Tarok Das had long, frizzy hair and a beaming smile. Under the golden canopy of Shantiniketan’s famous Banyan trees, he threw his shoulders back and began humming, joyously nodding his head in rhythm. A troupe of men clad in bright orange and red drapes formed a circle around him. Each held an instrument made of wood, gut strings and skin. Softly at first, then growing along with the sound of leaves rustled by the river-side breeze, they joined the melody.
Das stood out first; his raw and melancholic voice sang of higher spirits and the power of nature. His tone was robust, but his demeanor playful. The song intertwined with the beat of his men that accompanied his now moving feet. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but grin and feel a sway in my hips.
Das was our first collaborator on an epic journey that I embarked on with my brother Soumik last November. We traveled to six Indian states in search of rural folk musicians, the last torch-bearers of fading crafts. We had heard about Das from a few contemporary performers in Kolkata, who insisted we head into the countryside to discover ‘real’ India and ‘original’ music.
Tarok Das performs with his dotara near Santiniketan, West Bengal.
When we first met, Das was perched on the broken bench of a local bus stop, sipping chai from a clay cup and singing to a spontaneous but entirely captivated audience that had surrounded him. In his mid-50s, Das is one of the foremost proponents of the Baul tradition, which is both a religious sect and a musical genre. His is a dying art, yet one that is still popular in Bengal’s countryside, informing many more established genres over the years such as Rabindrasangeet and Kirtan. Baul performers sing and play indigenous instruments such as the khamak, ektara and dotara.
“Have you seen God?” he asked me deep within the forest, still humming and strumming his dotara. “To see God in a wooden instrument is no small matter. No one has seen God. You say Krishna plays the flute in the woods? But there is no Krishna, no flute, no woods. There is only a power, within these instruments and within ourselves, that drives us.”