Suhkdev Das Baul
interviewed at Fairlawn Hotel, Kolkata
Tell me your full name.
My name is Suhkdev Das Baul.
Tell me your full address.
I am the son of Lakkhan Das Baul. I live at Siuri in the Birbhum district. My house is very near to the Vidyasagar College. Post-office is Siuri. This is my address.
Have you been at Siuri since your childhood?
No, I have not been at Siuri since my childhood. I was born at Siuri. But I left the place at a young age and moved to the Mallarpur village. I studied for a while there. And I grew up there as well. After that, I returned to Siuri.
Is Siuri located in the village Mallarpur?
Quite close to the village Mallarpur, in a place called Mehedinagar.
And where is that?
Well, very close to Mallarpur, within walking distance from Mallarpur.
In the district Birbhum?
Yes, in Birbhum itself. Rampurhat, Mallarpur, Tarapith... it is situated on the road that runs from Siuri to Tarapith.
All right. You completed your studies there and then you returned to Siuri?
That’s right. I have returned once again to Siuri.
All right, shall we begin? I’ll ask you some questions.
I have asked the same question to Lakkhanda (Lakkhan Das Baul)... and now I’ll ask you...I have been hearing Baul music for quite some time now... I have noticed that sometimes the tunes keep differing...even for the same lyrics... sometimes I get the feel that some of these tunes are very old...and these are the numbers that I keep hearing again and again... with time many of these older tunes have undergone a lot of change... Can you offer me your perspective on this...the older tunes and the newer ones, even for the same lyrics, do not sound similar... have the older ones really undergone a change? Or has nothing changed at all? What do you think?
No, they have changed significantly. For example, certain Bauls prefer to the older versions intact. And they perform these in more or less the exact same way they have been performed over the years. That’s how they prefer singing these to people. And there are some newer artists... you would know that there are a number of newer artists performing today...and our society too has undergone a transition... many of these transitions have made their way into these songs as we hear them today... as every person hears them today. For example, Hindi music, Bengali bands and a lot of other elements have shown their influence on Baul music. The popular Hindi songs or those from the Bengali bands are usually speedier numbers. Some of the newer Baul artists think that if they perform their numbers in a similar way they will be able to reach out to more of the masses. They think that they will appeal more people this way. And yet there are some people who do not want to listen to these transmutations...they prefer listening to the older, more un-infiltrated versions of the songs. Some prefer these transmutations, some don’t. That is how the scenario is today.
What do you think— are these changes influenced by the guru? Or are they brought about by the individual singer herself/ himself?
No, the guru is likely to teach the older version. You see, some composer and lyricist had composed these numbers...she/ he would certainly not have changed it... therefore the guru will never instruct her/ his student to alter a tune or give a new tune to the song. So it’s mostly the individual performers who bring about these changes in trying to keep pace with society.
Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking as well. And I would like to know if you share my opinion on another thing— the older songs would have a lot of lyrical and vocal intricacies; these I do not hear anymore. Are they not sung anymore? What would be your take on this?
Not exactly. It would not be accurate to say that these are not sung anymore. The fact is that there are fewer audiences today to listen to these lyrics. Every Baul performer is acquainted with these older lyrics. We have a collection of many of these lyrics. I have songs written by my grandfather’s father and his father before that. We have all those songs with us. We can perform them. But if we perform these numbers at any musical congregation, we usually find only a handful of audience remaining seated; the rest get up and leave after some time. Most of these lyrics are very complex and difficult to comprehend. People have difficulty in understanding them. People who have been initiated into Baul music or been trained by a guru may somewhat comprehend them. That is why elderly performers like us and more so the younger artists do not place a great impetus on these lyrics. Most of the present generation prefers less complex, lighter music. And yet some people who may be into Baul music often sit back and discuss the various implications of the song and its lyrics. But the present-day youth are not eager enough to visit a Baul congregation. They like listening to music the pleasure of which can be derived without too much effort at comprehension. That is why we do not perform these older, more complex numbers any more. We tend to perform those numbers which will be eagerly received by the present-day youth. And hence the older songs are usually not performed at the congregations. If we sing them, we will not be able to retain the audience’s attention. These are the various reasons why many of these lyrics have gone out of use.
