It’s been a long time since my visit to Joydev Mela at Kenduli and I’ve been meaning to write all about it but work commitments and a general restlessness had prevented me from doing so. Now that I come to think of it, I believe that to get it out of my system would be the perfect antidote to my restlessness. So here it is, my account of the precious few moments spent at Joydev, moments that were life-changing, soul-stirring and awe-inspiring. Moments that, I have a feeling, would change the course of my existence in the near future.
Notes: It would suffice to say that I was accompanied on my journey by two of my esteemed colleagues. For now, I won’t take their names.
It was a Saturday and my off day. But this Saturday was different. I was looking forward to get to work. I was allowed to be late that day. We would be leaving only around 3 pm. I had all the time in the world. I strolled in, backpack strapped firmly to my back and a blissful smile plastered on my face. I was going to Kenduli. To the baul mela that I had, for long, wanted to visit. I told the unrest in my heart to calm down as I trudged up the stairs and entered office at noon, exactly. The next two hours were spent planning pages, designing them and getting them checked and ready to be released, interspersed with a whole lot of teasing one of my fellow companions about the size of her backpack.
Post lunch, my feet itched to step on the road. The afternoon was cold. It was mid-January after all. The sun’s rays, though warm, were fast slanting away from us. We needed to start our journey.
By quarter to three, goodbyes were said. The three of us walked into the oblique rays of the sun and out of the big black cast iron gates. My heart was pounding and I looked back. The whole team was there waving, wishing us a good journey.
We bought some liquor on the way to keep our spirits high. My spirits were soaring already. The happy tension in my heart made it beat louder and faster. This is it. Here we go.
Thankfully, we had an amiable driver in Mukesh ji who maneuvered the Tata Indigo on the busy streets of Kolkata. Soon, we were speeding away from city limits and on the highway. Smooth as silk. We reached Santragachi in no time. Just after sundown, we were at Burdwan, where we stopped for some chai, pakoda and cigarettes. I had napped for about 30 minutes that had put the pounding in my heart to rest for the time being. We took our seats on three rickety plastic chairs about three yards away from the main road at a dhaba. I was amazed at how the sky turned from a deep purple to magenta-black, all in the timespan of a long drag on my cigarette. Small talk. Another plate of not-so-healthy pakodas and we were done resting our cramped limbs.
We were still about 90 minutes away from Santiniketan when we reached for our beer cans. Beer buzz, I’ve been told, is the worst kind! But who cared! While we were happily getting buzzed, I watched the dark roads buzz past from front seat. Mukesh ji would do good to keep his lips sealed about this drunken jaunt of ours! All this, while the car stereo blared out popular Bollywood hits. Unlikely combo but, hell, then, it didn’t matter. I was being drawn out. Out and up. Away, from a certain plane of existence to a totally different one. It reminded me of Radha being drawn to Krishna’s bansuri. For me, the subtle strain of the ektara was the bansuri.
Our car rolled into a certain Hotel Balaka International in Santiniketan at exactly quarter to eight. Now, one must remember, that when on outstation assignments, reporters set their priorities differently. Or, shall I say, there are multiple levels of priorities! While getting the assignment done is one level, making the most of the time that remained between the moment we entered our hotel and the time we left it the next morning is a totally different one! And yes, we were determined to make the most of it! We freshened up and gathered at our senior colleague’s room where a gleaming bottle of highland scotch was waiting for us! Our photographer for the assignment joined us for the mini party that we were about to have.
“Baul mela cover korte eshechi ar baul gaan shunbo na she ki kore hoy!” (We have come to cover the baul mela and we won’t listen to baul song, how is that possible?) said the senior colleague. For the moment, I played some Paban Das Baul songs on my mobile phone.
“Chanchalo mon amar shone na kotha
Chanchalo mon amar shone na kotha.
Shono ore mon tomare boli
Anonde kaho re Kali Kali…
Tomari swopon bhangibe jokhon
Bujhibe tokhon tumi
Chanchalo mon amar shone na kotha”
It was an ode to the restless spirit. My still untrained mind interpreted the lyrics on many levels – metaphysical, sexual and spiritual. I was yet to understand deha tattva but I had somehow grasped on to the gist of the lyrics and sang along as if in a trance. No, I wasn’t high on liquor. I was high on a feeling. A feeling as ethereal as clouds. It was a chasm and I was holding on to the weakest ledge. Soon, it would crack and I’ll plummet.
