The hands of the clock now beckon you home and you realise you are quite far away. As you step across the threshold of your motherland, you do not recognise it anymore. The universities are now debris, the art nowhere to be found and the citizens asleep immobile, in a deathly slumber. 

On the asphalt streets of Bengal, there is God. Amidst the wet mud underneath newborn rice; in the dramatic torrents from precariously placed Dhunuchi on sundried hands; in the kitchen’s sweating, simmering air and the tear that sizzles in the onion sliced open on the cutting board, there is God. From the ancient, blistered pages of a chalky hardbound Thakumar jhuli, Thakuma’s thunderous and meek voice rings clear and God flashes her third eye. When you hear her, you hear the underbelly of a tidal wave roar with ripe and red age – her seasoned drawl trembles like the quaking earth. Sitting a few trees, a few cities and a few seas away from her, you find that all around you, the wet mud, the dhunuchi, the curry that stained your childhood nails have crumbled to stone. 

You are not home. The air is no loner laden with the heady fragrance of dawn Shiuli, the paint no longer peels off walls as your eyes fall to the floor and the sunlight no longer burns with the force of a thousand furnaces in your face when you smile. You feel estranged from language for your tongue has remained in your mother’s heartland. There are no trams here, no yellow taxis, no cobblers spread out on street corners, no purple skies of the Kalboishakhi, and no roads choked with rice lights and kabiraji during pujo. There are no little gods in melting make-up darting about on the streets, touring the city on shoulders and veined, brown laps. There is no you. 

Thus Modhushudon says,

“সাধিতে মনের সাধ,

ঘটে যদি পরমাদ,

মধুহীন করো না গো তব মনঃকোকনদে।

প্রবাসে দৈবের বশে,

জীব-তারা যদি খসে

এ দেহ-আকাশ হতে, – খেদ নাহি তাহে।”

This translates to:

“If disaster befalls,

My questing heart,

Do not banish me from the nectar of your memory.

If, by foreign banks,

My life cascades away from me,

I do not fear the death of my body.”


For the Bangla that has seeped through the fissures of Bengal and carried an exodus of the personality to the without and ushered them within, through the crests and troughs of an experience divorced from the comfort of a motherland, for the teeth watered with the acrid wind of a foreign song, Modhushudon lamented. Of course, along with departure, there must be an arrival. But we realise that the arrivals pale soon. That which arrives and has arrived, could not arrive again. In its incomplete arrival, an arrival is effervescent. There is another arrival and we lurch forth, perpetually, towards newer lands and tongueless elegies sung in deserted rooms. This sense of the ceaseless arrivals is only an abstract account of the idea of the present. Aristotle had reductively expounded it as an uneventful translocation between tactile distances. “Duration is the stuff of which conscious existence is made”, Bergson shall profoundly declare some two centuries and two score years later. But I digress. Why this lived time is important to understand is because it corresponds to the Bengali’s distorted lived identity.

This precipitates the workings of an abstract nation that is peripatetic and exists in the blank space wrought by a disturbed people’s diaspora. How did this come to be? Indeed, the political unconscious, as Jameson would observe, of the endless literature that Bengal could offer, reflects the change in the most confounding manner. It is not easy to say when the left front began to collapse; the artistically, academically, and pedagogically peerless British-fed empire of the paddy fields commenced a burgeoning descent to an industrial, infrastructural and economic impasse. Of course, the united Bengal, alongside the other, now prominent, port cities of colonial India’s Madras and Bombay, stood to be the entrance of the British into the Indian subcontinent. The colonial landslide was inevitably felt the strongest in these cities. The domain of English academia is still, to this date, dominated by either the present-day south-Indians or the Bengalis. It is no coincidence for such to have been the case. Bihar, which was an organ of united Bengal, produces the fiercest administrative officials.

