty-four hours. If I forgot a line, he would remind me. He would write down lyrics for me, and ask me to learn the song and sing it to him.
- Do you have any land which you cultivate?
- No. I go around asking for alms, and that is how I manage my own expenses. I sometimes worry how I am going to sustain the expenses incurred during the congregations (of sadhus). It has been eighteen years that I took to wandering for alms, the way the Hindus do. Since then, we have also been regularly organizing such congregations. My guru wanted me to continue these. After he left behind his mortal body, I followed his wishes for two years. But now that I am alone, I do not know how to arrange for money for doing so. It costs around twenty to twenty-five thousand. So you have been coming to Kolkata regularly for the past six or seven years?
- It has been more than that, around ten years.
- Have you performed elsewhere?
- I have been to Kolkata only. I performed once at Tollygunge. Karthik was there too.
- Do you have any recording of your songs?
- There is one CD of our performance at Jadavpur. I performed two songs and played the dotara. I was taken there by Halim Fakir. He was given a CD of the performances. I asked the organizer and got a copy the cassette. It is at my home.
- Have any other women been inspired by you at your village in Fajirnagar?
Recorded at Townsend Rd, Kolkata on February 25, 2015
Interviewer and Director: Aditi Sircar
Camera: Jesse Alk
Sound: Koustav Sinha
Camera Assistant: Rajib Kuila
Translated by Parjanya Sen