Parvathy Baul (b. 1976) is an accomplished singer, teacher, instrumentalist, and practitioner in the Baul tradition of Bengal (India and Bangladesh). She has performed in over forty countries, led several workshops, published a book on the Baul tradition, and recorded five CDs. As a teacher, she carries on the lineage of Sanatan Das Baul and Shashanko Goshai, teaching the philosophy and music tradition that emphasizes respect and unity of all human beings. She is also a storyteller and visual artist. In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
Interview by Lisa Knight. Lisa Knight is Professor of Religion, Anthropology, and Asian Studies and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in South Carolina.
I sat with Parvathy Baul on the hotel bed in Madison, Wisconsin, the morning after she gave a mesmerizing performance for an audience at the Annual Conference on South Asia. I would not have believed that we had known each other for 16 years except that her hair had grown into much longer locks that now cascaded all the way to the floor, circling her as she danced on stage.
The first time I met Parvathy was in 2002 when she came to perform at the University of Chicago. Parvathy came with a group called Vastuvadi Baul, which she had assembled in an intentional effort to join Baul performers from a variety of backgrounds, lineages, and influences in West Bengal. All were excellent performers and impressive individuals. It was October, and the Bengalis wore layers of clothing along with hats and scarves in hopeless attempts to keep warm against the Chicago wind. They joined us in our student apartment for bhat-dal (rice and lentils, with dishes of fried vegetables), and they generously praised our simple meal with comments that they had missed Bengali food on their tour.
Two years before, I returned from almost two years of field study among Bauls in West Bengal and Bangladesh, where I was researching lives and perspectives of Baul women. At the time of my research, I had to justify my project by arguing that there were Baul women – although they were marginalized or ignored in most literature and in Bengali’s imaginations. Bengalis debated about who was a “real” Baul, some claiming there were no real Baul woman, and others arguing that real Bauls were wandering mystics without families or possessions. Questions of authenticity and gender were intertwined.
But it was October 30, 2002 when Parvathy visited, and the world was different from my fieldwork time. A year earlier, my husband and I sat watching television as the twin towers fall. We watched the news all day and night, and we stated with certainty that it marked a change in the world. Soon after, the US invaded Afghanistan. Although we knew the world was already different for many others, America has not been the same since. All the tolerance and good will we thought we were progressing toward was gone, both internationally and in our own neighborhoods and schools. People looked at each other with distrust. The gulf of misunderstanding between people grew. Hate crimes, violence, and intolerance increased.
When Parvathy and Vastuvadi Baul came to Chicago in 2002, their presence was a breath of hope. Parvathy’s work uniting different people was the work of hope. Looking back, I see that my work has also shifted. I have become more focused on activism, a shift I trace back to my friendship with Bauls whose songs and everyday lives aim to create a better world. Although people will undoubtedly continue to argue about who or what is a real Baul, I recognize how Baul songs and ideology can inspire.
Parvathy has not veered from her path, and she works incredibly hard for a more just world. She tours not for self-gain but with the intention of educating people about the valuable ideas in the Baul path. By singing and leading workshops, she raises money to build a center for Bauls, where they can exchange ideas, teach others, and inspire.
This morning in Madison when we talked, her voice was gentle, confident, and joyful. Her strong statements were often followed by sweet laughter. Her speaking voice is as musical as her singing, and both her songs and her words transform an ordinary moment into something worth paying attention to. The printed word does not do her justice. Imagine a bubbling creek. The playful games of birds chasing each other. Imagine inner peace and self-confidence even in the face of upheaval and violence. This is the first half of the interview.
Lisa Knight: The audience of Shuddhashar is broad – it includes Bangladeshis both in and outside of Bangladesh, and also people in Europe who work with exiled writers and artists, many of whom don’t know much about Bangladesh and its history. You have such valuable experiences through your Baul path, and you have also been very deliberate about bringing together different ideas and people to challenge the current situation of discrimination, so I thought you could both inform and inspire people with your ideas. So that is what I was thinking…if you are willing!
Parvathy Baul: Absolutely! It is absolutely okay.
Lisa Knight: I know some of your backgrounds, but for our readers, that would be a good place to start. Could you say something about your background and what inspired you to enter this Baul path?
