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SONG OF THE ROAD

One of the few women Baul performers in India,Parvathy Baul,on how she chose her calling

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Published: February 1, 2009 3:42 pm

One of the few women Baul performers in India,Parvathy Baul,on how she chose her calling
Parvathy Baul stepped on stage at a recent Sufi music festival in Delhi,her small frame clothed in layers of a saffron-coloured cotton sari,worn carelessly to accommodate the duggi,a small clay drum,worn around her waist. She introduced herself like a shy schoolgirl and began to sing,her full-throated voice ringing out into the evening sky under which nearly 200 people were gathered. She moved slowly at first,taking exaggerated steps to shake her anklets. As she walked the stage,her dreadlocks swished behind her,almost wrapping her in their grasp. Parvathy sang in Bengali,of Krishna,of love,of oneness as the audience sat enthralled,waiting to exhale. They did,at the end of the song,and a few seconds passed before they could shake off their reverie and applaud.

Parvathy began performing Baul music as a 19-year-old in Shantiniketan. Since then,the 32-year-old has toured the world—from the Odin Theater in Denmark to the Theatre Poltach in Rome,from the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont,USA,to the 500-year-old Noh stage in Kyoto—and cut several albums,the latest being in 2007,Premgeethi: Beyond the times,Love Songs from Bengal.

Most Baul lovers rue that one of the few female Baul singers in India doesn’t perform often enough in the country but Parvathy disputes that. “I have been performing outside West Bengal and India for 10 years now. But I perform in India very often—and not just on stage,” says Parvathy,who doesn’t think Baul singing is about “stage performers only”.

Baul is not just music,says Parvathy. “Seeking the teachings of Baul is like looking for a tiny diamond in a big heap of tiny stones,” says the woman who dropped out of art school at Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan after deciding that she wanted to follow the Baul way of life instead of acquiring an institutional degree.

The story is now as famous as its storyteller. “One of my first encounters with the Bauls was on a local train in West Bengal. He was blind since birth,and was strumming his ektara with long,dirty fingers,clad in a shabby orange robe. But he sang songs of vision and light,his voice immediately transported me into another reality of which I knew nothing,” says Parvathy.

The 16-year-old was consumed by curiosity and as more Bauls visited the university campus,Parvathy found herself under the tutelage of a woman Baul performer,Phulmala Dashi,for a year. But Parvathy needed to choose a master for herself and she travelled far and wide till she reached Sonamukhi,a small village where the legendary Baul “master performer” Sanatan Baul lived.

Being chosen as a disciple wasn’t easy. “Gurus of Baul tradition are very strict about their discipline. They won’t teach a student until they are convinced about her/his capability. As a woman from a different family background,it took me very long to convince my teachers that I was ready and dedicated to take this path,” says Parvathy.  

The path of Baul is known as Sahaja Marga,the easy road,but in essence,is hard and difficult to maintain. “Baul is also known as bhav sangeet. Sangeet is not singing alone: this particular word includes playing the musical instruments and dancing while singing. The songs have to be memorised very well. I meditate on each song until it is in my body. Only then can I sing it for others. When I perform,only the song exists,not me,” says Parvathy. Complex as it sounds,a Baul performance is evidence of how all the elements come together. When Parvathy clears her throat and sings,one is not struck by the raag or the technique or the craft of her voice. It is the power of her voice,a sound that emerges from somewhere deep within her,moving one beyond speech or movement.
She is modest about such praise. “In order to understand a Baul song,one has to be able to appreciate and enjoy the hidden soul or the bhava of the song. Just like the performer; listeners also have to grow into anubhava siddhi or realisation power,” she says.

When she’s not performing,Parvathy and her husband Ravi Gopalan Nair run a space for Bauls called Ekathara Baul Sangeetha Kalari in Trivandrum. Since 2000,they have organised Baul music concerts all over Kerala. “This space is at present a meeting place for very advanced performers. Every year,we have Bauls visiting from Bengal. We look after the old traditional masters in case they need medical treatment and support many Baul ashrams,” says Parvathy.

Will she perform again in India soon? “Yes,but as a traditional performer,one always has to redefine oneself,invent a way to cope and work with the changing ways of social,political,religious and economic life without fear and compromise. It is a much harder task for traditional artist-performers,to sustain themselves and their art with no feeling of inferiority in the society”.

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