Can you cite an example? Please sing two lines of a very old Baul number.
For example... ‘The world sinks in eternal darkness, extinct are the guru’s wisdom words/ In vain you seek the unknown pedestal, for you can sing no more the extolling song...’
And how does the tune go?
(sings) The world sinks in eternal darkness,
Extinct are the guru’s wisdom words
In vain you seek the unknown pedestal,
For you can sing no more the extolling song.
Extinct are the guru’s wisdom words...
You worship Kali with the five vices
Offering human sacrifices night and day,
You cannot walk straight on the virtuous path,
And your forehead remains forever cut.
Extinct are the guru’s wisdom words...
The world sinks... (repeats first verse)
Whose lines are these?
These lines are by Aha-ur. Aha-ur Goswami.
Now let me ask you something. What I feel on hearing Baul music is that it has its own uniqueness of tune. How much of this do you think is influenced by indigenous and folk tunes?
No. Baul music is ancient. It has been in practice since ages. Folk and indigenous tunes were not in existence prior to Baul songs. Folk tunes came later. Where did these originate from? They are actually a bifurcation from Baul music. Today we include different kinds of songs within the genre of folk music, songs like those composed by individual poets during the poetic duels and other such kinds of folk songs. These are all derived from Baul music. You see, folk is different from Baul. What do we mean by folk music? Let us first try and understand that. For example, the things we keep seeing everyday with our eyes; the poet perceives something new within these everyday sights which triggers off his inspiration. Thus he composes his lines. Then a composer gives a certain tune to this poet’s words. And what thus originates is referred to as folk music. And what is Baul? Bauls have an insight into the human mind. They are always in search of people with whom they can mentally bond. They are always in search of people among whom they can spread this love that they nurture within themselves. They are poets of love. And those that have a saintly disposition are always seeking the Absolute; they are the ones who possess all knowledge of the human body. And it is from this body that they create their music, their lyrics and their songs. There are many such great composers, who compose new lyrics and give tunes to these lyrics. And these are the songs we call Baul music. Baul has its own aesthetics that involve other aesthetics as well, for example the aesthetics of the human body, the knowledge of the hidden elements, etc. There are various ramifications, various phases. And baul music incorporates all these transitions. These transitions form part of Baul music. Folk music does not have these transitions. For example, whenever there is a guru-disciple performance, we witness many of these transitions being performed. When a folk performer sings on stage, he can begin with any number...sing any number of his choice. A baul performer cannot do that. He will begin by invoking the Guru and then proceed slowly towards the central philosophical content. Folk performances need not have these transitions. This is the basic structural difference between Baul and folk music, from the performance point of view.
Do Baul tunes also have these transitions?
Yes, they do.
My next question to you would be— do Baul and Fakir / Darveshi songs have any variation in tune even for the same lyrics?
No, not exactly. There are various kinds of Baul singers. For example, the Fakirs belong to the Muslim sect. The Bauls belong to the Hindu sect or the Vaishnava sect. Each has its own way of expression; in this the Muslim singers differ from the Baul singers. The words of the song might differ. It may be noticed that the feeling/ emotion is accentuated in the same notes for both, and yet the words chosen for expression may be different. The Fakir songs often have a different tune; besides the Fakir way of performing and self-expression is also different. The Bauls too have their own unique way of performance and self-expression. Each is different from the other.
So, how are the Fakir tunes like? Sing a few lines for me. And how are the Baul tunes like? How exactly does one distinguish one from the other? What are the markers of this differentiation?
Well Aditidi, Baul music is not of one distinct type. There are different kinds of tunes. I will sing one such tune for you. The song is about Krishna leaving Braja... I will sing a few lines of this song—
(sings) Radha has sent me from Braja to fetch you
And I am come to know your mind.
Radha has sent me from Braja to fetch you...
