Phulmala Dasi’s Musical Pilgrimage at Kurukshetra

“Our Baul life is about loving all humans, speaking the truth, and being affectionate to people. But besides tremendous joy, there are also many troubles on this path. The Baul life isn’t for raising a family. I personally love the Baul path, so I am crazy.”

Phulmala Dasi was a slight woman in her 60s and 70s when I knew her, with wispy hair tied back and penetrating dark eyes that could twinkle or intimidate. Her diminutive form didn’t reveal how she in fact towered over others, commanding dignity and respect. I never saw her lingering or unsure of her next step: at the Prantik train station, I spotted her engaged in a serious conversation or walking purposefully toward me; at the Joydeb Mela, she would approach one of the countless people she knew, or strum her ektara with a group of performers clustered under a tent, or demand her turn singing in spite of her companions’ youthful popularity; when interviewed, she knew exactly what she wanted to say, how and when she would talk, and whether or not I should turn on the tape recorder. To the microphone, she spoke deliberately, aware that her words might someday reach a printed (or virtual) page. And when I visited her in 2007 to record some of her songs, she would intertwine her life story with songs, drawing out their significance for her personally – and for all listeners, as a lesson about life’s meaning. Phulmala was much more than mad about her Baul path; she was determined, strong-willed, and passionate, perhaps all the more so because she had her eyes fixed in two directions: on the daily needs of her family and on spiritual matters. She may have humbly claimed, as she did several times, that her choices to support her family prevented her from being a “real” Baul, but it was clear to me that despite modesty about her own spiritual progress, she took the Baul life and songs seriously and reflected deeply on the inner meanings of songs she sung or composed.

Born in Faridpur in what is today Bangladesh, Phulmala was married young, by the age of three, she said, when she understood nothing about married life. She explained that when she was old enough to live with her in-laws, her mother-in-law shared a bed with her. Phulmala jokingly described the night when her mother-in-law sneaked out of the room, and Phulmala woke up to find her husband next to her. During her youth there was singing in her home, but her music life was born later in West Bengal, particularly after her husband was injured in the army and died several years later. It was during her husband’s convalescence that Phulmala turned to singing to support and raise her children. As a widow, she ran the household, worked hard, risked much, and successfully provided for her family. She performed widely, from the trains departing Ahmadpur station, near where she lived, to stages in Dubai, London, and Washington D.C. At the end of a day singing, it was her determination as much as her talent that enabled her to tie a few rupees into a knot at the edge of her sari, which she draped over her shoulder as she headed home.

In one of my last conversations with Phulmala, she was living in a small hut in Bolpur, having moved out of the house she had provided for her two sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Her solitude afforded her time to reflect on her life, and many of her comments and the songs she sang during my visits revealed the intensity with which she examined her own situation and goals. She likened life – especially family life – to the battlefield of Kurukshetra from the Indian epic Mahabharata, where the five Pandava brothers and their followers gather to battle their hundred cousins over the rights to the throne. Kurukshetra is also the scene described at length in the Bhagavad Gita, a section of the Mahabharata and favorite text of Vaishnavas and many Bauls, and it is likely this depiction Phulmala had in mind. The Bhagavad Gita is famous for its portrayal of the anguish and relief experienced by Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, as he examines what he considers to be the contradictory objectives of pursuing spiritual matters and fulfilling earthly responsibilities, a situation not unlike Phulmala’s. The Bhagavad Gita describes Arjuna’s misgivings about defending the kingdom in a war against kin and teachers. Arjuna tells his confidant and charioteer Lord Krishna about his desire to relinquish all action and retreat to pursue a spiritual life away from pain and suffering. But Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna about moral duty and argues that the relinquishment Arjuna sought is impossible: choosing not to act is in fact an action in itself.

Rather than relinquishing worldly responsibilities, Phulmala choose to act by wandering, singing, negotiating with sponsors, demanding respect, teaching songs and philosophy, caring for family and friends, and even indulging the awkward questions of an anthropologist from America. Yet her own inner conflict stemmed, it seemed to me, from what she considered were contradictory pulls between householder life and spiritual goals. Thus, although she loved the Baul path, she argued, “How could I call myself a Baul? If I did, I wouldn’t be living in this house. Real Bauls are udas — carefree and indifferent to the material world. They have no greed, desire, or luxury. In what way have I managed this?” In song she alludes to the choice she made, and she urges listeners to examine their own life choices carefully:

Examine the law completely.
Follow the path of truth and be discerning.
Make sure you consider the law completely!

