In early April this year a group of Islamic hardliners turned up at Mohammad Fakir’s Shadhu Shongo in Pangsha, a village in rural Bangladesh. A Shadhu Shongo is a yearly meet of shadhus, the mystic bauls of Bengal. The bauls sing devotional songs which outline their philosophy of religious freedom. Allah, Krishna, God and Buddha are all one they say, and there should be no bitterness or rivalries between members of the religions surrounding them.
Mohammad Fakir photographed by Syedtawhiduzzaman Jaki
This message and the lifestyle of the bauls has long riled extremists of both Muslim and Hindu faiths and this was demonstrated by the actions of the uninvited group of visitors to the Shadhu Shongo. They round up a group of over 20 bauls, all of them over 60 years of age, and took them to a local mosque where they insulted them, forcibly cut their hair and made them say prayers of contrition. There was some media attention given to the event, and a few weeks later a second Shadhu Shongo was planned by Anusheh, the musician I have mentioned in earlier posts. This second event was much larger than the first, with shadhus from all over the country being invited, and cameras from national news stations and papers.
I got involved with fundraising and managed to secure a couple of donations. We were looking for a total of 3-4 lakh takas, equivalent to 3-4000 GBP, a huge amount to find in a couple of days. As I called around asking for donations however I began to question myself on the importance of spending so much money on this event. The organizers planned to fly bauls in from West Bengal; they built toilets and were going to be supplying food for the thousands they expected to attend. It occurred to me that perhaps left to his own devices Mohammad Fakir, the shadhu who had called the first event and in whose name this second was being held, might not have wished to make such a show of things if left to his own devices. However, as Anusheh said, if I were subjected to the kind of treatment these men were subjected to perhaps I would be more inclined to stand up and make a fuss.
There were rumours floating around that some of the shadhus themselves were out to cause trouble – which is essentially against their nature but understandable given the circumstances – so I was at times apprehensive about going there myself. Not because of a fear of getting caught up in violence – I was sure that any anger would not be aimed at someone so peripheral to the issues – but more because of how difficult it would be to see these peaceful and loving men being driven to violence. But in the end I feel it is always best to see the whole truth, so I decided to go.
In the end there was no violence of any kind. It was a peaceful, joyful event and I was very pleased to be a part of it.
The journey was fun. I travelled with a bunch of other young people, one of them very young – only 3 months old. Their parents were a couple from Italy who’d heard of the event on facebook and hired a mini-bus to travel there with friends – 2 from Spain, one from Chile, one from Canada and 4 Bangladeshis. The Canadian girl and I had worked together in the Vagina Monologues and I took up the last place in the car. It was my first experience of travelling the country with other foreigners and it was entertaining to stop over for lunch in a little local café and to gague the astonishment of the owners. I popped into their kitchen to take some photographs and was rewarded with a free bowl of fresh dal. It was scalding and delicious.
We arrived at around 7pm when it was already dark and were glad for the late advice to buy some torches. We picked them up in the last village on the road and it turned out to have been essential. We walked an hour along a rough muddy track to reach the village. A couple of people lost shoes along the way and there were plenty of precarious moments, so without torches we would most certainly have been lost.
When we finally made it to the camp it was just about time to serve dinner to the shadhus. It was an intricately planned affair and I got roped in immediately serving out big bowls of food onto banana leaves for the few hundred shadhus who were present. Eating is a ritual to them with all attendant rules and matters to respect. One must not touch the food and must only serve it with the right hand. Once the food is on the plate it shouldn’t be touched by the serving spoon. It’s all quite tricky with large dollops of gloopy rice. They say a blessing and eat in silence. We kept going round with offers of more rice and vegetables, carefully picking a route through the plates and trying to keep our heads lower than theirs – also tricky as they were all sitting on the floor.
Not long after food was served the music began. The main marquee had at least a thousand people inside and maybe the same again crushed around the edges. I immediately picked my way through the throng to find my teacher, the man who had been teaching me baul songs over the previous few months. I found him and he said to stay close – if he called me I was to sing. This felt like a crazy challenge. All of the most respected shadhus of the country were there and I, a hapless white girl who knows so little of all their philosophies, was to stand in front of them and sing their songs. As it happened the moment never came, but as the night wore on and more songs were sung I felt as though I would have been able to do it. The atmosphere was so warm, so accepting of whatever happened, that there would have been nothing but appreciation for a foreigner who was interested in learning their music.