And here I am, Brinda, capable of calamity,
Here I am, to take you with me
Binding your wrists in the fetters of love.—
This is a Baul tune. Now listen to the tune of a Fakir song. The Fakir songs are different from their Baul counterparts. The gait, mannerisms and attire of Fakirs are different. For example, the Bauls dress in five kinds of cloth, which they call the ‘Pancharashik’ or the ‘Guduri’. Often, you will notice that Fakirs too dress in five kinds of cloth. Yet what marks the difference is the presence of the colour black. The colour black always forms part of the Fakir attire, along with their Darveshi necklace. The Bauls wear the colour saffron, and a necklace. There exists a difference of colour in the chosen attire of the two. Are how are the Fakir songs different? I will sing one—
(sings) Ashraf-Ul-Auliya, Chiragesh Chistiya
Blessed was the beloved Khwaja.
Prithviraj could work his miracles no more
And futile became many lives.
At the end Jaipal too was rendered helpless
Took the holy oath and embraced Islam.
Blessed was the beloved Khwaja.
Ashraf-Ul-Auliya, Chiragesh Chistiya
Blessed was the beloved Khwaja.
The instruments of Bauls and Fakirs are different too, aren’t they?
Yes, their instruments are different. You will see that the Fakirs usually use instruments like the ‘Dubki’ and the hand ‘Dhol’. Besides, you will also notice an instrument that looks like a tong laced with bell-chimes; Sadhus too use this kind of a tong. And you will also notice an instrument that resembles the violin. I can’t recall its name at this moment. But the instrument very much resembles and sounds like the violin. The Bauls, on the other hand, use instruments like the ‘Duggi’ and the ‘Iktara’. The first aspect of a Baul’s identity is his Duggi and Iktara. The next is the instrument of love, what we call the ‘Prem Lahari’ or the ‘Gabbu’. The other instruments frequently used by the Bauls include the ‘Kartal’ and the ‘Khol’. These can be of varied types and each of them is an aspect of the Baul identity.
Are their dance moves also different?
Yes. The Bauls dance to the beat of their anklets and to the tune of the ‘Duggi’ which they play. The Fakirs only dance rarely. They usually stand rooted to a spot when they perform. They rely more on facial expressions and hand gestures to convey the meaning of their song.
What I personally feel is that the Fakir songs are often somewhat repetitive. They keep repeating their lines and tune. I think the Fakir songs have lesser variations. What is your opinion on this?
Yes, The Fakirs often keep re-iterating the same refrain. The Baul songs are more varied, in terms of their melody. The Fakirs keep repeating the same tune which forms the central crux of their song. Let me sing one number for you; you will see that it keeps harping back to the central musical motif—
“I have been a sinner
Through the different phases of my life.
Lord, my sins know no bounds.
Lord, absolve my many sins through Your virtue.”—
The tunes of the Fakir songs, as they have come down to us over generations, are often quite similar to each other.
In the case of Baul songs, the name of the composer/ lyricist is usually incorporated as part of the lyrics of the song. Does the same hold true for Fakir songs as well?
- Yes, its does if the lyrics have been composed by a renowned or revered
composer. Fakirs too have their list of renowned poets and lyricists. Some of them are from Bangladesh, others are from India. These composers can be identified through their lyrics, in which their name or surname appears as a signature mark. But the present-day performers will only get to hear these compositions from the older artists.
Are you alluding to composers like Dur-Duh-Shah and Pandu-Shah?
Pandu-Shah and also composers like Hasanraja. They are revered composers and you will get to hear their names in the numbers performed by the older generation of artists. Newer performers today tend to omit those lines that allude to the name of the poet/ composer.
I think that many of the newer artists are not even familiar with the lyrics in their entirety…
Not all Bauls and Fakirs come from the same district. Some are from Birbhum, some from Purulia, some from North Bengal and others from Bangladesh. Besides their differing dialects, how does one understand where a particular Baul or Fakir is coming from?
It is primarily the dialect that marks out their locality. If you visit Purulia, you will hear a different dialect. When they are speaking amongst themselves, you might not be able to comprehend. When performers come from different places, they are not able to fully relinquish this native dialect. Then the listener understands that this particular performer is coming from this particular place.