Three hours of sleep after large pegs of scotch is hardly something that I would have bargained for had this been any other assignment. But, we were supposed to leave for Kenduli at 6 am, sharp. My eyes popped open by 5:15 and I roused my colleague awake. We were ready and checked out in the next half an hour. We sped away towards Kenduli, about 12 kilometres away from Santiniketan.
The chill hit smack on our faces like a cold, hard slap. We didn’t realize it’d be this cold. We should have. It was the day of the Makar Sankranti, the month of Magh, the middle of January, the so-called coldest day. Actually, Makar Sankranti or winter solstice is technically on December 21-22. However, over the years, the date has slid behind owing to the earth’s 23.45 degrees tilt on the axis. The Makar Sankranti is so called because that’s the day which marks the Northward ascent of the sun. Literally, the sun begins to rise and days become longer. In doing so, the sun also passes from the dhanu rashi (the constellation of Sagittarius) to the makar rashi (the constellation of Capricorn). Okay, enough of Astro-talk!
This day also marks the day of harvest in many Indian communities. Traditionally and ritualistically, this day is celebrated with a holy dip in Ganga Sagar, Prayag etc. The baul mela at Kenduli which is just on the banks of the Ajoy river serves a dual purpose. Every year, thousands of bauls, fakirs, kirtaniyas and other mendicants gather to commemorate the day on which the 13th century poet Joydev (the creator of Gita Govind, depicting the divine love of Radha and Krishna) was supposed to have taken a bath in the Ajoy river. And that day is supposed to be Makar Sankranti. Others, who couldn’t have made it to Prayag or Ganga Sagar come to Kenduli for the ritualistic bath.
As we walked closer to the river, the crowd seemed to get thicker. Bodies jostled for space on a narrow embankment of loose red earth. The pilgrims made their progress towards the shrine that lay within them. Bauls think differently from other spiritually inclined people. While the latter seek the higher realm of consciousness in a vertically ascending manner, in the brahmaand, the macrocosm, bauls seek it within themselves, the microcosm. This would later be lucidly explained to us by Sanjay, one half of the urban baul outfit, Brahmakhyapa, the other half being his khepi, Malabika.
The air near the river smelled of a mixture of stale flowers, incense, marijuana and human excreta. We had to be careful while walking lest we step onto mounds of the latter that, we were told, were scattered in plenty.
We trudged, we stopped, we took some photographs. We inhaled the atmosphere, observed the ambience, felt our bearings. Tried as I may, I could feel myself sucked into this collective human euphoria. It was musical and magical. I was guided by that music as my lodestar. And before long, stumbled upon Sanjay.
He was dressed in a white dhoti, kurta and a black thick overcoat covered most of his slight, near-emaciated body. His long matted hair was wrapped up in a colourful bandana. A snaky beard covered his chin. Inspite of his appearance, I took an immediate liking towards him. His smile oozed comfort and warmth. His eyes burned like embers but were endearing. He greeted us with hands folded in a formal Namaste and said, “Joy Guru”.
We made ourselves comfortable on a clearing near the river. I had run out of cigarettes but Sanjay was quick to offer me a beedi. “Tastes better and healthier than cigarettes!” He said, smiling. I lit up and sat down cross-legged on the sand. Then he began.
Being a baul requires rigorous sadhana and tremendous levels of patience. However the first step is to bring your body in your control. That is just one part of deha tattva. Deha tattva is a discipline that the baul mind is trained in. It believes that divinity lies within the material body itself that’s composed of the five elements – Khiti or earth, marut or air, tej or fire, ap or water and bom or ether. Purnadas Baul writes in the book Baul Philosophy, “Sadhana, if earnestly pursued, results in a state of absolute pureness. This purity, however, needs to be attained on the inside…this inward purification is realized in deha tattva, the reflection of the cosmic truth in the human body.” The human body is the microcosm of universal reality. Apart from normal sadhana through breath control and various other forms of sadhana, the most important aspect of baul philosophy is the understanding of one’s own body.
