Delhi (Women’s Feature Service) – As the lights dimmed, there was a sudden hush in the auditorium. Then, in the most spectacular manner, piercing the darkness, a spotlight beamed on to the stage revealing a woman with matted locks and dressed in saffron clothing, with the ‘ektara’ and ‘duggi’ (traditional musical instruments) in her hands. In the pool of light Parvathy Baul made for a dramatic picture, as she swayed to the rhythm of her unique music. She used her voice to eulogise the power of love and justice to end violence against women; her words kindled the feeling of love “devoid of any kind of human boundaries like caste, class, gender or religion” in the hearts and minds of her listeners.
Parvathy was performing in solidarity with the One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign, which she wholeheartedly supports. Initiated by American playwright and activist Even Ensler and powered in South Asia by noted feminist Kamla Bhasin, OBR 2014 calls for zero tolerance against violence against women and girls even as it urges people across the globe to rise for justice. What sets this movement apart is that it uses popular arts like dance and music to spread this message.
Creatively, there couldn’t be a more apt medium than baul music to talk about love, devotion and peace. Historically, this folk tradition is followed by a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal, who can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments. And although they comprise only a small fraction of the Bengali population, their music is known to have had a considerable influence on Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and music. Of course, while bauls pour out their feelings in their songs they never bother to write them down and so in a sense theirs is essentially an oral tradition.
For Parvathy, baul singing has been an intrinsic part of her life and her identity although she did not undertake any formal training in the style and is mostly self-taught. Talking about the magic of baul she said, “It is meditation in motion because we sing, dance and play the instruments all at the same time in perfect harmony. When the heart and soul are soaked in musical devotion and the body is in continuous motion, one enters a meditative state, still and silent.” Naturally, when she performed in front of a huge crowd everyone appeared to be awash in the sense of calm she exuded.
Clad as she was in a ‘kumkum odhna’(vermillion wrap) with a floral garland adorning her neck and the tinkling chilambu nupur anklets on her feet, she sang her repertoire of Hari ‘kirtan’ (devotional songs) – ‘Hori khelchey Shri Hori, sathey Radha pyari’ (Lord Krishna plays holi with his beloved Radha) – in a soft and melodic style, her words constantly punctuated by the refrain of ‘prem katha’ (love story), and her dance movements reminiscent of the whirling dervishes of the Sufi tradition. As the music progressed, the language, the symbolism, based on the baul philosophy of ‘sahaj’, or spontaneity being the path to attaining inner depth of vision and understanding, cast a deeply spiritual spell.
Looking on was an appreciative audience which included rights activists from 30 organisations, including women’s resource centers like Jagori and civil society institutions like ActionAid. Students from Delhi University and the Jamia Millia Islamia constituted a large presence. People first began to softly tap their feet to the beat of Parvathy’s ‘duggi’ but very soon the low hum swelled into a chorus of claps that kept pace with the dancer’s swirls, even as her words, ‘naba saikhin gon hori rashomon, shyamer hori’ (the new sakhis are immersed in the sweetness of hori, in the hori of Shyam) resounded in the hall.
Parvathy was more than happy to lend her voice to the OBR campaign that opposes patriarchy and the restrictions it puts on women and girls as she felt the issue “is something a woman faces every day of her life”. Explained the celebrated folk artist, who, incidentally, has studied visual arts at the Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan, the university founded by Tagore, “In my opinion, women do not just need to be treated as equals but with utmost respect. A movement like One Billion Rising teaches women to be themselves and not something they ought to be. It urges them to break free of social diktats, which instruct them on how to conduct themselves, how to behave, what to do, and so on. That to me is gaining true freedom.”
If Parvathy was excited to be a part of the OBR movement, then Kamla Bhasin, was all praise for the “amazing woman and singer-seeker”. Remarked Bhasin, “Through her powerful music Parvathy Baul has enabled us to commit ourselves once gain to the power of love.”
So involved was this free spirited artiste in rendering her songs that are “not sung but spoken” that she decided to give her final performance of the evening without the mike. Her powerful voice carried over to the last rows of the auditorium where I sat next to a security personnel, who had lowered his crackling walkie-talkie to a droning pitch, as he too seemed mesmerized by the electrifying effect of her spiritually charged recital. As she concluded, Parvathy offered a very pertinent piece of advice to her audience: “Indeed spirituality can help this cause that so many women around the world are fighting for. It brings about awareness, shows the right way… We are the mother goddess, be arrogant about being one…”
Eve Ensler has said that she is proud of all the work different women are doing as part of the OBR movement because “it’s all about creating energy, fuelling the passage of law, breaking free”. That was exactly what Parvathy Baul unleashed: a potent spiritual energy embedded in her extraordinary music.