Parvathy Baul: I was born into a family that came from Bangladesh, and my father and mother came from Chittagong. So most of their studies were in Bangladesh. My father’s studies started in Bangladesh, but then he studied engineering in Kolkata. My grandfather did not come to India until the Bangladesh war, which was after independence when they were separating from Pakistan. He did not consciously come to India, but my father did not let him return to Bangladesh because of the danger there. My grandmother was part of the Surya Sen freedom struggle. [Surya Sen (1894-1934) was a school teacher and a revolutionary who organized youth in the liberation movement against British colonialism. He led a raid on the British Cantonment in the Chittagong mountains and made other attempts to liberate Chittagong from British rule. He was later hanged by the British.]They were a respected family in the area of Chittagong. They also had two temples in that village: one was a Shiva temple and the other was Kali temple. It was a special community that is known as Pariyal. This Pariyal clan is still there in Chittagong because I have gone back – in 2014, I went back to meet my people.
Lisa Knight: Are the temples still there?
Parvathy Baul: Yes. I went there in a very special time. My grandfather left the house and everything locked – he did not transfer anything. [He left his home in Bangladesh around 1971.] So even now he had the tea import from Burma, and that storage house is still locked, and the key he took when he left for India [expecting to return soon]. It was all still there when I went in 2014.
Lisa Knight: And no one tried to break in to take things?
Parvathy Baul: No! because people loved him, everybody loved him, and he was a kind of leader for them.
Lisa Knight: There are many stories about people breaking in and taking things from those who left for India during Bangladesh’s war of independence.
Parvathy Baul: No, because this was a kind of community. And the land and the temple is also protected by the community. But they slowly found out that it belonged to satrusampatti– the “enemy property” – because we are enemies [laughs]…we are Hindus. So, they wanted to occupy the temple, but it is actually at that time I went back to the community. So I got my father’s right, and I said the property was in our family, and we would be happy if the community takes it over. So that is how it was handed over to them. That was in 2014.
I come from a family that had no relationship with Bauls because Chittagong is not really a Baul area. I came to know about the Baul path when I came to Santiniketan to study. I did not come to Santiniketan to learn Baul – I went to study at Tagore’s university.
[Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a writer, poet, and intellectual and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize of Literature. Tagore used the proceeds of his Nobel Prize to fund Visva-Bharati University, which is well-known for its arts, international community, and outdoor classrooms in Santiniketan (“abode of peace”). Tagore was inspired by Baul songs, especially those of Lalan Fakir (Lalan Shah), particularly for their beautiful melodies, universal messages, and anti-communal ideals. Each January in Santiniketan is the Paus Mela, a festival of regional arts, and many Bauls perform on stage and nearby. In other words, it is impossible to avoid hearing Baul songs in Santiniketan.]
But I happened to meet Bauls there, I met Phulmala-di, I met Sanatan-baba. My first encounter with Bauls was in the train when we were going there – I think most of us have had that experience [LK laughs, yes…]. It was this local train, and it was evening time, and this one blind Baul comes into the compartment, and he had this tin ektara [a one-string drone instrument] made of this Amul tin [a homemade instrument made from an Amul milk can]. The moment he strummed the ektara could relate to the sound…it immediately took me to another place. I knew that I understood this sound very well. And when he sang, I felt someone was calling me from very far, and I knew that if I heard Baul songs one more time, I would become a Baul. So, I started avoiding Bauls so I could concentrate on my studies. But in Santiniketan, there is no escape! My first art assignment was to make sketches of the Baul masters and go to the akhara, so of course, I happened to meet many Baul masters.
I then became totally immersed in Baul songs. I wanted to learn properly, so I went to Phulmala-di because Phulmala-di’s voice and songs impressed me a lot. She inspired me. Her songs are so simple and so sweet, and I also felt a very good connection with her as a person. So, I used to study with her, but she was very demanding of me as well. She would say, “You have to come with me to the train, you have to beg, otherwise I am not going to teach you.” So, I started going on the train, and in the university, it became a very big problem because as a student I was going on the train and begging with a Baul. Finally, my studentship was canceled; I was thrown out of the university. But I remained with the Bauls [laughs] – exactly what I thought would happen when I first heard the Baul songs!
After a year, Phulmala-di told me I had to go deeper into the Baul sadhana [practices; discipline], and I needed a guru because singing alone wasn’t enough. I told Phulmala-di, “You become my guru!” But she said that she did not have the authority. She was initiated into the Baul community, but she did not have the authority to become a guru and initiate others. So she said I would need to find someone who has the authority of the Baul sampradaya because it is a lineage. Someone who initiates has to have received permission from their guru that she or he is ready to initiate others. So I happened upon Sanatan-baba, and I spent 25 years with him. He left his body in 2015. After seven years with him, I met Shashanko Goshai, who became my siksha guru, because you know Bauls have diksha guru, siksha guru. I spent three years with my siksha guru in Murshidabad because when I met him, he was 97, and he had his samadhi when he was 100-years old. And then again I went back to Sanatan-baba and continued my path.
