Bob Dylan and the Bauls
Baul musicians, Dylan’s manager and his wife, a secret visit to Kolkata, and Allen Ginsberg have all contributed to keep Dylan trivia alive in Kolkata
Bob Dylan would often visit a studio at Woodstock, New York, where the Baul musicians Purna Das, his brother Luxman and their entourage would hang out in 1967-68. Purna Das, now 83, remembers the songwriter-musician, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature recently, as an addebaaz, an addict of impromptu, free-wheeling discussions.
Over eating, drinking and smoking sessions, they would discuss Baul music, with other musicians, especially from The Band—the group that played a critical role in Dylan’s music in his most ground-breaking period—in attendance. Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1966 that had left him severely injured. He may well have found spiritual salve in Das’ description of Baul sadhana and dehottotyo (worldly wisdom through knowing one’s body) practices. Certainly, Das says, they would discuss these often.
Dylan would also fiddle on the Baul instruments ektara and khamak. “One evening, Dylan told me that if I’m a Bengali Baul musician from India, he is an American Baul,” says Purna Das over the phone, ahead of his concert in West Bengal’s Suri town on Tuesday. “We both sing music of the roots. Our objectives, he told me, were the same: To sing for people, tell their tales and spread love through music.”
Despite the occasional fumble for dates, Das’ memory of their eight-odd months in the US is as sharp as the pitch of his voice singing the Baul number Manob Jomin. Dylan’s longtime manager Albert Grossman and his wife Sally were enthralled when they first heard it in a hotel room at the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata in 1967. Albert Grossman organized the visit of Das and his entourage to the US. The musicians would perform at 30-odd concerts, including a few co-billed with Dylan and Joan Baez. Grossman, who died in 1986, was Dylan’s manager from 1962-1970, when the musician found fame and recorded some of his seminal albums. He also managed the careers of Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and The Band, the then-Woodstock based epochal American roots-rock outfit.
The US sojourn resulted in two albums, Bauls Of Bengal and Bengali Bauls... At Big Pink, the latter produced by Garth Hudson of The Band, and Dylan collaborators immortalized by film-maker Martin Scorsese in his documentary, The Last Waltz. The two albums, Sally told me during an interview in 2009 in Kolkata, were heard by a lot of people, including, she reckoned, Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger—the albums are now considered cultural timepieces. Das says they went on to perform once with Jagger.
The Band’s influential debut 1968 album, Music From Big Pink featured cover art in watercolour by Dylan with images of an elephant and a guy with what looks like a misshapen sitar, possibly a nod to his recent dalliance with India and its musical ambassadors. Purna and Luxman would eventually “enter the annals of modern music history” and be “immortalized”, Mimlu Sen writes in Baulsphere, when they were featured on the cover of Dylan’s 1967 album, John Wesley Harding.
Visiting the US in 2012, and on a guided tour of Woodstock as a guest of Sally, I was taken around the area where the cover photo of John Wesley Harding was shot. “The Bauls were living there with Dylan and featuring them was unplanned. The fact that our local carpenter, Charlie Joy, was also featured makes the selection somewhat arbitrary,” Sally told me (in 1965, a young Sally was herself the cover girl for Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home).
“It was the coldest day of the year. It was like 20 below zero,” photographer John Berg recalls that day in an article, “Looking Up Dylan’s Sleeves”, by Rod Macbeath. Dylan, the Bauls, and Berg would rush out of the house, take some pictures, and rush back in for shots of brandy.
Forty years after her first visit to Kolkata, Sally, 75, continues to nurture the relationship with Baul music, returning to Bengal annually to meet Bauls and to streamline operations of the not-for-profit website, Baularchive.com. The site is a compendium on Baul music and lifestyle, including live footage, academic papers, interviews, description of instruments and translations of songs.
“Albert was stunned on hearing Purna sing in our room and immediately decided to get the Bauls over to the US,” Sally told me, at the same Grand hotel in 2009. She was averse to discussing Dylan—the singer-manager relationship ended acrimoniously in 1970—and hasn’t been in touch with him. “Dylan is not a social person. Rather, I would say, he is asocial. It’s a dysfunctional thing,” she said.
