Singing is Like My Personal Prayer

Epsita Halder in conversation with Parvathy Baul.

Listen to Parvathy Baul live at Kabir Festival 2014:

When I first experienced Parvathy Baul’s performance, it was the first in a series of epiphanies. Over the years that I’ve been following her performances, they have whetted my interest in performance studies. On a personal level, my journey through Parvathy’s repertoire was at once intimate and liberating. That’s perhaps the urban and contemporary reaction to her. There is almost no sadhana anymore for the audience I willy-nilly belong to. Yet, Parvathy induces artistic pleasure beyond the familiar, and invokes an ‘excess’ in the trivia of our lives. We refuse to remain the same once Parvathy performs. Sahaja or simple, she calls this rasa. Through her whirling body, the slow chakra of her open dreadlocks, the jingling whisper of her brass anklets and the complex discourse of her lyrics, she initiates her audience into the final ecstasy. Turiah, the Baishnavas will say; Sufis will say fanah.

This winter, we met at Parvathy’s friend’s house in Kolkata. Lunch, tips about having tulsi and turmeric in the morning, her dream ayurvedic garden in her akhra, all these inveigled themselves into the interview as she shifted between being a kishori and a sadhika. The two sometimes overlapped, her giggles changed cadences as I came to know more about the art form she inhabits, innovates and recreates. Excerpts:

Why did Baul, of all the art forms, send you a call, as it were? What is Baul to you, an art form or a composite life with art and sadhana?

It sent me a call because it is a composite of art and sadhana. Otherwise, I could have been into any other form of music. I wanted to devote my life to art from the very beginning. But any structured vocabulary of art used to suffocate me, though my training at a gurukul had brought me close to the idea of submission to the guru. I inherited the spiritual bent of my mind from my mother who used recite and sing sections of Kathamrita everyday at home.

I understood that the kind of freedom that Baul offers does not compare with other forms of freedom. Baul freedom is limitless. It gives one such sense of peace, such freedom from one’s bond even with oneself. Some people might find freedom by practising other forms of art, for me it came through my immersion in Baul. When Sanatan Baba performed in Kala Bhavana (Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan) where I was studying Fine Arts in the 90’s I saw everything he sang. I went to serve him tea after the performance and was awestruck by his eyes. Such penetrating gaze, such spiritual radiance! Then, I forgot all about this and continued with painting and stuff. Yes, I sang Baul songs as everybody does while at Santiniketan. But, one day I went to Phulmala Di (a Baul singer) to learn some songs. She said she would waste time if she had to teach me separately, so she asked me to accompany her while she collected money singing inside trains so that I could learn as she sang.

This was the turning point. Till then, I was living a life of parental protection. With Phulmala Di I went to places and lived a life I earlier didn’t have any idea about. I learnt so many truths about life from the experiences with hawkers and tea-sellers, who took me to their homes with such warm hospitality. What I suddenly understood on my train trips with Phulmala Di was that these are not simple commutes to collect money from strangers in exchange for a song. Phulmala Di could have gone into other professions. But she chose this as a living pattern. She used to carry a square sling bag. Asked about the shape, she said that it was a treasury of siddhi with four corners sthula, pravarta, sadhaka and siddha. She was amazed that I was learning Baul songs with rigour without getting into the intricacies of Baul philosophy. A young girl, I sang songs that appealed to my romantic sensibility (laughs) without caring much about the vastness of Baul philosophy. But, Phulmala Di’s question seemed pertinent. So, I went to Sanatan Baba as Phulmala Di said she did not consider herself equipped enough to teach Baul philosophy. I went to Baba and got initiated into Baul. The way I am singing now, the way I am travelling and singing has come automatically, it has come as a process. Initially, I did not think about performing this way, I did not do it for appreciation. I just went into Baul (living philosophy) as a seeker.  See, I was driven out of home because of my decision to leave everything behind and getting into the life of a Baul. Friends left me. I just felt the call inside and could think of no other way to live. Nothing was planned or calculated.


When you perform now, your sadhana is perceived by the un-initiated audience as a pure art form. Does it come in conflict with sadhana?

