I am your Gopika: the life of Jogmaya Vaishnavi

Jogmaya Vaishnavi, a sincere devotee of Lord Krishna and one of the very few female Baul performers of her time, was born into a traditional devout Vaishnav family in the village of Sarisha in the district of Birbhum, about a century ago. Jogmaya Vaisnavi had to face a lot of adversities of life due to hard economic condition of her family from a very tender age.

She had the divine blessing of having a golden voice that could mesmerise all types of listeners for Baul songs.

It was quite early in her life that her parents, Horidas Goshai and Radhe Vaishnavi, who themselves were well known Baul performers and practitioners, began teaching her in the way of Baul Parampara. But she was very fond of Shripati Bandopaddhayay of her own village Sarisha, who was a famous Palakirtan perfomer. Pala kirtans are long verses to tell the stories based on the life of Shree Krishna, in the form of songs. It is also known as “Pravanda Sangeeth” as the verses are composed with intricate rhythmic patterns. This tradition is related to the Dhrupad tradition of singing in Bengal.

At that tender age of eight years, she felt drawn to Shree Krishna Kirtan, and found a guru for herself in Shripati Bandopaddhayay. Soon she began performing on stage. When she sang, people could experience true and lasting inner peace.

With time, fame spread far and wide. In those days conveyance was not easy. Having received an invitation, she would gladly cover ten to fifteen kilometres on foot to reach the venue. Sometimes, organisers would arrange for a bullock cart for her, which would take long hours to reach the spot.

At the age of fifteen, she met with Panchanan Mukherjee, a Brahmin  folk singer of repute of Kota Sirse village, Birbhum. They  performed in many melas and utsavs (festivals) together. Having received no formal education, one wonders how she could sing almost fifteen palakeertans, with eloquent pronunciation of Bengali and Sanskrit lyrics, recalling the verses from an incredibly sharp memory. She acquired fame as a Keertaniya in her teenage years. Being the one of the very few female Keertaniya in her times, she used to perform in the districts of Birbhum, Bankura and Murshidabad.

Ananda Gopal Das Baul, grandson of Jogmaya Vaishnavi and Panchanan Das Thakur holding his grandfather’s photograph.

Jogmaya Devi married Panchanan Mukherjee (later known as Panchanan Das Thakur) at the age of eighteen. Following her marriage, she moved to Kota Sirse village, where she resumed and continued singing Baul  and found a new joy of life in it. She was an ardent Baul Sadhika. She performed the padas of Guruchand Goshai, Howre Goshai,  Kubir Goshai and Nilkantha Mukherjee.

Some padas were very long, having ten to twelve verses, but she could sing all of them from her memory. She played all the accompanying instruments like Ektara, Duggi and Ghungur herself.

She used to follow may different rhythms – like Ektaal, Jhaptaal, Dashkushi taal, Addhaa taal during singing.

She was invited to countless Baul festivals and fairs like the Ramkeli Mela of Nityananda Mahaprabhu, the Joydev Mela of Joydev and Padmavati, the Sonamukhi Baul festival of Manohar Goshai, different sadhu mocchabs, baul fakir melas and also to the annual festivals and birthdays of Gurus of Vaishnav akhras, Auls , Bauls, Darbesh and Shain.

Although she enjoyed her share of spiritual ananda, fame and adulation, social life was never that easy for her. It was an ordeal for women performers to overcome the barriers that society imposed on them. In her days, women were not allowed in all social gatherings. Her times did not witness even the shadow of equality  and acceptance for women.

Jogmaya Devi had to go through a lot of struggle to make her mark as a female Baul performer. Even though she had a seraphic voice, the patriarchs seized every opportunity to demean her; just because she was a female artiste. She received little payment, about one or two rupees per performance though her voice was as adroit as that of any male performer. Women used to consider her unscrupulous, called her names and treated her as an outcast.

But she had the grace to overcome every obstacle. A supportive family and a loving husband were all she had to make her journey successful. Shedding tears now and then, taking all the humiliation she not only walked her way majestically, but paved it too, for all the women Baul performers of Bengal.

When we look at  the picture of Jogmaya Vaishnavi and Panchanan Das Thakur, we can visualise the Ardhanarishwar tattwa – the perfect balance of female and male in one being. Both the pictures are a perfect blend of the Purusha and  the Prakriti. They were ideal human beings who followed the path of compassion and prayer.

Following is a  Baul song written by Jogmaya Vaishnavi in simple colloquial language.

কোথায় লুকালে হরি নাগর শ্যামরায়
তোমা বিহনে বনে
বুঝিবা প্রাণ যায়
কোথায় লুকালে হরি নাগর শ্যামরায়|

কেমনঘরে ফিরে যাব হে কানাই
কূলে দিয়েছি কালি অকূলে ভাসি তাই
অকূলের কান্ডারী,দাও হে চরণতরি
গোপীকা তোমারি
সঁপেছি রাঙাপায়।

The love of my life/ Save me O Lord…

Where did you hide, O Hari
O Shyamaraya, the love of my life
Bereft of you, how can I live in this dark forest of life?
Where did you hide, O Hari
O God of Love, Shyamaraya?

How can I go back to my kin, O Kanai?
I have defamed them in your love, now
I am caught amidst the high tides
O Commander of endless oceans, only you can save me
I am your Gopika, I have surrendered myself to your rubicund feet
Please send me a life boat, send me your holy feet
That I may cling onto it and save myself.

By: Dr. Snigdha Chandra

Dr.Snigdha Chandra, Associate professor of Chemistry, Durgapur Government College, Durgapur, Paschim Bardhaman, is an ardent Baul Anuragee and she lives a life full of music, science and literature with all her family and friends.

Photographs courtesy of Ananda Gopal Das Baul