I saw my first Baul performance on the street outside our house in Calcutta when I was a young boy. The performer was a skinny man in his fifties with twinkling eyes, his unkempt, straggly hair tied up in a ponytail, a beatific smile constantly playing on his face. He bent down on the road and marked his arena with a chalk. He carried a string instrument that looked like a banjo and a tabla. Quite a crowd had gathered by now, and he began dancing and singing, the tempo building up slowly to a crescendo, then abating only to intensify anew. Anklets jingled and announced every movement of his feet. His head bobbed up and down and sideways. His reedy voice was alternately plaintive and joyful. But the overall impression was of energy, exuberance, and joy.
It was much later that I learned he was a Baul singer, a kind of wandering mystic and minstrel. All in all, I witnessed a handful of his performances, and they held me spellbound every time, though I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what he was singing about. It was a spectacle, street theater with minimal props. I can still see him vividly in my mind’s eye, this demented-looking man with the funny jig. Kids used to trail in his wake as he moved from street to street; they instinctively sensed that here was an adult they could relate to on their own terms, and indeed, if I’ve understood the Baul tradition right, one goal of the Baul is to apprehend the world directly with child-like wonder. And if it isn’t, well, it ought to be. 🙂
In 2005, the UNESCO included the Baul tradition in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It was then that I read about and learned something about the Baul tradition. And the Baul singer from my boyhood began dancing again in my imagination.
So, when I read that the well-known female Baul performer, Parvathy Baul, would be singing at the jubilee celebrations of the Madhavan Nair Foundation Museum, I had to go. Parvathy’s husband, by the way, is a Keralite. Here are some images from the evening.
The event took place in this brand-new arena that was readied just in time for the jubilee celebrations of the museum.
Parvathy Baul was supported by these two musicians.
And here is Parvathy Baul. There was one noteworthy point in her introductory remarks: both Hindus and Muslims have found sanctuary in the Baul tradition, which seems to be agnostic to the organized religions.
I will now leave you alone with Parvathy Baul. It was an enchanting evening, but I have to admit that at the end of it, I still pined for the street-singing Baul of my boyhood.