reportage

For the Sake of the Song

By DEBORAH BAKER | 1 May 2011

BY SEPTEMBER 1967, the mela that brought 100,000 flower children, blissed-out hippies and curiosity-seekers from all over America to San Francisco had come to a close. Someone, however, was reluctant to admit that the ‘Summer of Love’ was over; for two weeks storefronts in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood sprouted psychedelic posters announcing the arrival of yet another musical sensation. The LDM Spiritual Band, a five-member troupe of folk musicians from India, commonly known as Bauls, was coming to America on a seven-month concert tour.

On 14 September 1967 the band performed at Fillmore West. They had actually been expected a week earlier, having been billed as the opening act for The Byrds, but they arrived three days late, and unknowingly missed their own debut. When they didn’t show, Albert Grossman, the man who had brought them to California, flew back to New York.

Grossman was a powerhouse on the exploding folk rock scene, spearheaded by his star clients Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. But he was also a patient man where his artists were concerned (he had just signed the very high maintenance blues singer Janis Joplin). If he was disappointed at the band’s failure to appear as scheduled, he was still sold on the prospects of Bengali folk music in America. Since everything Grossman touched seemed to turn gold, it hadn’t taken too much convincing for Elektra Records to agree to pay the plane fares from Calcutta and underwrite a recording session.

The band included a Baul singer named Purna Das Baul, his younger brother Luxman on the khrmack, Jiban Das on tabla, Sudhananda Das on harmonium and Krishna Das Baul on the fretless dotara, which has two main strings. There was also Calcutta journalist Asoke Fakir, his wife Malati and their 18-month-old daughter. Asoke, acting as the Bauls’ manager and general factotum, had cashed Elektra’s check, arranged the band’s visas and booked their Pan Am tickets; he had also delayed their arrival in San Francisco because he decided they should spend six days sightseeing in Tokyo en route. As none of the Bauls spoke English, they were obliged to follow his seemingly more worldly lead. Asoke had even come up with their name, the LDM (Lok Dharma Mahashram) Spiritual Band, which was in turn derived from the “World’s First Socio-Spiritual Research Institute for the Neo-Spiritual Movement”, of which Asoke was both the ‘International President’ and ‘Founder Director’.

On the night of their first performance Asoke, suddenly dressed in the long, flowing gowns of a fellow band member, took to the stage, his head shaved clean as a baby’s bottom. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and proprietor of the famed City Lights bookstore, was in the audience with a tape recorder, as was a young Bengali student from the University of California, Berkeley, named Dilip Basu. Asoke greeted the sold-out auditorium as if he were addressing all of America personally: for nearly half an hour, he invited the largely stoned audience to open their hearts and minds to the Baul message of peace, love and universal brotherhood through spiritual coexistence. Or something like that. Then, turning around with a flourish, he lifted his trident and began to conduct the LDM Spiritual Band in song.

FIVE YEARS EARLIER, close to the end of his nine-month stay in Calcutta, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg—accompanied by his partner, Peter Orlovsky (whom he referred to, slyly, as his “wife”), the Bengali poet Shakti Chatterjee, and their would-be spiritual guru, Asoke Fakir—had travelled to Siuri, home to a large clan of Bauls, the troubadour poet-singers of the Bengal countryside. This was the highlight of a train and bus journey to visit various sacred sites in the Birbhum district of West Bengal.

In Shantiniketan, Ginsberg had listened patiently as a number of scholars discussed the spiritual genius of ‘Father’ Rabindranath Tagore. Moving on to Tarapith, the site of a Bhakti temple devoted to the worship of the fearsome tantric goddess Tara, Asoke had introduced them all to a group of sadhus practicing smasana sadhana, tantric spiritual practices of the cremation and burial grounds. The corpse-strewn, smoke-filled scene in Tarapith, once home to the mad saint, Bamakhepa, was thrillingly intense, particularly after several chillums.

Finally, after Tarapith they had arrived at a little hamlet outside Siuri. There Ginsberg found the aged, legendary Baul master Nabani Das Baul living in a small mud hut, bedridden and unable to sing. When Nabani spoke to Ginsberg from his sick bed, reciting with difficulty the songs he had once sung so lustily, Ginsberg scribbled Asoke’s roughly translated words dutifully in his notebook. He spent a week with the Baul family. From Nabani’s wife he learnt to eat with his hands, from Nabani he learnt to play the single-stringed ektara and four-stringed tanpura, the instrument that provides a background drone to Indian classical music. He was also schooled in the chanting of the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya.”

Ginsberg hoped to find, in Baul spiritual teachings and songs, a new wellspring for his own poetic work. Tagore had once sat at Nabani Das Baul’s feet with nearly the same intention. Along with those of Lalon Fakir, the songs of Nabani Das were often cited as one of the Nobel laureate’s principal sources of inspiration for his poetry, music and philosophy of life. Tagore later distilled what he understood of Baul beliefs in his famed lecture in 1930 at Oxford, ‘The Religion of Man’. Bauls were distinguished from the usual run of men by flouting social convention, avoiding temples and mosques and any denotation of caste. Song and dance were their only form of worship, and their bodies their only temple. He translated the word baul as “madcap”.

