Whenever I have traveled, it has been not only to see places, it has been more for an essence of the place, and that comes inevitably from the people as well as the place. The time, I speak of here is the early 2000 s. Like most of those who have read Rabindranath, I wished to go back in time too and have a peep into the mind (if you please) of Bengal's poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. There was of course another reason for my venturing out to Shantiniketan and this reason was interacting with Bauls. These wandering mystical minstrels singing their hearts out in their throaty voices had always enchanted me. And I hoped to find in Shantiniketan a Baul culture that one cannot see in their 'cultivated' performances in different concerts in Kolkata.
Shantiniketatan which is well connected by bus and train from Calcutta is a small town, where Rabindranath spend much of his days, experimenting with all the art forms close to his heart. The story goes that once when Maharshi Debendranath Tagore ( Rabindranath’s father) was traveling to a friend's estate to a place about 100 miles west of erstwhile Calcutta, he got down at Bolpur( the nearest railway station) and proceeded in a palanquin. It was almost time for the sun to set when, he reached an open space, bereft of any vegetation, stretching long and wide into the western horizon, without anything to break the view of the setting sun. (Bengal usually does not boast of such open stretches of nothingness, where most of the countryside is covered in lush vegetation) Enchanted the Maharshi, sat down in the place for his evening meditation and by the time he was finished, he had made up his mind to buy the place. This was what later came to be Shantiniketan.
Incidentally, Shantiniketan still boasts of large open spaces, where cycling around is one of the best ways of seeing the place. While covering ground one is often met with sheep or goat on the narrow country roads. My journey to Shantiniketan covered the usual rounds of seeing Tagore's spread out university, his home, relics and many other Tagore memorabilia, which not only smells of nostalgia of an era of Bengal Renaissance, but also shows you the sheer callousness with which such a memory has been treated.
While visiting Shantiniketan it is best not to have any time or destination in mind, one should just wander around and discover what comes in the way. On such a stroll in the late evening, I was drawn to strange voices and faint melodies. As I quickened my pace and followed the sound, I came upon a clump of trees where a couple of Bauls were singing. Unlike other musicians, Bauls are minstrels who love singing for themselves. the sun had just set and the sky resplendent with an orange-ish red light. One of the bauls hummed, while another strung his Ektara. I slowly slipped in their midst and sat in a quiet corner. Suddenly, one of them got up, he had a gungroo tied to one of his feet and tapped his feet on the ground as if to test waters. I was strangely reminded of my Ghunguroo..lying unused in distant drawers of my home in Assam. I wish I had it with me. By now the colors had faded..as I looked around me, I found a lot of nothingness envelope us all. Someone had lighted what looked like a desi pipe. I presumed it would be a bout of Ganja, that was doing the rounds..it smelled heavenly. My nose picked up the smell of something else something sweeter perhaps?. ..it was the Jui phool (Bengali name for a variety of Jasmine), that I smelt in the air..Clapton suddenly flashed in my mind..singing somewhere aimlessly 'wonderful tonight...
The bauls then sang..in their half broken, sometimes off beat voices..If you expect great Tal and music akin to classical, you would probably be disapointed in the Bauls..because the Bauls don't follow any rules..they follow only their heart..As in the case of anything great that needs an acqusition of taste Baul music too perhaps needs acquiring a taste...Many would think that the Baul's are all about tantriks and tribals, exorcisms and esoteric 'sexo-yogic' secrets..it perhaps is all this and more..It’s beauty lies in its simple rusticity.
I was reminded of excerpts from Mimlu Sen's book 'Baulsphere'
Wild and free, they raised their clamor in the mansions of the rich, and roared their gaiety in the courtyards of the poor...''To the poor, they offered the wealth of the human spirit, to the blind, the divine light of inner vision, to the sick and ageing, they gave the comfort of faith and cured them with songs, natural medicine and yogic practice. The rich and the arrogant, the selfish and the mercenary, were all subject to their provocative mockery. To women, they offered parity in sexual relations, the possibility of exploring their own bodies, and of leading men to a greater knowledge of theirs. They decried the phallocentric society around them, caught in the shackles of the caste system, and exposed the fanatic parochialism of the mullah and the pundit..."
And in that night when the bauls sang, without memorandum, purpose or anything at all I couldn't help but compare the not far away beats of Tagore and his beautiful language of elaborate poetry. But then I remembered Tagore with his RabindranSaneet had also tried to bridge the gap that lay within Classical music and folk music and in his very own enthusiasm also promoted the Bauls. Perhaps the bearded one also sang with us that night, amidst the charm of the little moon doing a peek-a-boo amidst the clouds.