COLUMN NINETY-FIVE, AUGUST 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
THE BENGALI BAULS WOW ME IN BROOKLYN, U.S.A.
BABUKISHAN AND PURNA DAS IN TRADITIONAL GARB
ON HOME SOIL WITH TRADITIONAL MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
December 1, 1985. Babukishan Das,
Purna Das' 23-year-old son and rhythm drummer comes to scout me out.
I call him Babu. Babu is also his father's interpreter.
Purna only knows a couple words of English.
Babu knows at least a couple dozen.
o'clock, I will come back with my father and we will take you to our
concert," Babu says.
How do you like
that for service? These guys aint
too heavy on the English but we communicate with ESP.
For instance, it gets to be past 4 that p.m. I never notice. My
mind's a million light years away. I'm
writing, working on a story, with Sheilah E's In the Glamorous Life album
blasting out of the hi-fi. But I
4:55 p.m., I realize I'll never hear the buzzer on the intercom from the
concierge's desk, 33 floors below. I
shut off the hi-fi, go to the house phone and ring down to the desk.
buzz for me?" I ask.
wait a minute," he says. "There's
someone to see you now."
Babu gets on
the house phone. He doesn't have to
say a word.
right down," I say.
waiting on the ground floor with Babu. Babu's
in jeans, but Purna's all decked out in his safron haal, including a
white dhuti, which is a skirt that gets tucked between the legs at the
calves. Purna is one of the
greatest singers in India. Purna
Das Baul, one of the Bengali Bauls, who describe themselves as men of God but
who follow what is more a tradition than a religion.
The tradition has had the Bauls dancing through West Bengali cities like Calcutta for a thousand years, singing songs that tell people to love, to follow the examples of Indian deities Radah and Krisna, to learn from the philosophy of the Baul folk tales and to know just who the Bauls are. Except 59-year-old Purna has become too famous to work the streets any more. Tonight, in fact, he's friendly and warm but still reserved and formal. Well, maybe it's just the language barrier. I'm no longer nimble enough to hop right over that fence. ESP works better.
Outside in the
chilly rain a van is waiting in the circular driveway in front of this fancy
building I'm staying in. Nobody's
fazed by the far-out Indian getups in my building.
The place is loaded with UN, including an ambassador or two.
At the wheel of the van is a Bengali-speaking American who calls himself
Beasakhi. One of Purna's students,
Beasakhi has set up the concert, which is being held in the Brooklyn temple of
Swami Bhakdivadanta's Krisna Consciousness movement.
Beasahki is secretary of the Brooklyn temple.
Also in the van
is Manju, Purna's 45-year-old wife, dressed in a gray sari.
She immediately shows her great charm by trying to hop over the language
barrier like it was a tennis net, but I blow the serve.
Iím no help. Iím up
tight. Manju sings with the band.
She's the lady vocalist. After
the gig gets under way, she sings the first six numbers, and she sings them
I can hardly remember meeting Purna, back in 1967, when the Bauls spent some months at Albert and Sally Grossman's house in Woodstock, ending up on the cover of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album. Sally was instrumental in getting the Bauls to dance over to the States
is much more
than a one-man band
stayed at Purna's houses in Calcutta and in the Shantiniketan countryside for
eight months. Sally'd gotten turned
onto the Bauls by Allen Ginsberg, who'd started spreading international Baul
consciouness after meeting Purna's father, Nabani Das Baul, the master Baul
teacher, in Calcutta in 1963. The
two of them liked to smoke pot together. I
got into the act when Garth Hudson of the Band played me a tape the Bauls had
recorded at Big Pink. I talked
Garth into producing the tape as an album, The Bengali Bauls At Big Pink,
selling it to Buddah with myself as associate producer.
I also wrote the liner notes. The
album's a collector's item now. That's how I got into the act.
Purna and his
family'd arrived in the States this trip on September 23 to tour with
world-renown sitarists Ravi Shankar and Aly Akbar Khan in an Indian music
festival that'd camped in L.A., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington,
Chicago and New York. It was Allen
Ginsberg who'd reminded Purna to look me up when he got to New York. The first time Purna phones me, he stands me up.
That's OK. The language
barrier. Finally we zero in on each
other. First Babu scouts me and
then they pick me up and take me to the gig.
