Parvathy Baul is on a mission to bridge the gap between esoteric Baul akharas and world music
By Ishani Duttagupta
Kichhu din mone mone ghorer kone
Shyamer pirit rakh gopone
Isharaey koibi kotha gothe-mathe
Rai lo Rai
(For a few days keep your love for Shyam hidden away in your heart in a corner of your home/talking only in gestures when out in the open fields and pastures/O Rai)
— Traditional Baul song from Parvathy Baul’s album Mystic released in 2013
Early morning last Sunday, visitors to the World Sacred Spirit music festival in Jodhpur who attended the closing programme at Jaswant Thada, an ornate centograph adjoining the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, were in for a treat. A handsome young Rajasthani folk singer, dressed in traditional white kurta-pyjama and donning a brightly coloured turban, played the traditional, bowed string ravanahatha and rendered a soulful song in a local dialect. The golden sunshine of dawn provided the perfect backdrop. A few people listened and some clicked photos, but a diminutive woman stood alone, listening, almost merging into the perfect frame.
She was dressed in a traditional sari, with a tilak on her forehead, her hair long, untied and matted. Her stillness was captivating as she listened to the young man’s song.
The quietude of Parvathy Baul, singer, musician, dancer and composer, almost belied her power-packed performance of the previous evening when she had rendered song after song to a mesmerised audience at the Zenana Deodi courtyard of the Mehrangarh Fort. She had played the single-stringed ektara and the small duggi drum. And danced. When the young musician’s song was over, she discreetly put some money in the little basket placed beside him and moved away. A dignified tribute from one musician to another.
The Baul Tradition
As one of the best-known exponents of Bengal’s Baul tradition of mystic minstrels, Parvathy, 39, performs not just in India but all around the world, with a tour across America coming up in April. But her initiation into the ancient musical tradition of south Bengal was by sheer chance. “As a child, I was trained in Indian classical dance and vocals, under different teachers, because that was what my father wanted. I was not allowed to listen to any light music and had to go through the rigours of classical training,” she recollected during a chat with ET Magazine after her show in Jodhpur, even as she wiped off make-up from her face.
She was born in a conservative Bengali Brahmin family in Assam. Her father decided to relocate to Cooch Behar in North Bengal when Parvathy was just six years old. Her first encounter with Baul music was on a train journey to Bolpur, where she was going to join the Visva Bharati University in nearby Santiniketan, set up by Rabindranath Tagore — for a fine arts course at Kalabhaban, the art school. An aged and visually challenged Baul — one of Bengal’s mystic minstrels — was singing in the train compartment and collecting money from passengers, a tradition that commuters on that route are familiar with. “I was instantly drawn to the vastness and openness of a whole new musical world — the Baul tradition. I had never heard anything like that before and the depth left me shaken.”
As a student in Santiniketan, Parvathy was exposed to more Baul music on campus and started learning songs from Bipad Taran Das Baul and Phulmala Dashi, one of the few Baul women singers back then. Parvathy went on to join her in the practice of Madhukori, or sacred begging while singing in trains. “It was the world of Bauls that attracted me far more than the Visva Bharati campus life. I was willing to leave my small town and conservative Brahmin background for the Baul akharas because I could relate to the lifestyle and it was my calling.”
She finally left the confines of university campus to become a disciple of the famed Sanatan Das Baul at his ashram in Bankura; he accepted her into the fold after a 15-day wait and only after he was convinced of her talent and sincerity.
Today Parvathy Baul performs a vast repertoire of traditional songs as well as her own compositions even as she plays two instruments along with the graceful dance movements. She is on a personal mission of bridging the gap between the esoteric world of Baul akharas — the music and mysticism — and other musicians in India and around the world who want to discover their genre of music. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the Bauls, and I want to share knowledge about them. We are not a closed cult and people around the world have to hear our music and learn about us,” she says.
That is what took her out of her Baul masters’ ashram for the first time — to perform in different places in India and later abroad. She is also keen to share stories about women Bauls, who usually maintain a low profile and are not very articulate. “There are many like Phulmala Dashi who was one of my first teachers. Women, in fact, are an important part of the Baul ashrams and their way of life often helps to keep the community together and nurture it. I would like to help develop the talent of young women Bauls, especially independent young girls.” For this, she has acquired land to set up a school for Baul music near Santiniketan. She also plans to build it up as an archival centre for the tradition.
An Anarchist of the Sacred
Her own journey from her master’s akhara in a Bengal village was to take her to Kerala to train under theatre person and puppeteer Ravi Gopalan Nair, whom she later married. Since 1997, the couple run Ekathara Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, a gurukul for Baul traditions and Kerala theatre. It is a space for practitioners from the traditional streams of art, spirituality, theatre, puppetry, music and healing, merging the concepts of the Baul akhara and the Kalari, the traditional Kerala theatre practice.
Parvathy loves to travel with her music and believes in a global vision without boundaries. “My interactions with musicians around the world make my own work stronger. Age-old traditions, rituals and divine inspiration mingle with modern metaphors,” she explains.
It doesn’t matter whether the poetic ecstasy and the free-spirited dance are inspired by Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. The Baul is somewhat of an anarchist of the sacred, singing everywhere: at home, on the road, in the boat crossing the river, in the train and in Jodhpur. A week after Mehrangarh, Parvathy swirled her arm in space toward the sky, caught in the spiral of the wind of a free spirit at Melbourne’s arts centre for the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts. Play it again, Parvathy.