The Empress of Baul Songs

The Kishoriganj village in the Burdwan district is actually a separated islet. There lived the legendary empress of Baul songs: Nanibala Baishnabi. No one gave her the title ‘Empress’. But as many times as I write about her, I become obliged to adore her with this title. This obligation has come from deep respect, love and adoration from within for her. Nanibala’s style, her own unique melodious compositions, distinctive voice modulation, her masterful beats and meticulous way of playing the Duggi and the authority of her Ektara used to create an illumined circle of aura around her. I haven’t seen such masterful rendition then and even today. Her contemporary Baul masters and the practitioners from the next generation used to agree to her unique masterful style. Whenever her name was uttered, the entire community of practitioners, singer Bauls used to show respect. Whenever she stood up to sing in the Baul performing space, the other Baul singer’s heartbeat used to grow faster. Before I speak about Nanibala, I must say a few words about her mother. She received her ‘Tej’ (power) of her songs from her.

In the first half of the last century, Kabigaan (instant poetry performance) , Keertan (the storytelling singing/ legends of Vaishnava Bhakti )and Palagaan (narrative opera/ balad) became more popular as the main performances which entertained people in the villages of Bengal. Especially Kabigaan was very popular. Because of this reason, we get written evidence and articles about women instant poets and also storytellers. Were there women Baul singers then? From the time of Lalon Fakir, we have the written history of Baul. Baul songs were written from his time, some were published, we come to know a few Baul Sadhaka’s written songs , published randomly in different Bengali literature magazines, and we come to know about a few amature Baul singers. But besides all these, whether women singer Baul sadhikas existed- there is no written history or article we come across. But the existence of woman Baul singer, Debi Sharkar the mother of Nanibala is the very evidence of this fact. She was highly respected as a Baul singer in the Kushthia , Rajshahi area of undivided Bengal. I have collected a few interviews about her from an old Fakir from Kushthia who had witnessed the signing of Debi Sharkar, and I have heard her songs from Nanibala herself.

Nanibala’s father Panchanan Sharkar was a Kabigaan performer. After their marriage, they took initiation into the Baul Path and took a long journey through the currents of the Baul song river. I used to hear a lot of stories from Nanibala about her mother. Wherever Debi went and sang her songs, she was showered with love and honours by the villagers. In the Baul gathering, she used to get the respect of a Baul sadhika. She used to win all the Pallagan (argument about the different aspects of Sadhana through songs) and used to make the opponent singer in a dire helpless, speechless condition at the end. She was so authoritative that when she entered a Baul performance space and she didn’t like the way people had taken their seats as listeners, she used to make them sit again in the most suitable way for that day’s performance. Some time she used to make her listeners sit in rows and she would walk through the rows and sing, this wasn’t easy to do. She used to command the organiser landlords with great influence. The listener’s used to be under the spell of the intensity of her songs.

Nanibala was a daughter of such a powerful mother. Her childhood started through the songs of Madhukori (the sacred begging). She used to go to Madhukori with her parents and used to follow them in their singing. This was her basic training and initiation into Baul singing. In the first part of her life, she sang mainly in Kushthia, later Nadia, Murshidabad, and some parts of Birbhum she travelled and performed.   When Nanibala was about seven or eight, her mother married her with an elderly songless Vaishnav Sadhaka. At that age itself she was purely dedicated and intoxicated in Baul songs, so she left that ashram of elderly Vaishnav Sadhaka. She was in her teens, she walked many ups and downs of the path, and finally she found Radheshyam Das as her spiritual companion. He was the perfect companion for her, he didn’t sing much, and he used to play “Kartal” (cymbal) with her. Except him, no one could play the correct rhythm with Nanibala’s songs. I myself have seen that many were nervous to keep the beats in Kartal with her. In this spiritual couple’s life, they had two sons- Sadhan and Bhajan. She never settled in the institution called family and worldly life though. Somehow, even her two sons couldn’t hold her back to the bondages of commitment. Whenever she had to go for the Baul Satsang, she even left her ill children to the neighbours.

Nothing could bind her to the world, her songs were her wealth. It was only Baul songs which flowed through all her veins in her entire body and her being. I went to visit her again and again and I felt strongly within that everything seemed superfluous for her, the world carried no meaning for her beyond the Baul songs. With her songs, Ektara and Duggi she had a celestial travel, where she was a lone traveller a Sadhika.

