Monday, Aug 08, 2022

The Bengali Baul Band That Enthralled Psychedelic Audiences Of ‘60s US

The group of five bauls had three records released in the US, from Elektra, Buddah and Nonesuch Records between 1967 and 1971.

Poster of the September 1967 concert at Fillmore auditorium, San Francisco, in which the baul group has been described as LDM Spiritual Band.jpg
Poster of the September 1967 concert at Fillmore auditorium, San Francisco, in which the baul group has been described as LDM Spiritual Band Twitter

Thirty-seven years after Asia’s first Nobel laureate, the Bengali cultural polymath Rabindranath Tagore, declared himself a ‘madcap baul’ in his Hibbert lecture in Oxford, UK – in a display of affinity towards the secular, rustic musical sect of the bauls – a group of five baul singers from Tagore’s homeland landed in San Francisco, then the heartland of hippie culture in the US, in September 1967.

The US was high on everything hippie. Drugs, rebellion, free speech and free love was giving literature, music, painting and cinema new languages. The flavour of ‘Summer of Love’ that drew an approximate 75,000 to 100,000 people to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury for music, peace, love and freedom was still strong. To start the autumn season, German-American impressario and music promoter Bill Graham presented a three-day rock and roll concert at his Fillmore auditorium, one of the main centres of psychedelic music then, over September 7-9. 

Psychedelic posters of the event, now collector’s item, named the rock band Byrds, another rock band Loading Zone, and a third band, LDM Spiritual Band, on the bill. The last was described as a group of Indian musicians. 

They were the bauls, the folk musicians whom the famous ‘manager’ Albert Grossman (who had Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Peter, Paul and Mary among his clients) had signed in for a tour of the US and a record with the New York-based Elektra, with the record company paying the flight fare.  

Purna Das and Luxman Das on the cover of Dylan's 1967 albumPurna Das and Luxman Das on the cover of Dylan's 1967 album

After their debut at Fillmore, Grossman’s collaborator Thomas G Donovan took them on a cross country drive in his van, stopping for concerts in the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, both in the western American state of California, then in Arizona and a couple of more states on their way to New York in the east of the country. There, at the Town Hall, they shared the stage with blues legend Paul Butterfield. 

By the mid-1960s, Ravi Shankar had bowled over the Western music lovers, generating a great deal of interest in Indian music, especially the raga-based classical. In the British band The Beatles’ February 1967 album, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, George Harrison had used four Indian musicians playing Indian instruments, including the Sitar, in his song "Within You Without You." In the US, folk music revival was at its peak and fusion of various musical forms was gaining popularity. Grossman, who was living in Woodstock, was looking for fresh talent. 

Prompted by Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg to look among the baul singers of Bengal, Grossman and his wife, Sally, visited Kolkata in April 1967. They auditioned two singers – Purna Das and his brother Laxman Das – at the Grand Hotel, and were so moved that he signed them without delay. Purna and Luxman were sons of the late Nabani Das baul, a legendary singer of the genre whom Tagore admired.

Rabindranath Tagore imagined as a baul in a painting by Abanindranath TagoreRabindranath Tagore imagined as a baul in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore

In September 1967, the five-member group of Purna Das, Luxman Das, Purna’s long term friend Sudhananda Das, and two other old companions Hare Krishna Das and Jiban Krishna Mandal landed in California, ready to appear under the name of LDM Spiritual Band. The naming was curious, initially proposed as Loka Dharma Marashram by a sixth member of the team - Asoke Sarkar alias Asoke Fakir. It was later branded as LDM Spiritual Band to suit America’s hippie music atmosphere. 

However,  Sarkar fell out with the rest after landing in California, and left them to live with Timothy Leary of the psychedelic movement fame. So, others dropped the band name soon after.  

The Grossman couple must have been very pleased with these bauls, for they invited them to stay with them at their residence in Bearsville, a hamlet in the town of Woodstock, which will become globally famous another two years later for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in the summer of 1969. 

Bauls in Woodstock 

A lot was already cooking in Bearsville in the winter of 1967 when these bauls reached Grossman's residence. They were given accommodation at what has been described by pioneering rock music journalist Al Aronowitz as “in an apartment over a converted barn down the road from Albert Grossman's house.” Bob Dylan was a neighbour of the Grossman couple and the members of his backing band, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, had moved into a house called The Big Pink, just outside Woodstock, in February 1967. They had turned the basement of the house into a recording studio where Dylan would practice with them every evening. They would later form their own band, named The Band. 

During the chilling November of 1967, Dylan, the members of his backing band and the baul singers bonded over music and marijuana. The bauls had their chhillams with them, which the American musicians apparently liked. They also found keen interest in the simple instruments that the bauls played - khamak, dotara, kartal, jhumur.  They discussed music and philosophy. 

