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To See God in a Wooden Instrument Is No Small Matter

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.”

My brother and I grew up in a house filled with Indian art and music. But over time—perhaps caught in the commercial rat race of London—our connection to these traditions and the values they embodied began to wane. With this journey, we set out to rediscover Indian music, to trace it to its rural and folk sources, and experience firsthand its most compelling and colorful renditions.

Throughout the nation, within villages and rural enclaves, indigenous musical cultures have thrived for centuries. From the tribal hunting songs of Nagaland to the celebratory Kunitha dances of Karnataka, each district of India has artistic traditions shaped by unique local histories, climates, geographies, religions and social structures. Yet, today, in an age of speeding urbanization and modernity, many of these ways of life are in danger of vanishing.

Soumik and I decided to put these artists back on the map, creating intimate portraits as well as documenting live musical collaborations. Beyond this, we aimed to give audiences a glimpse into everyday realities of rural India and raise the question of how local customs might survive and stay relevant in a changing world.

A dancer from the Gaarudi Gombe Kunitha tradition, playing the evil demon Ravan, poses for a portrait in Karnataka.

Our first stop was West Bengal, where our parents were born and raised, and where we met Tarok Das and Rabi. They shared with us the soulful Baul way of life, which embodies generosity and mysticism, and where music and song act as a conduit to the divine. We also met Kirtan singers, acrobatic Chhau dancers and the last practitioners of the ancient Jumur form based in religious Hindu texts. Within a few weeks, we realized just how much there was to learn and to share with a wider audience. We decided to continue the project across states spanning the length and breadth of India.

A few months later, we arrived in Nagaland, a rural state tucked within the mountainous area between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Nagaland is home to 16 major tribes, each with their own customs, languages and traditional attire. Predominantly Christian, its musical and dance traditions are heavily influenced by Eastern and Xino themes, and stand in stark contrast to mainland India’s better-known, Hindu forms. Their dances are intercut with striking battle cries and zoomorphic poses, which celebrate the region’s hunting and farming history.

“We all neglect our own culture,” Venolu Puro, an 18 year-old member of the Rengma tribe, told us. Plucking her ancient Tati instrument, she talked to us about Nagaland’s identity crisis and her commitment to maintaining her culture. “We have to learn from our parents so that we can preserve our culture, our identity. We may learn everything. I may learn parts of your culture. But if I forget my own culture, no one can teach this to me.”

Globalization had clearly made its mark there. Blaring red 4G signs lined the winding forest roads that connect Nagaland’s two major cities of Dimapur and Kohima. The increasingly educated and urban smartphone-wielding youth have a declining interest in their families’ agrarian lifestyles, but also struggle to locate skilled jobs amidst the state’s climate of political insurgency, migration and declining tourism. Nagaland’s rich and unique subcultures risk being lost in the state’s rapid movements for change.

For six months we drove, flew, trained and rode our way across four more states: Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Goa. We met more than 40 musical groups and 100 artists, spanning nine languages and all age groups. We traversed jungles and mountains, islands and dense cities, and were finally left with a rare, compelling and intimate insight into India’s fading folk music traditions. Cut into six thirty-minute episodes that respectively explore each state, we are nearing the post-production and launch stages, which we’ve recently started a Kickstarter campaign to support.

A preview of the Rajastan episode of “Tuning 2 You.”

One of the things that struck me the most during this project was that for the people we met, music was not just an occupation or a choice. Often harking from generations-long legacies of performers, these traditional genres had become inseparable from the people who practiced them, and the places in which they were born.

Rampal Ji Bhopa, an ancient musician we met in Rajasthan, personified exactly the haunting melodies that reverberated from his Ravanhatha; Tarok Das’s voice rang with the same warmth of West Bengal’s tropical and watery climate. These musicians lived and breathed their art. They were innately connected to a precious time and a place that was quickly disappearing.

For more, follow “Tuning 2 You” on Facebook and Instagram, or visit the project’s Kickstarter campaign.

Rabi Baul poses with his Ektara in Santiniketan, West Bengal.

Souvid Datta
Souvid Datta is a London-based multimedia journalist. Born in Mumbai, he was raised in London and Kolkata. Follow him on Twitter @souvid.

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