(Conversation over phone, not part of the interview)
You are referring here to the dialectical difference. If we leave that aside, do we also hear a variation in tune even when the song they are performing might be the same? Furthermore, are there also differences in their dance moves and voice tones?
Yes, there are those differences as well. If there is a congregation of Baul performers from Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia, you will immediately be able to single out the Baul performer from Birbhum by hearing her/him sing. Likewise, when you hear a Baul singer from Bangladesh, you at once know where she/he is from. The same holds true for a performer from Purulia. The place where they come from can easily be perceived by observing the difference in their manner of performance.
I understand. Even if they are all singing the same song, there exist certain subtle differences in their rendering of the song.
Yes, there will be those perceivable subtle differences.
Even with respect to the tune of the song?
Not just with respect to tune, but also in the way certain words are used and re-iterated. A performer from Birbhum tends to use phrases such as “Bholar mon (the mind that derives its self-identification from Shiva)”, “Khyapar mon (the fervent mind)” and “Pagol mon (the insane mind)”. But you will not hear such phrases in the songs of Baul performers coming from other areas. A performer’s native affiliation manifests itself in a certain way through her/his performance. As a result she/he will sing the song in a way that at once marks her/him out as a performer from Birbhum. Even when a song begins on a more or less general note, the performer soon lapses back to her/ his native elements.
Are most Bauls based in Birbhum?
The name Birbhum is contingent with ‘Baul’. People from our country as well as abroad are drawn primarily to the Bauls of Birbhum. In this respect, Birbhum has become quite a hallowed and renowned place.
Why this concentration of Bauls in Birbhum?
This has to do with an aesthetic of pleasure. You, for instance, have come here to talk to us. Baul aesthetic evokes a certain pleasure. Once you have experienced it, it will be ingrained within you. You are bound to seek more and you will likely travel to various places seeking out of Baul performers. And the Bauls of Birbhum evoke a unique kind of pleasure.
Tell me something… Baul is a distinct way of life, a practice of self enrichment through mysticism… yet, there are various sub-sects within Baul, such as the followers of Vishnu, the followers of Shiva, the Sufis and the Muslims. Which aspect of their identity assumes priority to them? Is it their identity as a Baul or their religious affiliation, i.e., a follower of Shiva or a Muslim? Which gets precedence to their— their religion or them being a Baul?
See, whatever religion the person belongs to, whether she/he is a follower of Vishnu or Shiva, she/ he will prioritize the Baul identity. The feeling within her/him that I want to embrace the Baul way of life , I want to sing Baul songs, I want to appeal to peoples’ sensibilities , that is what assumes the prior impetus. The feeling with which she/he embarks upon the Baul way of life assumes priority for her/him. Where this feeling is concerned, there is no boundary of religion or class. To her/him it is the devotion to the Baul life and the dedication to Baul music which become important.
I would like to ask you another thing. The names of Radha and Krishna are often invoked in Baul songs. Likewise, the name of Allah is often invoked in Sufi songs. Are these different appellations for the self that exists within?
Yes, these are the different names of the inner self. They are always on a quest to discover this very inner self. And these are people who are guided solely by love. They want to spread this love among the people of the society, among the world. Those great ones that had immersed themselves completely in this fervour, those are the ones we refer to as the ‘Thakurs’. None of us have actually seen Radha or Krishna, for none of us were even born then. We see them only in pictures. We are people belonging to this generation. And we have never actually seen any of these mythical figures. Yet we know that it was this same fervour that guided them, the same fervour of love that guides us too. It is this love that we seek and it is this quest that fuels our wander thirst. We keep travelling all over the country and abroad, wherever our quest leads us to. And that is why we keep singing the praises of Radha and Krishna and Allah, because we think of them as those who had immersed themselves in the fervour of love. And there are people among us who have done the same, people of the likes of Chandidas Rajakini, Chintaram, Billo-Mangal and Chintamani.
Bauls and Fakirs do not visit temples and mosques on a regular basis, or so I have heard. Then why do you think the names of Radha-Krishna and Allah recur so frequently in their songs?