One day, the member of the would-be group, The Band, tried to jam with the bauls, though unsuccessfully. What happened there comes alive from what Levon Helm, one of the members of The Band, later wrote in his book, ‘This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band.’

“They were real gypsies and real players, happy to get high and sing all night about rivers and goddesses and play their tablas, harmonium, and fiddles… we invited ’em to Big Pink one night. … Charles Lloyd was visiting — I think his 1966 album Forest Flower had just passed the million mark in sales — and he came over with his saxophone. The Bauls wanted to jam, Garth wanted to record, and Rick and I were maybe gonna sit in. So we moved the cushions from the living-room sofa downstairs, and the Bauls sat in a circle so they could hear one another and began to play their Indian soul thing. A minute later, they were already wailing in their own language; in their own world, Bubba. Charles and Rick and I looked at one another and thought, No way. So we got up and let the Bauls play. Hours later, Garth’s tape machine was still rolling.”

In the words of The Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson, “They were playing for themselves, they weren't playing for us."

Sometime in 1968, after the bauls had gone back to Calcutta, Garth Hudson played the tape before Aronowitz, who was instantly impressed. “I talked Garth into producing the tape as an album, The Bengali Bauls… At Big Pink, selling it to Buddah (records) with myself as associate producer. I also wrote the liner notes. The album's a collector's item now,” Aronowitz wrote in an article later in the 1980s. The recording was on what he described as a ‘simple stereo Ampex.’ 

According to Helms, “Everybody around Woodstock in those days loved the Bauls… They were close to the bone of what music should be all about: ecstatic, unrelenting.”

The Albums 

By the time the bauls left for Kolkata, around March 1968, they had achieved more than what they could have dreamt of. The appearance of Purna Das and Luxman alongside Dylan on the cover of the latter’s December 1967 album, ‘John Wesley Harding’, generated a great deal of curiosity about Baul songs among America’s rock, blues and rock and roll music lovers. Their album, ‘Bauls of Bengal’, under Elektra’s label, was released in end-1967 and was not doing badly in the market. 

One side of the record had four songs by Purna Das, ‘Ki Diye Pujibo Hari Charono Tomar’ - curiously, one that Tagore composed as a baul and gave Nabani to set to tune –  ‘Boley Koye Manush Ke Ki Sadhu Kora Jay’; ‘Manush Bhajo, Manush Pujo’ and ‘Shesher Diney Shei Jon Biney’. The other side had Hare Krishna Das’ ‘Tumi Jwaliye Gele Moner Agun Nibhiye Gele Na’, Luxman Das’ ‘Prem Kothati Shunte Bhalo’, Sudhananda Das’ ‘Ebar Jene Shune Namio Sabdhane’. ‘Keno Michhe Moro Jal Feley Orey Mon-Jeley’ was sung in chorus by Purna, Luxman and Sudhananda. 

The Bauls of Bengal album coverThe Bauls of Bengal album cover

In the Big Pink album, Sudhananda Das sang two songs, ‘Joley Nei Machh Jongole, Machh Dhorechi Chhera Kon Jaaley’ and ‘Dhonyo Ramoni Janambhumi’, Luxman Das sang ‘Ki Diye Pujibo Hari Charono Tomar’, while Hare Krishna Das sang a bhatiyali, ‘Thakle Par-ghatate Tumi Parer Naiya’. Purna Das’ 9-minute rendition of ‘Hari Bolo Moyna Pakhi’ was a masterpiece. 

By 1969, Baul songs seemed to have gained quite a significant interest in the West, as the London-based Allen & Unwin published a collection of 204 baul songs, translated by Bengali ethnomusicologist and recordist Deben Bhattacharya. The same year, independent filmmaker Howard Alk, a prominent figure of New York counterculture, had left for West Bengal to shoot a documentary on the bauls. 

So, when Asoke Fakir assembled another team of baul singers to tour the US, involving Aparna Devi, Prahlad Brahmachari, Gopal Chatterjee, Poritosh Roy and Hena Lalita, journalist Donovan Bess wrote in the Rolling Stone magazine’s issue dated March 19, 1970: “The Bauls are moving in from India again, and they've come at a time when America needs them most; for a good many of our younger natives have hair longer than the average Baul's and are wandering in restless, mystic searching disguised as acid-rock." 

Amidst the West’s growing interest in their lives and music came a third record for Purna Das’ group, in 1971, titled ‘Indian Street Music: Bauls of Bengal’, released by the New York-based Nonesuch Records. It had Hare Krishna’s O Gariyal Bhai, Sudhananda’s Moner Kotha Bolibar Agey Ankhi Jay Jhore and Luxman Das’s Mon Amar Shajo Prokriti on one side, and on other was three by Purna Das -  ‘Teen Gorbhe Achhe Ek Chhele’, ‘Chor Porechhe Babur Baganey’ and ‘Anonde Harinaam Gao’.  

