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Follower of the Present

Writing the Self: The Life and Philosophy of a Dissenting Bengali Baul Guru by Jeanne Openshaw, Oxford, 2010; pp 336, Rs 895.


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Follower of the Present Ananya Jahanara Kabir the baul as the quintessential madman or “khyapa” is succinctly traced by Openshaw in her first work; in this current book under review, she provides us with a close examination of how a self

his significant book by Jeanne Openshaw, one of the few scholars in Anglophone academia working in depth on the bauls of Bengal, edits, translates and contextualises the autobiography of a baul guru Raj Krishna aka Raj Khyapa (1869-1946 CE). Given that the baul is popularly considered as the dissenter par excellence, one wonders at the title’s specification of this “baul guru” as “dissenting”: dissenting from what precisely? Or is the adjective a pointer towards his status as a master-dissenter? Nevertheless, the specification signals Openshaw’s caution and precision while dealing with stereotypes, which abound in elite representations and popular conceptions alike of the bauls and their world. At the same time, it alerts us to the fact that Raj Krishna’s life, as reconstructed by Openshaw from his autograph manuscript as well as a variety of oral sources, is one of maverick and unexpected choices that were dictated by his personality and the circumstances of his life, as much as the demands of being a “baul”. The contingency and constructedness of this category, by those who imagine what the baul is, as well as those who opt to become bauls, is what is revealed most expressively by this book, which should be read as a companion and sequel of sorts to Openshaw’s earlier scholarly monograph, Seeking the Bauls of Bengal (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Economic & Political Weekly

August 27, 2011

Writing the Self: The Life and Philosophy of a Dissenting Bengali Baul Guru by Jeanne Openshaw,

Oxford, 2010; pp 336, Rs 895.

In that earlier book, Openshaw had laid out in detail the life and philosophies of contemporary bauls, based on her ethnographic research in various districts of West Bengal, that led her to songs, manuscript materials, and personal acquaintance with a number of bauls. The value of her reconstruction of their theories and practice, renowned (if not infamous) for their esoteric bent, was certainly augmented by her consciousness that, “as national and international representatives of south Asian folk culture or indigenous spirituality, the iconic status of bauls is firmly established” (3); that they have been assimilated to the search for “syncretism” that liberal-minded south Asian intellectuals are partial to (11); and that, most importantly, this was a process firmly associated with the mindset of the Bengali bhadralok, starting with Rabindranath Tagore himself (as detailed in her entire first chapter). Indeed, the recent film on the baul Lalon Shah’s life (Moner Manush, 2010, directed by Goutam Ghosh) frames Lalon’s life through his encounter with Tagore, in whose study these two icons of elite and itinerant Bengali-ness are shown as engaged in creating the “self” and “intimate other” of the modern Bengali subject. The bhadralok’s construction of

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declared bartaman-panthi (followers of the present: her, and her subjects, preferred label, rather than “baul”), fashioned his self in accordance to but also in deviation from those external constructions.

The book combines the edition and translation of a Bengali text, the jiban-carit (lifestory) of Raj Krishna, with an extended discussion of this text and the circumstances of its production and reception. Openshaw divides her material into two sections entitled “Life” and “Self”, comprising three chapters each. Following a concluding chapter, the book presents three appendices relating to the jiban-carit: the transliteration of the original Bengali text, an account of the manuscript’s chronology, and an account of its dating and language. After a short introduction, which mainly emphasises Openshaw’s departure from the usual sources – baul songs – normally used to reconstruct what being “baul” is all about, the first chapter presents her alternative source for this task: Raj Krishna’s “auto biography”, in page-by-page translation. The presentation here is rather unusual, with each translated page followed by Openshaw’s detailed explications of the often allusive terms of its references to place, event and dramatis personae. Chapter 2 discusses “Raj’s Last Days and His ‘Lineage’ Today”, mainly cul led from oral accounts of his present-day followers and others living around his village; and the third chapter discusses “Raj’s Jibancarit and the Autobiographical Genre”.


In the book’s second section, “Self”, three not only by rural Bengali society at large, rather short chapters, “The Self and the but also the other bauls themselves. This


Individual”, “The Anti-hierarchical “Individual” Self” and “The Androgynous Self” analyse Raj’s philosophical position on central baul notions of the self. The most interesting aspect of these chapters is that Openshaw uses as the basis for this discussion Raj’s personal experiences and life-story, given to us through the earlier section, rather than the cumulative philosophies that she extracted from multiple conversations with bauls in her previous work.

As the format and contents indicate, this is a somewhat unusual book. Much like its subject, the “boundary-crossing Baul”, it straddles several borders: those delineating critical edition, translation, textual exegesis, and socio-historical scholarly commentary. As a result the book leads us to a little-known world, the day-to-day life of a petty bourgeois, Bengali boy from the mofussil at the turn of the century, who grew to become a fairly renowned “dissenting guru”, and who thought it fit to leave his life-story behind in a manuscript that serendipitously escaped the wear and tear of the tropics and (as Openshaw never fails to remind us) the benevolent ganjadriven neglect of baul initiates. Filled with unexpected details ranging from the English words peppering the Bangla prose to memories of the squabbles between his father and his uncle, Raj’s jiban-carit is an engrossing and revisionist first-person account for readers inevitably susceptible to the long-standing romantic stereotypes of bauls being outside of history, modernity and human foibles, whether these be caste and religion-driven hierarchies or petty jealousy. Most arresting in this context is Raj’s love affair and elopement with an older married woman who comes down to us in the records as “Rajeswar” (Raj’s sovereign), a name that Raj himself coined for her. Again, this relationship, which runs through the jiban-carit, and indeed, through Openshaw’s discussion, as its strongest narrative thread, is remarkable for the light it sheds on the limits which even supposedly unconventional baul mores placed on unconventional behaviour. Notwithstanding all the tropes of illicit love, Vaishnav Radha-Krishna style, that animates baul lyrics, Raj and Rajeswar’s love was adjudicated problematic is a gripping tale, and certainly a riveting aspect of Openshaw’s book.

