Crazy! Crazy! Everyone says I am crazy!
But often I wonder is it the world or me?
(Translated in English from the original lines, these are the lyrics of a Baul song)
The folk song explores the relationship between an artiste and their passionate love for the divine, the nature and the body.
Dressed in simple clothes with unkempt hair, Baul performers are often seen driven with a strange eagerness to profess their love via music and dance. One such artiste is Parvathy Baul, who is internationally-acclaimed for her Baul song and dance sequences. Born in 1976, the Baul singer, musician and storyteller feels the need to “contribute to this tradition as a practitioner”.
Music for Mind and Body
To realise a taste for an old music form in a techno-savvy world today, Parvathy helps us understand the symbiotic relationship between mind and body, “finding true self within–through music, dance and poetry”.
Tracing the origin of Baul and its earliest form of practice, Parvathy narrates an episode between her Guru and herself: “When I asked my Guru Sri Sanatan Das Baul, ‘who is the first Baul?’, his answer was Shiva. I then asked him why, to which he said, ‘Look, he (Shiva) is mad, he left the golden palace and came to sit in cremation ground. Shiva represents our most ancient stream of wisdom’. Baul stream is deeply rooted in our ever new culture of spiritual consciousness.”
Parvathy confirms that Baul songs are meant for all. She says, “I too was born in a modern time where I grew up with the knowledge from east and west, listening to all kinds of music, but I found deep resonance inside me with Baul. Baul songs are timeless because these songs come from our conscious wisdom through many generations who observed life with great compassion. Therefore it is relevant for anyone who wants to find the true self within.”
Apart from nurturing the best within an artiste, Baul, according to several researches is a love story between the divine and the performer. Parvathy narrates, “ I love this love story, I think every Baul does–story of Sufi Rabia. Once a man came to her and asked her : ‘I have committed many sins. If I pray to the God will he show mercy on me?’ She replied with a no, and said that he will turn towards you and you will turn within–to turn towards him’. Baul is about turning towards Him through voice and music while the beloved is turning along with Baul.”
Baul follows the path of compassion and love, here the god is described as the ‘Moner Manush’ or the Man of the heart, and he is manifested through everyone equally. Baul do not belong to any boundary.
She adds, “Baul follows the path of compassion and love, here the god is described as the ‘Moner Manush’ or the Man of the heart, and he is manifested through everyone equally. Baul do not belong to any boundary. There are quite a number of people who were inspired from this tradition, and has followed the Baul path in their lives.”
Parvathy also draws a similarity between Sufi and Baul style of music. She says, “Baul songs and sufi songs have similarity in content and approach to poetry but singing style is very different. Baul songs were inspired and composed within the frame of original Bengali Music which includes folk music, tribal music, Bengali Drupad and Padavali traditions.”
Born and raised in the eastern state of West Bengal in India, Parvathy did not belong to the community of Baul who identify themselves as a group of mystic minstrels, free from any religious identity. So how was she introduced to them?
Parvathy says, “I wasn’t exposed to Baul in my childhood, it’s only when I came to study in Shantiniketan Kalabhavan as an art student, I got introduced to it. I started performing in 1994, so it’s been 23 years now.”
“When I saw my Guru Sanatan Das Baul”, she remarks when I ask her what is that one incident that made her leave everything else and submerge in the art form. She continues, “I was drawn to Baul songs already by then when Baba came to perform in Kalabhavan. In those days, I was still contemplating and seeking inside (myself) to find completeness as an artist through art. I saw his performance–he was complete. When he was sipping his tea after a concert, I went up to him. I had seen artists and musicians before, but there was a certain aura (around him) which created magic–a yogi artist. Baul is about using the medium of art to experience inner transformation.
Baul is about going beyond music, dance and poetry, through all movement to achieve an inner stillness.
“There is a beautiful story I must tell. When Savitri (Satyavan Savitri from Mahabharata) was shown darkness by death, she came up without fear. Then the Supreme showed her another face which was full of light that stayed on forever but it still did not satisfy her. She wanted to transform the darkness, so she went beyond light and darkness in her silence to a land where there is neither sun nor moon. Baul too is about going beyond music, dance and poetry, through all movement to achieve an inner stillness.”
(Here Savitri’s reference comes from Mahabharata, the Hindu mythology but Parvathy adds that the Baul community also derives aspiration from a poem called Savitri by Sri Aurobindo based on the same ancient story.)
[Note: Parvathy Baul is personally inspired by Sri Aurobindo, and does not speak for the entire Baul community.]
“It’s very nice for me to discover the journey of aspiration through wise woman Savitri”, Parvathy adds.
