Khyapa ke jabi aye, Joydev-er melaye...It's six in the morning and Kenduli presents a template of schizophrenia. It's biting cold, but the holy dip in the Ajay river is in full swing. Thousands are milling about; local villagers rub shoulders with foreigners. And there's the music - maddening and raucous. The kirtanias are at it, drumming on their khols and chanting "Hare Krishna". Loudspeakers blare songs of the soul, promising divine bliss. But at Joydev Mela - the cradle of baul history and their biggest gathering - the wandering minstrels themselves seem outnumbered.
"The mela has been taken over by kirtanias. Only three out of 10 singers today are bauls. Everyone gathers here - devout crowds, drug peddlers, vagrants, pickpockets. It's impossible to sit at Tamaltala now. It's been taken over by outsiders," says Kartik Das Baul, who's travelled the world with baul music and has been coming to the mela for three decades.
We are sipping chai with the singer when talk turns to baul philosophy - their sadhana. Kartik, who calls himself a griha baul, says, "I have to think of my children's future. I can't give up on my family." The times are changing fast for the baul community. The philosopher-poet-singer - epitomized by someone like Nabani Khyapa, the father of the legendary Purna Das Baul - is giving way to the performer.
This has raised questions about the authenticity of many donning the saffron attire. So, who is a true baul, the mystic or the regular performer? And what about baul sadhana, which is based on dehatatva, or the community's secret sexual practises? "You can be an accountant and still be a baul," says sadhak Gourhari Das in his akhra. The idea is to remain focussed on sadhana, while music is "like formula to remember the maths". As he sits there to discuss dehatatva, all his disciples listen in rapt attention. "To unravel the mysteries of man and Nature, you need to devote four hours a day over 12 years. I have heard in the cities men are faced with sexual problems post-40 and thrive on tablets. It can be dealt with easily through sambhog sadhana."
His disciple, Subal Das, says, "I am coming to the mela for 31 years now. I have been singing mahajani pad from even before. But so far, I haven't come out with a single cassette." Subal and others like him spend the year singing songs of the soil. But isn't money a serious concern? "When I am singing, I am not worried about anything else. Yes, if someone likes the performance, he gives money." Subal has sung in Sonajhuri recently, and the show earned him a lot of praise. He is also aware that there's a good market for baul music in Kolkata. "I have my wife and daughter to look after. But even for them I could not cross over to the city." Marriage, did he say? "We do not believe in taking seven rounds of the sacred fire. For us mala-chandan is more than good. It is to make the woman feel that the man is yours."
For someone like Kartik, the Joydev Mela is walking down the memory lane. He recalls how in 1985 he was chosen to fly to the US with a group of artistes from this mela, a turning point in his career. "My throat was choked, but yet I managed to sing the lines, "Bhola monti amar, khyapa monti amar gurur choroney smaran jeno thake". Prabir Guha, whom I call kaku, would give me 5 after every show. But that day he called me aside to ask whether I would like to travel abroad. Before the show, I even performed for Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi."
Before his exposure abroad, Kartik used to sing in trains and buses to eke out a living. Born to a rickshaw puller in Guskara, he first came in close contact with Ananda Das Baul during the 1978 flood. A year later, he was featured in one of the first baul documentaries, "Le Chant des Fous", by Georges Luneau.
Listeners, Kartik says, have grown in numbers but there are more singers than listeners. "There are many who have come down to be part of the fair. But are they keen to get a flavour of baul music? While some have come here to take a bath, others feast their eyes on those taking a bath." But there's no denying that Kolkata has given bauls the muchrequired platform to showcase their talent. "However, I doubt how many good programmes are organized. Also, when a band is singing the same number, who is going to pay us 10,000? Even then, there's more money in the city. For the past three years, I have stopped performing in villages."
It's only after taking part in a channel's programme that has got him known as a performer in his own village. It's something that hasn't stopped paining Kartik. While the bauls he has worked with have often accused him of grabbing the lion's share of payments, outside his village he is often referred to as "baul-er dalal". "Bauls have more ego than other folk artistes across India," he asserts.
In this mad scramble for money, fame and recognition, life has come full circle for the legendary Gour Khyapa. He was once friends with Bob Marley and feted for his singing across the world, but Gour now lives in a small shack in a bamboo grove away from the hullabaloo at the mela. Sitting in his akhra, he asks, "Amader Duranta Express ke?" The answer comes next, "mon". Just singing songs doesn't make one a baul, he feels. "Anyone can buy a flute. But not all can be Hariprasad Chaurasia. Ajkal guru dhore keu sekhena, nijerai guru hoye gechhe." He goes on to sing, "O mono re" - playfully holding up a bottle of rum, something he has named "Rakkhushi".
Sadhan Das Baul, whose Moner Manush akhra is the talking point of the mela, concurs, "Baul gaan is reaching out to the masses, but what about the baul philosophy?"
While it's essential to get into the tatva, equally important is to make sure that baul songs which are passed down from guru to shishya through word of mouth, don't get diluted in the process. New-age baul Goutam Das, son of Sudhir khyapa, who has been to "India's Got Talent" and even performed for Dharmendra, apart from sharing the same stage with Bickram Ghosh, says, "Baul ta baul-er jaygatei rekhechhi. Gaan gai jate duto pet cholte paare..." He adds that there is no room for rearranging baul music or singing it on electronic instruments. "Ami keyboard bajiye baul gaan gaibona."
But does that stop baul music from being commercialized? Nityagopal Das, son of Biswanath Das Baul, who often comes to the city to perform, says, "It wouldn't be fair to just criticize people. After all, we are getting to eat a square meal because people are listening to baul music." Nityagopal, who came to the mela 30 years back for the first time, has seen a time when baul performers got 1 for their music. Now, apart from the money, city life has opened up new vistas for them. Does that mean he too would someday give up singing at rural fairs? "I can sing at Writers' Buildings and also under a tree. I am a baul," he stresses.
Zinia Sen & Deblina Chakravorty