The Baul Revelation, Boimela and Boshonto.
“ Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call.
To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!
A wide angel had appeared to him… an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory.”
– James Joyce
Even if you haven’t read this gem (A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man) of Joyce’s, I’m sure these words make sense to even the rumored insensate! (Not me, ok?) No kidding. Just take a pause, read the lines, warm up your passion a bit (comes natural to a Bong) and think of yourself as the lonesome wanderer slowly trudging your way past the 5 lakh plus crowd, from one book stall to your favorite other. Like a kid with his wishful eyes stuck on his favorite lollypop when he passes by such stores, you too are lost in the new book-smell, glistening new covers, unsoiled white virgin pages and in the difficult decisions in choosing for a select few among the many books you wished you owned. The busy rush and gentle shoves, the infinite looking queue before be it ‘Ananda publishers’ or ‘Benfish’, nothing can bother you, because it’s the Disneyland I’m talking about. It is the Kolkata International Book Fair; the only truly International event Kolkata hosts every year end of January till February first week, held at the Milan Mela premises in Saltlake. Enough said, come back to your very own Nil-Lohit’esque (Sunil Gangopadhyay’s fiction series protagonist and nom de plume) bohemian imagery. Of course you came here alone, because you chose to. Even a smidgen hint of distraction and undesirable attention demand at the Boi-mela can tick you off for the rest of the year.
[This is the first time I hit the Mela by myself. Like I said, it was a conscious decision. I was to receive a prize at the U.S Consul pavilion/American Centre and so I was able to shirk any company interested, by saying that I will be quick in collecting the prize and return in no time, obviously I’m heck too busy to book hunt these days! It worked and to my delight, end of the day I was so pleased in myself. I was pleased to have grown up this much to have come all the way alone. I found myself grinning every time I could spot a familiar re-enactment of events, like when a middle class father promised his kid he’d buy rest of the Tintin comics provided he behaved this entire year, when the crowd before ‘Arambagh’s chicken’ outnumbered even the ritually popular puller: the De’s publisher’s evening fare!, when a budding intellectual and his little magazine clan advertized their creative collection as: “Porlei Buddhijibi hote parben” (Read it once, you’ll turn an intellectual in no time). Last but worth mentioning, the fun it was to see a guy visibly miffed yet trying hard to offer countless solutions to his girlfriend’s persistent nag: “ My legs are aching, let’s go home, NOW”. It was just around 6-6:30p.m!
The little Magazine Arena still remains the heart of the fair till date. Playing Guitar and crooning to protest lyrics, Kabir Suman, Dylan on plain ground before the huge tent. The air still vibrant of a heady mix of frustration and hope, youth and energy, with an encouraging feeling of righteousness. I was sipping on a 5 rupees Lebu Cha(Lemon and Hajmola tea), sitting on a bedi (raised even platform) in front of the entrance to the little Mag tent, talking to a guy who hails from Bankura , about his selected poems that are published in a book and in a few magazine booklets. Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a ruckus; the forever eventful area lived on its reputation this year as well. A ghotigorom seller, evidently trespassed into the busy fair instead may be of its assigned corner. He was being chased down by two young security guards, he was panting and pleading to not spoil the Ghotigorom spread as he struggled in their grasp this time, just a foot from us. The bystander culture famous in India cannot be seen in Kolkata, especially when you’re in the middle of a crowd which has a higher intellectual faculty. Immediately, three women charged the security guards for manhandling the poor seller saying:” Don’t you dare put a finger on him. Have frustrations? Then go dare touch the Arambagh chicken stalls in the middle over there”. I saw the near exploding eyes of a stout young woman staring right in front of the nose of one of the security guards. Powered by the confidence of being just, being humane, her pitch went louder than the blaring microphones. While another guy kept the other guard at bay from touching any of them, more people gathered and contributed to the voice of the woman. “ GO. Just get away from here…. bring whomever you can to force him out, we’ll still be here.”
The ghotigoromwalla now being helped on his feet was advised to stay near the Pavillion while the guards were being shooed away from the scene. What was happening around me made me extremely proud of the Kolkatans, meeting just what was expected of them. Content, I proceeded with my map of the book fair with fresh energy.]
Sunil-Da once said in an interview when asked at an event: “Do you see Neera here among the crowd?” Nil-lohit is always on the lookout for Neera, anywhere, everywhere.