Three kinds of flowers bloom in the tree of pleasure;
They blossom on three separate branches.
So many flowers have bloomed in the tree of earthly poison!
I have collected many of them, filling the edge of my sari.

So many flowers have blossomed in my arbor of devotion,
[But] I have only been able to see them.
By stringing a garland of worldly possessions,
Phulmala has remained confined to this earth.

Today more women turn to singing for their own pleasure and popularity, or to supplement their income, but Phulmala sang to support her family. It’s tempting from afar to romanticize the lifestyle of a wandering musical mendicant, who can sing and go where she wishes, but the path comes with numerous challenges. For one thing, a mendicant depends on others to willingly give alms. Several Bengalis I met during my research cautioned me against “spoiling” Bauls with excessive gifts, yet the reality is that many Baul performers depend on others to support them, and the lives of Bengalis and foreigners are enriched by hearing Baul songs. When I visited Phulmala in 2007, she suffered from ill health, and without the ability to wander and sing, she struggled financially. Then there are the trains, where many travelers have heard Bauls like Phulmala sing. Singing on the train is difficult because of the need to sing loud enough to compete with the clamor of the train, yet melodious enough to capture a passenger’s attention.

When I asked Phulmala about it, she explained: “There are many difficulties in the trains, but I am used to it. But there is an aim to doing this—do you know Lisa? All of my connections have been made in the train. Wherever I have performed, the connection came from this train. So I don’t abandon it. I like it. Many people stop singing on trains after visiting foreign countries; they leave many things we do because they have gained a desire for luxury. I don’t like this. I like this beggar mood of Bauls. I sing on trains so that I can come close to all, so that I share affection with people. You will find no arrogance inside me. So I travel in a simple manner. I feel glad to see Bauls, to see Vaishnavs, to see artists, to see everyone; my heart becomes very glad. I try to see everyone with affection.”

Singing above the clamor of the train and supporting a family alone were only some of the challenges of Phulmala’s journey on Kurukshetra’s battlefield. Despite the Baul ideology that values women, everyday reality is characterized by male dominance not only in ordinary society, but sometimes among Baul men, who overall have been more visible and successful as performers. When I began my research on the experiences and perspectives of Baul women in 1997, Phulmala was the very first Baul woman I interviewed. I was awed by her self confidence, which immediately dispelled all stereotypes of South Asian village women as submissive, and over the following decade I became increasingly impressed by her knowledge and cleverness. Phulmala was a notable adversary to patriarchy, not only by proving her worth singing and wandering in public, but also by asserting her place among Baul men. I witnessed her silence others with her tenacity and inner strength in order to take her turn singing. On a particularly memorable occasion, Phulmala and I joined a cluster of people sitting on the cool evening earth at the Joydeb festival. Gour Khyapa – a Baul virtuoso whose name matched his approach to life and music – made room for Phulmala to sit next to him as he sang a few songs. When Phulmala started to sing, Gour Khyapa interjected the second stanza. But rather than be dominated by his booming voice and mesmerizing personality, Phulmala stood up and regained control, and she sang the remainder of the song as we sat silenced and captivated. Another time she proudly joked about a public performance in Nadia, where she approached one Baul performer after another, each one dressed in costly clothes and watches. None of them willingly talked with Phulmala, who was dressed in an ordinary white sari. One by one the performers appeared on stage and sang what she considered were ordinary folk songs, not Baul songs. When the audience began to thin out, Phulmala was finally called on stage. Phulmala began, and the crowd returned to listen. She sang sixteen songs continuously until her host pleaded before the audience with folded hands, saying that Phulmala was perspiring and needed to stop.

Her stories reveal the challenges she faced but also her own determination. As she stated, “Among Bauls, women can do everything. But if women don’t recognize their own way, then nobody can make them great. If I never try to be great, nobody else can make me great. I am in this path, involved with music, having performed in foreign countries, given joy to others, gaining pleasure myself…Women can do all these things. If they try, they can. If they try, they can do these things. If someone comes to me, I always try to help them be greater than me. But if they do not try to be great, I can’t feed them something to make them great: ‘Have this, you will be great.’ That can never happen. She has to take for herself.”

