The first time that I heard a Baul song was not in Bengal but in Madras. The songs stayed with me. I remember being surprised because it was quite feminist in tone about the rights of women in a farming community. I was hooked. Bauls, as you know, are the singer-mendicants of Bengal. They lead a nomadic life moving from place to place singing and dancing. They live off alms given to them something like the Buddhist monks. Religion is a fluid entity to them. Every year they congregate at Kenduli on Makar Sankranti. For a long time, this is all I knew about them.
The year before last, I visited the nerve center of Baul country, Shantiniketan, for the first time courtesy of my wonderful cousins. Shantiniketan is connected by both road and rail. We took the rail. En route, when the train entered the Birbhum district, Baul singers regaled us with some of the most soulful music I have heard ever. Last December, I visited Shantiniketan again and this time by road. Of course, nothing beats listening to Bauls sing on the train as you are speeding through the rural Bengal countryside. The road, however, had a different charm.
When we reached Shantiniketan, it was already time for lunch. We stopped at Banalakshmi, an organic food store, nursery, resort, with a restaurant. You can get homemade preserves, local craftwork, and ghar ka khana in a campus sprawling with plants and trees in all shapes and hues.
After a wonderful lunch, we were off to see the weekly haat where artisans and craftspeople gather to sell their work. The haat is nothing but an open field of flattened grass with paths created by movement of people and vehicles. People come from all over the place—villagers, students, tourists, passers by. A buzzing haat full of art and craft, all made by hand. From beads to bags, figurines to music instruments, dokra metalware to tie-and-bye batik print clothes. Students from the Vishwabharati University sell their artwork here as well. I browsed the rudimentary stalls in neat lanes all the while thinking of the failing light.
What caught my attention that day was this Baul singer with a voice so powerful that he would have been a rockstar. He sang one of the most popular Baul songs Tomaye Hrid Majhare Rakhbo but with a twist of his own. It’s important to note that no one owns a Baul song. A singer may create it. Other singers can improvise it in their way. And some ways are more popular than the others. In this sense, Baul songs are close to jazz compositions. In fact, urban musicians have recognized this flexibility of the Baul song and use them in their compositions in films and albums.
From time to time, our rockstar would make eye contact with this audience who stood enraptured in a circle around him. I could see people being moved by his rendition. Some nodded their heads, some took pictures, some dropped money on to the durrie on which the accompanying instrumentalists sat. Sadly, I never got to find out his name. The voice was rough, rugged, and melodic at the same time. Listening to a Baul song is like being given a taste of what it is to be truly alive and totally free. The most exquisite were the high notes because the soaring voice takes you along with it. I had to tear myself away from that enchanted circle. The winter sun was already weak when it began to set. But no one moved away. When it was too dark to see anything, we trudged back the Baul song ricocheting in our minds.
The next day, we visited the famous Kankalitala temple. It lies about 10 kilometers from Prantik, where we stayed. An early start was a boon because the sun was just gaining some momentum. Kankalitala is a picturesque temple in the middle of nowhere. It’s an important temple because it’s also a Shakti peeth. Devotees throng the temple during special days as usual. What was not usual was the presence of Baul singers in the temple courtyard with their harmoniums singing in sonorous voices. Bauls have been compared to Sufis: both exist in that place where the Hindu and Muslim philosophies meet. I got the feeling that in this part of the world, the centre and the periphery were indeed quite close.
About the photographs: Taken in the weak winter sun with the Diana Mini using expired Fujifilm Sensia 400 and crossprocessed. Head over to Lomography India for a holistic idea about lomography, photography and more.