Friday, 25 April 2014

The Song Catcher

Dumdee village in Narail.

Knowledge, I want to know your real name...

Bahmini Mohon Roy has reached an age. His hair is grey. He sits on the mud veranda of his house in Tabra village, Narail, waiting to speak. There is a lot to speak of and he takes a moment to consider where to start.

You think of the city mornings when half-asleep pupils file into the microbuses that circle. You’ve seen them on their honking, jam-crawling ways to school. Maybe the a/c is broken and maybe it’s sweltering inside.

A small stage in Dumdee, for Bijoy Sarkar events.

You think of the villages where the only thing circling might be a pigeon flock, where students set out on foot. From historical Dumdee village it’s a long walk to the Tabra schoolyard – and you’ve heard that when Monsoon arrives she enforces a nouka-boat necessity on them. But Roy the teacher, he lives in Tabra, so the worst the rain can do for him is to make squelching muddy steps towards the school gate. It’s obvious: the paths leading to knowledge are many.

We are calling You different names; some say Bhagawan and some say Allah...” Roy begins. He’s reciting the lyrics of a song by Bijoy Sarkar, his Guru. “I want to know Your real name.

There’s enough to learn from textbooks – sure – to copy into notebooks and memorise. But also from birds, from trees and from rivers are things to learn. The sun can have something to utter and neither are the farm fields silent if you care to listen.

Baul singer Bijoy Sarkar.

While SM Sultan wrought knowledge onto Narail’s canvas from all he saw his friend Sarkar listened. As he caught and was caught by songs he wrote Narail’s score. From some time after his birth 111 years ago in Dumdee, Sarkar plotted the course of Baul wisdom, what has turned up once again, just now, on that Tabra veranda. Roy has just begun to open that knowledge treasure chest.

Vaitarani and Pul-e-Siraat are. Allah, if I can cross the Pul-e-Siraat easily...” are the lyrics of another Sarkar song, referring to the Hindu river and the Muslim bridge to be faced after death. The righteous will see nectar-like water in the Vaitarani, the sinful will see blood. The Pul-e-Siraat is thinner than a hair, sharper than a sword and hotter than fire – yet the righteous will pass quickly.

“He believed everyone should go the same way,” Roy continues in prose, “That’s why he wrote this kind of song. He wanted the whole world to be successful.”

His name is a man’s belief,” Roy recites. Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim – in the human religion it’s obvious: the paths leading to knowledge are many.

It was 1965 and Roy had just passed his SSC examination when his father thought to take him about the villages to share the good news. He took him to Bijoy Sarkar’s house in Dumdee – they met for the first time.

Bahmini Mohon Roy with his wife, Tabra village.

And as Roy recites in this later age it returns to his eyes a curious youthfulness. His face is calming and even while animated seems to harbour a resident kindness. There’s something touching, something indefinable... Does it border on the eternal? You can feel it. It’s exciting.

As the world is now so it shall continue. I will go leaving this beauty behind.

“These wonderful words,” says Roy, “the meaning that every human life shall pass. He wanted us to think more about our souls.”

Lyrics and prose, the flow of Roy’s words continues – as though certain lines have pressed themselves upon Roy’s lips, needing to be told at a particular moment. It’s like he wants to express all of Sarkar’s life and lines at once, in a rich, overwhelming and unified oneness.

Roy performs a Bijoy Sarkar song.

Sarkar wrote songs about nature: rivers, birds, waterholes called beels, trees and forests. According to Roy, Sarkar captured about 1800 songs before his passing in 1985. There are 150 in one book and 250 in another, he says. A further 450 exist in the memories of his followers; many other songs have, like their composer, already left their beauty behind.

In 1971 as Bijoy Sarkar moved about, recounts Roy, it happened one day that razakars stole some papers of his lyrics. “He tried a lot to get them back, but he couldn’t. After that, what he could remember he wrote again.”

In 1971 both Sarkar and Roy separately fled to India. Roy took with him 100 Sarkar songs, noted down – prized possessions – in order to save them. He found Sarkar at his new home in India and when he arrived there was a small stage set up in anticipation that the bard would give a concert. Sarkar addressed him, “Pundit Moshai, from where did you come?” “I am living just beside your home,” said Roy, “From there I came to meet you. From there I came to sing your songs.”

“We need another banana leaf...” called Sarkar in that house at that time when banana leaves were used as plates. He was insistent, as always, on food and pleasantries coming first – How is your family? How are your finances? Later there could be music. Later there could be the wisdom in Baul songs.

“You will come on stage with me,” Sarkar said – to Roy a great honour. And he sat beside his Guru as the concert got underway.

“Mainly we love our parents and family,” says Roy, “but not strangers, not in the same way. We can love them too, but not in the same way. Yet it’s true. Pagol Bijoy – Bijoy the fool – thought everybody was the same.” From his followers he had been gifted the nickname Pagol Bijoy, certain as they were that the man was possessed by God.

One day the house bird will go to the sky if he gets the chance.

Roy at the harmonium.

“You would never think about it, but it’s true that your taken-for-granted faithful pet bird will die one day. Some of us might even think that lyric was about a wife leaving from the house,” says Roy, “but he did not give this kind of message. We did not think about the soul, which he meant.” When asked how he came to write such songs he said it was simple logic that the human soul would depart.

You wonder if there is a pet bird in a cage hanging somewhere on Roy’s long veranda.

Songs caught Sarkar or he caught them – in the morning, in the evening; he even met them in his dreams. “Sometimes he would dream songs,” says Roy, “and it would wake him and immediately he would note them down.”

The conversation meanders still further into the harmonious depths of the song catcher’s soul. Roy tells of a time at the last of Choitro or the beginning of Boishakh many years ago when Roy’s son was deathly ill. Sarkar came on three consecutive days to pray at the hour of Fajr – and it wasn’t easy to move about in those days – but Roy’s son recovered surely enough.

Biplob Biswas and Brahmini Mohon Roy.

More remarkable is the history of 45-year-old Biplob Biswas who has come to join us. When he was aged six he could not walk and his mother appealed to Sarkar to see him. Sarkar went there, touched his legs and blessed him, promising that after two days he would be able to walk again. And it happened – just as the bard foretold.

The harmonium is brought and both Roy and Biswas ready themselves. The first notes begin and their faces, each in turn, fill with emotion – uplifted and overflowing. There’s something indefinable there, on the veranda. Does it border on the eternal? You feel it. It’s exciting.

Knowledge, I want to know your real name...

The emotion of a Bijoy Sarkar song. Spiritual and uplifting.

Biplob Biswas plays harmonium.

Temple in Dumdee featuring Bijoy Sarkar's photograph.

Bijoy Sarkar gave to Narail its score.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: The Song Catcher

*song lyrics are challenging to translate. Please forgive these humble efforts.

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