After their first meeting in 1967, Purna Das met Dylan in 1978, 1986 and 1989, says his son, Dibyendu. In 1990, when Dibyendu got married, Dylan visited Kolkata and the family’s Dhakuria house for 2 hours before word got around and he had to leave hurriedly. It has been Dylan’s only visit to India so far. The family is not keen to provide details; an unconfirmed story goes that a peeved Dylan felt the hosts were complicit in leaking news of his Kolkata visit. Dibyendu confirms, though, that they have unsuccessfully tried to re-establish contact with the troubadour and hopes a meeting might take place next year.
“That Purna Das could get the very reclusive musician to visit Kolkata says something about the relationship they shared,” says Prof. Ananda Lal, who teaches two English papers on the poetics and politics of rock music, which includes Dylan’s work, at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University.
Unlike John Coltrane, The Beatles, Philip Glass, John McLaughlin and Jerry Garcia, among other musical luminaries of the 1960s, however, there’s no evidence of any influence of Indian music in the work of Dylan, a musician obsessed with American folk and blues-rock traditions.
Despite his legions of fans, the impact of his music on Kolkata’s protest-politics circuit has been limited. For while Bengali singer-songwriters like Kabir Suman (Chattopadhyay) and Anjan Dutt made popular translations of his songs, very few songs other than Blowin’ In the Wind have been part of Kolkata’s protest idiom. It seems ironic that a city known to have adopted singers Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger as part of its political-cultural discourse should disregard Dylan, despite his political protest songs.
“Dylan wasn’t a card-carrying Communist party member and not as partisan like Robeson and Seeger, who could fill up Kolkata venues even late in his (Seeger’s) life,” reasons Prof. Lal. “Though he had distanced himself from the protest movement after a while, Dylan never left politics behind, even in his newer albums. Maybe, in the Bauls, he found something equivalent to his own folk protest enshrining Indian traditions. That John Wesley Harding, which featured the Bauls on the album cover, was also the first time Dylan’s music took a spiritual direction, is not insignificant.”
There are two other connections to Kolkata. There’s the American film-maker and editor Howard Alk, who collaborated with Dylan on the documentary films, Eat The Document and Hard Rain, and Renaldo And Clara, the 1978-film directed by and starring Dylan. Alk came to the city to direct the 1971 Luxman Baul’s Movie, a documentary film produced by Sally on Bengal’s Bauls and Luxman. These days, his film-maker son, Jesse is there too, shooting Pariah Dog, a film on the city’s stray dogs.
Speaking over Facebook Messenger, Jesse remembers growing up on Dylan’s “funky” Malibu estate, till his father had “a fallout with Dylan”. There were “lots of drugs and power games,” he says. “I don’t have a relationship with Bob any more and don’t have good feelings,” Jesse says. “But my mother and I never broke that wall of silence. That camp is notoriously secretive. It’s a weird story: (Allen) Ginsberg to Albert Grossman to (my) father…and now I’m rolling around with street dogs in Kolkata,” Jesse adds.
This brings us to the second connection—the Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. A friend of Albert Grossman and Dylan, Ginsberg was enamoured of Kolkata’s cultural life and visited the ailing and impoverished Baul Nabani Das in Suri, West Bengal, in the early 1960s. Nabani was a notable influence on Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, more than a century before Dylan, for his book of poetry and hymns, Gitanjali.
In her book, A Blue Hand: The Beats In India, author Deborah Baker chronicles Ginsberg’s meeting with Nabani on his deathbed—he was accompanied by the poets Peter Orlovsky and Shakti Chattopadhyay. “Upon being introduced, the old man said of Allen and Peter, ‘They are born Bauls, they will spread the Baul message, and true peace, friendship and dharma will arrive.’”
It was indeed Ginsberg who would go on to spread the good word about the Bauls of Bengal in the West, significantly, perhaps, to Grossman. Nabani’s sons happened to be Purna and Luxman, and a fascinating narrative unfolded.
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