At the Krisna
Consciousness Temple, I can't smoke a cigarette, but the place reeks with
incense from the Govinda Boutique on the street floor.
The Brooklyn Temple is a palace compared to the dives Swami Bhakdivadanta
used to rent on New York's lower East Side when he first came over from India to
start spreading Krisna Consciousness in the U.S.
Like in a mosque, you take your shoes off.
The Swami's devotees are the people who march through New York wearing
safron robes, shaved heads, painted faces and percussion instruments chanting, "Hare
Krisna, Hare Krisna." They
always look happy. My children used
to march with them when they were with their baby sitter, the late, great
Barbara Rubin, a celebrated underground filmmaker, who was also a friend of
Purna and his
troupe take over the temple's "Life Room" to hang out while Babu
changes from his jeans to a red panjabi and safron dhuti. He looks as comfortable as he did in his jeans.
Only one number into the gig and his red panjabi starts getting a
sweat stain down the spine. Babu plays what's called a khol, an ancient clay drum
that he holds on his lap and bangs at either end.
By the time the gig is over his panjabi is soaked with a couple of
pounds of sweat.
one other member of the troupe, the tabla drummer, Badal, who's now
studying in America with a crib in Jersey.
He shows up with his wife and son. Meanwhile
Purna is putting on his purple turban while Manju keeps shaking her head no
until he gets it right. When it's
time for the performance, the four of them sit in the lotus position on pillows
covering a low platform in the auditorium, where the audience for the most part
sits on the floor. With Manju
opening the show, the crowd is delighted. I
didn't really know what to expect. It'd
been so long since I heard the record. The
songs end suddenly but drummers Babu and Badal always manage to end together and
with a surprise flourish. When
is Purna going to open his mouth?
trying to set you up for Purna's performance the way I got set up, but I now
have to let the cat out of the bag. Because
to witness a performance by Purna is to experience something you will never ever
forget in your life. I'm sitting
behind the low platform, the stage, when the show starts with Manju singing six
Mrs. Das?" I'd asked her in the van. Well,
she also could've been called Mrs. Baul. I just wanted to make sure.
Boy, am I gonna tease Purna. How
about mixing them up, friend? I'd
arrived with American preconceptions about entertainment, see.
I mean the lady sings six songs straight and Purna doesn't open his mouth?
Under his left
arm Purna holds what looks like a gourd, excepts it's a lot more than a gourd.
It's an ingenius two-stringed instrument called a khamak.
The gourd is hollow with an open mouth so you can get your hand in it. You can even get two hands in it. While you've got the khamak in a football grip under
your left arm, you're also holding the two strings attached to the bottom inside
the hollow gourd with your left hand. You
heighten or lessen the tension of the strings with a flick of the wrist,
depending on what sound you want to get. Meanwhile
you're plucking the strings with a football shaped plastic pick held in your
right hand, which you stick into the mouth of the gourd.
The khamak is like Purna. You
look at it and you have no idea what you're about to hear.
finally throws his head into the air what you immediately recognize is some of
the most beautiful singing you're ever going to hear.
I don't understand Purna's words but his passion is in a universal
language. Everybody understands
This cat's got it, man!
After a few
notes of this beautiful singing, you're suddenly jolted by what sounds like a
symphony of percussion instruments punctuating Purna's song. You find it hard to believe that all this electrifying rhythm
and cross-rhythm, all this compelling accompaniment, all this sound that sounds
like an Indian cousin of any rock and roll you'd ever want to listen
to---including Sheilah E's percussion-loaded music---is being played by Purna
himself. How could all that sound
come out of one little gourd? How
could Purna concentrate on playing all those different wild rhythms at the same
time he's concentrating on singing such enchanting melody?
I would've been
knocked on my ass, except I was already sitting on it.
Still on my ass, I slid across the floor to get closer to Purna.
He had the whole room riveted. Then
he started to dance. Another
universal language. Dance, music
and passion. Everybody can talk in
those languages, unless they're just too stubborn to want to understand.
Purna slipped bracelets of bells and shakers on his feet and began
dancing on the floor in front of the stage, thus adding more percussion.
You couldn't've been more dazzled by a one-man band.
Still sitting on my ass, my body was compelled to dance, too.
Back home now,
writing about that night, I can tell you only that there's no way to describe a
performance by Purna Das. You just
had to be there. You may not talk
his language, but you understand him perfectly.
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