Parvathy performs all across the world to revive and sustain the age old practice of Baul but she also believes that it’s one of the easiest things to do, if you have the zeal. She says, “Being a Baul you must keep yourself prepared always because singing is an everyday practice for a Baul. Everytime you sing anywhere, it will mostly be a satsang. Baul concerts are all about remembering poetry of wisdom. There’s no pressure as it all depends on your inner being which in turn controls the expression of songs. We don’t decide because even if you decide, you will sing only what is necessary, since the songs are those of the Masters and they make you sing.”
Baul unlike any other music form does not fashion a strict structure of rhythm and style. It depends entirely on the individual and the passion with which performance is carried forth. Parvathy talks about synchronisation of music and dance while the artiste presents to an audience. She says, “Dance happens with the flow of the song. Baul dance is not choreographed. Every time a Baul is dancing, it is spontaneous. Sometimes these conscious movements are ever new and the Baul may not be able to repeat it. It will almost be like asking a painter to rewind his paintings or asking the painter to paint the same painting exactly like before. The song and dancing together is unique in Baul as we hardly find any other tradition where the performer sings, dances and plays an instrument at the same time.”
Baul not just differs in style but also in its message. Parvathy explains, “The message is in the song, in the poetry. Baul is known as ‘Shavda Gaan’–word/ sound song, or spoken song– a singing wisdom. Dance is ‘Bhav Nritya’ where it is the true inner expression of pure joy of celebrating the union with the divine. This is the connection. Dance is the egoless state in Baul which is sometimes described as ’Sahaj Bhav’.
“Dance steps are learned from the Guru while performing Baul– (you) stand only as an empty slate which is to be painted by the divine. So one must unlearn in order to dance. The essential being within us remembers and it will guide the body to move only in a disciplined way. Yet Baul wouldn’t decide his steps. It is guided with the ‘Bhav’ (English: feedback) which comes from the flow of the song and the meaning of the song.”
But I must say that a woman has to cross much more obstacles, and she has to be extraordinarily strong inside to keep her songs alive.
While Baul art form addresses important issues of mind-body-soul, is it also gender-neutral?
Parvathy answers, “Baul is Guru-Shishya (English: teacher-student) stream of learning and teaching process. So basically, one goes to learn first from a Guru. The student needs to go through tough training: discipline, improvement through time and come out as a mature practitioner. On successful completion, the Baul community will accept anyone devoid of class, caste, religion, culture or gender. But I must say that a woman has to cross much more obstacles, and she has to be extraordinarily strong inside to keep her songs alive.”
To my question of what does it mean to be a woman Baul performer, she adds, “There is a song in Baul: ‘Oh my heart , I wonder where you are a man or a woman?’. Within Baul, aspect of man and woman, both are inside the same body. We identify with sexuality in a biological manner only on the exterior while inside it’s the same. The real work is to keep both energies equal but it takes great opening (exposure) within to recognise this truth.”
She also thanks her Gurus for introducing her to the rich tradition of Baul. Reflecting on the strength of women performers, she says, “I feel we have a lot to contribute to this tradition as a practitioner of this tradition. Women Baul practitioners living in small unknown villages contribute their one-minded devotion and service to keep the tradition alive. Though they do not usually take the front seat of a teacher but they hold the knowledge deep within them and help in passing it on to the next generation. These women continue to sing and fill the hearts of their listeners. I feel a lot more women will take up the role of practicing and teaching the Baul tradition in future.”
Staying in a Spiral of Love
As a celebrated Baul artiste, Parvathy has achieved international fame and recognition. She has not only given private shows but has presented in various top-rated universities. A highly successful minstrel, Parvathy is a rare example of Baul as most come from disadvantaged areas of the world with almost no exposure to the world. They carry their traditional art form and pass it on to those who wish to learn. Parvathy at this point says, “I would like to experience receiving love and giving love”.
While many would not confirm with this style of music given the changing taste of younger generation, towards the end of the interview, Parvathy emphasises that there is no need for Baul to compete with today’s brand of music. She says, “ Baul songs can be traced back to thousand years and now the tradition is deep and mature. Those who will be thirsty and will seek within will always return to Baul songs. Baul song is ever new because any man or woman’s search for their true self, to seek true love will lead them to Baul, through pure music and dance.”
Owing to the nature of music and rich cultural references, Baul is currently in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” conferred by UNESCO.
One of the songs she shared with us:
Je jon poddohem sarovare Jai
One who goes to the golden lotus lake
Finds the invaluable wealth of love
The flow of that water is continuous
Pearl and rubies hide in the deep
The words not sufficient to describe
If you touch
You become the touch Stone.
In a moment the banks builds its shore
In moment it breaks
On that shore one can find that fish
It's not a work of ordinary.
The waves comes and goes
The river breaks into three in a blink
In that flow the connoisseur
To gather pearls and rubies.
One who has guru as his boatman
He can give shelter to many
Fakir Lalan says , with the power of yoga
He goes beyond the fear of death.