Parvathy Baul needs no introduction. She has mesmerised audiences in India and abroad for 22 years now. And I understood the why and how of it when I saw her on stage for the first time at a recent event in Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi. Draped in a saffron cotton saree, jata hair falling like a cascade down to her ankles, an iktara in one hand and a duggi slung over the shoulder hanging by one side of the waist, Parvathy cast a spell over the audience every time she sang in that powerful voice of hers.
It wasn’t just the voice or her singing, but the strumming of the iktara and the playing of the duggi along with it, accompanied by graceful dance movements, that had a transcendental quality to her performance. Sitting in the audience, I realised, although she sang in Bengali, I could experience the transcendence she was going through as well as the transcendence she was affecting upon me. The manner in which the audience applauded her after every performance was evidence enough that the others felt the magic too.
Baul is listed as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO since 2005. Parvathy told me, a few hours before she went on stage, “It is a tradition which is thousands of years old. And it is a guru-shishya parampara where one needs to be initiated into the Baul tradition. The singing and dancing here is typically used for meditation: You start feeling lightness, you give up your ego and all that you carry in your mind, and finally you transcend, you experience freedom. That is Baul. And once you experience freedom and cross all your blocks in the mind and knots of the mind, you experience pure joy and love! To experience this is Baul.”
Parvathy doesn’t come from a Baul family. “I have learnt Baul singing and dancing from my guruji Sanathan Das Baul from Bakura and Shashanta Goshain from Murshidabad.” As a child, she had been trained in classical music and classical dance though. “But,” she admitted, “What I was looking for was freedom of the spiritual kind. I was looking for an art form with a strong spiritual side; which would not only be a performance, but also a path that would make me live in a certain way and make me experience what I perform throughout the way... Like you need to keep a connection which is divine! With Baul, I think, it is complete because it involves singing, dancing, meditation, as well as playing one’s instrument: You become a complete receiver, absolutely open and transparent.” Then she added candidly with a smile, “Now I can articulate all these things. But when I chose Baul, I could not articulate it. I just loved it.”
“The Baul songs used to be oral, maybe up till the 1990s,” she informed. “After the 1990s, we have lots of books. Many people have published the Baul songs.” Bauls of yore used to go from place to place in search of music, collecting songs. But there is an available repertoire today. “And this repertoire is strong. But, one has to remember that Baul is about continuity. It is not about looking for an end by just gathering information. It has to come from within. If one is with the flow, then naturally one will write a poem and compose music for it. That’s the uniqueness of this tradition. It never settles. You have a repertoire which you collect from your guru. And then you have to go beyond this repertoire. You have to become independent and find your style, your song.”
Today, Parvathy is one of the foremost Baul singers of the country. “I feel happy that my work has been appreciated, but I feel I am still a student and I have a long way to go.” She is just 38 years old but when she speaks it seems like she carries the wisdom of a soul which is civilisations old. “What I am doing is a service to mankind. I am sharing the experience of love that I have inside. If I can make somebody happy or if someone draws strength from my Baul, then my work is worthwhile. And I feel this is a service to my gurus as well. I feel a need to carry on this parampara without compromises, without diluting it in any way and practicing it in its absolutely pure form.” For all those who have watched Parvathy on stage and have interacted with her, it is not difficult to see how she lives what she practices. Incredibly warm, with the glow of compassion and kindness in her eyes, she connects with people and her songs with a smile that reflects how free she is. It is not only her Baul that stays with you; she does too.