In 2008 I was given purna diksha, which is called bhek bairagya, and Baba made me the next teacher for the lineage – as a lineage holder to initiate people and to teach the Baul path to others. Then he told me that I needed to create a place where all the different schools of Bauls can come together, almost like archiving the teachings and bringing – not really intruding to make them one but keeping the diversity – but bringing all the sadhana together because Baba said it was difficult for Bauls to sustain through all these social changes. That includes Bangladesh as well because in Bangladesh many of the practices are lost or are threatened. So this space near Kopai [named Sanatan Siddhashram], it is a space for no boundaries – it is for Bauls from both sides of Bengal, and it is inclusive of Fakir, Baul, Tantric, Vaishnava – any practice, inclusive of anyone. We are willing to support old masters with health issues.
So I’m trying to build this. This is my current work. I am in service because I have received so much from the Baul tradition that I feel it is my time to work for them and to do something that will remain even after my time. We did not have a center for Bauls, but maybe now it’s important to have a center. So that is my current work, and that is what led me here. I’m going around the world singing Baul songs, telling the meaning of the songs, and making people interested in the tradition and to contribute with their good will.
Lisa Knight: I appreciate your idea of supporting the diversity of the Baul path because there are so many different ways, and it is tempting to try to put them all together and make them into one path. But you lose so much creativity that way, so much potential inspiration if you ignore the diversity.
Parvathy Baul: No, that would be a big mistake if we did that. And many people have tried to mix things up and join them all together into one. But after some time, it became monotonous, and there was no way forward because it is the diversity that makes us grow.
It is like nature: it has all kinds of trees and flowers, and if we make it mono-culture, we kill the art. So, we don’t want to do that with our consciousness and our intellect. We should allow our ways of thinking to be free. Absolutely. We are human beings. We are here to explore life. [laughs gently]
Lisa Knight: Have you had much support from the different communities?
Parvathy Baul: Yes. I have had great support from different masters. In fact, after I leave here, I am going to Bangladesh, to Kushtiya, to meet the old fakir masters and talk with them and get them to come to Gurukul and share their experiences. I have very strong support from all the Baul masters – elder generation and younger – because they feel that it is essential to be recognized as a practicing path and not only as a musical tradition. It is a spiritual path that has so much philosophy inside.
But I don’t think everybody understands me. The very intellectual Bengali society, those who have worked with Bauls in a certain way, they don’t really see the point in my work. They think I am trying to intrude over all the schools; they don’t see that I am trying to keep the diversity. Intellectual people who don’t really know about the Baul community but think that they know – sorry! I am being very rude! [we both laugh; LK: No, no, I know what you mean. Many people have very strong opinions about Bauls!]. They don’t understand what I am trying to do.
But those who are practicing Bauls and leading the Baul path, they understand this work because I am living and following the same path with them. I know what is essential right now. I feel the urgency of having this space. And they feel this urgency too.
Lisa Knight: I’m inspired by what you’re saying. This sense of community is what the Baul community used to have, when people used to come together and talk about different ideas from across the border, from different backgrounds. I would read about fakirs and Bauls from different backgrounds knowing something about the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita and being able to share their interpretations and the religious symbols that they would use in their philosophy and songs. You sing about many of these different traditions also, and certainly, in Bangladesh, some do as well. But that opportunity for that kind of mixing, debate or discussion, and opportunity to inspire each other is not so present now.
Parvathy Baul: Yeah, it’s not really present anymore. The attention is too focused on music. I mean music is beautiful, but one also has to create songs, and for that one has to know the discipline of the path and to share the practice. Nobody shares the sadhana; everybody shares songs. But in the old times, you’d see they shared sadhana through the songs; it was not the only song. We have to go back to that. Like sometimes it is said in the tradition that when you are lost, you must return to the first day you sat with your guru. What first inspired you….if you are doubting anything, immerse yourself in that first day.
Lisa Knight: That is a nice image! Why do we start something? What was the first inspiration? It is a good way to re-center yourself and set your priorities.
Parvathy Baul: We have to re-center ourselves and have confidence as well. As you have seen, people are too fragile. I think the recognition [in oneself, one’s inner truth] will bring confidence in all their actions.
Lisa Knight: I think people have a responsibility of inspiring others who are lost and caught up in problems and distractions in society. Baul songs – you listen to them on the train and they take you somewhere else. Humans need that anyway, but they really need it now.