But in a book fair? I wonder what he would have said. Would he have looked up while skimming through the pages of Sartre’s Nausea, Dylan Thomas’s or Neruda’s love poem collections, or say Joy Goswami’s Ghumiyechho, Jhaupata? (Have you slept, Pine leaf?) Paagli tomar jonyo (For you, o crazy girl) and Tapan Ray Chowdhury’s Bangalnama , all under one roof. Would he have looked up at women busy gobbling on Chicken Pakodas , at one of those salespersons at the counter you could have mistaken as an air-hostess if seen elsewhere; or lend his ears to the glib tongued Benglish speaking RJ’s…?
Sounds unromantic, but I couldn’t spot a Nikhilesh either! It was nearly time for the gates to shut for tonight. The official shop-closing hour being 8 p.m. I rushed to collect one last book to complete the shopping at once. Called “Mahashindhur Opar theke”, a rare Spiritual book on Life after Death, by Tarashish Gangopadhyay and it was giving me a hard time to find after several negatives from some of the major publication exhibitions. Still, not giving up I continued a rather resigned hunt at ten minutes to eight’o’clock and at the same time talking some serious issues with my best friend over the phone. For your information, at the Mela there are plenty of stalls which play live music in the form of amateur bands, live radio-casts, and quiz-shows on telechannel booths, advertisement and whatnot. All these years we have learned to ignore them as mere distractions. Today it was bound to be different, but I wasn’t prepared for the wonderful revelation rather experience that awaited me.
Encircled by the State Government’s flagship info-store, AITMC’s Jaago-Bangla -the themed store from state CM’s own publication, the US and Italy consul representations and the year’s theme Peru to its south, the clearing was quite crowded for an 8 P.M Saltlake Book Fair Cinderella hour. The flock had people of different ages, walks, and some known faces of bureaucrats in the chairs surrounding three ‘Bauls’ (Bengal’s prized troubadours) and a posse of talented musicians.
For those who aren’t aware of the Baul music /culture/genre, it’s guaranteed not a blog for you. It is difficult to relate what Baul folk music means to a Bengali, a music aficionado or a lyricist. My tryst with Baul gaan, Kirtan, Hari-bhajan and kobi gaan happened early in childhood. My maternal grandfather (Dadu) was one devout Hindu and an august figure, quite well known in our locality. My Gran’pa wouldn’t have liked compliment superlatives; he had taught us well to tune out those coming our way as individual character appreciations or because of good deeds. I won’t describe him or his qualities any further hence, although I’m tempted here! After he retired from the Military and Police service, he used to narrate and read out the Upanishad and the Bhagvad Geeta (called ‘Geeta Paath’) at Hari-Sabhas, Krishna conventions and similar other Hindu religious meets. I was amused at his baritone resounding in huge halls, or at long pandal stretches reaching the audience engrossed in reverent quietude. The kirtaniyas or Krishna devotees would sing in between. They’d trance dance with their eyes closed telling a tale of Radha-Krishna, easy on words and with the helpful prose verses in between, they were able to captivate me since childhood when I used to hang around with Dadu till late until it all finished close to midnight. The Bauls are usually fakirs, “Shahaj Manush” (simpletons), in English-wandering minstrels, whose religion is mainly bhakti or devotion bordering on expressions relating to Deho(Body) and Mana ( mind) sadhana. Their philosophy and music fuses Vaishnav, Sufi , Tantra and Buddhist tenets, these enlightened and unsophisticated (god’s) madcaps are a passionate seeker of truth, of a spiritual life and at the same time aspiring for their union with the eternal beloved- the Moner Manush (the man of the heart).
This mystery about certain ambiguous lifestyle practices of a Baul which are presumed to be repulsive and often hedonistic, took me (one Makar Sankranti, January 2010) to the famous Baul Mela at (Jaydev) Kenduli , 42 kms from Shantiniketan, Birbhum. The experience there can be published in another appropriate post, not today. My interest in Bengali folk music grew watching and listening to Ananda Das Baul, Lakkhan das, Paban das and Purna das baul, Parvathy Baul, shahoj Maa and Durga khepi etc. among the renowned.
This book fair got me perchance introduced to Shanghamitra Banerjee Das. I don’t know if she defines herself as a Baul. But she takes trips with a Baul group to perform her art in public. The power, the magical timbre on every distinct pitch of the lyrics pronounced heartfelt and the flawless intonation had kind of possessed me into abandoning my book hunt and find for the source instead. The voice was fresh, hitherto unheard and was able to instill in you the musical high generated by the rhythmical verve of the rendition she was giving life to. The crowd soon gained in number and everybody around me was equally awestruck at the sublime energy that folk song emanated. I caught the performance at its middle, and it was the only performance I saw of her. Later she assisted the Bauls playing a musical instrument, the name I’m unaware of. I heard two more popular songs those Bauls sang on request, “Dhoinyo Dhoinyo” and “ Pagol Hoye jabo”, till it was 8:30 and the crowd dispersed to make a beeline for exit. There was a lot more ‘new’ to the performance that got the flock glued to her. Generally, the Bauls don particular attires, both the male and female ones. They have a certain way of speaking Bengali with a thick regional accent; I mean they can be easily identified as simple people off the rural soil. Enter Shanghamitra and the perceptions saw a refreshingly stunning change!