For many years, Ginsberg had convinced himself that poetry held the key to mystical experience and spiritual awakening. As a young college student in New York City, he had had a spontaneous and beatific vision of God while reading the poems of William Blake in his Harlem tenement in 1948. This vision, however, was followed days later by a terrifying hallucination. In the next two decades, he tried to figure out how he might summon the experience of ecstasy, compassion and wisdom of the first vision and bypass the horror of the latter. Addressing a Marxist literary conference in Jamshedpur in the summer of 1962, Ginsberg allowed that experiments with mantras, tantric practices, Zen meditation and possibly jazz music might also elicit this higher order of consciousness. He hadn’t entirely given up on the promise of LSD, but when he was honest with himself, he realised the drug had proved unpredictable, more apt to summon his demons than the hoped-for celestials.

But when Ginsberg returned to America from India in the summer of 1963, he immediately saw that it wasn’t drugs or meditation or poetry that was now turning on American youth. Soon after his arrival, someone had sat him down and played Bob Dylan’s just-released second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which opened with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, the song Peter, Paul & Mary had made famous while Ginsberg was in India. Ginsberg, who had gone to India to escape the notoriety and public outrage that had accompanied the publication of his scandalous poem ‘Howl’, realised that the torch had passed from his poetry to Dylan’s folk music. Recalling this insight years later in Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Dylan, No Direction Home, Ginsberg, then in his 70s, burst into tears.

IT WAS SALLY GROSSMAN, Albert’s wife, who had stayed behind to meet the Bauls at the airport when they finally arrived in San Francisco. Born Sally Buehler in the New York City borough of Queens, she was the daughter of an actuary and a housewife-turned-local politician. After graduating from high school in 1957, she attended college for two years, eventually abandoning it for the brighter lights of downtown Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Here, a different kind of education was on offer. Here, she found the already legendary folk venues and jazz cabarets, nightly performances of poetry, standup comedy and avant-garde theatre and dance. For several years, she moved among the close-knit tribe of black-stockinged young women taking part in this scene. They worked in bookstores and coffee shops and bars, juggling lovers and jobs and cold-water flats, improvising their lives as if only the present moment mattered. She first worked the door at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. From The Bitter End nightclub she moved to Feenjon on Seventh Avenue South before landing at Cafe Wha? on MacDougal, only a block from the legendary Gerde’s Folk City. Then, on a whim, she went to Mexico.

A year into her stay in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, it occurred to her that if she returned to New York it might be interesting to work for Albert Grossman. During her years in Greenwich Village, Grossman’s enigmatic presence was ubiquitous. Prematurely gray, he haunted the dreams of aspiring musicians, who looked for him in the darkened recesses of the Gaslight or Gerde’s Folk City. Everyone knew he had put together the folk trio of Peter, Paul & Mary, and as Allen Ginsberg was only just learning, his client Bob Dylan was going places. A former nightclub owner from Chicago, Grossman had taken folk music and made it a multimillion-dollar business, as he would soon do for rock ‘n’ roll.

Within a month of her return to New York, Sally found herself in Grossman’s kitchen. Having lived a fairly rough life in Mexico, she was still surprised by the sight of water coming from a faucet. She was even more astonished to find herself cooking for the many musicians who had followed Albert Grossman up the Hudson River Valley to Bearsville, just outside the town of Woodstock, New York. By January of 1967 she and Albert were married and on their way East to spend Albert’s cut of Peter, Paul & Mary’s Tokyo concert takings. The trio had proved nearly as popular in Japan as in America.

It had been Sally’s idea that they stop in Calcutta en route, to find those Baul singers Allen Ginsberg kept going on about. Not long after hearing Dylan’s album, Ginsberg made his way into the musician’s orbit, telling Dylan and Grossman and anyone else who would listen that they all had to go to India and hear the folk music of the Bauls. Privately, Ginsberg told Sally that the only problem with Bob Dylan was that he hadn’t been to India. The night before Albert and Sally left, Ginsberg arrived to give them a long list of people to see in Calcutta. Three years before, Ginsberg had given a similar list to the former Harvard professor, LSD promoter and the Pied Piper of the hippie world, Timothy Leary. On both lists was the name of Asoke Fakir.

WHEN ASOKE FAKIR WROTE to Allen Ginsberg in late 1966 to tell him of Albert’s sudden arrival on his doorstep, he took the opportunity to revisit their trip to Siuri five years before, when he first took Ginsberg to meet Nabani Das Baul. Allen Ginsberg, Albert Grossman: same initials, he pointed out. Because Baul music was now poised to provide his ticket out of India, he was obliged to read significance into every detail of these encounters, which he felt were not only auspicious for him, but for humanity in general. “It is all part of the PROPHETICS spiritual plan, surely,” he wrote. To prepare his message for the world, he had written to Professor Edward Dimock Jr, of the University of Chicago, for more information about the Bauls and the precise nature of their spiritual beliefs. Were they Hindu? Muslim? Tantric? Sufi? In reply, Dimock had sent Asoke his 1959 article ‘Rabindranath Tagore: The Greatest of The Bauls of Bengal’. As a result, many of Asoke’s ideas about Baul beliefs, as he now pronounced upon them in his letter to Allen Ginsberg, had in fact come from Tagore by way of Dimock. Dimock had first arrived in Calcutta in 1955 and had initiated an entire generation of American scholars (and perhaps a few Bengalis) to the myriad subtleties of the Bengali language and culture.

