Fading Music of the Darbesh

Kalachand derbash--Samir4

The Joydeb-Kenduli mela (fair), held every year in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on Makar Sankranti in mid-January is a gathering of wandering minstrels (Bauls, primarily) like no other in India. Gathering in almost equal numbers are lay aficionados addicted to the Baul and Fakir ways of life.

In 2003, young folk arts ‘conservationist’ (what else do you call an archivist, promoter, film music composer, documenter, filmmaker?) Deb Chowdhury was in Kenduli, as he is every year. But that year, he was on a mission, filming the performances of Kalachand Darbesh — the last of a rare breed of singers and philosophers, the Darbeshis.

Technically descended from the Sufi dervishes, Bengal’s Darbeshis are in a league of their own, because they incorporate elements of Vajrayana Buddhist principles as embodied in the Charyapada (8th-12th century), and the sahajiya principles of Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement teachings.

“There is a tendency to club Darbeshis with Bauls,” says Deb, “but it is an entirely different way of life, as are Baul, Fakiri and Shain.” More than a mere musical genre, Darbeshi is a religion, one which encourages a follower to talk about ‘Allah’ and ‘idol’ in the same breath.

Kalachand is the last adherent of the faith. A former headmaster of Dhupguri Junior High School, the B.Com graduate chucked it all up in 1981 when he began his quest for nitya (permanence). That quest is still on, but the 75-year-old has, meanwhile, performed in 16 countries, been felicitated by the likes of Amartya Sen and Ustad Vilayat Khan, and been blessed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was ecstatic about the swaraj, the traditional Darbeshi accompanying instrument, which is also fading into oblivion.

Kalachand’s principal source of income is the alms (madhukari) that he collects by singing on local trains. While voluntary begging is a Darbeshi tradition, for Kalachand, it is a need, because all that he has by way of a supplementary income is Rs. 800 that he receives from the state government. When he needed treatment for a heart condition, it was Deb and friends, who run the Sahajiya Foundation in Kolkata, who arranged it. His biggest hope now: a Rs. 4,000 pension from the Ministry of Culture.

Kalachand’s voice breaks as he talks about his dying art, of his son who refuses to “sing beggar songs”, and of his quest for the “param guru”, but the mood lifts as he describes how William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils revealed God to him, how William Shakespeare is actually a Baul because Romeo and Juliet are Krishna and Radha, and how, for his international performances, he has been regaling audiences with Darbeshi versions of Daffodils and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

He calls them the bard’s “English Baul” songs.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on September 26, 2009. Photo courtesy Samir Jana