Parvathy Baul is a singer, painter and storyteller from West Bengal. She is both trained in the Baul order and studied visual arts at the Kala Bhavan University at Shantiniketan.
Interview by Martin Harris
Since 1995 she has performed all over her home state of Bengal, India, and internationally, her music enthralling audiences from the United States to Japan.
‘Baul’ are a group of mystic musicians from Bengal, whose music constitutes a national music tradition stretching back centuries, that had a great deal of influence on the poetry and music of Rabindranath Tagore amongst countless others. In 2005 the Baul tradition was included in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intagible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
SUFI caught up with Parvathy to learn more about her practice and thoughts about music for our Music Issue #83 (Summer 2012).
Martin Harris: Starting with the hardest question: what is music, and where does it come from?
Parvathy Baul: It is indeed hard to reply to – I don’t know if there will ever be an ultimate answer – but as the Baul say we are searching, and this path of searching is itself the aim of the search and the answer to this search. ‘Music’ exists in all of creation, in life and in death.
The Baul say that when the universe was created there was only the sound ‘OM.’ The sound of the Ektara (one-stringed instrument in the Baul parampara) is ‘OM’ – the Ektara is held in the right hand of the Baul singer and held very close to the right ear, which gives the singer a constant OM sound, and on this base the Baul voice travels.
Music opens the heart; music can be a vehicle to transcend, to transform, to bring a direct experience of inner happening ‘here and now.’ In Sanskrit we find a sloka ‘Sheelpena Sangeetha Sreshthaha’ – ‘Music is the highest state of art and expression.’ A Baul would say that ‘I sing and dance to impress my beloved so my beloved will come and reside in my heart.’
In all our traditions of Music, the musicians were mostly Upasakas (spiritual practitioners), more precisely Naad (sound) Upasakas, In India Music is more than entertainment – great masters of music were not considered only as entertainers: music is believed to be a direct way to connect with the divine.
MH: How did you become a Baul singer? What drew you towards this music?
PB: I was 16 when I was first exposed to the Baul Parampara. I always mention an encounter which really opened my ears to Baul songs and encouraged me to search for its source in the Baul path. I was on a train to Shantiniketan with my brother to register as a student. Somewhere in the middle of the journey a Baul singer came into our compartment – he was blind, was clad in a long orange kurta that had faded with time and a white dhoti, and had an Ektara made of tin. His long fingers and long nails struck the string of Ektara, and the sound immediately told me something that I’d known for a long time, a sound that transported me to another reality. When he started singing, all the people and train compartment disppeared from my sight; though I couldn’t understand a word of the Bengali song, it left me with traces of something very deep, a path less travelled, and a world to discover.
Later, when I saw Guru Shri Sanatan Das Baul of Bankura performing, I was amazed to see how he danced, sang and played his Ektara, Bama (a small drum made of clay tied to the hip of the Baul singer) and Nupur (metallic anklets). I had heard singers before, but the Baul’s voice came from the bottom of his heart, from the body; it was a voice opened to the sky. I observed the Baul practitioners closely and I found it was a living music – the philosophy and practice is followed hand in hand. There was more to explore in the Baul lifestyle even after the concert was over – a song can take you on a journey for a lifetime, you live the song day and night, you meditate, you transcend slowly through time. I have never experienced something so complete before; in my search to become an artist I was looking for this completeness.
I went in search of my Guru Sanatan Das Baul of Bankura and I was lead to his Ashram in Khayerbani. I arrived one afternoon in spring time and found him tall and dark, standing with a straight spine with all his hair gathered carefully into a topknot drying his clothes, and he looked at me with a lot of compassion. As an young student I had a thousand things to ask, but he smiled and asked me if I had lunch. Upon saying ‘no’ I was served delicious warm meals by his daughter in laws Gita and Moni, and he told me to rest and promised to talk to me afterwards. I spent fifteen days beside him, on the same small porch, and he didn’t even ask my name. On the 15th day he called me to come for a walk with him to the market. On the way to the market he started singing, looked at me and said, ‘stupid girl, why don’t you follow me’? I started singing with him and this was the start of the long lessons I have been receiving from him for almost 20 years now. He is now in his 90s.
MH: Do you think of your music as being a “performance,” in the way that people in New York or London go to a rock or classical concert?
PB: Baul songs first were ‘performed’ in the Ashram for Satsang – a gathering where everyone listens to one teaching spoken or sung by Baul practitioners, or together they remember the teachings of Baul masters by singing and dancing. I have heard beautiful stories from my Gurus Shri Sanatan das Baul and Shri Shashanko Goshai about concerts given by great masters like Vrindavan goshai and Nitai Khepa. The audiences were divided in the traditional way, with the Sadhus and Yogies given the spaces at the front closest to the Baul singer; the next rows filled with connoisseurs of Baul music; and the last row filled with common music lovers who would come out of curiosity or just for the sake of the music.