Parvathy Baul: Yeah, yeah. It’s more and more relevant today, the practice of the path.
Lisa Knight: What are some of your greatest realizations about humanity, society, or our relationship as humans to each other?
Parvathy Baul: It is very simple, actually. I don’t have much to say about it. It’s very simple: to cultivate acceptance of the other and to be able to receive them as they are, to cultivate this compassion inside, which is very strong and which can hold [together] our differences. What people want – all of us – is nothing much. We just want a little acceptance, a little bit of love and respect, for whatever we do or how we live. And if we are able to give that compassion and respect to each other, I think we will have less war and corruption. I mean, it is very simple, and I don’t have to say much. It is a little acceptance of each other.
Lisa Knight: How do we get there?
Parvathy Baul: That’s very hard. Because the ego is in the way. When people do not have a spiritual path and way of growing, they do not see that there is a higher truth. They need to be a little bit detached from all things, and not think of themselves as the center of the world, and to give a little space to others. If they can learn their inner truth and decrease their ego, then maybe the trauma that we all carry from life will decrease. Because many of our actions come from the trauma that we have faced in life. Even big decisions, which affect many, many people in the world, come from the trauma of someone’s life, their insecurities. If one works on the individual self, the self that is within us, and on our fears and insecurities, I think we will do better for others.
Bauls always talk about this. Baul always says to look for maner manush [inner self] to see maner manushi n everyone. So, if you go to Baul akhara, you see that if one person comes from high society or from a very poor community, it does not matter: everybody is equally received, fed, and looked after with the same warmth and love. Bauls do not have boundaries. That is our path, that is our practice. This is a little thing we understand about humanity.
Why divide this interview in half? Although I retained the chronology of the interview, and there is much back and forth throughout, the first half thematically focused on Parvathy’s Baul spiritual path, her work, and her aspirations. I supplemented the first part of the interview (originally published in Issue 11) with a separate article on Bauls (see Issue 11), especially for those unfamiliar with them. In this half, similar themes emerge, but what struck me most was the connection between her own story and that of Shuddhashar’s editor and publisher, and the violence against Bangladeshi writers, publishers, and bloggers. Suddenly, despite there being over 260 million Bengalis, the world felt very small.
There are other themes in this half as well. One of those themes is, of course, the evocative songs.
The night before my interview, Parvathy gave a performance for a small gathering of academics. It was the first time the songs of Radha’s love, which I had heard countless times, truly reached me. Parvathy embodied the full intensity of Radha’s selfless love. Her expression transcended all stories about the elicit love affair, jealousy, unfaithfulness, societal risk – many aspects of the Radha-Krishna relationship that my feminist self is quick to critique. Yet as I watched Parvathy sing and express Radha-bhab, there was no doubt about the transcendent power of that love, and about how it transforms an individual living within the constraints of society to reach a higher goal. As I saw it that moment, it was not only love for another; it was love and compassion for humanity, for all of existence. It is not just love for the Divine; it is divine Love. This love empowers Parvathy to continue her work. It is also the love that motivates and empowers many others who, despite odds, continue to work toward a more peaceful and just world.
In addition to my personal ruminations, there was another narrative during that evening performance. From the back corner of the room, the door occasionally opened, letting light stream in as someone entered or left. After several streams of light, Parvathy stopped her performance to ask that the door be kept shut to prevent distractions. This is important. Although Baul performances are seen as entertainment by many audiences and some performers, for others it is not at all about entertainment. It is intended to be transformative, to cause people to think and experience something different.
Parvathy Baul: After some time during yesterday’s concert, the people continued going and coming. At one point of time, I had to say, “Okay, fine, now close the door.”
Lisa Knight: But you said it with such grace and gentleness, and firmness at the same time! I admired that.
Parvathy Baul: They can tell me that they accepted that I wanted them to stop interrupting, but still they might ask, “Why did you close the door?” But I did not close the door out of revenge. Do you know the story of the snake and the monk?