Jiban Krishna never sang, he played the tabla and the harmonium alternately in all three albums. 

Alk’s documentary, named ‘Luxman Baul's Movie’ and produced by Sally Grossman, was released in the US in 1971.

The people 

Purna Das was already the biggest name among baul singers in Bengal. He had moved into Kolkata from their Birbhum residence in the 1960s in search of better opportunities in music. He performed at the World Youth Festival in Helsinki in 1962 and St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1966. But the US trip literally made him world-famous, as he stood apart from the rest. He was easily picked as the best of them. 

Baul songs have been recorded and released since the 1910s, sung mostly by urban artistes in the early years and later by actual members of the community, who traditionally live in rural areas. These songs were finding their places among compilations of Bengali or Indian folk music in long-plays. In 1966, Deben Bhattacharya released from France a long-play titled, Chants Religieux Du Bengale, comprising nine songs that he recorded in 1954. One side had four baul songs - three solos by Purna Das Baul, Bhakta Das Bual and Haripada Debnath and one by a group of bauls. The other side had five padavali kirtans. 

But the album released from Elektra gave baul music the widest popularity.

In 1971, Purna Das had his first solo long-play released from Hindustan Records in Kolkata, with six songs on each side. The same year, he toured the UK and France, among other places. In the UK, they performed in the Rolling Stones’ concert in Hyde Park, London. In Nice, France, they recorded with Mick Jagger at the Rolling Stones’ studio. In 1973 he was touring Australia. In 1975, he got his first solo long-play released in the US, titled ‘The Bengal Minstrel: Music Of The Bauls’, featuring Purna Das’ photo on the cover, also from Nonesuch.  

Purna Das Baul with Mick Jagger in Nice, France, in 1971. Photo courtesy Purna Das Baul- TwitterPurna Das Baul with Mick Jagger in Nice, France, in 1971. Photo courtesy Purna Das Baul

By that time, Purna’s team had changed. During the 1971 tour of Europe, Purna was accompanied by his wife, Manju, elder son, Krishnendu and Jiban Mandal on tabla. The 1973 Australia tour had Manju, Krishndendu, Jiban, Neveen Kayal and Bhakta Das Baul. In the 1975 album from Nonesuch, Purna’s accompanies were Manju, younger son Dibyendu, and Naveen Koyal and Jiban Kirhsna Mandal in tabla. 

Luxman Das, Sudhananda and Hare Krishna gradually faded from memory. 

Sudhananda stayed in his remote Bankura district home. Much later, it appeared that Sudhananda was performing with Purna Das from the 1950s. In 2018, Bengali singer and researcher Moushumi Bhowmik, in her words “struck gold” when she chanced upon a set of recordings of Bengali baul songs in the British Library made by Dutch ethnomusicologists Arnold Bake in Kolkata in 1956. 

Suspecting that one of the voices recorded could be of Nabani Das, Bhowmik informed Purna Das about it. Till then, recordings of only two of Nabani’s songs were available. Purna then wrote to the British Library, requesting for a copy of it, and got it in Kolkata. Bhowmik found out that the recording was at the Banga Sanskriti Sammelan of 1956. 

During an interview with Bhowmik in 2018, the 85-year-old Purna Das recalled that he was present with Nabani, Sudhananda and Purna’s elder sister, Radharani, and brother-in-law. From the recording, Purna identified the voices of Nabani, Sudhananda and Radharani. Bhowmik uploaded the entire interview on the website, an archive of field recordings of songs, stories and other sounds from Bengal. Throughout their conversation, the 1956 recordings of Bake were playing in the background. Whatever can be made out of that 1956 record, Sudhananda had a golden voice, and certainly one beyond average.  

A photo of the legendary Nabani Das baul featured on the cover of the 1968 album, Bengali Bauls... AA photo of the legendary Nabani Das baul featured on the cover of the 1968 album, Bengali Bauls... At Big Pink

“We were bosom friends. He had a unique rendition, because he had influences of eastern Bengal, as he actually belonged to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh),” Purna Das spoke of him during the interview.  

50 years after recording songs in the US, hardly anyone remembers Sudhananda or Hare Krishna in present-day Bengal.  

“Sudhananda was a few years older than my father. They have performed together since their young ages. In the later years, he focussed more on baul sadhana (spiritual practice) than musical performances. He is about 93-94 now and lives in a baul ashram in Bankura district,”  Purna Das’ son, Dibyendu, told this writer.  

Hare Krishna, who was from Ranaghat in the Nadia district of West Bengal, died some 20 years ago, while Luxman Das died in 2016. Jiban Mandal, who continued to play with Purna for several years, died about four years ago. Purna, at 88, is still giving concerts.