Asoke then described the dream he had the night after Grossman showed up at his little brick hut in Champahati, 24 kilometres from Calcutta by tourist taxi. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been home at the time; so his wife had received the honoured guest. That very night Asoke dreamt of his recently deceased father. His father had once harboured the hope that his first-born son would grow up to become a great saint; Asoke had continually disappointed him. Suddenly, in the dream his father’s face had metamorphosed into the face of the visitor he had yet to meet (his wife, he explained, had provided a detailed description of Albert Grossman). Upon waking, he set off early for the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee, pounding on Grossman’s door until Sally opened it a crack, hung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign out under his nose, and closed the door in his face. He refused to leave. Grossman then appeared, not as he had dreamt him, but rather jet-lagged, shirtless and completely furious. Asoke managed to introduce himself, and after learning what Grossman wanted, promised to return later with some Bauls in tow.

Some months later, as the day of their departure for San Francisco approached, Asoke wrote again to Ginsberg to say that a great spiritual transformation was taking place within him: he was being reincarnated as a Baul. It was not his first such transformation. Prior to being Asoke Fakir, he had been Asoke Sarkar, but like a true Baul, his tuning fork of a soul was in sync with many registers. It was now clear to him that the Bauls’ pending arrival in America was in fulfilment of Nabani Das’ deathbed prophecy. Asoke proceeded to remind Ginsberg that when they had all taken their leave of Nabani Das back in Siuri, the aging Baul had said of them: “They are born Bauls, they will spread the Baul message, and true peace, friendship and dharma will arrive.” And if Ginsberg’s memory of this prophecy wasn’t as sharp as his own, Asoke assured him: “I never forget important words, thoughts and deeds that I come across during my spiritual journey.”

With Asoke, it was often hard to tell what was true and what he liked to imagine was true. It was nonetheless inescapably true that among the group of Bauls who found themselves at the Fillmore auditorium on 14 September 1967, opening for the rock bands Mother Earth and Electric Flag, were Nabani Das’ eldest sons Purna and Luxman. A few days after the concert, the five Bauls recorded an album, with explanatory liner notes contributed by Edward Dimock. But when they piled into Albert Grossman’s stationwagon two weeks later for a road trip across America to New York City, chauffeured by Grossman’s longtime driver, Tommy Donovan, Asoke Fakir and his family were nowhere to be found.

IN 1963, Allen Ginsberg returned to America looking very different from the well-groomed man who had left New York two and half years before. For one thing, his careful side part was gone, replaced by a growing bald spot and a bird’s nest of hair and beard. He looked very much like a sadhu in his flowing handlooms and beads. By 1967, the year of Purna and Luxman’s arrival, American youth had followed Ginsberg’s fashion lead; they wore their hair long and untamed, dressed in kurta-pajamas, sandals, with a jhola bag hooked casually over one shoulder. They burned incense, garlanded National Guard soldiers, and sat crosslegged to chant with Ginsberg at anti-Vietnam War protests. Also thanks to Ginsberg, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness had established a firm foothold for Krishna worship and the singing of bhajans in public places. It was, in sum, a strange moment in America, and I found it hard not to wonder what Purna and Luxman made of it. Did America change them in the way that India changed Allen Ginsberg?

Purna Das is now an internationally renowned recording artist; his flat in Kolkata’s Dhakuria neighbourhood is bedecked with souvenirs from his world travels and photographs of him and his sons alongside famous musicians like George Harrison and Keith Richards cover the walls. Having attended the Soviet-sponsored World Youth Festival in Helsinki in 1962, Purna Das was the only one of the LDM Spiritual Band who had travelled outside India at the time of the trip to America. But when I tried to question him about his memories of his crosscountry road trip, and his grasp of America and American music, it was all rather vague. He remembered playing cards and comparing coats with Bob Dylan during their long stay in Bearsville, New York; Dylan had called himself an ‘American Baul’. Dylan had also included both Purna and Luxman in the group photograph that graced the cover of his album John Wesley Harding, which was released that December. That had pleased him. He remembered the recording session in San Francisco and how cold Bearsville became and how nice Sally was to them all. When I asked him if he got homesick or missed his wife, he said that Bauls never get homesick; they carry their homes in their heart. Only when I raised the subject of Asoke Fakir did Purna’s memories become rather more precise.

At first, Purna took issue with the account Ginsberg had written in his journals of the 1962 visit to Siuri. I had it all wrong. Purna had taken Ginsberg to Tarapith; Asoke wasn’t there, he had nothing to do with Ginsberg. Similarly, Albert had contacted Purna directly on his 1966 trip to Calcutta. When he and his wife Manju reached the Grand Hotel, they ran into Asoke in the lobby by chance. (Asoke, he explained, often sold ganja to foreigners lodged at the hotel.) “It was I who had brought Asoke along. No one knew him before that. When I was offered the chance to come to America, I agreed and said that I will be travelling with my group. Further, I also said that since I cannot communicate in English, I would like Asoke to come along as my secretary.” They had travelled to America under the banner of Purna Das Baul, not the LDM Spiritual Band. “This was incorrect information.”