It does not take the exceptionally precocious to piece together the facts. I must confess that I have also met that crude populace that has failed to tag this failing state machinery. It was only yesterday that I had the misfortune – now, let this not be extrapolated so as to deem their company unpleasant, indeed it was the converse – of acquaintance with a certain professor who was astonished at my decision to have chosen Delhi for my undergraduate destination. Being from Kolkata, why had I not chosen amongst the premier institutions of the city? Her question was not unfounded. Two decades back perhaps, or a little more, I would have considered it. In fact, it would not have been an easy task gaining admission into either Jadavpur University or Presidency. “No one knows what happens during the checking of Jadavpur entrances anymore”, sighs a Professor that I know. I would also have been assured that the evaluation of my entrance examination at the former would have been a fair one. Nevertheless, the unnamed was unaware, albeit, not blissfully so, of the cruel edifice of Bengal’s present truth. When I asked my friend who is currently a second year student of Mathematics at Presidency what has become of the education system in Bengal, what it is that has so dramatically altered its state machinery, and he said “Bengal has once churned out nobel laureates like the primed barrel of a gun; we have fallen far since then. The culture where Bengali households still push, sometimes excessively, their children towards unimaginable heights of success still exists. But the means for our generation to manifest that now-distant dream have been lost. We see them only reminisce, complacent and smug in their erstwhile glory and do nothing to reclaim it.” It might sound scandalous to say so, but it is my belief that any Bengali, with a morsel of ambition remaining in their blood, has left. The evil of the Naxalites, which had catalysed this transformed political sub-space in the first place, has been replaced by the evil of stagnancy that is borne of negligence and a ruthlessly debauched moral compass. This moral compass does not remain confined to the rulers of the state only, for we must remember the citizenship that has advocated for them, and handed to them this power. It would be folly to discount the sheer comprehension of the people’s pulse, of which the incumbent opposition ruler seems to be in dangerous possession. She knows what makes Bengal tick and she makes them tick well. I am afraid that if I indulge myself any further, I shall stand to lose my diplomatic tenor and therefore I shall not risk that venture. 

Bengal has been outpaced, and superseded by time, for all great societies are fated to fall. This is not to occasion a trite exchange, only to ascribe the causality of a devastating truth to powers intangible. And yet, I must maintain that it is not, in fact, intangible. The democracy of the Indian subcontinent is now choked with choices that one could not make without the mortifying acceptance of their choosing the lesser evil. That is another complicated tangent of debate, which I could not take up frankly without gravely endangering myself. We can no longer jointly hail one as a scholar and a politician. That species seems now to be extinct. In any case, as I grapple with this undeniable prospect, it is quite clear to me, a state I hope I have been able to confer upon the readers of this article, why the exodus has been in such Herculean proportions. The issue of the brain drain is not atypically Bengali. In Bengal, the tremors have been felt deeply, and yet, to the perspicacious, that the drain is quite Pan-Indian. The established Indian scholars have all to sport in their resumes, a degree earned from abroad. This is not simply the result of a quest to expand one’s horizons, as seems most apparent. The outward-bound instinct, or Beauvoir’s masculine transcendence, is not a universal tendency. I would fail at this moment to furnish the reader with the statistics, but commonsensically, it would not be preposterous to infer from cases of those irrefutably successful, that ambition is not a rather ubiquitous quality if all the world’s sensibilities were to be accounted for. If the reason so posited, about expanding one’s horizon, were true, then how does one explain the negligible immigration that India has seen recently, in terms of students. Of course, it is a developing country, and yet, if one were to examine the history of Indian scholars who have flourished abroad, one must concede that the Indian education system was once robust and globally revered. It pains me that I cannot account for a solution that does not drastically alter the system, and perhaps I must not. Perhaps it is important that the system be so radically reformed, for if we continue along this path, we shall only gracefully expedite our world’s transmogrification into the dystopian world of Orwell, if not extinction. 

Read also: Of Remembrance and Letting Go: An Ode to Hometowns

Featured Image Credits : Ahmadzada for Freepik

Aayudh Pramanik

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The lesser known art forms of Bengal have seen a rise in popularity in contemporary times. This is the story of Baul-geeti, an integral part of Bengal’s Oral traditions, which posed questions two centuries back that are still relevant today.

Growing up in a Bengali household in North Kolkata, my summer break afternoons were often filled with an elaborate plate of jackfruit, mangoes and watermelons that my grandmother brought in after lunch. What would accompany this huge palette of the various shades of yellows and reds, were stories of Shantiniketan and Birbhum, where my grandma had spent a considerable portion of her youth. My drowsy eyes would look at her face light up as she spoke about the men who had no home, who wandered and stayed wherever their hearts wanted, who considered the world their home. Her broken, out-of-breath notes sang of these men in big alkhallas. She sang of the minstrels who have been a part and parcel of Bengal, she sang of the Bauls.

The Bauls are folk artists of Bengal. They renounce society and claim the open skies and lands as their country. They are nomads who sing of the Supreme One and their love towards the celestial entity. They believe in no discriminatory factors—religion, gender, caste, creed, race; they preach and practise Deha-tatta, which holds that every being is equal with the Supreme One himself, who resides in us all. It’s not just limited to living beings either. Bauls respect and love beings from all species, big and small. These wandering minstrels rejected social hierarchies and divisive constructs. Their radical rejection of social institutions manifests itself in the emancipatory enactment of this form of music where they find and celebrate love, life, and liberation. You, according to the Bauls, can only be one step closer to God by helping other living beings.

