In 1997, after Baul singer Paban Das and British genre-defying musician Sam Mills released Real Sugar, an album produced by Peter Gabriel through his Real World Records, an altogether new society lumbered up to his door. “We had to switch gods in some senses,” say author and Paban Das’ long-time partner Mimlu Sen in Baulsphere, “to be accepted by middle-class Kolkata society, whose fads and fashions were largely determined in the West.”
Throughout her book, Sen delicately details the two worlds: that of the Bauls, the famous wandering bards of Bengal, and of the rest. Self-effacement juxtaposed with self-aggrandizement, the higher consciousness of Baul life set against the consumerism of urban India. Her role is that of a straddler, navigating the cross-currents of two divergent world views, leaning distinctly towards the sphere of her partner but not losing her footing in the process.
In company: Das (extreme left) and Sen (third from left) with friends. Courtesy Mimlu Sen
It is the kind of role—where the platform that Sen got, being an English-educated, French-knowing insider, into the famously fortified lives of the wandering minstrels—that could have been bartered easily for the pulpit. But except for a few occasions, her writing is not about moral grandstanding. Instead, she turns Baulsphere into a riveting chronicle of her life with Das, beginning with their first meeting at a Paris concert in 1982, their relationship cemented through his first love note to her (a human face-resembling sketch of an ektara instrument on a paper napkin), consummated during her travels through Bengal’s vast and impoverished Baul hinterland, and continuing—as you read this—in the artistic quarters of Paris.
It’s travel memoir at its finest, with the journey including the author, Das, Baul society and the world at large. The destination, gratifyingly, is never reached.
Sen begins slowly, revealing her own life through a simple and linear narrative style when describing her upper-class early life in Shillong, her rebellious past in Kolkata, when she dropped out of Presidency College to travel and serve in Bihar, spent a year in jail in 1972 (where she first heard Baul songs sung by inmates) for alleged pro-Naxalite leanings, travelled with foreign students of Delhi University through West Asia to Europe by land, and finally in Paris, where she lived in a ménage à trois with a French couple and bore two children, Duniya and Krishna, her future travel companions. All this, by the time she was 33.
It is commonly understood that the passion Baul music elicits among performers and audiences comes from the deep-set philosophy supporting it. One is not born a Baul, rather one opts to be one, attaching oneself to a belief system that ties up centuries of oral traditions, religious syncretism involving Tantrism, Vaishnavism and Sufism, among others, and rejecting caste, creed, sectarianism, social hierarchies and materialistic gain.
Baulsphere: Random House India, 281 pages, Rs395.
Sen makes an extra effort to explain some of the symbolism and allegories that stitch together Baul poetry; she doesn’t recoil when it comes to documenting the duplicities running through the clannish culture and observes in detail the mores and rituals, even the surreal situation leading up to her own initiation by Baul guru Hari Goshain.
What she eventually manages to achieve is to keep Baulsphere above the realms of Indian exotica—a label easily attached to many of the pop-culture twists given to Bauls since Purna Das Luxman Das (Sen, though, only mentions the former) made it to the cover of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. It doesn’t stop her, though, from heaping ridicule on some of the European spirituality-seekers trampling over their modest Santiniketan home looking for a crash course in prem sadhana, Baul sexo-yogic techniques. She writes she didn’t know about it; neither did Das.
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