But when I persisted with my questions, suddenly a large hoard of complaints was unearthed. He had been cheated! Not by Albert and Sally but by Asoke Fakir. After showing Purna the bills for the visas and plane tickets, Asoke claimed that the money Sally sent had all been used up and so no one could be paid anything. Not only was there no advance to support their families for the months they would be away, but Asoke took `2,500 from each of them to cover the cost of their costumes and instruments. Purna was obliged to have a patron fork over this money, not only for himself but for his brother and Sudhananda Das as well. Asoke had assured him that he would be reimbursed by Sally once they reached America, but he never saw a penny. Even the choice of musicians was not Purna’s to make. “I handed over a list of [musicians] names to him. He made changes in it—struck off two names and included two other people of his choice.” He realised later that Asoke had invested some of their money in a large supply of hashish, hiding the stash in two of the five tanpuras that Purna had also paid for.

Even before their departure, Purna was nursing resentments. “I was reduced to a commoner,” he fumed, still stung by the memory. “I had to obey him. He communicated with Sally…kept telling me that Sally will send the money—that she hadn’t sent it yet. And we were supposed to give him power of attorney—that we were not to communicate with anyone there and that he would do all that on our behalf. He was to be in charge of everything, starting from speaking on my behalf to collecting money.” Finally, Purna said, he never saw a penny of income from the recording Elektra made in San Francisco, the famed Nonesuch record by the “Bauls of Bengal”. The thought that Asoke was still collecting on the album upset him. Purna’s son, in fact, asked me if I might be able to help his father rectify this.

“Finally, when we reached San Francisco, Sally came to the airport to receive us. She asked where my wife was. I told her that it was she who had asked us not to bring Manju. Sally denied having said anything like that. She called Asoke immediately and they quarrelled over it.” From the heat of this exchange Purna gathered that Asoke’s wife Malati had taken the ticket Sally had intended for Manju. That night at the Vagabond Inn on Van Ness Avenue, while Luxman was absorbed with his newly blistered feet (he had never worn shoes), Dilip Basu, the Berkeley student, showed up and heard their tale of woe. Purna felt he was in danger. Sally had no idea of what was really going on. Asoke, he told Basu, had changed his name to Fakir so that he could take advantage of the Islamic laws allowing him more than one wife; Malati was only the youngest and most recent of his several wives. Furthermore, they were hungry. Asoke fed them his leftovers or inedible American street food. They’d been eating only bread. Dilip promised to talk to Sally.

But Asoke was at their first performance, I said.

“Yes, he was part of the first performance but not after that. He was thrown out. That was because he tried being a preacher. He got his head shaved, dressed up differently and went about saying he had come to preach ‘manush dharma’ (Tagore’s Religion of Man) and that his chief disciple was Purna Das Baul. He even mentioned my father as his disciple although he had never seen my father.” Purna had learnt all this at intermission from Dilip Basu. When Sally joined them backstage she began to lecture them; they had been brought to America to sing, not preach, she said. After translating her remarks and Purna’s response, Dilip Basu came to their defence, saying it was all Asoke’s doing. He then translated what Purna had to say about Asoke.

“He isn’t even a real Baul!”

NO ONE KNOWS, really, what a real Baul is or even where they come from, though generations of scholars haven’t hesitated to speculate. For the English rulers of Bengal, the Bauls were indistinguishable from the wandering mendicants who overran the countryside in the 19th century. They pegged them all as knaves and slackers. “The number of Faquirs in this camp is enormous,” one British official opined, “they are of all descriptions, Muhammedans and Hindus, men and women, boys and girls. They are an intolerable nuisance; wandering among the tents throughout the day…demanding alms with an importunity and perseverance that is equally insolent and provoking; many of them going about on horseback and asking for rupees with as much assurance as others ask for pice; the more impertinent they are the greater is their idea of sanctity.” When wealthy zamindars began begging the British for revenue relief to compensate for what they were losing to these hordes (whom they nonetheless treated with utmost reverence), armed clashes ensued. At least until Tagore began singing praises of the Bauls’ songs and affectless humanity, Bengali babu society inherited the disdain of their English overseers.

The Baul appearance seems contrived to confuse the question of their origins still further. Even Tagore admitted that Bauls resist easy categories. They oil their bodies and grow their hair (but not always). Their traditional coats were patchworked from rags; the castoff lungis or threadbare kurtas they wore were meant to convey their scorn for wealth and identifying notions of Muslim or Hindu attire. They are buried sitting in the lotus position, aboveground. As a religious sect, their closest kin are said to be among the Vaishnavas and Sahajiyas, whose devotional songs often hit the same notes of longing and ecstasy. Arguments are also made that Sufi thought, through the poetry of Kabir, provides another skein for their weave of beliefs. Following in the footsteps of earlier scholars, Edward Dimock found evidence of Buddhist tantric beliefs in their secret sex practices and obscure metaphors. Among these practices are the retention of semen during sexual intercourse with Baulinis, and the ritual ingestion of trace amounts of menstrual blood, faeces and urine. Charles Capwell, an American ethnomusicologist who followed Dimock to Calcutta, wrote the first in-depth musicological analysis of their music. He also traced the complex relationship between the Bauls and the cosmopolitan Bengali society of Calcutta, before and after Tagore took up their cause.