One of the Shadhus photographed by Syedtawhiduzzaman Jaki
One by one the shadhus were called up to sing. The stream of songs was nearly unending from 9 in the evening until they took a break for the first azan (Muslim call to prayer) of the day at around 4.30 am. Though I know some of the songs I don’t even begin to understand the majority of them. The atmosphere kept me awake though and as the beat pulsed through me I never began to feel tired. The celebratory warmth of the songs and their singers are always enough to keep me grinning and bobbing.
The one slightly incongruous thing was the press. They’d been invited to highlight the issue of the humiliation of the bauls at the previous event so there were several TV channels present. The cameras didn’t necessarily intrude, they just made it feel more like a performance than the unself-conscious celebration it might otherwise have been.
In another smaller tent set aside for discussions the music went on until after dawn when people began to walk around and get tea from the stalls around the village. Not long later breakfast was served and again I began to learn a set of rules associated with the ritual of their food. The rice, made sweet with spices and raisins, is prepared and left in lots of large bowls until everything is prepared. While it sits waiting it needs to be fanned to stop flies from settling on it. Then there is fresh buffalo milk to be poured over the rice and dry puffed rice to add to the mix. As I fanned the bowls I looked away to speak to one of the shadhus and managed to bash the rice with the fan. This is a massive no-no as the rice is sacred and is not to be touched once it is prepared. My private little clown show had begun.
We carried the rice above our heads (because it is higher than ourselves) across the field to the tent where the shadhus were sitting in long lines waiting, with their banana leaves laid out on the floor in front of them. I soon realized that all the other people carrying the rice were men. Should I give it to a man, I asked? Yes. So I went off to get some milk. It was in a big jug and I was to pour the milk onto the rice which had already been served. The men made little holes in the rice with their fingers for the milk to be poured into. At least this gave me an idea of how much to give. But I was pouring it from a height and the milk sploshed everywhere, until someone pointed out I should be using a cup to pour it with.
So I found a cup and carried the jug in my stronger right hand, leaving the left free for the cup. It took a while for someone to politely point out that I should be pouring it out with my right hand – so I swapped. At one point a man pointed out that I’d touched the food on his plate with the jug I was pouring from – another massive no-no. Not long after this a local woman came over and took the jug and cup from me; “if you’re going to take that long about it I might as well do it myself”, or words to that effect. I’d been firmly put in my place and went off to eat some of the delicious sweet rice myself.
The rest of the morning was taken up with more songs. I went around the site and visited some of the shadhus that I knew. Many of them invited me to visit them in their homes dotted around the country and I made resolutions to visit a few of them that I really respected. I also managed to have conversations with some of the wives of the shadhus. It’s often easier to converse with women here than men, partly because of the external perceptions, but also because even with shadhus I often found myself questioning the motives of men who were keen to engage a woman in conversation. It’s not really “done” and I didn’t want to slip into the stereotype of the loose white woman.
The women were fascinated and fascinating. They clearly supported their husbands unreservedly and didn’t seem to appreciate my comment that “there should be more women singing”. I suppose they are happy to fulfill their role and don’t see anything wrong with occupying a more supporting role. I can’t help feeling that’s to be expected given generations of women being encouraged to feel that’s their place.
Despite my not having sung the night before word had got around that I knew how to sing some baul songs and I was asked several times if I would sing. The atmosphere was different in the daytime however and I was feeling doubtful after a long night of no rest. My teacher had already left to go back to Dhaka and I felt it would have been disrespectful to sing without him there. So this time around I didn’t sing at all. In a way as I left I was kicking myself – what a great experience it would have been, and I always try to Do, rather than Not to Do. But also I felt that it was not my time. This was an event for the bauls and I didn’t want to step on stage and take attention from them and their message. There would be other times for me to sing.
The awesome Anusheh, who organised the event, with the help of many minions. Photograph by Syedtawhiduzzaman Jaki