At the Joydev Mela in the dusty and nondescript Kenduli village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district—the largest of a dozen such annual congregations in the state—it is difficult to think of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter Gabriel and Sam Mills. And yet, these world-renowned musicians have shared intense musical spaces with the Bauls—the wandering minstrels of Bengal and Bangladesh—since the late 1960s, when Bauls led by Purna Das recorded in the US.
Pilgrims walking across the Ajoy river, which flanks the village of Kenduli, last year to get from one akhara to the next during the Joydev Mela.
A Baul song, supported by basic traditional instruments such as the ektara, dotara, khamak and duggi, can coalesce multiple worlds. Rabindranath Tagore patterned some of his musical compositions along the Baul form (Baul-angik Rabindrasangeet, as they are known). In recent times, experimental musicians in Kolkata have formed Baul-fusion bands, vitalized by the mood of the music that some have likened to the loopy sounds of American Blues.
In many respects, the fair at Kenduli is the wellspring of Baul music. It’s at this fair, close to 800 years old, that hundreds of Bauls descend from eastern India to pay obeisance to Joydev, the 12th century poet and Gita Govinda composer.
Baulsphere (Random House), a book on the Baul way of living by Mimlu Sen, the long-time partner of one of the better-known Bauls, Paban Das, describes one of Das’ performances at the Kenduli mela. “Many wept with emotion...the women came and pinned rupee notes on to his patchwork robe, embraced him passionately and kissed me. In spite of the extremely orthodox quality of the village society that surrounded Kenduli, the presence of the Bauls had created a magnetic field of complete liberty..."
This year’s week-long fair is expected to have 200-odd akharas (or semi-permanent ashrams) within the 4km mela campus; venues for night-long soirées by Bauls, fakirs and kirtaniyas.
In recent times, kirtan singers have outnumbered the Bauls at the mela. Kirtaniyas sing devotional Radha-Krishna songs and consider Joydev their spiritual guru. Most of them stay around the magnificent but degenerating terracotta temple dedicated to Joydev in Kenduli, where the poet is said to have resided.
If the kirtan performances draw the masses, the Bauls attract a more select audience. Here, one finds a sleep-starved audience feeding on the transcendence that the music, building up from a slow beginning to an ecstatic climax, or rounds of chillum—marijuana being an innate component of Baul lifestyle—may trigger.
With an estimated 200,000 annual visitors, it is also an occasion for commercial enterprise, with stalls vending fast food, woollens and rural handicrafts. The spirit of the market hasn’t escaped the Baul community; some of them peddle their music albums and perform with keyboards—acts that have been criticized by puritans as going against the grain of Bauls, who have traditionally accepted modest amounts of foodstuff as alms in lieu of their singing.
However, and despite Bengal’s other Baul melas, Kenduli has its unforgettable highs. At its core, it remains a village festival. For overnight visitors, no more than straw matting as bedding is assured at the akharas, from where it is rude to leave without sitting for a frugal yet filling meal.
Nearby, along the banks of the river Ajoy, one finds Baul singers who have renounced the akharas to chart a lonely path to the self—for the inner search is a constant Baul endeavour. When in the mood, they might sing for you: a beautiful melody as a backdrop to your own search at Kenduli.
The photographs are part of an ongoing photo series by Harikrishna Katragadda, an independent photographer based in New Delhi, who has been photographing the fair for the last three years.