But for Albert Grossman, as for Tagore and the countless crowds at melas and pujas across rural Bengal, music was the Bauls’ most defining characteristic—and Albert Grossman knew musicians. In 1967, the year he brought this troupe of Bauls to America, he was the king of the folk-rock world. He prided himself on his eye for talent, treating his musicians more like artists than entertainers. He moved them out of nightclubs and coffeehouses and into concert halls and auditoriums, securing huge recording and publishing contracts. At his recording studio in Bearsville, his bands could cut their records on their own terms. He had his own booking operation and publicity machine. He had a long roster of business managers, road managers, producers, secretaries and bookkeepers working for him. Most of all, from his darkened office on East 55th Street, he knew how to leverage his power in the record industry to make things happen. There was simply no one more powerful on the scene.

So he saw no reason why he couldn’t do for these five musicians from rural Bengal as he had done for Odetta or Peter Yarrow or Gordon Lightfoot or the Paul Butterfield Blues band. He would see to it that they got recording contracts, concert dates, publishing deals. That was the business he was in.

And why couldn’t this music, sung in a language he couldn’t understand, accompanied by instruments he had never seen before, be taken from the wilds of West Bengal and find purchase on the hip American scene?

Albert Grossman had a nose for what was real and what was bullshit and these Bauls of Bengal were real.

THOUGH ALBERT GROSSMAN DIED IN 1986, Sally still lives in the house in Bearsville. It is on the same road where Bob Dylan had his famous motorcycle accident two months before the Bauls arrived from California for a six-month stay. Further down the road, in Saugerties, is Big Pink, the house where members of Dylan’s backup band, The Hawks (later and better known as The Band), once lived. It was in the basement of this house that Garth Hudson, the keyboard player of The Band, recorded Purna et al singing and performing. This tape was among the stolen “basement tapes” Dylan made while recovering from his accident. Luckily, Tommy Donovan had asked for a cassette. Tommy liked to drive Grossman’s car through Woodstock, blaring Baul songs and reliving their crosscountry trip. It was from his cassette that the record The Bengali Bauls at Big Pink was later released.

In the 1970s and 1980s, having grown bored with managing bands, Grossman threw his energy into real estate, buying up swathes of land, old houses, and embarking on various building projects. Not long ago, Sally finally sold the 200-seat theatre, music venue and restaurant that Grossman had built during those years. Even the legendary Bearsville Sound Studio, a recording studio that once brought bands like The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, NRBQ and Phish to the area, was sold.

Obsessive Dylan fans know Sally Grossman as the beautiful brunette lounging impassively in a red dress on the cover of his 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home. On our first meeting several years ago, I found her guarded, as if imprisoned by the legends of those years and the toll sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and, perhaps most of all, money had taken on all of them. So it was disconcerting to hear her pronounce Bengali names and words in a husky smoker’s voice with a strong Queens accent. When she spoke about the music scene, whether it was in America or West Bengal, I found it hard to keep up with the jumps and shortcuts her mind took. At times, it was like trying to read a book in which pages were missing. Her favourite expression was “long story short”.

A few years before I first met her, Sally had begun returning to Calcutta regularly, reestablishing contact with Purna and Luxman, whom she had not seen for several decades. Despite all the famous musicians and bands who once passed through her life, she found it was the Bauls she missed the most from those years. Gradually, she conceived a vague idea of doing something for them with the money Grossman had left her. Her original plan was to establish a museum devoted to the Bauls and their music, something along the lines of what the Japanese had done at Rabindra Bharati in Shantiniketan. She had run into a tangle of red tape and was completely stymied until someone suggested that she create a museum and archive online.

This was how the recently launched baularchive.com was born. Sally put together a camera crew of Americans and Bengalis, eight translators and, with the assistance of Aditi Sircar, an aficionado of Bengali music and a fixture on the Baul scene, set about searching for Bauls. Much as the famed field collector and folklorist Alan Lomax travelled around the American Deep South recording the songs of blues artists in cotton fields, speakeasies and prison gangs, Sally has taken to the roads and melas of West Bengal. Thus far, she has amassed over 100 filmed interviews of singers for the website, transcribing their words and songs into English and Bengali. Charlie Capwell provided an ethnographical overview of Baul music for the site. Sally’s plan now is to return every winter to oversee further filming in Bankura, Nadia, Malda, Murshidabad and, ultimately, Bangladesh, until she runs out of singers. She hopes that, eventually, the University of California, Los Angeles, will take over the site’s administration.

