DhakDhakGirl's Travel Journals


  • 28 years old
  • From Maryland, United States
  • Currently in Pondicherry, India

Parvathy Baul

The frantic mysticism of Baul singing.

Parvathy Baul

Afghanistan Afghanistan  |  May 02, 2011
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 She sings, "Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma are insane. Hussayn and Hassan are crazy now. They have all become mad on the way to Mecca. I want to go along with them and go crazy too!" 

Yesterday night, I went to a beautiful concert by Sufi musician Latif Bolat and Baul singer Parvathy Baul. One of the best things about Auroville is its support for cultural events showcasing both local Tamil talent and artists from around the world.

I had never even heard of Baul before, except as a side note in the Rough Guide to Indian Music. The Aurovillian running the show provided a wonderful introduction to this genre of mysticism. Dating back perhaps as far as the time of the Vedas, Baul singers are wandering minstrels who travel throughout Bengal (now divided into West Bengal in India and the nation of Bangladesh). They are famous for singing about the love of Radha for Krishna and emphasize the personal relationship with God. Baul has been influenced by diverse traditions such as tantra, Sufism, Vaishnavite Bhakti, and Buddhism.  Baul singers dance, sing, and play three instruments (an ektara, a small drum, and ankle bells) simultaneously. Like Carnatic and Hindustani musicians, each Baul singer is part of an almost-familial lineage of gurus, dating back millennia.

I was used to seeing classical Indian music interpreted by portly women in silk sarees and glossy hair, so I expected Parvarthy Baul to look much the same. Instead, a women swathed in layers of plain biege and light yellow tramped on stage. She had a pale, angular face and ankle-length dreadlocks which began as thick curls near her scalp. She had an ektara in her right hand, a drum at her left hip. Then she began playing. The hypnotic timbre of the ektara, her careful footwork, the sly glance over her shoulder as she played the drums. She was a jack of all trades, ostentatious as a street musician.

She cried out, dragging the notes and flourishes out of somewhere in her belly, reaching out to the audience with her hand open like a vegetable seller or a beggar. Her voice was piercing, on the border of a shout but much more controlled. She seemed at once incredibly refined and vulgar, a one-woman circus with bells and drums and dancing. She could have been twenty or sixty years old. When she spoke her voice was light and beautifully lilting (now I understand why Bengalis are famous for their art and literature and poetry). She looked and acted exactly like what the Irish call a Sidhe – a fairy person, unworldly and ageless and uncanny.

In the space of a brief concert, she utterly challenged my notions of Indian femininity, her body swaddled in clothes and dhotis like a sadhu. She wasn’t dainty or sensuous, except for the passion in her expressions. She danced with her legs planted shoulder-width apart, crouched down and cried out with her brow furled. When she spoke, she laughed. When she twirled, the tip of the ektara became the center of the wheel, the spindle she flung herself around, playing all the while.

I loved trying to decipher the Bangla words, using my minimal knowledge of Hindi. She sang about divine madness infecting all the gods:

“Guru pagal hai… Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma pagal hain, Hussayn pagal hai, Hassan pagal hai..” My Baul Guru has gone insane. Shiva, Vishnu Brahma are insane. Hussayn and Hassan (two Shi’a Muslim saints) are crazy now. They have all become mad on the way to Mecca. I want to go along with them and go crazy too!

Spinning furiously, stamping, singing, she was insane along with them.

She also sang a particularly beautiful long about Radha. A baul teases the lovelorn maiden, who is separated from her lover by the banks of the Yamuna river. She sings:

Radha, go to the banks of the Yamuna but don’t get wet. Don’t dip your toes in the water. You must swim across to Krishna without getting your saree drenched.

You must cook a meal without touching a pot, without going into the kitchen.

Let no one know your mind. If you plan to go South, tell them you’re going North. If Krishna promises to meet you under the tree, pretend you haven’t seen him.

Radha! Radha! Govinda [Krishna] cries.

Radha! Radha! Radha! Radha. On the banks of the Yamuna, Govinda cries.

Radha! Radha!!!!!

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  • Parvathy Baul

    May 02, 2011
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