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The song of rebellion

From the Jayadev Kenduli mela in West Bengal to urban city audiences, Baul has many audiences. Parvathy Baul, one of the better known faces of the community, is all set to perform at the Kala Ghoda festival and transport you to a different time and space with nothing but a powerful voice and an iktara

The word Baul has many meanings -- the mad one, the rootless. And at merely 16, instead of getting intimidated by a Baul begging in a train, the young and rebellious Moushumi, a student at Shantiniketan, got intrigued and set out on a demanding journey to become one herself. Excerpts:

Your first tryst with Baul was in a train in West Bengal.
I saw him when I was 16. I had heard recordings of Baul songs before but I had never seen a Baul. I was exposed to a lot of music because of my father. But never had I experienced music that came not from the throat but from the entire body. The voice that filled the gap between the sound of the iktara transported me to another world. That moment only the Baul, his voice, the iktara and I existed. An unknown force pulled me towards Baul like the deer gets attracted to musk without knowing that it's within the body. I became curious about Bauls but I had no courage to approach them. Since I was an fine art student I would sit far from them, feel their bhavas through their faces, sketch them and I started to pick up songs from them.

How did your family react to you, a girl from a Brahmin family living the life of Bauls, who have a reputation of consuming hashish?
It wasn't easy. Families are concerned about their children and have a preconceived idea of what their child should grow up to be. My decision didn't go down well with them but it wasn't easy for me either. But my calling was very strong. I was destined to be a Baul.

Did the thought of going back to your old secure life ever cross your mind?
(Laughs) That's a good question. Yes. There were times when I couldn't live the hard Baul lifestyle. I even deviated for a while but I came back to it. Some force kept pulling me back.

Has your family accepted your choice now?
Yes. My father loves Baul music now and he tries to even sing the songs. That's a big change.

How did you convince your guru Sanathan Das Baul to mentor you?
I am still trying to convince him (laughs). I first saw him perform at Kala Bhavan where I used to study. I was mesmerised by his performance but was very afraid to talk to him. When I finally decided to become a Baul, I asked people where he lived and traced him to Bankura. He worked harder to convince himself than I did to convince him. His masters were not kind to him. He would have to go to their house everyday and after an entire day's work they would ask him to return the next day to learn something. He taught me seven songs in seven years (laughs). Baul doesn't end with learning songs or a stage performance. It's a way of life. The discipline is not easy for people to follow. He wanted to make sure I would go all the way before he initiated me.

Tell us about the Baul initiation process.
I can't get into details because it's a private thing between the disciple and the guru. But the basic idea is that you are born as a body of flesh and bone to your parents. But a guru becomes your spiritual parent and after the initiation, you are reborn. That's why a new name is given after the initiation by the guru. That's how Moushumi Parial became Parvathy Baul.

You were also a part of a group of street protest theatre.
(Laughs) I was rebellious by birth. As a student I became interested in theatre because I wanted to use my voice and my body to perform. Baul is no different. Bauls talk about equality, humanity, justice. Take for example the Lalon songĀ -- everyone asks what religion, cast and creed Lalon belongs to. To which he responds, if he could touch religion he would burn it down. It's a misconception that spirituality is abstract. It's just the attitude towards life that is different. A Baul may not vote in the election but he can't not see it or escape it completely.

How do you manage your stardom as a Baul?
It's not stardom. I have been performing for 14 years but I am not a star. I am a messenger of my masters. If you start thinking that you are a star then ego comes into play and that is a big trap.

Modernisation is threatening the tradition of Bauls.
Modernisation is scary. The society is becoming individualistic, there is no sense of community. But the beauty of Baul is that it adapts itself to changing situations. Baul at one time was inspired by Tantric practitioners, then by Buddhist practitioners and then by Sufi practitioners. The main base of Bauls were the farmers, who set up ashrams in villages. After a hard day at work they would come to the ashram to relax and listen to the Bauls. That is almost non-existent now. Farmers can hardly support an ashram. Some ashrams are sustaining because of the support received from foreigners and people who come from the cities. The tradition will survive, it may not be the same, but it will survive.

What can we expect from your performance in the Kala Ghoda festival on February 10?
I will perform the Mahajan Pad, which talks about love, the body, the Universe. Lakhan Das Baul, flautist A K Raghunathan, who has a carnatic music background and Udupi S Shrikanth, another carnatic music artist who plays the Kanjira will perform with me at Kala Ghoda. Raghunathan and Shrikanth both have been with me for over three years and have picked up the Baul style of music.

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