There was a very poisonous cobra, living by the road, and a Buddhist monk was passing through. The villagers said to the monk, “Don’t go that way because that cobra comes out, and he attacks people, and many people have died on that road. So nobody can pass through there.” But the Buddhist said, “I am a monk. I have to lose my life sometime anyway, and I have no problem if my life goes. This life doesn’t even belong to me.” So, he walks to the road, and the cobra comes, but he looks straight into the eyes of the cobra, looking very compassionately. The cobra said, “You are not afraid?” And the monk says, “No I’m not afraid. You want to bite me? Okay fine, bite me.” And the cobra said “I cannot!” because the monk is so welcoming that the cobra cannot bite him. Then, the monk asked, “What is it that makes you bite everybody, attack everyone?” Then he said “I had a sibling who was together with me, and they killed my sibling, so I don’t like humans. So, I want to kill them, whenever I see them, because it’s revenge.” Then the monk gave him the sutras of compassion and how to overcome his emotions. The monk explained that maybe the cobra’s action was too much, and maybe revenge was not really a solution because when you are killing someone, you are also affecting their family. Like how you suffered when your sibling was killed. So, it’s not really a very good situation because you have the pain yourself, and then you are increasing the pain of many people. So, then the cobra became like, “Alright, I want to be different; I want to correct myself.” So, he becomes so compassionate that he doesn’t do anything. So, after that, the children started throwing stones because they heard a story that this cobra is bad, but he isn’t attacking them back. So, they start throwing stones at him. The next year, when the monk came back to find the cobra and learn how he’s doing, he finds that the cobra is totally wounded and dying. And the monk asked, “What happened?” Then the cobra said, “Well, you said not to attack anyone, so I haven’t. So, people were attacking me, and I received all the wounds from that. Then, he said “phosh kotha dosh nei!” You should show your hood but not bite. Because that’s your svabhab – your nature. You have to guard your dharma or the nature that you have, but don’t attack anybody. You keep your discipline as a snake; you don’t lose that.”
So, at some point of time you must lock the door…[*laughter*]….with compassion! It was not revenge or anger. And if they sat through the evening, during this hard and painful time, they might realize something at the end. Because the songs are not done by this individual performing; the songs are the message of the masters. Every time the song is happening, it is an invocation of the presence of the master. So, the masters are talking to you. Not me. Because according to the discipline of the Baul, the singer must disappear. The singer is just a listener, just like others. There is no ego between us: I am singing, and you are watching me, or you are watching me, and I am doing it. All of that should go away. It should become song together. Both performer and audience are singing, and both are listening.
Lisa Knight: Interesting. This could end up being a very long interview. All these ideas —
Parvathy Baul: I will try to be short with you. [*laughter*]
Lisa Knight: No no no! Don’t be short with me! But whenever you say something, I become interested and want to say or ask more. But anyway, I will say this: one idea I have found interesting in some work I’ve read about performance is how the performance is not just about the singer, but also the audience —
Parvathy Baul: — together.
Lisa Knight: Yes, there’s something that happens together. It’s like a conversation. The audience might think of themselves as passive and not necessary, but the performance can’t happen if they’re not present, if they’re not engaging.
Parvathy Baul: Yeah, it’s because it’s two-ways.
Lisa Knight: Two-ways, a dialogue.
Parvathy Baul: Together.
Lisa Knight: Right. Exactly. Like this interview.
So, I have a question about Bangladesh and what has happened since ’71, when you had family in Bangladesh and some members left for India, and since ’72 when the new constitution of Bangladesh included secularism as one of its principles. Now Bangladesh has become increasingly Islamic in a narrow way. I’m wondering, from your perspective how would you respond to this increase in religious division, this increase in extremism and discrimination?
Parvathy Baul: It’s very frustrating, actually, in one word. Frustrating. I have first-hand experience of this violence because many of my family members were fighters in ’71 and ’72, they were freedom fighters for Bangladesh. And at that time, many of them were killed. Like the person who looked after our house and who is from our community: he was beheaded when he was having his food, in his home, in front of his children. He was killed, his head was separated from…..I have lost family members in this violence, and it’s very, very sad. In 2015, when this violence happened, when they went inside the publishing house and attacked somebody, I was there in Dhaka. I was with Khushi Kabir.
Lisa Knight: In October 2015?
Parvathy Baul: In October, yes. I was there. I remember Khushi-di – I was staying with her then – how devastated she was that you don’t have freethinking anymore. We understand religion; we understand everything. But Bengalis, we have a culture that is Bangla culture, which is beyond religion. Bengalis love to read; Bengalis love to express. We have a tradition that gives birth to Lalan Fakir, Tagore, and many Baul practitioners. There are also people like Aurobindo. So, we come from that culture where people express themselves from different points of view. It was always a land of diversity – singing, dancing, women celebrating their womanhood. It’s part of our culture! If we just adopt an outside religion – the same thing as we tried with Communism, which we could not adopt properly. We just followed something that was not integrated into our culture. So, ultimately it collapses. Our real Bengalis are from this land, and the geographical and atmospheric environment around us, it creates the Bengali culture. And we are importing another culture and pushing it onto us. But that’s another culture, from a different environment. We are taking not the culture actually, but some narrow-minded understanding, which we do not really understand ourselves, and we are trying to push it in. Like the snake, who doesn’t know how to protect his snake-hood, so they don’t know how to protect this humanity. They are pushing something that kills the humanity and the broadness of expression of Bengalis. Whether it is Hindu or Muslim or Christian or anything in the world, I absolutely don’t support that method of forcing people. And as a Baul, of course not, that is not our philosophy at all.