Baul crossed the barrier of performing only at village Satsang through Tagore, who introduced the urban intelligencia to Baul through the festivals like the Poush Mela he created in Shantiniketan, and soon after Baul crossed the boundary of Bengal and spread all over the world. Baul songs are the reflection of the higher spiritual experiences of Baul Gurus who made a bridge between hearts through their songs of love. We go to a Baul concert to connect to that experience – a Baul singer won’t be able to deliver a Baul song properly unless he/she really cares about what he/she sings and is dedicated to Baul Sadhana for life.
MH: What do you think the relationship is between music and spiritual practice?
PB Music and spiritual practice is inseparable. Indian yogis have always emphasized singing as a way to experience true surrender in divine love. In fact by invoking the beauty and the thought of the beloved you invoke the beloved inside you, it is a way to remember one’s own body and the purpose of this body. Singing Baul songs for an hour leaves you recharged with positive energy, because the body, mind and soul are directed only to positive thoughts and the vibration of the sound. Sound and breath together helps awakening the energy lotus chakras within. A singer definitely experiences the transformation in his or her body after a few years of Sadhana (single minded attentive practice) in Baul Music.
As once stated by Ramakrishna Parmhansa, the truth and hardship of yoga is difficult for the modern human to achieve, for their mind and body is fast moving and weak, but if they utter the name of the Beloved with pure devotion they can experience the same without effort. Singing and dancing in divine love helps one to break free from all our daily inhibitions, and directs our emotions towards the Beloved.
These poems of Baul Gurus like Haure Goshai, Podo, Jadubindu, Laln Fakir, Panju Shah have been sung for centuries. When one listens to a Baul song, one experience the presence of truth in the poem, but the poem never says ‘this is the truth’ – one has to meditate on the poem for years, and then the layers of hidden meaning will appear. This particular way of using language is known as ‘Sandhya Basha’ or twilight language, also known as the ‘hidden language’. It is very essential for the Baul singer to memorize the Baul poem, then after a few years the poem becomes the singer’s body and mind.
All the mystics throughout the world, especially those who kept a close connection to the world and interacted with people and nature equally, chose music as their vehicle.
MH: How do you think being a Baul singer is different today from 100 or 200 years ago?
PB: Oh! I wish I could be 100 years back or even 200 years – at least I would be free from being overloaded with information about everything, even spirituality! The past was also a time where everything could be shared, and not counted in terms of economy. The concept of time-bound work didn’t exist, and neither did the concept of ‘success.’ The Bauls used to travel, never settling, but socio political and economical changes have led to the establishment of many Baul ashrams. Baul has moved out of its rural sphere, has spread all over the world and adapted to urban living conditions.
MH: Does your music have a particular message, or something you want inspire in the listener?
PB: When one listens to Baul music one is listening to a spiritual tradition which is beyond any boundaries, a space of freedom and an experience of deep love in the heart. Often the expression of ‘being wounded’ by a song is widely expressed by Baul masters; in many people’s lives it has happened that they unintentionally heard a Baul song, and it touched them so deep that it changed everything – just like I was ‘wounded’ by the Baul song on that train to Shantiniketan.
MH: Is there one moment in your travels as a singer that stays with you more than others? Some time or place that resonated more deeply?
PB: We travel continuously, always meeting new people, and yes, there are moments and people or incidents that moved me deeply.
If I look back to my travels undertaken to meet Masters and learn from them, I was deeply touched by my other Guru, Shri Shashanko Goshai. I met him when he was 97 years old. I practiced and learned with him for 3 years and he left his body when he was 100 years old. He took Samadhi: himself deciding to leave his body. The last time I went to visit him he told me it would be the last. I had gone to see him because he called me in a hurry to come to him immediately. 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. On the third night he called me close to him and said that he was leaving his body, and that night he left, leaving me alone with all of his songs to carry along with me until my last breath… a gift and a memory.
MH: The word ‘Baul’ is said to come from the Sanskrit words for possessed or crazy. Do you think being “crazy” is necessary to be a Baul singer?
PB: There is a beautiful Baul song that says:
Crazy! Crazy! Everyone says I am crazy!
But often I wonder is it the world or me?”
Or the song often rendered by great Bauls of Bengal
“Oh mother! Make me mad
I have nothing to do anymore with judgments or knowledge,
The entire crazy gather in the heaven, Jesus, Moses and Chaitanya,
They are drunk with divine love
Mother when will I join them? Singing and dancing in divine madness?”
Or you can listen to this song too…
“Oh my insane heart!
I did not find a soul of true madness
So I did not become mad.
Some are mad for worldly attachment called love
Some are mad for glory and pride,
Some are mad for material benefit, some mad for fame and power,
They do not know what they are looking for, always eluded by own mad desires,
They do not know the difference between the true and false,
True Mad was Shiva, he left his golden place
Came and sat down at the cremation ground
Always drunk in higher consciousness
Intoxicated in divine love and madness…”