That is a significant question. The first thing to keep in mind is that the Bauls are guided solely by their inner feelings, and they are always seeking other people like them. They do not usually like worshipping deities and goddesses; and we need to know why. We never pause to think that these gods and goddesses exist within our own bodies. Take for example this simple fact—we keep speaking incessantly. Do we ever wonder who the one is who keeps speaking from within us? No, we don’t. If we ask ourselves that, we will never be able to reach an answer. Who is the one who speaks? The one who speaks is the Absolute. And it is we who are preventing ourselves from perceiving the Absolute that exists within us. My god exists within my being, who I have failed to perceive. If I run to mosques and temples, will I be able to perceive him unless I first recognize the existence of the Absolute within me? And all our worship and devotion is geared towards perceiving this Absolute. If I fail to perceive the one within then I will failed to perceive god. That is why Bauls believe in revering their own body and mind and through this devotion and knowledge of the human mind and body they keep constantly seeking the Absolute vis-à-vis their inner self.
There is another important question that I want to ask you, if Bauls have children do they still remain Bauls? I mean to say that I have heard that conceiving children is proscribed by the Baul way of life. Once she/he has had children she/he does not remain a Baul any longer. Do you believe this? Is the Bauls’ disciplining of their body and their sexual acts not contingent with their having children?
It would not be correct to say that they no longer remain a Baul. Let us first know who the ones are who do not conceive children. They are usually those that have left the family life and have embraced the Sanyasa way of life. These people abnegate the possibility of conceiving a child. The cult of Baul has been coming down since ages. In order to eternize the Baul, we need to procreate. Take me for example, being a Baul had I abstained from having children, how would I ensure my community’s perpetuation? If we stopped procreating, the Baul way of life would eventually come to an end. So having children is a necessity. Only those who have embraced the Sanyasa way of life do not have children. The dharma of Sanyasa believes in self-abstention when it comes to having a child, but the Bauls may have children.
Then tell me something… I have heard of the Baul’s secret rituals regarding the disciplining of the erotic acts and one’s sexual self. These form a crucial part of the Baul philosophy of the human body, don’t they?
Yes, you are speaking of the ritual of ‘Rati-Sadhana’ (sexual rites)…
We need to first know when these practices are inculcated. Some of us might sow their seeds. But the moment one is initiated into the Baul way of life, i.e., the moment one becomes the disciple of a guru, one’s learning of the ‘Deha-Tattva’ (philosophy of the body) begins. The guru initiates her/him into the rites of ‘Rati-sadhana’. Why? In order to enable the disciple to conserve his body. If we are not initiated by the guru, what do we end up doing? We end up dissipating our energy through sexual activity. Our body is gradually eroded. To prevent it from dissipating, the guru initiates us into these rites. If you give your semen somewhere and a plant is sown, then the energy does not go to waste. However if this energy is wasted elsewhere through sexual activities that are unproductive, then that leads to a gradual erosion of your body. It is in order to prevent this useless dissipation that we practice the rite of ‘Rati-sadhana’.
I have also heard that many Bauls have gurus who are not Bauls themselves. Is it true?
It can be. Maybe they are not Bauls but they practice this way of life.
I do not mean the Baul artists, or the ones who sing Baul songs. I am referring to those that aren’t Baul at all.
I will call them devotees. Those that are of such a disposition, they are the devotees of the Baul way of life. They have aspired to and achieved the state of a sadhu. Hence their knowledge is unparalleled. As a result they can guide others. What does a guru do? He teaches you the mantra. And imparts knowledge? The sadhus. As sadhus they impart knowledge and wisdom and as gurus they provide the mantra. Yet, in spite of receiving so much knowledge, I have not been able to totally part with my nature. I have dreams while asleep. So much dirt fills our minds, so many ill thoughts and ill ways. The Sadhus impart so much knowledge, and yet what keeps happening? I keep having these dreams when asleep.
The Bauls usually have two gurus—the one who teaches them (‘Sikkha-guru’) and the one who initiates them (‘Dikkha-guru’)? Do the two need to be different people always?
