The clock has struck five but the morning stillness hasn’t yet been broken. The chirping of birds and the mild sound of temple bells in the distance suffuse a pleasantness to the atmosphere. Amid the rustling of leaves by a capricious breeze, the sound of a flute comes like music to the ears. The instrument is being played by 15-year-old Soham Bhowmik who, unlike other boys his age, is not attracted to hip-hop music but is rather drawn towards folk strains that he looks upon as a stress-buster. “The flute not only provides mental peace but also rejuvenates me. I have been learning it since my childhood and spend hours listening to folk music. I am thinking of making a career out of it someday,” he says as the sky gets bathed in sunshine.
32-year-old Debalina Bhowmick is a versatile singer who performs various genres of folk music like Baul, Bhatiyali, Jhumur and Kirtan and has gained quite a lot of recognition internationally. Bhowmick says that language is no more a barrier abroad as people connect with folk due to its soulful lyrics and traditional melodies. “There has been an increase in demand and respect for folk artists across the globe. Language doesn’t prove any huddle as we have performed in foreign shores where people stood listening to us for hours despite being unable to understand a word of the lyrics. It is the melodious music coupled with the use of traditional instruments that keep the audience glued to our performances. It can be comfortably said, that folk music from Bengal has broken down boundaries and is not restricted to a particular region anymore,” she says sipping from a cup of tea.
Bhowmick attributes the surging demand for traditional music from these parts to the efforts of the state government and some private organisations, “The government has taken a keen interest in the revival of folk music as the shows they organise provide a platform for both budding and accomplished singers. That has led to the market&’s expansion as even the people of my age are getting a chance to listen to and perform our traditional music. They are falling in love with its simplicity. The change in the scenario has been profitable for artists as they have benefitted economically by the increase in shows. Young people like me now look upon folk as viable career option,” says Bhowmick who is flying to the Netherlands this month to attend a music conference.
She has also formed a band called East West Local comprising rural and urban musicians from Bengal and Goa. They have performed worldwide including at the Malaysia International Performing Arts Festival 2014, Copenhagen World Music Festival in 2014 and the Essouria Hadrat Festival in Morocco last year.
40-year-old Joysankar is another well-known folk singer and he thanks digital media for giving a fresh lease of life to folk music whose popularity had dwindled somewhat in the 90s. “There was a time when we hardly had shows and looked upon festivals as peak season. But the situation has changed in the last few years with the advent of digital media. The younger generation can avail everything at the push of a button. Folk music has finally come back from its short spell of hibernation,” he says. “The strong point of the genre is the lyrics with which a listener connects instantly. It has a sense of innocence that calms down even the most turbulent mind. For instance, listen to Gaan gaye amar mon re bujhai mon thake pagol para composed by Baul Samrat Shah Abdul Korim of Bangladesh or Bhromor koiyo gia by Radha Raman and you are instantly transformed into the state of tranquility. Such has been the popularity that even corporate companies invite us for shows.”
He says that it is the generation in the age group of 18-25 years that has played a crucial role in bringing folk back. “We mostly perform in colleges and educational institutions and the atmosphere turns simply electrifying once a folk singer begins. Students keep on requesting us to churn out more songs even after the end of our allotted time. I think the use of traditional instruments like dhol, tabla, madol, harmonium and flute leaves them mesmerised.”
It is worth mentioning here that the state government has also played an active role in the folk revival by Rs 1,000 each for nearly 85,000 folk artists in the state besides paying them additionally remuneration for every performance.
“The monthly payment is paltry but it is compensated by the stage shows they get from the government. Besides, several of them also get private shows but the government has more plans in store for them,” said a senior government official. Although artists welcome the young generation learning traditional music, they caution that it needs a lot of hard work, perseverance and ability to sound effortless.
Partho Bhowmik, the founder of Mahul Folk band who quit his job in the Railways to pursue his passion for folk, says that it needs a lot of dedication to learn different genres of music. “We live in urban societies without much contact with villages and our dialect is quite different from that spoken in rural areas. We spent several months in distant villages among rural artists to catch up on their accent during the days when we starting learning. A performer could become a subject for jokes if he fails to sing it in a proper dialect because he has to sound natural. It takes hours of practice and a budding singer has to often spend time among rural artists. The profession is certainly not for those who are out to make a quick buck at the cost of the music&’s essence.”
Sonai Sen doubles is the member of Mahul but also doubles as a yoga therapist. The 37-year-old says that it is her passion for folk that brought her to the band. But both Partho and Sen are against the fusion being done by their contemporaries. “We always try to keep the originality intact as any change would turn the music artificial and rob its natural essence. We use traditional instruments like dhamsa, dhol, flute and ektara during our stage shows and they serve as the biggest crowd pullers,” says Sen who plays the dhamsa in Mahul.
But not everybody harbours similar views. Kolkata&’s Bolepur Bluez, which claims them to be the world&’s first Baul rock fusion band, says that the experiment is an essential part of survival. They were quarter-finalists on one of the country&’s biggest talent hunt shows, India&’s Got Talent — Khoj 2 in 2010. The band aims to re-create the ethnic traditional sound of Bengal&’s soil and take the amalgamation to a different level.
Kunal Kundu, founder and drummer of Bolepur Bluez, says that it is the fusion aspect has won them international recognition and over one lakh followers on YouTube. “We create a fusion by including western instruments in our songs but we have never tried to tamper with the originality of baul music. It remains as it is but the fusion is done to attract the people from across the globe,” he says in a telephonic interview from Mumbai.
Kundu claims that their fusion has led to an increase in the number of people who listen to folk music. He says, “We have played a pivotal role in attracting the young generation towards folk. And digital media attests to our reach and popularity. Apart from Bengali folk music, we are bringing fusion even to the folk tunes of other states like Rajasthan and the huge turnout in our shows indicates that people are accepting change.”
He offers a single piece of advice to youngsters wishing to enter the world of folk music. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that people who are taking baby steps in the field consider themselves an expert after some days and try to create fusion that destroys originality. They should first understand the music before trying to do something with it. The music must not sound artificial and take you away from the folk,” Kundu says.
Amitava Bhattacharya, the founder-director of banglanatak dot com, is very optimistic about the future of the genre. “The folk music of Bengal has the desired content, depth and talent to reach out to the world,” he says while sitting in his office in south Kolkata. “Moreover, rural Bengal is blessed with strong folk music roots with baul, bhawaiya and bhatiyali artists spread across the region. Besides, movies and books have helped develop a rural-urban connect, thereby increasing the number of listeners and they contributed towards attracting youngsters to folk in the last decade or so. As a result, even popular TV music programmes have to include folk to retain their viewership.”
As the wispy clouds disappear and dusk begins to envelope the sky, the boatman and his oar unknowingly create a rhythm that suggests life is nothing but musical drops, albeit if lived joyfully.