Baul music is often composed without any formal training or any record. The music of the ektara,
dotara and, at times, khonjoni, synthesises with their own voices to create, what can be called, one
of the greatest cultural symbols of Bengal. This culture was born in Birbhum and crossed boundaries to the different eastern regions of our country, including the international border of Bangladesh. The most fascinating aspect of this entire art form has to be its lack of recorded material. It forms a major chunk of the oral traditions of the region, with minimal written songs. The Bauls sing from their memory, and their heart. The complex compositions are passed down from one generation to another. Yet, almost everyone who listens to their music finds themselves in the peculiar daze of the heart-wrenching and soulful tunes of the dotara.

The Baul community also has a male-dominated image in popular culture where they are depicted in huge saffron robes, heavy beards and matted locks of hair, rudraksha around their wrists and neck and a dotara. The saffron alkhalla, or the loose garment, is a way of showcasing their association with the divine. The women of this community, on the other hand, wear simple white sarees and sport matted hair but ditch the rudraksha. They are seldom included by the general public in Baul narratives even though they have had similar contributions to the art.

We cannot talk about Baul-or Baul culture without mentioning the man who was responsible for
bringing it to the world—Lalon Fakir Shah, the greatest Baul artist to have ever existed. The origin of Lalon Fakir is still debatable. Nobody till date knows where exactly he was born, which religion or caste he was born into or who his parents were. Some say he was a Muslim while others claim he was a Hindu. Even his disciples, upon his death, never revealed his place of origin or his religion.

Fakir Shah was a monumental figure in composing Baul-geeti, with thousands of Bengali songs
to his name. Out of all these, only 600 were documented after his demise. He was the
person who inspired the whole concept of contemporary Baul gaan and their philosophies as
we know them today. What Lalon preached was essentially the result of syncretism of various
philosophies and traditions like Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Jainism. Like today, he was a radical opponent of all established institutions, to the extent wherein one of his compositions, he
sang, “If the creator is one, why so many religions?”.

The captivating angle to his songs were his vocal approach to issues of caste, communalism,
and patriarchy two hundred years back. Songs like,

“Brahman, chandal, Chamaar,
Everyone is cleansed by the same

opposed the oppressive system with such poetic poignance that it resonates with people till date. Even issues like patriarchy were addressed through lyrics which posed questions like,

“A Muslim is marked by the sign of circumcision; but how should you
mark a woman?”
(Translated by Azfar Hussain)

Personally, if there has to be one line by Fakir Lalon that really stirred
me, it would be-
“A person who secretly has rice
from the hearth of a prostitute
What does his religion have to do
with it?”

Folk music, or any music that had subaltern roots, was looked down upon by the Bhodrolok i.e. gentlemen of Bengal. It rose as an alternate narrative and culture to the hegemonic forms of art that were prevalent. They were an attempt for some communities to establish their place in the existing power structures of society at the time, while in other cases, like those of the Bauls, they were a harsh critique of the ways of the world and the conditions that mankind had created in order to discriminate against others.

In contemporary times, the religious extremism that we often encounter was exactly what these
cultures opposed. The question of what religion you were born with and which religion you’ll leave the world with was one question that the Bauls asked society.

Interestingly, Baul-geeti, something that went against modern-day capitalism, has become a child of the same today. In the 60s and the 70s, the Bauls went global and dazzled the world with their talent. Purna Das Baul, the Baul Samrat, even played with music sensations like Bob Dylan and Tina Turner. In more recent times, Kartik Das Baul went from singing on the local trains of Kolkata for some loose change to being one of the top Baul artists in the country. This in no way is a claim that this commercialisation is bad. It was necessary for these unrecognised artists to spread their creations. And it was almost inevitable, since sustaining oneself in 2022 certainly requires a lot more monetary resources than at any other time in history.

For someone from the land of these artists, to witness the world enjoy their music without ever trying to decipher the underlying meaning in their songs seems like an insult to the art, the philosophy and the artists. It is a bittersweet feeling, as a bangaali, that something that
is so close to my heart, is not just mine anymore—it is the world’s to share; on the other hand, there is pride and pride only that the beautiful language and the songs reach millions today.

Read Also: My City, My Pujo: An Open Art Gallery

Featured Image Credits: Osho World

Debarati Mitra
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