The work on the website has brought her back to the villages she had last visited in 1971, when she spent six months cruising around Birbhum district to film a documentary on the Bauls. Subrata Mitra, the famed cinematographer of Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, was one of her consultants. Her crew also included the cameraman Howard Alk and his wife, Jones Cullinan, a sound technician. They had both known Albert Grossman when he was just starting out. Cullinan had worked the door at his Chicago bar as a hatcheck girl; Sally was her best friend. She, too, had gotten to know Purna and Luxman during those months they had all lived in Bearsville, waiting to be summoned for concerts that never quite materialised. During their seven-month contract, the Bauls performed only a handful of times in America. When they did, they were usually the warmup act, and nearly always went on far too long for their largely uncomprehending audiences. “Their music did not enjoy great success,” Cullinan said simply. “It was a special kind of thing. Instead, most of the time we would take long rides in Sally’s stationwagon Jeep, with the Bauls sitting in the back singing and praying.” Cullinan once came upon Luxman standing in the snow at the end of the driveway, dressed in Sally’s hat, boots, coat and long underwear. He was weeping. “Oh, sister,” he cried. The snow was more than he could bear.

Cullinan and Alk had worked on DA Pennebaker’s documentary on Dylan’s English tour, Don’t Look Back, and when they had arrived in India in January 1971, Jones had just finished filming a documentary on the Black Panthers. “There were already signals that there was going to be a war,” she said. “Everybody told us not to go to Calcutta. It took us two months to get the sound equipment out of Bombay, where it had been impounded by customs.” Between the refugees from the floods and the war streaming over the Bangladesh border and the Naxalite executions of middle-class Bengalis, it was an interesting time for Americans to be travelling around the West Bengal countryside in a school bus. “The newspapers ran stories of seized weaponry with American logos all over it,” Cullinan recalled. “The second day we were in Calcutta, the papers ran a front-page photograph of a man’s detached head.” The police were hoping someone might identify him. Nonetheless, Luxman Baul’s Movie is a memorable music-tour road movie; Sally’s voiceover mixed song lyrics and travelogue with ethnographic explanations about who the Bauls were, but the real focus of the film was clearly on the eponymous Luxman Das Baul.

Where Purna broadcasts his worldliness and sophistication, his younger brother has remained behind in Siuri, largely confining himself to his father’s old Baul haunts and village melas. In early March of this year, Luxman and his extended family came to see me in Shantiniketan. Like Purna, he wears a razzle-dazzle Baul costume when performing, rivalling the most flamboyant rock ‘n’ roller, though without the Crocs favoured by his brother. Yet, unlike Purna, who carries himself in a regal and somewhat forbidding manner, Luxman has a warm, hapless affect. He is apt to break into song at the drop of a hat. Where Purna always confined himself to spirits, the years of chillums have taken a toll on his voice and his health, as they had on his father’s. His entourage blanketed the bed of the room where we sat and drank tea. Everyone looked on intently.

“Six months and 19 days,” he said, as if he had, all along, been counting the days to go home. Most of their time was spent hanging out in Bearsville, playing checkers with The Band, singing among themselves, cooking rice, dal and chicken and trying to keep warm. His fondest memory was of a blues concert performed, he noted with amazement, entirely by black musicians. One day in late autumn, Sally cooked a huge bird; Luxman found it inedible. American marijuana was useless, but he liked American beer, particularly the kind that came in cans. Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Bob Dylan were all very nice people, astonished at his capacity for alcohol. He found it hard to believe that in all the forests and mountains that surrounded Bearsville, there were no tigers.

Though Sally took good care of them, putting them up in a centrally heated little apartment over an old barn, buying them sacks of rice and dal, the six months felt like six years. They would all weep from homesickness. Eventually he practically stopped eating, so desperate was his desire to return home to his wife and five children. When they did finally leave, Sally loaded him up with presents. He seemed to remember that Albert Grossman gave his brother Purna lots of money, but the rest of them returned home as penniless as they had left it.

THE BAULS OF BENGAL did give one memorable performance. The day after their concert at the Fillmore, Dilip Basu brought them all to Berkeley and treated them to a lunch of fish curry in a neighbour’s backyard. After a long nap on the grass, Basu took them to a park where, every Sunday, hippies and “beautiful” people gathered for free live music. The home-cooked food and the mela-like atmosphere of the park lifted everyone’s spirits. Country Joe & the Fish were on stage, and during a break in their performance Basu approached them, introducing the Bauls as folksingers and Krishna worshippers from India. Would it be possible for them to sing?

Basu also remembers that as the Bauls prepared to leave, Timothy Leary suddenly materialised. Upon introducing himself, he asked if the Bauls would come to his home to bless his newborn son, named Krishna. On hearing this, I wondered if Asoke Fakir had accompanied them all to the park. In a letter written many years later to Allen Ginsberg, Asoke explained what had happened to him in San Francisco. Having been fired by Sally and cut loose from the tour, he found his way to Timothy Leary’s house in Berkeley the day after the concert. Ginsberg was well aware that Asoke had been indispensable to Timothy Leary in Calcutta, as he had been to Albert Grossman and himself. It’s doubtless that Leary’s appearance in the park that mid-September afternoon was yet another sign that the gods would always intercede on Asoke’s behalf. Indeed, it wasn’t long before Asoke became known as Timothy Leary’s personal guru.