Khushi-di is a very, very inspiring woman, a model of fearlessness for me, being a Bangladeshi. The first time I met her, she said, “Parvathy, let’s break all the walls between us! Let’s break all the walls, through the Baul music.” And I said, “Yes, of course! I too will bring my hammer – my ektara – and I will break the walls!” And then, at that time [October 2015], she was going all around and meeting all these people who were wounded and attacked by extremists – by people who would go inside their office or private house and kill them…. in front of the children, you know? Forgive us, in front of children!! What trauma this child will carry for all their life. They’re spoiling somebody’s life, I mean they’re killing a person, but they are also killing so many other people because it’s like dying to carry this dead body with them, this image of somebody dying in front of them. It’s going to affect them all their life.
Lisa Knight: And the next generation.
Parvathy Baul: And the next generation! Because that horror will reflect onto all the people they will meet. So, it’s such a huge harm that we are doing to ourselves. The people who are doing the killing are the same people who live in the same land. It’s going to affect them as well. So, we are affecting ourselves – it’s foolishness! Absolutely.
I still remember the government trying to give security for Khushi-di because Khushi-di is a very liberal person. And she says, “I will walk through the street, let them come. Let me see.” She says that. “In my country,” she said, “I will never walk with security. This is my country, too.” Khushi-di comes from a well-known family, but she fought for the security for other people, to give them help. That’s why I want you to meet her and really talk with her because she has been a strong activist against this killing, this mass killing.
Lisa Knight: Yes, I hope to meet her.
Parvathy Baul: And she’s the one who still does Pahela Baishakh, asking girls to wear colorful clothes and sing and dance through the street. Even now she’s the one doing that.
Lisa Knight: She needs to be careful.
Parvathy Baul: She has to be careful, but she doesn’t care. She is ruthless in her way.
Lisa Knight: Good for her. A lot of people are being careful because they are afraid, and for good reason.
Parvathy Baul: Yeah, exactly. But we should not do that. We should speak out so that it does not go to the extreme where everybody revolts.
I was surprised. I took a car from Dhaka to Kushtia to the Lalan festival, and on the way there was this camp happening. Through the microphone they were announcing in Bengali that they are selling space in heaven with money. They told the people, “Give this amount of money so that all your sins are forgiven, and you will get a place in heaven.” And people don’t have enough education in Bangladesh. What we need is education, but not everybody is educated enough to make their own way because they do not know about the world. Only this much information is available to them. So, they follow what they hear and do not question it.
Lisa Knight: So what advice would you give to people in Bangladesh or elsewhere who are facing discrimination or facing extremism?
Parvathy Baul: It’s hard. Being in that situation and fighting such strong power that is so scary and violent…people are just trying to protect their family, so they just don’t say anything. Because, if they alone come up and say something, their family will be destroyed completely. I mean, what can you advise in that situation? So it’s not about what the people should do; it’s the authority that must take action. The government has someone who is more powerful and who must take the lead.
Lisa Knight: Yes, I agree. That is an important point. Anything else you want to say that would be an inspiration? Or some lyrics that you think are particularly relevant for today?
Parvathy Baul: I would like to share this song of Bhaba Pagla.
Lisa Knight: Ahh, great!
Parvathy Baul: This song says: [Thinking about the song, Parvathy summarizes] Oh Divine, awaken in all the temples. You are the light of the time. You are the pure one. You keep the dignity of humanity, come back again. And through the ages you are the one who holds the shudharshana wheel [variously understood as the chariot, the discus of Vishnu, and the weapon that gives clear sight] that cuts through every falsehood and brings the truth back. You are the charioteer of Arjuna. You take him in the middle of the battlefield and give him the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita. So, put the peacock feather back in your hair, come back and tell us the wisdom of Gita. You were born in all times when humanity was suffering, and you established the truth. And now, again the ignorance is the suffering for us. So, come back again, the Peacekeeper. Give us peace, that’s all we need. No more war.
Lisa Knight: That’s great, a great image.
Parvathy Baul: Should I sing the song?
Lisa Knight: Of course!