According to Sanjay, what controls our body is the pituitary gland, the seat of basic human functioning. “You have read the Bhagavad Gita, I’m sure?” he asked. I nodded. “Then imagine your pituitary gland as Krishna, and your mind as Arjuna. Then the body becomes the chariot and the horse, the indriyas or sensory function.” While I was processing all of this in my brain, I fumbled for my camera. I was hungry, thirsty and needed to pee. But Sanjay’s voice was mesmerizing, his insights, fascinating. “There is nothing esoteric about baul philosophy or deha tattva. It’s all science, in the end. Discipline the pituitary gland and you have the whole universe under your control. How? The body, after all, is made up of the same five elements that make up the brahmaand… jahai bahire, tahai ontore…Ja achhe bramhaande, tahai achhe dehamande…”
While we were talking, Subal Das Baul, a very popular baul and also someone with the same guru as Sanjay joined us. The conversation veered on for another fifteen minutes after which Sanjay led us to his guru’s akhra.
An akhra is nothing but a canopied enclosure where bauls, baulinis and their disciples could gather, sing, stay and eat together. It’s kind of like a common room only heaps of straw form your bed and a little clearing with a microphone in the middle forms your stage. As my eyes adjusted to the tinted darkness of the akhra (tinted because inside was a blot of colours – saffron, yellow, red – of the jholas, jobbas and saris of the mendicants who had gathered there) I could make out at least eighty people huddled together under a common roof. Some were sleeping, some meditating. A group of baulinis were combing their long matted hair while some others were having quiet conversations. Sanjay led us to his guru Gour Das.
At this point of time, I must admit, all I wanted was to eat. Sweetened rice being cooked in large cauldrons just outside the akhra and the aroma of cardamoms rising from it just made the situation worse! Thus, while my colleague took over the conversation with Gour Das, I concentrated on how to take a great photo in such low light!
The interview took hardly fifteen minutes and soon we were leaving the akhra. As I bent down to tie my shoelace, I heard Gour Das calling me from behind. “Ai meye, edike ay (Come here, girl)” I untied my shoelaces, slipped my feet out of my shoes and tread carefully on the straw beds to reach where Gour sat with his disciples. “Tui ke re? Toke age ekhane dekhini to. (Who are you? I haven’t seen you around before) I felt weird. He looked deep in my eyes and asked, “Tui jare khujish, tare pabi ne re boka. (You will never find the one you are searching for, silly girl)” I rushed to leave. I was not ready to take his mumbo jumbo any more. “Kintu tui parbi. Tui parbi na to ke parbe? (But you will succeed. If not you, then who?)” I left the akhra in a rush. As it is my head hurt from being out in the sun for so long and now a sadhu was talking metaphysics! I had no time to think of that then. I ran to join my colleagues who were off to visit another akhra.
Gour Khyapa was surrounded by his itinerant followers – a motley crew of singers, urban and new-age bauls, NRIs, businessmen, socialites and yuppies. His ‘akhra’ was more like a tent in a banshbon or the bamboo woods. As we walked to the tent, a shrill voice, hurling a barrage of the choicest and unpronounceable expletives, greeted us. The voice belonged to a bag of rag and bones clothed in a yellow robe. Seeing us, he touched his temple in a mock salute and went on rambling.
“This is Gour Khyapa,” said Sanjay quietly. Malabika slipped through the brigade and took a central position beside Gour. “Baba, I have some visitors for you,” announced Sanjay. “They are my friends and have come from Kolkata. They are journalists,” he continued. Gour looked up for a moment, his bloodshot eyes darting from my senior colleague to me and then on to the other colleague. They came to rest on mine. Gour’s lips spread in a wide grin. Half of his teeth had decayed. His face wrinkled on the sides to accommodate the Amazonian smile. The rambling had stopped for a while. Suddenly, he thrust his hands out and screamed, “Rakkhushi!” I almost stumbled backwards and was about to crash into a bamboo grove when I turned around to find a young guy, no more than 22, walking towards the tent. His hands were behind his back as if hiding something. The guy looked like a nerd straight out of the seventies – curly unruly hair, scanty beard and moustache, round-framed Lennonesque glasses. He entered the tent and revealed a large bottle of Captain Morgan rum.
