6. The Spirit of Place: Shared Encounters with the Bauls and Fakirs of West Bengal
Denise Doyle [+]
University of Wolverhampton
Tara Baoth Mooney [+]
Independent Artist, Musician and Design Consultant
There is no knowing or sensing a place except by being in that place and to be in a place is not, then, subsequent to perception ... but is an ingredient of perception itself. Such knowledge, genuinely local knowledge, is itself experiential (Edward Casey (1997, p. 18) The rich history and sheer diversity of folk art practices in South Asia is repeated across the many states of India, already well known for its intense saturation of the senses. In particular the state of West Bengal, the onetime seat of British India and the birthplace of Rabindranath Tagore, is host to an array of intangible folk art practices. These practices are often specific to particular regions or even small clusters of villages. In Spring 2011 a group of artists, musicians and dancers from Europe were invited to participate in a ten-day cultural exchange workshop in Calcutta (hosted by the Indian organisation and agent for change, Banglanatak dot com). Working alongside three distinct groups, the Chau dancers, the Baul and Fakir spiritual musicians, and the Jhumur rural singers and dancers, ‘moments of play’ and ‘moments of exchange’ became pivotal points of mutual exploration, thus providing a platform for cultural exchange. Through this encounter a number of themes and questions emerged. A potential consequence of rapid change and globalisation is the loss of heterogeneous cultural and spiritual practices (already being seen in the state capital Calcutta where the practice of throwing figures of gods and deities into the Hooghly river is now actively discouraged). Cultural exchange, however, is not a contemporary phenomenon; witness the meeting of Rabindranath Tagore and WB Yeats in London in 1912 and again in 1913. Tagore credited the "national awakening" of Ireland, as being Yeats' return to "the ancient poetic tradition of Ireland" and similarly Yeats claimed that Tagore's poetry was crucial for a "new Renaissance" that had "been born in" India’ (Chakravarty, 1998, p.165). Tagore is a well known figure who was himself inspired by the Baul and Fakirs spiritual songs and practices. During a two-day trip to a Fakir village on the Bangladeshi border, the group were introduced to an extraordinary female Baul, Shubadra Gaan, who played the harmonium and sang of God as ‘Manush who never changes’. In this chapter we propose to reconsider our experience of place through those encounters a number of years ago that still hold clear in our memory. Evenings spent at the Fakir village on the border of Bangladesh are remembered through those cultural encounters as ‘lived experience’ and the spirit of that particular place through to the extraordinary encounter with Shubadra Gaan.