Parvathy Baul: With my ektara or just my voice?[With only her voice, Parvathy sings the song of Bhaba Pagla, Mondire mondire jago debata.]
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
কাল প্রবাহে সুপবিত্র
রাখিতে হইবে মান শোনো বারতায়
রাখিতে হইবে মান শোনো বারতা
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
আদি অন্ত কাল সুদর্শনধারী
পার্থ সারথি দেবো বৈকুন্ঠ বিহারী
রহিওনা স্বর্গে, নেমে এসো মর্তে
রহিওনা স্বর্গে, নেমে এসো মর্তে
সেকি পুচ্ছ চঞ্চল ভারত গীতায়
সেকি পুচ্ছ চঞ্চল ভারত গীতায়
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতায়
যুগ যুগান্তরে অবতীর্ণ কর্নধার
আবির্ভাব হউ প্রভু লীলা অবতার
সংক্লিপ্ত যে ভুবন, কত দিন অচেতন
সংক্লিপ্ত যে ভুবন, কত দিন অচেতন
ভবা কহে এসো এসো শান্তি দাতা হে
ভবা কহে এসো এসো শান্তি দাতা
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
মন্দিরে মন্দিরে জাগো দেবতা
Parvathy Baul: The mandir is not outside; it’s the temple of the heart. So, the divine has to awaken in everyone, like what we were saying before. We need to overcome our own fears and insecurities. So, let love and compassion come and sit and take over. [*laughter*] There is a John Lennon song, right? You can call me a dreamer. But at least I’m not the only one. Many other Bauls say the same thing.
Lisa Knight: Beautiful. It hits me right here. Thank you.
Parvathy Baul: All my life I’m running around with my ektara and this song.
Lisa Knight: Your inspiration to keep going. It’s such an interesting image, the Gita, when Krishna is with Arjuna and Arjuna is having all these doubts about what to do.
Parvathy Baul: Yeah.
Lisa Knight: Such a powerful moment of decision.
Parvathy Baul: Very strong, very big decisions which we all must make at one point – or at many points – in our lives.
Lisa Knight: It’s captured so well in that part. We think it’s all about life or death and that our action has a big significance in the world. And yes it does, but also it doesn’t. We become immobilized with indecision.
Parvathy Baul: Even the small decisions lead us to the bigger aim. So we must be conscious and present with all decisions we make, with every little action that we do.
Lisa Knight: Yeah. In the Gita, Krishna says that even he has to act. It all depends on action– but especially conscious action. We could all act with our eyes closed, sure, and things will happen anyway–
Parvathy Baul: — thinking that it doesn’t really affect me, but it’s going to affect me. Because when we steer the water somewhere, it comes anyway. Small wave or big wave, it still comes.
Lisa Knight: Perfect, thank you. I’m going to turn this off. I hereby declare this interview done.
Parvathy Baul: I have been fierce, with my words, I think. I have been advised by many that I should not speak about these kinds of things because it affected me a lot, because I am so fierce in my “no!” to this. But, we have Khushi-di, and we have to support her. Otherwise, she’s alone.
Lisa Knight: I will send this interview to you.
Parvathy Baul: You definitely can write whatever I’ve said because it’s my decision, I’ve said that. As Krishna said, make your decisions with consciousness. You know, there are people who said to me that if you come to Dhaka, they will shoot me because I have many Bangladeshis students from Islamic background, girls and boys, and their families have threatened me like that.
Lisa Knight: Are those students in West Bengal now, or are they —
Parvathy Baul: They are still living in Bangladesh, but they come to me from time to time. For instance, one girl doesn’t want to wear a burqa, and she doesn’t want to follow those practices. And she said, “I’m a spiritual practitioner, and I want this path. I don’t want to go into that.” It’s her choice, but she is forced to marry. This happened before she met me. So, I told her, “All right, you don’t want to wear burqa, don’t wear it. And you don’t want to have a child, every human has the right to decide whether to have a child or not. You are not obligated to have a child. So, her family threatened most of my students in Bengal. Her husband called me and said, “You are spoiling her, and next time you come to Dhaka we’ll shoot you.” I said, “I’ll definitely tell you the time and the arrival of the flight so that you can be present at the airport to shoot me.”
I’m “spoiling the women.”
