A Baul’s Railway Song – India’s Hobo Musicians


The plains of West Bengal stretch into a milky horizon. In May, much of the rice has just planted and the midday sun’s glare is reflected in the shallow paddies. Here and there, small clusters of mud and straw huts form tiny hamlets in an ocean of green. The Kanrup Express takes more than 30 hours from Calcutta to the Assamese border, almost a thousand kilometers to the north-east. This is the land of the Baul, fabled and famous itinerant musicians who have been traveling around India for centuries, much like the Sadhus, the country’s nomadic Hindu holymen. Unlike the Sadhus, who hail from all over the country, the Baul come only from villages in West Bengal.

The Kanrup Express is packed, all seats are occupied by at least one person. The passengers alone turn the train ride into a surreal experience. Children scream, complain and periodically throw up, the men nip out to the carriage end surreptitiously to enjoy a quick slug of liquor from paper-wrapped bottles and the women suffer through it all with quiet and resigned stoicism. After a few stops, the toilets are blocked or so dirty as to be unusable. The fans or air-con usually conk out periodically and the trains almost never make their destination on time. To add to the pandemonium, endless streams of hawkers and vendors pass through the carriages, jumping on and off at small rural stations. The guards, inspectors and police never interfere in this macro-industry. The sheer variety of products on offer is mind-boggling. Food-hawkers offer coconuts, fresh cucumbers with chili, bananas and oranges, various cocktails of nuts and pulses, mixed with onions, herbs and chili, Bengali sweets, puri (deep-fried southern Indian bread) and dal, samosa, sandwiches, soft drinks, tea, coffee and pan. In the first hour out of Calcutta I count 36 entrepreneurs filing past me. These days, cheap Chinese plastic – everything from toys to calculators to camcorders, mobile phones and cameras – is flooding India. Hence heavily laden young men constantly demand I buy toolsets, flash-lights or sunglasses; padlocks, shawls, underwear or binoculars.

The only distraction from this exuberant, overwhelming activity are the musicians. The first is an old lady who’s back is so bent and tortured, she almost walks at a 90 degrees. The woman is wrapped in a dirty white piece of cloth and staggers through the shaking carriage on a stick. Her voice rises like a chainsaw above the din of the train and its passengers.
“This is the song of the Baul, great Bengali musicians,” my seat neighbor, a middle-aged, heavyweight lubricants salesmen from Guwahati, enlightens me. The old lady is now directly in front of me, intoning not a Bengali song but a monotonous Hindu bahjan, dedicated to Krishna. I nod absent-mindedly and wish myself somewhere else.
Early rains flood the flood plains in the afternoon. The flood of vendors has tailed off and the children have mostly passed out from exhaustion. The thin weedy notes of a plucked string instrument sound down the corridor. A boy is pulling a blind man down the carriage, his hand open for donations.
Sankodas is twenty-one and plays the archaic dotara, a four-stringed lute-shaped instrument. Sankodas is from Assam and with his brother for a guide he rides the trains of the north east to make a living as a musician and singer. On the Kanrup Express he encounters little interest. Modern India is tuned in to the shallow pop music of the Bollywood movies and folk singers are, though officially revered, mostly living in abject poverty. Many are low-caste or belong to the four million adivasis, the indigenous minorities. Sankodas is no exception and he sings in kanrupi, a local Assamese dialect.
He is more than happy to show me his dotara. The instrument body is made from a single piece of wood. The front is covered in leather, punctured by three small sound holes. The bridge is made from bone. The machine-heads are also carved from wood. There are no frets. Sankodas uses a piece of bone for a plectrum, attached to the instrument with a piece of wire.
His folk songs are simple and while Sankodas is an accomplished player, holding the instrument at a sharp angle, almost like a violin, his voice is rather timid. One of the junior passengers starts crying, mothers are becoming irate and the younger brother impatiently pulls Sakodas away into the next carriage.
Peace, or the nearest Indian equivalent rules the carriage for once.

Late in the afternoon, as the sun drops low over the beautifully monotonous rice fields, I hear a different sound. Strings plucked in a fluid motion, a song is approaching down the aisle. A second later an old, grizzled deeply lined face appears at the corner of my compartment.
“I am Kalachand Karbesh, Baul of Bengal,” a rather tall old man in a long white shirt bellows at me. “Welcome to West Bengal. Do you want to hear a song in Bengali or English?” Without hesitation Kalachand Karbesh sits himself down on the opposite bench, crowding out a young engineer and his wife, who are silently flustered.
”This is the Shoraz,” he explains with a huge grin as he starts tuning his instrument..
The shoraz has seven strings and two sets of machine heads, one at the end of the neck, another halfway down, much like with some banjos. The fretless board is made from thin metal, pressed onto the thick neck, which seems to be fashioned from a single piece of wood terminating in a round gourd shaped sound body. The front is covered in leather. A bone plectrum is fastened to the bridge with string.
“I have many tunings for the shoraz. I change all the time, depending on song.” Kalachand Karbesh teeth are discolored by years of chewing beetle and his skin is burnt dark by the sun. But he is full of energy.
“I am seventy years old and I have been riding the trains of West Bengal since 1981, almost 25 years.”
Kalachand, like many Baul, has a perfectly respectable career behind him. “I was a high school teacher until 1980 in Tupiguri. Then I retired to devote my self to the shongit, the song.”
His eyes light up. “The god is in the shongit. Any god, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, no matter. God is in the shongit. I will sing.”

The carriage resounds with a voice that stirs all but the totally comatose passengers out of their doze. Kalachand is indeed an accomplished artist. The shoraz is perfectly in tune, the steel strings reverberate in total harmony. Chords and melodies stream from his shoraz and his booming voice is that of a seasoned pro, mournful and cunning at once. The song he sings, like much of the Baul music I have previously heard, is amongst the very best folk traditions that continue to hang on in India. And no wonder, Kalachand has been all over the world with his music.
“I have played in Morrocco, in Fes and Casablanca. I have traveled to Scotland and to France, where I played in Paris and Toulouse. I represent the Bengali state government on my trips.”
Without further comment he launches into another song. The passengers look almost cowed by this mighty presence and for just a few minutes the carriage , lit up by the setting sun over the rice fields is the most harmonious and peaceful place in the world.
Kalachand winds down and smiles at me. “Now I travel every day. I play on express trains and local trains all over West Bengal. Shongit is the song for life and God is in the song.”
He slides the shoraz into a saffron-colored cotton bag, smiles at the carriage, his audience, his life, and disappears down the corridor to the next carriage. A couple of stations later Kalachand Karbesh hits the platform and makes for the shade, waiting for the next train to take him south, to carry his song across the Bengali plains.

Published by Emirates Inflight and f-roots.

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