It isn’t that I never had a dilemma. I thought if sadhana was my goal for which I forsook everything, why wasn’t I going to the Himalayas to live as a Baul! Then Sanatan Baba said, if you are a Baul, disseminate its philosophy. I asked how would I go about it as I had no money back then. He gave me Rs 10 and said, with this you would manage. And I did. See, I have gone to so many places to sing. I never asked for any programme or event. People called me. I have got such treasures from Baul that now if I can only sing, my duty is served. I need to go to people without discrimination, to the initiated and un-initiated alike. I responded to scientists and feminists with equal sincerity when they wanted to listen to Baul. Love for Baul is all that you need to have.

Many come to me to learn. But how many of them really dedicate themselves? With Sanatan Baba, only I and Biswanath (another Baul singer) remained. Shasanka Gosain only trained five disciples. The path of Baul is simple but not easy. It is a life of rigorous discipline. Flocks of people aren’t becoming Bauls. Neither is it necessary. (laughs)

When you add anecdotes between two songs, or when you talk to the audience to explain a song, a contemporary person emerges from within you. How do you strike a balance between these two selves?

If I insist that I am a sadhak of an insulated bygone era, then that would be a pretension. I had my training in fine arts in a contemporary institution. I did theatre. I am politically aware. Sanatan Baba asked me to remain sahajata (instinctive and transparent) where there is no scope for pretence. I understand Baul philosophers, I understand contemporary audiences. My performance comes from that in-between-ness.

Does your performance change with the changing set of audiences?

Not really. It depends on what songs are responding from within me. If people ask me to sing this or that, I can’t manage. For me, the whole journey to go somewhere to sing is like performing a prayer. The audience is a part of it without influencing my way of doing it. But I can’t really ignore the audience too. Previously, I used to get extremely affected by the audience. With positive vibes, I used to perform better. But, now I am able to control my audience. I just make them listen to me. (laughs)

How is your everyday schedule?

Most of the times, people who take lessons from me stay at my house. Our day starts at 3 AM. Once we are up, we have tea. Then we practice yoga together. After breakfast I teach. Then, I have to manage domestic chores, decide what’s to be cooked etc. Then, I utilise the whole day working on music. If music practitioners come in the evening, we sing, talk, share. Otherwise I continue to work by myself.  Sometimes I decide to be silent for a stretch of time.

Not everyone can achieve what you have. What will you tell others who practise this art form?

Let me talk about sahajata. This is the teaching of Sanatan Baba. He told us to forget whatever we learnt during delivering it. Everything was taught by Baba, how to stand and how to move. But when you sing, you will have to let your body forget everything.

Does that mean that the body has internalised the grammar and performs as a kind of improvisation?

I am talking about the memory of the body.  I am not the body (laughs).

What is profane in your life (laughs)?

Facebook (laughs). Whatsapp and KakaoTalk (laughs).

All of them?

Not at all! I have to be on Facebook to be in touch with people. It hurts my concentration. But now I have people who do things for me out of love. Like, there is Ram who looks after the communication part with the organisers. Profane? (thinks with immense concentration, laughs)


No no! Cooking is not profane! In the act of cooking our whole existence gets reflected. Cooking is energy. That’s why a sadhaka cooks. Though I don’t follow that. I am vegan and eat whatever is available.

Do you think that your experiences are different because you are a woman?

Since childhood I could never understand that yes, I am a girl and so I need to act in this certain way. Then I went to Sanatan Baba and Shasanka Gosain and got the shock of my life! They asked me, oh you are a woman, would you be able to do this or that. You will get married, you will have children who will take up all of your energy and time. I understood their point. I said, Ok, I am ready to devote myself in learning Baul philosophy by opting out of married life.

In the beginning I could not grasp the gendered nature of this life. I found that men had occupied the domain of spiritual practice. It also happened that they did not care to change the scale of instruments in a Baul gathering when women started singing. My voice became hoarse by singing in G or F – those were usually scales for a male voice. But I thought fine, I will sing in G or F and continued to sing like that for years. Now I get enough respect and love but this took time to achieve. That doesn’t mean that this respect has been allotted to all the women engaged in Baul practice. The Baul akhra stays functional because of the rigorous efforts of sebadasis, all women, and nowhere has this contribution been recognised. But one more thing, I appear to be an authentic spiritual person thanks to my dreadlocks (laughs) so nobody really approaches me as a woman.