No. That isn’t necessary. It’s not always necessary that the one who teaches (‘Sikkha guru’) has to be a Baul. Who am I referring to as the ‘Sikkha guru’? The one who imparts me knowledge on ‘Deha- Tattva’, how I need to discipline my body through the practice o ‘Rati-sadhana’. This knowledge is usually imparted by the ‘Sikkha-guru’. However, the guru who teaches Baul music is usually a different person. Yet it is often seen that the ‘Sikkha guru’ also sings Baul music. In such a case, the same person serves as both. But the person who imparts such knowledge need not necessarily be a Baul always.
There is something else that I would like to know. Not all Bauls are singers or performing artists. If (let us suppose) that the musical aspect of the Baul identity comes to an end one day, will the community itself cease to exist?
No. That will never happen. The music may cease. But the Bauls have always been there, and they will continue to exist. If such a day does come to pass, what will be lost are the melodies of the Baul songs. The songs might themselves undergo a revival after a span of fifty or hundred years. But by then, their tunes will have changed. The defining elements of the older songs will have likely been lost and we might hear something new altogether. The listeners would not even know what the older songs had been like.
In order to become a Baul, practicing the Baul way of life is essential. But does one need to sing as well?
No, there is no such compulsion.
Does one have to sing in order to qualify as a Baul? Is that a must?
There are many who do not sing Baul. But they love Baul music. Many such people are a devoted audience. And that is how they partake of the Baul fervour. They are neither artists nor performers.
No, I am not referring to those who listen to Baul music. I am referring specifically to the Bauls themselves.
Yes, I am coming to that. A person who performs Baul music is often likely to have a lesser repertoire than someone who is a devoted listener. The latter need not be a Baul artist or performer. But by thus partaking of the Baul fervour he too ascribes somewhere to the Baul identity.
Who are your gurus?
Are you referring to the one from whom I learnt Baul music?
Well, then my guru would be my father.
I was referring to your ‘Sikkha guru’ and ‘Dikkha guru’…
Ok. My two gurus are different people. My ‘Dikkha –guru’ lives in Mallarpur, near the Mallarpur bazaar. His name is Paltu Banerjee. And my ‘Sikkha-guru’ is Paramananda Goswami who is based in Murshidabad. These are my two gurus. But my initiation into Baul music began with my father. I learnt from him for a considerable period of time.
Do you practice the Baul way of life and the Baul rituals that you have learnt?
Some of them. I do not always get the time. But I need to keep practising them to ensure the continuance of my learning. But I am not able to practise regularly, which is a necessity. I am usually caught up with work. We have families. And in order to run the family we need to travel to various places to perform. And this acts as an impediment to our ‘Baul-Sadhana’.
When you encounter people like us, does this thought ever cross your mind— had I not been a Baul but a regular artist or performer, would my life be better? How do you like the Baul way of life?
There are differences between the life of a Baul and a regular artist. I love the Baul way of life. You see the Bauls are the carefree sort. If you tell them to perform in an open meadow under a tree, they are at once ready to oblige. They will think ‘I will be performing under the shade of a tree in open air. What a joyous opportunity! I will be singing in an open meadow’. A Baul will happily acclimatize to such a situation. But regular artists, especially those who have garnered a reputation for themselves, will flinch if asked to perform in an open meadow beneath a tree. They require sophisticated equipments, a band and a good microphone. They will not be able to perform without a good mike. But if you tell a Baul, “There is no microphone available, you will have to sing loud enough to be audible” the Bauls will happily perform without the mike in open air. That is what I mean when I refer to a certain carefree-ness in their attitude. And this is the attitude that I have within me and love. It is the Baul fervour that assumes priority to us.
Do you have children?
Yes, I do.
How many children do you have?
I have a son and two daughters.
Do they practise Baul music?
Well, they practise occasionally. It is too early yet to say which path my son might follow. As for my daughters, they are studying in schools. And whenever they find some free time amidst their studies, they practise Baul music.
Besides being a Baul performer, do you have any other profession?
No, music is my profession. I am not involved with anything else or in any other work.
Jay Guru. And thank you so much, Aditidi.
Interviewed by Aditi Sircar
Translator: Parjanya Sen