I sang in a Bangladesh stadium, there were one or two lakh people, and I sang “Jai Radha Radha Govinda Jai” because that’s part of my singing. I sang it boldly, I didn’t pretend that I am not a Vaishnav. I am a Vaishnav. I love Radha and Krishna, I don’t have to adjust that. So, I sang, and I told everybody to sing with me, and when I said to sing with me, it was not my intention that I was asking a Muslim country to sing with me. It was not my intention. So, I sang, and they responded, and later there was a huge writing that I was trying to convert and spread Hindutva in Bangladesh. It was not my intention at all. The people sang because Radha Govinda is part of their culture. It is Bengali culture. Lalan has written many songs on Gauranga. Muslim fakirs have written the best bicchedi gaan [songs of separation] about Radha. You know that.
Lisa Knight: Yeah, yeah.
Parvathy Baul: The most beautiful songs written for Radha are by Muslim fakirs. Much better than Vaishnav. And now they are killing that culture of acceptance. Our culture has been rich with acceptance of each other.
Lisa Knight: I was recently going back through the literature and thinking about the poets and writers, and how many of them came from Bangladesh, then went to Kolkata, and maybe became famous or went back. There was all this back and forth, but so many of their roots are in Bangladesh, right? So much great culture –
Parvathy Baul: Yeah, exactly!
Lisa Knight: — came out of that whole mixture of people and ideas. It’s incredible. I don’t know of many places like that.
Parvathy Baul: Everyone came from that side.
Lisa Knight: It’s so true! I was writing this because I was thinking about Tagore, who had property in Bangladesh, and of course about Lalan who has influenced many people in Bangladesh and West Bengal. But then I started thinking about other writers – Jibanandna Das, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jasimuddin, and on and on. There was so much crisscrossing. [Not only Parvathy’s family, but also Phulmala Dasi, mentioned in Issue 11, hails from Bangladesh.]
Parvathy Baul: Even the whole Manoharshahi gharana [a famous Vaishnava lineage of Kirtan singing] was from Sylhet. Sylhet is the birthplace of more than 15 schools of fakirs, of Bauls. And the number of poets born here: Radharaman is from here, Hasan Raja is from here. If you just look at the history of that district.
Lisa Knight: And then Sylhet became one of the most conservative places in Bangladesh.
Parvathy Baul: Yes. Can you imagine this? This was a birthplace of music! So many Indian ragas were created in the royal palace because many of the kings and landowners were very supportive of music. And now singing is banned.
Lisa Knight: Yeah. When I was there in 2000 in Sylhet, trying to find women singers, it was very difficult because I would go places and people would say, “Oh, women don’t sing in this country.” And I would hear a woman singing in the background at the mazar when this person was telling me “No, women in our country don’t sing.” Really? Even the people I was staying with, who were sympathetic – one of them was a Baul singer – they made it difficult because they were feeling the pressure of conservatism. There was stigma that you can’t be a singer or performer or Baul and also a respectable woman.
Parvathy Baul: I was so surprised. I was sitting in the Lalan Fakir Mazar when the Bauls were singing and the azan [call to prayer] started, and they had to put down their instrument and stop singing. I was surprised. A Baul never stops singing – because they are also calling God!
Lisa Knight: Exactly!
Parvathy Baul: I said, “Why did you stop?”
I went to Iran too. They asked me to hide my hair. Then I said, “It’s sculpture; it’s artistic expression. It is not hair!”
Lisa Knight: Did that work?
Parvathy Baul: Yeah, I just had to put a small band here, so that there was one piece of cloth, and I said it was sculpture, and that I worked on it for 20 years. They had to accept it. It is not hair, I said. I made it.
Lisa Knight: It has gotten long!
Parvathy Baul: Very long! It’s longer than me. When I met you it was this long [pointing to her middle back].
Lisa Knight: When I was watching you dance last night, I asked myself, “She’s not going to step on her hair, is she?”
Parvathy Baul: I step on them, actually, but I remember the hair, so I keep my feet away. I know where to take my feet. But, the hair gives me so much awareness of the space because in a way it binds and restricts me from my movement, so I don’t overdo anything. I am very present, it keeps me in the present.
Lisa Knight: I saw that, the way that you moved your hair sometimes from where it was in the way. Very consciously. You were not disturbed.
Parvathy Baul: I like that it’s long because it helps to keep me present, so that I’m not everywhere.
Lisa Knight: That’s great. Hair can do that, right? I have taken so much of your time…
Parvathy Baul: No, it’s so nice to spend time.
Lisa Knight is Professor of Religion, Asian Studies, and Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in South Carolina.
Woodcuts were made by Parvathy Baul and Ravi Gopalan Nair.
Thanks go to James Bergman who helped transcribe the recorded interview. James is a student at Furman University, majoring in Religion and Anthropology, and minoring in Latin Studies.