Art News & Views

Kenduli Baul Mela, 2008

Photo Essay

by Pervez Rajan

I am not drawn to crowds, but I had been hearing about Baul Melas for some time. Names like Kenduli, Pathorchapori, Illam Bazaar and Siuri come rushing back as I recall an unreserved journey till Howrah and then to Bolpur on the Ganadevta Express.

Arriving at Howrah, I encountered a huge mass of humanity, the kind that one sees often in large cities. The quintessential yellow Ambassador taxis ambled around. From Siuri we rode on top of a bus to Kenduli which is close to Santiniketan.  A massive fair was unfolding around us and by night the whole place was brimming and swaying with a minor population of about 2 lakh people. There were tattoo artists, ayurvedic herbs, potion hawkers, minstrels, beggars, fish nets and second hand garment merchants. There is infact, a strange energy in crowds like these, something anonymous yet chilling.

Upon finding a tent to reside in, we were joined in our corner by an old man who claimed that he had been visiting the fair for the past thirty years. Little did I realise that this shelter had its own arrangements for a jaagran, and we were then compelled to stay awake while listening to devotional music. Every fourth or fifth tent had some musical or dance performance going on continuously for days. There were moments when the songs would get melancholic, ruminating about separation, longing and trust. The audience would doze off. When the musicians realised that there were too many people sleeping, they'd hitch up the tempo until everyone joined in again.

In the market that had sprouted along the main road near the Radhabinod Temple, items for sale would include wooden kitchen implements to wolf traps, and DIY magician kits to second hand garments. A maut ka kuan or well of death had been constructed where a few hired riders sped up their souped up bikes in synchronised formations round and round an immense wooden barrel at reckless speeds.

On further explorations, I came across a burgundy, muscular fortune telling 'robot' with flashing ruby red LED lights. A small TV was stuck into its abdomen. One of three headphones announced the 'fate' to an evidently apprehensive customer. There were five ports running around the robot's waist where one could plug in the phones. I overheard one unassuming boy admitting to his friends that he really couldn't make out what was being said and how it was an utter waste of time and money. The robot's keeper readily offered to plug him into another channel along the robot's waist for a second opinion.  His friends advised him to listen more carefully.

In all, the three wakeful nights I spent in this mela, remains one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Sleep deprivation has some rather strange, euphoric and disorienting effects on the mind. The milling crowds in the hectic fair market, the cold nights melding into hoary mornings, felt as though we were entering the realm of a Hieronymus Bosch or Brueghel painting, replete with detail and allegory.

I can never forget the mornings, as people bathed in the icy water of Ajoy river, the steam rising from their bodies. Slowly, a peach-like sun would rise on the edge of a bleak grey landscape.

Pervez Rajan is a graphic designer living in Bangalore. He has been in this practice since 1993.He works half the year and travels the rest, or takes a break to pursue his various interests that range from gardening and reading to wondering.

Editorial Note:

Jaydev Kenduli Mela at Birbhum, West Bengal, usually runs from January 11 to January 14 every year. This fair is organised in memory of Jayadeva on the occasion of Poush Sankranti or Makar Sankranti. It starts on the last day of the Bengali calendar month, Poush and continues up to 2 Magh. The fair commemorates the day on which Jayadev is claimed to have taken a bath at the Kadaambokhandi Ghat of the Ajay River at Jaydev Kenduli. The Radhabinod Temple stands where the house of the poet Jayadeva, once allegedly existed. Several thousand bauls, a community of wandering minstrels who sing devotional songs to the music of the ektara (one stringed instrument), come together for the fair and that is why the fair is also referred to as Baul Mela. The bauls stay in 160 temporary hermitages (akhara) at Jaydev Kenduli for about a month. These bauls appear to have inherited the legacy of Jayadeva songs. Kenduli Baul Mela is one of its kind and many personalities like Kshiti Mohan Sen, Nandalal Bose, Provat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Ramkinkar Baij, and Santideb Ghosh have visited the fair and popularised it beyond Birbhum.


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