“Rakkhushi!” screamed Gour as he reached for the bottle. “Gour, go easy on it. You have already smoked a great deal of hash,” admonished the NRI man in his late forties. He and his wife, a portly woman clad in a green cotton sari with a large red bindi on her forehead were sharing a cigarette. Their daughter was with them too – a pretty, fair-complexioned and plump girl in her early twenties. These were Gour Khyapa’s loyalists, Sanjay explained later. “They are no good. They may admonish him publicly for his drinking but secretly, they’re parasites, sucking the lifeblood out of this poor man.” “Baba, they were very curious to meet you,” said Sanjay as he kneeled down and faced Gour, who was, by now, already quarter way through the bottle of rum. And that too, neat! “Don’t come to Joydeb ever. Don’t ever think of taking a dip in the Ajoy River,” said Gour to no one in particular. Malabika made eye contact with me to indicate that the statement was actually being thrown to us. “Yes Baba,” replied my senior colleague. “Infection,” continued Gour. “And not just that, terrorists and gundas too. You people have spent so much money and have come to the Joydeb fair, the bauls that you saw, are they Swami Vivekananda or Ramakrishna? Or Kaamkrishna? There are three Krishnas – Ramakrishna (Ramakrishna Paramhansa), Kaamkrishna (Punning on Ramakrishna, replacing Ram with ‘kaam’ or the Sanskrit expression of lust and more colloquially, sex) and Vivekananda….” Gour then went on a verbal rampage, talking about everything under the sun – from divinity to sex and masturbation – albeit in an incoherent manner. Mind you, I have translated verbatim from the two pieces of recordings that I had on my Dictaphone. Certain parts are indecipherable and incomprehensible. I’ve left those bits out.
Gour Khepa’s tirade, punctuated by his idiosyncrasies, ramblings, raucous laughter and crude jokes and, of course, rendering lost bandishes:
Baul bhogi noy.. shobi to bara bhogi… lyang marche, chokh marche, bal chhirche… ogulo baul? Bokachoda… kisher baul?
Baul hote gele char charte sholo ta desh cover korte hoy…
Ami je baul holam… baul mane ki? Baul mane toh eki hawa… ponchobayu…
Amader jugal shadhana… tobe byapar ta te jodi gutoguti korte hoy, gutoguti hoy fatafati… jemon ei diesel engine e train ta cholche… thik ache bole tai toh cholche…
Shorir ta toh ar diesel gari noy, eta paramartha gari… ei je gari ta hawar upore cholche take khepi niyeche… ei ta emoni shadhon keu morbe na, dujonei shomane shomane cholbe… eo guto marche oo guto marche… dujone shoman shoman… amra shob manush ke mere felbo kintu amader keu marte parbe na… gutoguti?
Kajol bhromora re… (sings)… bokachoda!
Ekhane dekha jachhe khali sontrash… ekhane Joydeb e keu esho na… ei nodi te keu chan koro na… infection… ami ekta kotha boli… ekhon jodi amar meye ke niye boli “Ma tui chol makar snan korbi…” meye snan korte parbe na… joghonno mela… shob joto gunda…
Ei je ami gour khepa… tamaltalay pelam na moner manush… shobar nongramir jonyo ami ekhane chole esechi…
Bhuru pluck korbe, thonte rong lagabe… ashole kintu birjokkhoy – ghore maal nei…
Nari mane khepi nari? Stri lingo ba punglingo… nariri shomporko…
Ami toh loha ar khepi holo chombuk – magnet… o parley amake dhorbe… o holo nunu munu paramanu…(raucous laughter)
Nunu onu paramanu…
Baba ta hochhe bromhochorjo – birjo, Beta hochhe lingo…
Bolo dekhini: line er jor beshi na train er jor beshi?
EI je Mamata Bandopadhyay chalalo Duronto Express… kemon toiri koreche dekho…
Sadhu mahapurush bole: ja ache bishho brahmande, tahar cheye beshi ache dehabhande… oi je tumi tomake chao… ami jodi amake chai amake karur ghore jete hobe na…
Amra esechi mela te taka poisha khorcha kore, baul shikhbo… bashi shunbo, shei bashi kinte pare koto lok? (mimics the sound of the flute)
Bashi kinte pari amra shobai kintu bashi bajate pari shobai? Foo dile thuthu beroye… bashi kinechi kintu ragini shikhbo na… biye korte gele… bou hochhe nitric acid… oke use korte gele shona ke paka korte hobe…
Gutiye gatiye ragini shikhe tarpor khepir kache…
Egulo shobi shoshan kintu… shobi shoshan… (indicates women)
Eta Joydeb mela noy. Eta international khela. Ami khelar comedian…
Readers are free to interpret the above lines their own way. But the meaning remains the same: What you are looking for, is you. And it’s lies right inside you. I hope I’m correct.
