“The mirror of the sky
Reflects my soul.
Oh Baul of the road,
Oh Baul my heart,
What keeps me tied to the corner of the room,
What keeps me tied?”
– Composed by Nabani Das Baul, borrowed by me for the song, “Corner”, on my album, “Shiva Station”.
It’s kind of funny writing memoir-ish blogs when my memory is so filled with holes. In fact, sometimes I think there are more holes in my memory than actual memories. Hmmm… Am I making stuff up or did this all really happen? Luckily, my alter-ego-old-friend Ganga Dhar is writing his memories as well. We can cross reference each other since so much of our lives were spent together. But why does he remember more than me? I don’t think I took more drugs than him, but I guess I took different ones. (Oh no, that addiction blog again. Later…)
So where were we? The small Baul mela outside of Bolpur, West Bengal. The dusty, raw voiced multi-generational families crying to the Gods on that little rickety stage in the Bengali desert…
After sadly disappointing our new Baul friends with our lack of LSD, Ganga Dhar and I staggered back to our hotel, deeply moved from the experience of seeing these mystical madmen in action. With their long black hair and patchwork clothes and melodies that could crumble the padlocked gates of heaven we were very simply blown away. Upon reaching our hotel we feasted deeply on the house specialty, Aloo Posta, or potatoes cooked in opium poppies. (Mmmm, I sure did love those potatoes. In fact, I began ordering them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.) But somehow or another it was time to make a move. This Baul music seemed to resonate the very core of our beings and set us on fire. We knew we had to get closer to the source.
First we needed a place to settle, other than a hotel. We were directed to a little house out in the desert, by the side of a dry river bed, that belonged to an eccentric Indian artist in self-imposed exile and his somewhat batty Austrian wife. It was called “Studio Bulbul”, named after his daughter who had recently passed away. The artist, Kirin Sinha, was almost blind from cataracts and had been working in concrete, a medium that he could feel in the most visceral way with his hands blistered and burning. I’m not sure if this was some kind of penance or divine inspiration but Kirin was an amazing artist, with hundreds of canvases scattered around everywhere. His paintings looked like the work of a God-intoxicated Hindu Vincent Van Gogh. Luckily Kirin still had his ears, but in some ways he was madder than a hatter; divinely mad that is, filled with visions of the Gods and Goddesses. He used to tell us about his meetings with divine beings. “You can always tell a God or a saint in disguise” he would whisper, “Their feet are several inches off the ground!” Kirin was very impressed and excited to find some young kindred spirits in Ganga Dhar and I, and he took it upon himself to find us a Baul teacher and translate the songs for us. Thus we met Baidyanath Das Baul, one of the great souls and inspirations of my life.
Baidyanath Das was a young man at that time, fully living the Baul life, wondering, singing, dancing, begging. He had a stunningly beautiful wife who was, of course, also a Baul, but he spent most of his time on the move. Somehow Kirin was able to convince him to come to our home three times a week and give us lessons for a small fee. Baidyanath Das would walk in singing “Jay Guru, Jay Guru!!!!”, and sit down and play any instrument within his reach. In fact sometimes that instrument would be the kitchen table or peanut butter jar; the entire world was his instrument as his cry soared to the outer spheres. Baidyanath Das spoke absolutely no English and we had no knowledge whatsoever of Bengali, but the flow of feelings and communication seemed to come effortlessly. He would sing, we would repeat. He would play and we would attempt to imitate. Dotar, gubgubbi, kanjira, kartals, the basic Baul orchestra. Our teacher seemed to be a master of them all. But what most deeply remains in my mind are the memories of him singing quietly, the deep pathos, the ineffable longing in his voice. The quaver, the high notes at the top of his register, the lump in his throat as tears bubbled to the surface. Baidyanath Das was one of my greatest teachers as he led me into the world of passionate devotion through song. “Sing!”, he seemed to be saying, “Sing and break down the walls, destroy the shackles that bind you, discover the ‘Man of the Heart’!” I was still quite a shy singer at that time in my life. Instruments always came easy to me, but singing, well, that was another story. Baidyanath Das jump started the process of transforming me into a ‘singer’. Like all the Bauls we met, he didn’t seem to care at all about singing in tune. In fact it seemed almost to be a stylistic ideosyncrasy to sing beyond one’s range, regardless of one’s ability to hit those super high notes. And yet the musicality was almost always breathtaking.
So Baidyanath Das taught us many songs and Kirin translated them into English, vicariously enjoying our journey. And gradually our home became ‘Baul Central’, a place where every night a different group of wanderers would come to sing, dance and eat. Some of these Bauls were very simple and lovely souls, while others made me nervously aware of my hidden passport and money. But all of them sang and, with bells coiled around their ankles, danced. And, at least for moments, they all seemed to be transported to other realms and universes. Ganga Dhar and I learned from them all; absorbing, drinking in their wondrous music, laughing and jamming along. I’ll never forget one time when a young Baul, who’s name escapes me, took me on a long train journey with him and his compatriots, to sing and dance and hopefully make a few pennies on the way. As we played and sang our crazy mixed up Bengali/English songs, the jaws of the travelers seemed to drop off their faces in shock. Who was this white skinned Baul? What was he singing? I think for a while I even forgot who I was, so lost was I in the music and the deep current of bliss…
Well, as all things come to an end, so did our time in Bengal. The spring was giving way to the summer, the temperature was rising and the bugs were getting bigger and bigger and BIGGER. But one last adventure awaited. Baidyanath Das came by one sizzling afternoon and ordered us to pack a lunch and follow him. A dusty hike in the sun and a seemingly endless bumpy bus ride took us to yet another small and funky little village Baul celebration. We watched and drank in the music and then were invited/ordered on to the stage to sing. OH NO!!!!!!! However, there was no way for us to refuse, so Ganga Dhar and I proceeded to climb up and just do our best, trying to move past our inhibitions and let the passions of our hearts take flight. Thankfully we have no recordings of that moment, but, as was so often the case in India, we were met with such kindness and appreciation by the rustic audience of villagers and Bauls. They simply loved us SO much. The very next thing we knew, standing next to us on stage was Purna Das Baul, one of the elders and certainly the most world-renowned of their community. Indeed, it was Purna Das himself who had made that strange appearance on Bob Dylan’s album cover years before! With a flourish and a bow and perhaps a soft chuckle, this great Baul ambassador of bliss proceeded to pronounce Ganga Dhar and I “The First International Bauls!” I barely noticed the scattered applause as my heart went into wild celebration. Was this a dream? A culmination/continuation of past lives? To this day I don’t really know why this happened, but I do know that it was a life changing moment, a moment that is still living and breathing within me.
That was certainly many ages ago, but I continue to absorb and digest the musical lessons I learned at that time in my life. I’m still practicing the instruments, melodies and rhythms. For a long period of time the ‘dotar,’ a miniature Sarode and a staple instrument of the Bauls, became a sort of trademark for my music. And the spiritual lessons, the devotional aspiration/inspiration, the passion to break down the prison walls of our souls through song, are forever deeply imbedded into my molecules. “Jay Guru! Jay Guru!”
A brief footnote:
Although I never heard this from the Bauls themselves while I was in India, many say that the original Bauls were none other than Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and his great companion Prabhu Nityananda, who wandered across North India singing the praises of Radharani and Her beloved Lord Krishna, initiating the entire universe into the mysteries of Bhakti and the glories of singing the holy names. It is believed that Caitanya Mahaprabhu was an avatar or incarnation not just of Krishna, but of Radha AND Krishna together, in their eternal dance of love.