Bauls—the wandering minstrels of Bengal—are also the keepers of a feisty rave culture which is over five centuries old. Considered outcastes and largely ascetic, this anarchic set of nomads have preserved spiritual teachings that have been through generations. They carry simple instruments and often break into impromptu gigs at bus stops, temples, shrines and almost everywhere. Over the years the Bauls have become more polished and their rustic brand of songs have steadily found acceptance among the city listeners.
Paban Das, fondly called Paban, is a nouveau Baul in that he’s much westernised having lived in Paris till very recently. He isn’t illiterate like most of his peers and has taught himself not only Bengali but English, Hindi and French as well. Paban has lent a modern sensibility to Baul songs. He is a hypnotic vocalist and a master of dubki (a small rural tambourine). Besides, Paban is also an accomplished player of the ektara, dotara and the khamak, all traditional Baul instruments. He has synthesized Sufism, Vaishnavism and Tantric Buddhism thereby drawing global audiences to his trance inspiring performances.
Born in Mohammadpur, a nondescript village in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, Paban was initiated into music by his father who was a martial arts champion. Paban’s father had lost all his money in land deals and turned to wrestling and singing to eke out a living. He started playing the dubki at five and was trained by Sufi fakirs. At 14, Paban was inducted by Subal Das Baul in his group, whom he met at a village fair.
In 1988, Paban, collaborated with leading guitarist Sam Mills for the first time. Sam performed with 23 Skidoo, an avant garde group, from 1979 to1982. Paban, by then, was already an established artiste. “I would sit in the veranda of the house in Kolkata where Paban and Mimlu Sen stayed and play their piano,” says Sam. “Paban would always be singing and playing so we started to jam together. He gave me a khamak and a dotara which I also learned to play, although never as well as the Bauls do. All the time I was hearing a lot of the music, learning the language and getting a whole background to the kind of work Paban was doing, which made him seem more rather than less remarkable to me. I used to listen to a lot of Bengali songs, which are very rich and melodic, and think about how they could fit in with the kinds of chords we use in pop music here, as well as with the kind of beats and grooves that run through African music, or funk, or whatever,” he adds. The collaboration marked one of the first fusion albums of Western pop and Bengali folk music.
Over the years, Paban has taken Baul beyond the shores of India. He is, today, widely acknowledged as an exponent of the genre.
--- Prabuddha Neogi