It was late afternoon by the time we left Gour’s tent, leaving the old man in the middle of a fierce, tongue-slasher of an argument. His voice trailed off in the distance as Sanjay, Malabika, my colleagues, photographer and I walked towards Sadhan Das Bairagya’s akhra. But first, we need to stop for food.
A simple lunch of rice, watery lentils, vegetable paste and boiled eggs at a shack just outside the fair ground more than satiated our physical hunger. It gave us the energy to trudge all the way back to the mela and to Sadhan Das Bairagya’s akhra. Now this was like no other akhra around. In fact, it would be wrong to call it akhra, per se. What we saw could well have been a themed resort. Bamboo fence cordoned off an area in the middle of the fair ground. Neat rows of marigold lined the fences. Half way through the perimeter, straw huts the size of wine barrels lay invitingly. Somewhere off to the corner, a mud hut with designer madhubani painting on its walls was Sadhan Das Bairagya’s perch. The man looked like a mix of Rajneesh Osho and Warren Buffet. Half his face was affected by leucoderma. He wore a pure white robe with a soft brown shawl thrown casually over his shoulder. His curly but neatly-combed-in-place hair was pulled back from his face with a white turban. He seemed about sixty but could’ve been older. Or heck, younger. His hands were perpetually folded in a namaskar gesture. On his right sat his khepi or divine consort Maki Kazumi, a beautiful Japanese woman with porcelain skin and hair as black as ebony. From behind them, another Japanese woman peeked from inside the curtains of a door that, probably, led into the andarmahal. Both ladies were dressed in pristine white diaphanous saris. On the porch sat a tall young Japanese man, tending to his waist-long hair.
What is this place, was my first question!
Sadhan Das was a man of few words. As my colleague got busy trying to get him to talk, I surveyed the place. This five-star akhra boasted of a different demography, not really the kind we’d seen at Gour Das’s or Gour Khepa’s. For one, the population was mostly urban, a mix of school teachers, corporates, foreigners and well-off people. Second and most interestingly, the straw huts were barely big enough to let you sit upright. All you had to do was crawl into it and lie down. But spacious enough to hold two or more persons, side-by-side. Third, this was probably the only akhra which was a permanent one, one that stayed all through the year, as in not the kind where festoons and shamiana’s had to be brought down once the fair was over.
Seemed like the interview was over as I saw my colleagues walk towards me. “He didn’t say much,” said one of them.
It was around 5:30 pm and the sun had just set, leaving the sky ablaze with twilight so red it could have been blood. “The real action begins now,” said Sanjay, after a long drag on his beedi. Malabika and I had gone looking for cigarettes abut found none so settled for beedis that the chaiwala handed us. It was time to leave but Sanjay’s words kept ringing in my ears. The action begins now. Of course, this is when the bauls would erupt in their collective euphoria, as soon as it would be dark. The mics would be tuned and the stage lit up. The minstrels would then mount the stage, their gabgubis (the colloquial term for the khamak) strapped under their arms. And no, we won’t be there to witness it.
I didn’t want to return home without a physical evidence going through one of the most musical, colourful and spiritually transforming experiences ever. My heart and soul had been broken and mended several times in the course of the few hours that I spent at Kenduli but I wanted a tangible proof. Thus, I stopped at a local musical instruments shop and purchased a dotara. A dotara is not a string instrument with two strings, unlike the was the name suggests. On the contrary, it’s got four strings. However, it’s mostly the first two strings that are strummed open and hence, I guess, the name. It’s a derivative of, I guess, the dutar, a Persian string instrument that gave way to the rhubab, or the Western banjo, whatever you like. The last two strings are rarely tugged at unless it’s too difficult to match the tune or unless you want to give a wholesome sound to the song. Something that we do with the D, A and lower E strings of the regular guitar – play the bassline. How many chambers do our hearts have? Four, right? Four chambers mean a lot of space. Heck, it’s big enough to accommodate the whole universe inside it. Was I ready for it?
A voice from one of these four chambers of the heart said, “Yes”.
Disclaimer: If anyone happens to spot factual errors, please do not hesitate to point them out. The whole experience happened about four months back and some details may have slipped out of place, out of context even. Would be great if those can be overlooked and the piece read just for sheer enjoyment. Also, the scale of this topic is so vast that the blogosphere cannot do justice to it. This is but a minute ripple in the pond of the totality of this adventure that a webpage cannot fathom. Hopefully, someday, this will unfold itself onto a larger canvas.
Thank you for being patient.