He never returned to Calcutta.

BY SEPTEMBER 1967, the mela that brought 100,000 flower children, blissed-out hippies and curiosity-seekers from all over America to San Francisco had come to a close. Someone, however, was reluctant to admit that the ‘Summer of Love’ was over; for two weeks storefronts in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood sprouted psychedelic posters announcing the arrival of yet another musical sensation. The LDM Spiritual Band, a five-member troupe of folk musicians from India, commonly known as Bauls, was coming to America on a seven-month concert tour.

On 14 September 1967 the band performed at Fillmore West. They had actually been expected a week earlier, having been billed as the opening act for The Byrds, but they arrived three days late, and unknowingly missed their own debut. When they didn’t show, Albert Grossman, the man who had brought them to California, flew back to New York.

Grossman was a powerhouse on the exploding folk rock scene, spearheaded by his star clients Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. But he was also a patient man where his artists were concerned (he had just signed the very high maintenance blues singer Janis Joplin). If he was disappointed at the band’s failure to appear as scheduled, he was still sold on the prospects of Bengali folk music in America. Since everything Grossman touched seemed to turn gold, it hadn’t taken too much convincing for Elektra Records to agree to pay the plane fares from Calcutta and underwrite a recording session.

The band included a Baul singer named Purna Das Baul, his younger brother Luxman on the khrmack, Jiban Das on tabla, Sudhananda Das on harmonium and Krishna Das Baul on the fretless dotara, which has two main strings. There was also Calcutta journalist Asoke Fakir, his wife Malati and their 18-month-old daughter. Asoke, acting as the Bauls’ manager and general factotum, had cashed Elektra’s check, arranged the band’s visas and booked their Pan Am tickets; he had also delayed their arrival in San Francisco because he decided they should spend six days sightseeing in Tokyo en route. As none of the Bauls spoke English, they were obliged to follow his seemingly more worldly lead. Asoke had even come up with their name, the LDM (Lok Dharma Mahashram) Spiritual Band, which was in turn derived from the “World’s First Socio-Spiritual Research Institute for the Neo-Spiritual Movement”, of which Asoke was both the ‘International President’ and ‘Founder Director’.

On the night of their first performance Asoke, suddenly dressed in the long, flowing gowns of a fellow band member, took to the stage, his head shaved clean as a baby’s bottom. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and proprietor of the famed City Lights bookstore, was in the audience with a tape recorder, as was a young Bengali student from the University of California, Berkeley, named Dilip Basu. Asoke greeted the sold-out auditorium as if he were addressing all of America personally: for nearly half an hour, he invited the largely stoned audience to open their hearts and minds to the Baul message of peace, love and universal brotherhood through spiritual coexistence. Or something like that. Then, turning around with a flourish, he lifted his trident and began to conduct the LDM Spiritual Band in song.

FIVE YEARS EARLIER, close to the end of his nine-month stay in Calcutta, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg—accompanied by his partner, Peter Orlovsky (whom he referred to, slyly, as his “wife”), the Bengali poet Shakti Chatterjee, and their would-be spiritual guru, Asoke Fakir—had travelled to Siuri, home to a large clan of Bauls, the troubadour poet-singers of the Bengal countryside. This was the highlight of a train and bus journey to visit various sacred sites in the Birbhum district of West Bengal.

In Shantiniketan, Ginsberg had listened patiently as a number of scholars discussed the spiritual genius of ‘Father’ Rabindranath Tagore. Moving on to Tarapith, the site of a Bhakti temple devoted to the worship of the fearsome tantric goddess Tara, Asoke had introduced them all to a group of sadhus practicing smasana sadhana, tantric spiritual practices of the cremation and burial grounds. The corpse-strewn, smoke-filled scene in Tarapith, once home to the mad saint, Bamakhepa, was thrillingly intense, particularly after several chillums.

Finally, after Tarapith they had arrived at a little hamlet outside Siuri. There Ginsberg found the aged, legendary Baul master Nabani Das Baul living in a small mud hut, bedridden and unable to sing. When Nabani spoke to Ginsberg from his sick bed, reciting with difficulty the songs he had once sung so lustily, Ginsberg scribbled Asoke’s roughly translated words dutifully in his notebook. He spent a week with the Baul family. From Nabani’s wife he learnt to eat with his hands, from Nabani he learnt to play the single-stringed ektara and four-stringed tanpura, the instrument that provides a background drone to Indian classical music. He was also schooled in the chanting of the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya.”

Ginsberg hoped to find, in Baul spiritual teachings and songs, a new wellspring for his own poetic work. Tagore had once sat at Nabani Das Baul’s feet with nearly the same intention. Along with those of Lalon Fakir, the songs of Nabani Das were often cited as one of the Nobel laureate’s principal sources of inspiration for his poetry, music and philosophy of life. Tagore later distilled what he understood of Baul beliefs in his famed lecture in 1930 at Oxford, ‘The Religion of Man’. Bauls were distinguished from the usual run of men by flouting social convention, avoiding temples and mosques and any denotation of caste. Song and dance were their only form of worship, and their bodies their only temple. He translated the word baul as “madcap”.

