As the weather turns mellow with the advent of winter, West Bengal gets ready to celebrate the season in myriad ways. So this is the time to travel for music that ranges from soulful songs of the itinerant ‘baul’ to Indian classical to world peace music.
Not many people are aware that music is also an integral part of the annual Pous Mela held every December in Bolpur (Santiniketan), otherwise famous for its handicrafts fair.
No matter how distracted you are, it is impossible to miss the strum of an ‘ektara’ and the soulful song floating down from a corner of the fair. Follow the music and you will soon come across the owner of the voice, a ‘baul’ (pronounced ba-ool) singer. Once the stronghold of men, now you will find many women singers too. It is a wonder how simply they explain the intricate philosophies of life through everyday words and examples.
You may also catch a Santhal (tribal) dance performance or a masked ‘chhau’ dance. The dancers are accompanied by groups of singers and musicians who enliven the entire presentation. And then of course there are Rabindra-sangeet performances, sometimes organised, sometimes spontaneous, by the students of Visva Bharati (the university founded by Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore).
If the musical instruments used by the folk artists interest you, look around at the fair and you are likely to find some of them on sale. You may request for a quick lesson to learn how to play these instruments and the seller might oblige, asking you to turn up during lean business hours.
In 2018, Pous Mela will be held from December 24 -26. You may contact West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) for guided tours during the fair.
If you are keen to enjoy the poignant Baul music and learn more about their lifestyle and philosophy, head to Kenduli on the bank of the Ajay River, about three hours’ drive from Kolkata, in the middle of January.
Every year, during Makar Sankranti, pilgrims arrive here for a holy dip and offer prayers to the deity of Radhamadhav residing in an old terracotta temple. Although the association of Kenduli with the 13th century poet Joydev Goswami is a matter of debate, according to local people, it was here that he composed the lyrical Gitagovinda, an invaluable part of Vaishnav literature.
The Makar Sankranti fair is held in his honour and over time has turned into an annual gathering of baul singers from across West Bengal and sometimes even from Bangladesh. The singers and their team of musicians camp along the river bank. By day, they follow their daily routine, including rituals and practice. In the evening, the place turns into a performance arena. One has a choice ranging from the government sponsored stage shows to performances by the various ‘akhara’ to an impromptu performance by a lone singer. Although modernisation is chipping away the rustic appeal, the deep and solemn compositions will remain with you forever.
Do note, it can be very cold during night at the fair and it is advisable to carry adequate winter clothing.
In 2019, Kenduli Mela will be held from January 15 -16. Contact WBTDC for guided tours.
If you are a classical singer or fond of this highly refined genre, then do not miss the Dover Lane Music Conference of Kolkata, usually held in January, which has almost reached an iconic stature among the music festivals of India. Entry cards (against fixed donation amount) for this night-long festival disappear fast, so do keep a sharp lookout for the announcement made a few weeks before the actual programme.
In 2019, Dover Lane Music Conference will be held from January 22-25.
Bid adieu to winter with some world peace music in February. Based on the theme ‘Music for Peace, Music for All’, the annual Sur Jahan festival, is organised by banglanatak dot com, a social enterprise. Attend music workshops by day and enjoy the performances in the evening held in the heart of Kolkata. The announced line up for this year’s festival includes musicians from Cape Verde (north-west Africa), Egypt, Hungary, Cyprus and Spain besides Indian participants. Thematic exhibitions and handicraft stalls from rural Bengal are also a part of the music festival.
In 2019, Sur Jahan will be held from February 1-3.