Phulmala believed women can do everything because she herself successfully waged the war against societal obstacles related to her gender, widowhood, poverty, and family needs. She reflected, “Just as there was a great war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, family life is a battle. We’re caught up in sons, daughters, thinking ‘I’ll build a house, get a car, I’ll raise my children, make my son an engineer, and so on.’ That is what we desire. But these are all false desires… This is an addiction. A rubbish addiction.”

Kurukshetra is, after all, also the site of the inner battle. The most important battle.

As Arjuna learns from Krishna that our preoccupation with material existence distracts us from the nature of ultimate divine reality, Phulmala explained that as soon as a ritual practitioner, or sadhak, puts her or his foot down into the sadhak’s land to search for maner manush [person of my mind/heart], the sadhak realizes that “there is nothing else. Besides atma and maner manush, there’s nothing else.” Although she loved the songs even when she was younger, she did not have any time to contemplate the spiritual meanings of songs after fulfilling family responsibilities. “There are so many beautiful things that can be found within songs, things which are not found in the outside world, and which you won’t find in books.” Reflecting on Baul songs, she asked questions like, “Why did I come to this world, and why will I leave it? Why did I come here for only a couple of days, to put my foot in the world and then leave? I shopped in the market [of worldly existence], and what did I get out of all this?”

“Now when I sing, I can lose myself in it, and it’s great. This stuff is so beautiful…each song has its own feeling and describes a particular stage of practice.”

Mind, chant Hari [Krishna] once.
Time is passing away.
Detach yourself from the play on earth and move on.
What strange laws came in the country?!
Young men got disabled.
All old men and women left home.

What mobile [phone] came in the country?!
All the swallows left the country.
‘Indian mynah birds became disabled.
Water in the coconuts dried up.
Hence Phulmala says this genuine message:
Do not neglect this golden body of yours.
Say out loud, “Hari, Hari, Hari!”
Lift each one his/her own burden.

After she sang this song for me, she reflected on the mahajans, or great saints, who seek and perhaps manage to find that ultimate divine reality. “All the great saints are looking for that maner manush. But I have never seen one great saint who found maner manush return. We never hear about their return. In every song written by mahajans, it’s about complete surrender.   Their songs are about completely giving up their selves, and those who have attained perfection in their spiritual practice, they don’t come back to us. They don’t come back. It’s all about offering one’s entire being. I wonder about how that’s done. Everything is about giving one’s entire being. I’m like an insignificant insect. I will go forward, singing these songs, and contemplating.”

Phulmala, your pilgrimage on Kurukshetra has enriched us. You have offered us your songs, you have raised your voice above the clatter of trains, you have warned us about earthly distractions, yet you have nourished us with your earthly offerings. You have also inspired us with your resilience and inner power.  May you not return to the land of Kurukshetra.

30 June 2016

Phulmala’s song “Mind, Chant Hari Once” (“Man ekbar hari bal din phuralo”) was originally published in Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh by Lisa I. Knight, 2011, on p. 136, and is reproduced here by permission of Oxford University Press. More anecdotes about Phulmala, as well as other Baul women, are in Contradictory Lives.

Quotes are from interviews I conducted over periods of time between 1997 and 2007 in Ahmadpur, Santiniketan, and Bolpur in West Bengal, India, and are supplemented by numerous conversations with Phulmala on trains, winding paths, or over cha and kichori. I bear ultimate responsibility for translations and any mistakes, though I gratefully acknowledge help along the way from Hena Basu and Ed Yazijian. Every time Ed hears my field recordings of Phulmala singing, he is moved to tears. He describes her voice as quiet but incredibly powerful, like being hit by an unstoppable force. I find that to be an apt description of Phulmala as a human being as well.

By: Lisa I. Knight

Lisa I. Knight is James B. Duke Associate Professor of Asian Studies, Religion, and Anthropology at Furman University, Greenville, SC, USA. All Rights Reserved by Author.

Works by Lisa I. Knight:
Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh
“I Will Not Keep Her Book in My Home”: Representing Religious Meaning among Bauls
Chapter “Renouncing Expectations: Single Baul Women Renouncers and the Value of Being a Wife” in Women’s Renunciation in South Asia: Nuns, Yoginis, Saints, and Singers