I will tell you one or two incidents her son Sadhan had told me. Once, Nanibala and Radheshyam came back from a distant village after a Baul Ashor (gathering), she heard the complaint there was no rice grain in the house. She was furious. She argued and left the house, but she couldn’t go very far. She went to the next village opened her magic bag of Baul songs and sat down singing on a bullock cart. There was no scarcity of Baul lovers and listeners, they all gathered around her. She went on singing all day long. One peasant on his way to the work, holding his bull in one hand and rudder on the other, stood like a immobile rock on the village wayside. After sometime Nanibala opened her eyes and asked him ‘Baba please put down your rudder now’. She sung in the Baul gathering even the day before the birth of her elder son Shadhan. She went travelling alone so many times. If she met a well-known Fakir with high scholarship in the Baul repertoire, if she found something new in his repertoire, she left Radheshyam alone and went to the Ashram of Fakir. She learnt his style and the compositions from him and returned after two months. Sometimes some woman came begging, singing song, she told her,’ I will give you five rupees will you give me your song ‘. She had told me all this herself. She couldn’t read or write, but she could memorise an enormous number of songs, she could remember a song she heard in a Baul gathering only once. She never made a mistake with a single word of a Baul song. Once I went to her akhara, with me a very well-known Baul singer and few others came to visit her.   We were all sitting at the porch of her hut, Nanibala heard a well-known Baul singing a few lines of a Baul song incorrectly. She commented, “We must sing the words correctly”. Then she uttered both lines with a spontaneous unmistakable flow. The helpless Baul said “I didn’t know it all”, she then replied with great sense of sadness, “then you mustn’t sing this song”.

Nanibala learnt Fakiri songs for a very long period of time. That’s why she had more than one Guru. In Bangladesh Ramlal Joardar , Gopal Joardar, Amulyo Saha were her teachers in different stages of her life. Amulyo Saha learnt ‘kaloyati’ songs from Uttar Pradesh, she mastered that style of singing from him. She learnt to play her Duggi from Gohor Shah. From this Guru she learned to use Duggie and Ektara. One who didn’t listen to her beats on Duggie, it’s difficult to explain to him about her mastery over rhythm just with words. Like that was the sound of her Ektara, after many years of Sadhana she created her own style, her own Gharana (school). But there were no students to learn it from her. Her singer son Sadhan didn’t learn her style, may be he just couldn’t. Her songs were not just songs, maybe she would chant a few lines of the song like a Mantra and then suddenly jumped into the ocean of melodious music. Her divinity, her quest for truth, and her quest for a meaningful life, her dedication to her Gurus used to express in her songs all in one. The sound is the supreme truth that one could realise if one listened to her song once. Her voice wasn’t ‘sweet’ voice of a singer; her voice was solid and firm. Her individuality could be noticed in her sharp and clear pronunciation. It almost felt like she shot melodious and intense arrows to her opponent during the “Palla Gaan”. I have heard from many of her contemporary Baul singer sadhakas that when she entered a Baul gathering, many well-known Baul singer practitioners used to look for an escape secretly. Twenty to twenty five years ago, when someone uttered “Baul gaaner Ashor”, everyone expected “Palla Gan” or “Jababi Gan”, question answer songs or argumentative songs, especially in the district of Nadia, Murshidabad and Bankura. There was no acceptance of the solo presentation; it used to always be a conversation between the two Baul singers Sadhakas. Nanibala and many elderly and wise Baul singer Sadhaka I have observed that they were very conscious about the streamline of the poetry as the question and answer process, if someone went out even slightly from this streamline, they used to criticise the singer, even the listeners used to complain vocally. I have heard Nanibala sometimes hit the opponent with her Ektara when he went out of the question answer streamline.