There’ve been exceptions. Once, I was passing though a locality in a village of Murshibadad in search of a Fakir Baba’s akhra. In that locality, people considered music haram (sin). Seeing a woman with open long hair and with an ektara (an one-string instrument) in her hand, they accused me of sin. I told them I praise the God you worship with my songs, come with me to see if I am doing any wrong.  They came to Fakir Baba’s akhra and went back mute.

Another thing, when people ask me why the voice of surrender would always be of a woman, I tell them that surrender is not subjugation but a sense of liberation. There is no biological connection between surrendering and femininity. These are all symbols expressed through the language of gender. Masculinity means aggression, a wish to conquer, but it can be an attribute of man and woman alike. Love, passion, care and affection, these are symbols of femininity. Baul philosophy goes beyond the natural link between biological man-woman and masculinity-femininity. Baul goes beyond religion, caste, creed and any limited identities.

When you started composing your own lyrics, did you feel connected to woman Bauls more? Or it was an inclination towards aesthetics and philosophy beyond gender?

We generally don’t get references of women composers in the Baul tradition. But it can’t be so. There are many beautiful songs without an author’s name. Who knows these might be women Bauls! But it really is a paradox that Baul philosophy that can think beyond the man-woman opposition can’t create a space for names of the women authors. But, when I compose I generally don’t feel like a woman. Of course, the woman in me works from within, but that’s not that prominent in me as a seeker and as a performer.

Are you aware that your performance, with its mood and mudras, may induce erotic aesthetic pleasure among the audience?

Shringar is a part of our aesthetic tradition. The devotee feels erotic passion towards god in our devotional practices like Bhakti or Sufi. When Maharshi Sukhdev was writing his Bhagavat, he could not write the Radha-Krishna shringar. Without feeling like Radha, Radhabhava, this could not be achieved. The tradition of bhagavats is a tradition of knowledge, whereas Bhakti achieves Radhabhava.  But these are symbols, rasa. The audience perceives what it wants to. But I, as the performer, remain unaffected as I do not want to convey erotica beyond the symbol.

Your stage presence, including dreadlocks, creates tremendous visual impact. Does the gradual evolution of you as a visual performer have connections with you as a visual artist? I remember your self-portrait in woodcut as your Facebook profile picture.

I did not plan it consciously. I went to a yogi with dreadlocks who taught me yoga. I loved them so much that I grew my own (laughs). My Mast Qalandar guru ordered me not to chop off my dreadlocks. I never did.

Where do you get such energy from? Is it inherent or have you achieved it through what you call sadhakam? Who is a sadhaka?

Let me tell you a story. Once two disciples were going to meet their guru who lived on the other side of the river. It was monsoon and the river was overflowing. There was no boat. The disciples decided to swim. A woman asked them for help. It was obvious she had performed a mujra (here, a lewd dance performance). As she was apparently a fallen woman, one disciple refused to help her. The other carried her on his back and swam to the other side. Once the youths reached the guru, the first disciple complained that whatever spiritual status the other had attained, he lost by touching a fallen woman. The accused one said I just wanted to help someone in need. The guru said that by helping the distressed, the second disciple had succeeded in his spiritual journey while the first had failed as he was still carrying the woman in his head. So, that is how one becomes a sadhaka, by remaining unaffected by the values of the material world. The sadhaka needs to be fearless, upright and clear. And this is true for artists of any art form. Art gives you clarity, truth and honesty.

Epsita Halder is Assistant Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. In her doctoral thesis, she has explored the different formulations of the battle of Karbala to understand the search for identity of the Bengal Muslims (late nineteenth - early twentieth century). She has been working on the Muharram traditions in West Bengal, a part of which has been done with the Art Research and Documentation Grant of India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore. She is a recipient of the Charles Wallace Trust Short Term Fellowship and Sarai-CSDS Social Media Fellowship. She is specifically interested in the interface between Muslim popular piety, visual culture and new media in South Asia.

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