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How covid-19 pushed ‘baul’ singers of Bengal online

Since the onset of the pandemic, several entities have stepped in to help folk artists pivot to online performances. Sahaje Swadhin collective, working with bauls, is one of them

Debdas Baul (second from right), with his sons.
Debdas Baul (second from right), with his sons.

15 August 2020 was a special date in Debdas Baul’s life—a day of independence in more ways than one. In a career studded with many milestones—including performing around the world and working with writer William Dalrymple and singer Susheela Raman, among others—the events of that day added to his tall roster of memorable achievements.

At 5pm that day, Debdas, along with his sons Lakshman Das, Goutam Das and Uttam Das, as well as their senior colleague Kanai Das Baul, took position before a camera that would livestream a concert by them on Zoom. For the next hour or so, they performed before an audience of 240, who had bought tickets worth Rs150 each on the events platform to listen to them.

“I have never performed online before, but I enjoyed the experience,” Debdas says on the phone from Bolpur city in Birbhum district of West Bengal, where he lives with his family. “Of course, it is a different vibe altogether when you have an audience in front of you. In this case, it was more like singing for ourselves.”

Soon after the pandemic set in and the lockdown was imposed in March, Debdas and his family ran into financial difficulties. As itinerant bauls, folk singers from West Bengal, their livelihood depends on donations by locals in their home town and the neighbouring villages. This ancient practice, which continues to this day, is known as madhukori—as the bee (madhukor) flies from flower to flower collecting nectar, so does the baul move from place to place singing the name of Lord Krishna and gathering benediction. However, as the country shut down, their income dried up as well. “We could barely manage two square meals a day,” Debdas adds.

Debdas Baul.
Debdas Baul.

It was around that time that Sahaje Swadhin, a collective of young artists and art historians led by Pronoy Chakraborty, stepped in with the idea of organising online concerts for the bauls. With the support of Dara Shikoh Centre for the Arts, an organisation dedicated to promoting India’s syncretic cultures, Sahaje Swadhin improvised a digital platform for the bauls to perform on.

Chakraborty, who has a Master’s degree from MS University in Vadodara, was already well-acquainted with the bauls and their practice through this research into vaishnava-sahajiya traditions, a form of Tantric Vaishnavism that grew and evolved around Bengal. “We hope to bring more bauls and fakirs into the fold of these programmes,” he says on the phone. “But, for the moment, we are going to focus on Birbhum, before we diversify into other folk and spiritual traditions elsewhere.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, several entities have stepped in to help folk artists find their feet as live performances, their chief source of income, were stalled. Perhaps the most successful among these efforts is Kalbeliya World, an online dance learning platform set up to enable dancers from the Kalbeliya community in Rajasthan earn a living by teaching students from all over the world. People from as far as Mexico and the UK have signed up for these classes for $10 per session, giving the women from the community financial stability. Bengaluru-based, an immersive experiential platform hosting the arts of India, has also organised performances by the traditional Yakshagana artists of Karnataka.

While such transitions are not without challenges—poor internet in far-flung areas being a major glitch—these innovations have opened up new possibilities before the artists as well. “Their songs come from a place of deep conviction and spirituality, not commercial interests,” says Jyotsna Singh, the director of Dara Shikoh Centre for the Arts, who has known some of the bauls for the last 40 years. “We have provided technical support and the income generated by the two concerts so far (the second one was held on 17 October). Instead of feeling hopeless and despondent, the online platform has suddenly opened up new possibilities before them.”

For the forthcoming concerts, Chakraborty is considering broadcasting pre-recorded performances to avoid any impediments caused by unstable internet connectivity. “We are also thinking of crowdfunding the later ventures, even making an animated music video,” he adds. It's true, the pandemic has pushed millions into a corner, but it has also provoked as many to think out of the box.

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