For her songs, Nanibala was honoured by the Baul songs listeners from all over Bengal wherever she sung. When she was in Bangladesh she received a medal, silver hair clip, brass pots and plates. (That time there was no practice of giving honorarium). She lost most of these honour gifts in her poverty. All her life she walked from one Baul gathering to the other, from one festival to the other, from one performing space to the other. Radhesyam was her alert care taker. Nanibala used to lose her consciousness often, and then Radheshyam used to look after her. Once she said herself to me, that ‘I am an epileptic patient, won’t it be difficult without a man’? I was surprised and wondered as the presence of Radheshyam was meant only that much to her? Here I must mention that wherever Nanibala found a great treasure of songs she left everything and went alone to discover the treasure, many used to spread rumours about her, but she never was shaken or really gave her ear to what people gossiped about her. She used to answer everything through her songs. Humble woman when she stood up in the Baul gathering with her Ektara, when she ruled the entire world of listeners with her powerful rendition, it came like an answer to all the humiliation she had gone through as a woman practitioner. There she truly became the empress.

I went to her again and again; we met mostly in the Baul festivals and gatherings, very less at her home. I feel like sharing two stories that happened in the Baul gathering. I went to her house for the first time, from there we crossed Bhagirothi river to arrive at the house of Doyal in Samudragarh. The Baul gathering was arranged indoor. Doyal (Karthikchand Das) started to sing while strumming his Dotara, “Oh Guruji, my mind doesn’t stay stable in this broken house, what is the way out?“ Another Baul started to sing absolutely some other poetry. I saw Nanibala immediately commenting to Radheshyam, how can he think that this is the answer to this song? Nanibala started to sing, Doyal kept his dotara away. Tinkori Packed up his Dubki and kept it nicely. It was difficult to accompany her in the music, only Radheshyam continued with his Kartal, most of the places I witnessed repetition of this moment. She started to sing, “gour ke je pain a kothao” (I do not find Gour anywhere). This was the composition of Kangal Haridas. Again she started singing Gour Tatwa, a song of Lalon Fakir, “ Jodi Shei Gorchand ke pai” ( If I could find the moon called Gour) . She was becoming Shishya asking Guru, and she herself was becoming Guru singing the answer. In that night I received the best of gifts from Nanibala and Radheshyam.

Like this, I received one more time in a village called Panchlokhi beside the river of Panchmoti. This Baul festival too, was organised by Doyal Kartikchand. I went there because Nanibala came to sing at that gathering. From the first night Doyal and Nanibala started question answer series of songs. The last song was sung by Nanibala after the sunrise, after Dayal had no more song to reply to her. After this, Nanibala, Radheshyam and I sat on the riverside. There was no fatigue in that seventy year-old wise woman, still they both were discussing about the songs they sung through the night.

The signs of poverty was wrapped all around her body. Her sari was ragged, little torn here and there, the ektara too somehow holding itself with too many repairs. After the first introduction she stated to me with a slight tone of conceit, “people know me as a beggar only”. She let go of her poverty, her pride through her songs. Her home was her songs, she lived in her songs. In the later part of her life, she had fallen ill many times, but never had she uttered a word about her illness. Nanibala left us twenty two years ago during the rainy season. Her Duggi and Ektara too followed her into her Samadhi. The Gharana, the school she created in her lifelong research and Sadhana, was buried along with her. But definitely she reached the celestial music hall of Lord Indra, the much bigger gathering place of all gods to perform her songs eternally forever. I bow to her feet a hundred million times.

By: Lina Chaki

Lina Chaki was born in 1954. As a writer she basically wrote essays and articles. Professionally she served as a journalist. For many years she showed great interests to know the stories and work of the women Baul masters and write about them and let the others know about them through her writings and interviews. She has done an intricate research work on the same with the support of cultural ministry of West Bengal. Still she travels to the rural Baul gathering and festivals to be in company of these great souls.  She loves to write about folk arts and artists too. She has written a few books on women Baul and folk traditions of Bengal.  She was awarded ¨Best Feature¨ (2011-2012) by the Ladli Media awards in eastern India for her writing about women.

All Rights Reserved by Author.

Works by Lina Chaki:
Durga, Bangalir Adda, Bauler Charandasi, Rabindranath O Baul

Translation by: Parvathy Baul

Parvathy Baul is a practitioner of the Baul path. She trained in music and dance as a child, and spent time learning painting at Shantiniketan. While at Shantiniketan, she came across Baul, and never looked back as she met her first Guru Sanatan Das Baul, and was then sent to her second Guru, Shashanko Goshai. She now spreads the message of her lineage across the world through Baul and theatre performances.