For many years, Ginsberg had convinced himself that poetry held the key to mystical experience and spiritual awakening. As a young college student in New York City, he had had a spontaneous and beatific vision of God while reading the poems of William Blake in his Harlem tenement in 1948. This vision, however, was followed days later by a terrifying hallucination. In the next two decades, he tried to figure out how he might summon the experience of ecstasy, compassion and wisdom of the first vision and bypass the horror of the latter. Addressing a Marxist literary conference in Jamshedpur in the summer of 1962, Ginsberg allowed that experiments with mantras, tantric practices, Zen meditation and possibly jazz music might also elicit this higher order of consciousness. He hadn’t entirely given up on the promise of LSD, but when he was honest with himself, he realised the drug had proved unpredictable, more apt to summon his demons than the hoped-for celestials.

But when Ginsberg returned to America from India in the summer of 1963, he immediately saw that it wasn’t drugs or meditation or poetry that was now turning on American youth. Soon after his arrival, someone had sat him down and played Bob Dylan’s just-released second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which opened with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, the song Peter, Paul & Mary had made famous while Ginsberg was in India. Ginsberg, who had gone to India to escape the notoriety and public outrage that had accompanied the publication of his scandalous poem ‘Howl’, realised that the torch had passed from his poetry to Dylan’s folk music. Recalling this insight years later in Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Dylan, No Direction Home, Ginsberg, then in his 70s, burst into tears.

IT WAS SALLY GROSSMAN, Albert’s wife, who had stayed behind to meet the Bauls at the airport when they finally arrived in San Francisco. Born Sally Buehler in the New York City borough of Queens, she was the daughter of an actuary and a housewife-turned-local politician. After graduating from high school in 1957, she attended college for two years, eventually abandoning it for the brighter lights of downtown Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Here, a different kind of education was on offer. Here, she found the already legendary folk venues and jazz cabarets, nightly performances of poetry, standup comedy and avant-garde theatre and dance. For several years, she moved among the close-knit tribe of black-stockinged young women taking part in this scene. They worked in bookstores and coffee shops and bars, juggling lovers and jobs and cold-water flats, improvising their lives as if only the present moment mattered. She first worked the door at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. From The Bitter End nightclub she moved to Feenjon on Seventh Avenue South before landing at Cafe Wha? on MacDougal, only a block from the legendary Gerde’s Folk City. Then, on a whim, she went to Mexico.

A year into her stay in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, it occurred to her that if she returned to New York it might be interesting to work for Albert Grossman. During her years in Greenwich Village, Grossman’s enigmatic presence was ubiquitous. Prematurely gray, he haunted the dreams of aspiring musicians, who looked for him in the darkened recesses of the Gaslight or Gerde’s Folk City. Everyone knew he had put together the folk trio of Peter, Paul & Mary, and as Allen Ginsberg was only just learning, his client Bob Dylan was going places. A former nightclub owner from Chicago, Grossman had taken folk music and made it a multimillion-dollar business, as he would soon do for rock ‘n’ roll.

Within a month of her return to New York, Sally found herself in Grossman’s kitchen. Having lived a fairly rough life in Mexico, she was still surprised by the sight of water coming from a faucet. She was even more astonished to find herself cooking for the many musicians who had followed Albert Grossman up the Hudson River Valley to Bearsville, just outside the town of Woodstock, New York. By January of 1967 she and Albert were married and on their way East to spend Albert’s cut of Peter, Paul & Mary’s Tokyo concert takings. The trio had proved nearly as popular in Japan as in America.

It had been Sally’s idea that they stop in Calcutta en route, to find those Baul singers Allen Ginsberg kept going on about. Not long after hearing Dylan’s album, Ginsberg made his way into the musician’s orbit, telling Dylan and Grossman and anyone else who would listen that they all had to go to India and hear the folk music of the Bauls. Privately, Ginsberg told Sally that the only problem with Bob Dylan was that he hadn’t been to India. The night before Albert and Sally left, Ginsberg arrived to give them a long list of people to see in Calcutta. Three years before, Ginsberg had given a similar list to the former Harvard professor, LSD promoter and the Pied Piper of the hippie world, Timothy Leary. On both lists was the name of Asoke Fakir.

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Deborah Baker is the author of In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, a narrative account of the impact of India on the American imagination published by Penguin Books in 2007. While a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, she researched and wrote both of these books as well as her latest, The Convert: A Fable of Islam and America.

READER'S COMMENTS

4 thoughts on “For the Sake of the Song”

This is a useful piece of documentation, despite minor errors of location and nomenclature, but truly reflective of the sleaze behind the "selling" of Baul and Fakir and Sufi music, mostly by people trusted by the performers – including other, more canny, performers. What a shame!

well all in all apart for mister gross man the rest of these guys were pretty honest and sincere in their commuication with the bauls,their love and enthusiasm for their music that was so contagious that it can be felt even today with bauls not having changed as much as their western counterpart and again I want to salute the memory of ginsberg who inspired
me in the early sixties and was truely in search of his inner light drinking at the source of baul ++++wisdom which is still today an inspiration to many in the west was recently in jaidev mela were surely external forms have hanged but surely not the bauls spirit itselve

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