By: Priyanka Dasgupta
KOLKATA: Parvathy Baul, the first female baul recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) award, is on a new mission. The baul singer from Coochbehar, who now divides her time between Bolpur and Thiruvananthapuram, is working on setting up the first baul archive in the world at her gurukul in Santiniketan. If all goes well, the archive should be functional two years hence.
On Wednesday morning, Parvathy was boarding a flight from Romania to India when a friend messaged to congratulate her on the award. “Initially, I didn’t even understand which award was being referred to here. But I must say that I am very happy,” said the 41-year-old singer and story-teller.
According to Parvathy, every individual accomplishment involves a contribution of a lot of people. “This award is a recognition of the work of my gurus – Sanatan Das Baul and Shoshanko Goshai. I see myself as a continuation of what they have taught me and their works. My father Birendranath, husband Ravi and collaborator Ram have contributed in shaping me the way I am today,” said the singer who has mesmerised music lovers with songs like “Kichu din mone mone”, “Sri charon pabo bole” and “Ghiri ghiri ghiri nache”, among others.
Listening to Parvathy sharing moving stories of her gurus is a sublime experience. One such story is about meeting the 97-year-old Shoshanko Goshai. “I practiced and learned with him for three years and he left his body when he was 100. The last time when I went to visit him, he told me that it would be our last meeting. I spent three days with him as he went through all the songs he had taught me, making sure that I was uttering and remembering them in the right way,” she recalled. On the third night, he had called her and said that he was leaving his body. “That night he took samadhi, leaving me alone with all of his songs to carry along with me until my last breath,” she remembered.
The sight of Parvathy’s smiling face, dancing and singing in ecstasy sometimes with tears streaming down her cheek, often transports the listeners to a state of trance. Setting up a baul archive is now her priority. In the sleepy hamlet of Kamardanga some 12 km away from Santiniketan, Parvathy has already set up the Sanatan Siddhashram where she goes to teach. “In our oral tradition, it is said that human bodies are live archives. But, I feel it is essential to archive our old manuscripts for posterity,” she said.
To explain herself further, she pointed at how she has herself benefited immensely while coming across old folk recordings during her travel abroad. “But not everyone can travel like me and source archival material. My baul archive will come to the aid of those who don’t have this access. I also want to adopt village children to initiate them into the practice of yoga and music, set up an akhada for elderly bauls and a centre for holistic healing in the ‘kabiraji’ style,” she said. Currently, she is using her 20 years of earnings by performing in 50 countries to set up the gurukul and archive. But government funding will certainly help to speed up the process of setting it up.
In an essentially consumerist society, what are the challenges of being a modern-day baul? “Life is so fast today that it is in sharp contrast to the lifestyle of a baul. It is difficult to get the time and seclusion needed to practice this tradition,” she said. Baul is an age-old tradition but Parvathy insisted that there is a need to adapt to the changes of time. “Before setting up this gurukul, I used to wonder if it was needed since bauls are essentially meant to travel without settling down anywhere. But, I realised that with the changing times where the urban-rural divide is getting blurred, we need to create an oasis to keep the wisdom and practice alive,” she explained.
According to her, music, even in the world fraught with cacophony of give-and-take relationships, is never divorced from spirituality. “The sound is nothing but a form of breath. Singing a song is nurturing that breath. It is that invisible connection between you and the universe. If you can be in that state, music becomes a prayer,” she said.
On being asked about the struggles of a female baul practitioner, Parvathy admitted to a gender bias. According to her, a female baul practitioner needs to be a “warrior” to succeed. “I am very well-received and loved within my community. But outside, people can readily accept a male guru. However, a woman has to be extraordinary to succeed. That’s why even today so few female baul practitioners or composers are known by the masses. Recognising women will build a more healthy and compassionate society,” she said.
But, she is happy that the scenario is slowly changing. What’s making her happier is that a Parvathy Baul Sandhya is being organised in Coochbehar. Looking forward to this root-connection, she said, “I left Coochbehar when I was 16 and am returning to my roots after 25 years. Most people there have watched my performances on television or YouTube. This homecoming on June 30 is a completion of a cycle.”