A visibly fit, good-looking woman in her early thirties may be, in black kurta blue jeans, a neatly wrapped stole and thick specs, clean curly hair tied back, no make-up and nothing dramatic in appearance. Initial look, you will definitely wonder does she really belong there? Haven’t you seen her in your campus, in metro or may be at the club? Voila! She must be the cool new neighbor from the opposite flat. Turns out, she indeed teaches Zoology back in Shantiniketan, travels with the group to learn /hone her skill in singing. She was meeting people (fans?) at the end of the show where I had overheard these tiny details. There were so many new things around a Baul show I got to experience, I wish I could do justice in writing the spiritual yet ephemeral frames as they unfurled before my novice eyes. Every Bengali I met have some time or other confessed to being a romantic, in almost every situation Bengalis love to romanticize and tend to prolong a thought, often quixotic in its latent ambition. It is true! Whenever there’s a Baul song playing you can’t help but feel pumped at the simple lyrics matching the template of your own story. It moves you to groove to the unabashed trance dance or clap your hands/ foot-tap adding to the beat, quite involuntarily.
After her performance, rest of the Bauls picked up on the gusto with a zest of innocent playfulness in their art that was as if to blithe-spiritedly try and impress a divine presence. Calmness personified, Shanghamitra in her modern garb stood-out to be the cynosure among the crowd even after her performance. She did nothing OTT to draw attention which the female counterparts in this genre like to include in heightening the aura as a cognizable brand. Isn’t she hungry for fame then?
That she’s humble like the people in this clan was evident with the way she smilingly obliged people coming to her with effusive adulation. There’s a ritual that Bauls, the unworldly people that they are, never ask for alms or commercialize their talent but they are given rewards at will by people who are impressed by their performances. Doesn’t mean you’ve to be a patron to gift them notes or anything material, no rank as such, I saw people from a satisfied Rickshawallah to a wealthy bureaucrat giving them money. Along with the accolades these Bauls today got a few hugs and paper from the front row too, I saw Shanghamitra receiving a newly brought book from a seemingly smitten ‘Kaku’. A middle-aged woman came up to her telling “ I was so so taken by your outstanding performance tonight, yours has been the most crowd-puller I know since I have been following from the beginning…. It was unique and touched my soul. Thank You!” There they hogged her for a long time with all sorts of questions. Sadly, despite wanting to present her something from my bagful of “50 shades Darker”, “superfreakonomics” and “The Third Wheel”, for obvious reasons (duh!) I couldn’t give her any; neither could I talk at length about her baul-ways.
She was living my dream. Two lives: one of a woman undaunted about following her passion in music immaterially. Venturing out with fellow Baul men uninhibited, to wherever they find a keen audience. The idea in itself sounds egalitarian, brave and inspiring.
The other life being of a social person, who is aware of planktons, zoophytes or other cellular/acellular organisms with scientific names like dtyurjkhrfih (that’s not Russian, just pure hokum!). Living all sorts of relationships there’s to answer to. Oh wait, did I mention her mom was calling to check on her when the clock struck 8:30, despite the company of her brother being present all the while. (I was talking to her when she answered the call, even my mom didn’t call until it was 9:30. I WON)! See, I told you hers is a different case altogether! This one being more relatable right?
Kudos to her not just for the powerhouse performance but for appearing charmingly real. May be next time the brewing questions from this perchance meeting will be answered.
Boimela (Book Fair) kind of heralds Boshonto (spring) for me. And Baul songs find me the exact guileless language/expressions to the passionate madness that’s rumored to be there in a romantic Bong! A rare combination there…
I hope Nikhilesh is noting this down somewhere!!! 😛
I can’t wait to attend their next show. I don’t know if at all I will be able to, but there’ll always be a Boimela next year and I will come back alone again! I’m rushing to finish writing here for now. I know it’s too long but I’m writing this post on someone’s request here, hope you guys like it too!
P.S: on February 21 (International Mother Language Day, in Bengali Bhasha Dibosh), to the quintessential bong who wanted to know someone better. 🙂