There are other aspects of the book that I, unfortunately, found less than riveting. I did not think that the book benefited significantly from the discussion on the autobiography as a genre, and whether the jiban-carit was influenced by western or indigenous models of “life-writing”. There is a significant body of criticism in literary studies around the relationship between life-writing, autobiography, and memoir, and without these references, the exploration of this issue (not itself insignificant) seemed a trifle under-theorised. On the other hand my theoretical imagination was piqued by what was described in detail by Openshaw without being drawn out for its broader implications: the interface between orality and written-ness as displayed in the parallel existence of Raj’s manuscript, his songs, and rumours about his life; and, secondly, the construction of Bengali masculinity through models of both householder and renouncer lives. As both these models were lived by our protagonist Raj at different moments of his life, and remembered by him through his autobiography, this is an issue rich with the possibility of further analysis for those interested in gender and masculinity in late colonial Bengal. Two aspects of Raj’s life confirm this potential: the strength of his feelings for Rajeswar and the masculinisation of his lover as evident in his sobriquet for her; and the fact that Raj’s life-story, his reflections on it, and their reception by his followers provide us with a processual understanding of the creation of a Bengali male subjectivity under progressively “renouncer” conditions, over a period of time that encompassed the nationalist movement, decolonisation and the emergence of postcolonial India.

Post-Partition Bengal

Or should we not say here, “postcolonial Bengal”? Raj’s life moved him from Sylhet, now in northern Bangladesh, to an itinerant life around the districts of Nadia, Murshidabad and Rajshahi, all borderlands between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Thus in this context, postcolonial Bengal is intrinsically post-Partition Bengal. Raj’s


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Economic Political Weekly


story reminded me of Ritwik Ghatak’s film, Jukti Takko aar Gappo (Debate, Song and Story, 1974). This film is charged with Ghatak’s highly expressionist exploration of post-Partition Bengal, additionally layered by the recent metamorphosis of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. The film traces the strange meeting and journeyings of four displaced and disoriented individuals – Nilkantha, a frustrated intellectual given to alcoholism, Nachiketa, a young unemployed engineer, Jagannath, a penniless Sanskrit teacher and Bangabala, a young refugee woman from the newly created Bangladesh. Thirty minutes into the film, an abrupt cut takes us to a baul singing the Durbin Shah song Namaj Amar Hoilo Na Adai (I could not offer my namaaz today). He is being watched – and heard – by Nilkantha and Bangabala who are also seated on the river bank, facing the river, which frames the baul and his song. The baul song is still being sung on a river bank, but the river now flows through a commercial and urban milieu, and there are still boats floating by, though these are now passenger steamboats rather than the nai and nauko of the village waterways. As the baul sings a chiaroscuro of emotions, from an enraptured recognition to wistful melancholia, flit across Bangabala’s face. Is she thinking of the village in Bangladesh she left behind? Her Muslim neighbours there? Is this, in Dipesh Chakraborty’s phrase, the “remembered village” of Ghatak’s own East Bengali past?

The baul song here collapses the effects of 1947 and 1971. It is a vehicle for reminding us of the continuing trickle of refugees from the east that confounded a neat – albeit always painful – separation of that which was then and that which is now. This particular song of Durbin Shah is used by Ghatak to telescope the myriad repercussions of Partition into a laminated expression of loss, melancholia, longing and confusion on the part of the Hindu Bengali refugee in Calcutta. II

tures how East Bengal, which became East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh, was the affective hinterland from which the bhadralok derived the sustenance to support his modernising and divided self. The modernist artist-intellectuals of Bengal, from the Tagores to Zainul Abedin to Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinker Baij,

Economic Political Weekly

August 27, 2011

were drawn to the bauls as the repositories of a musical heritage linked to the folk stratum through accent, orality and lyricism, while being valorised as able to confound religious divisions as well as caste hierarchies. The khyapa or mad baul, supposedly roaming across increasingly formalised cartographic borders predicated on religious identitarianism, becomes, for Bengali bhadralok from Tagore onwards, the epitome of an anti-modern palliative to the impact of these changes. He is a signifier of a collective consciousness shaped intimately by the repeated political transformations of Bengal’s eastern half. These transformations are experienced as traumatic not only because of the violence each phase generated; rather, violence is read as the manifestation of deeper disturbances of the psychic economy of self and other.

This construction of the baul signals is a disconnect enacted in the separation – first under the conditions of empire, then under the sign of decolonisation – of the West Bengali subject from his emotional anchorage in East Bengali soil, the wellspring of its folk traditions. In this context Raj Khyapa’s story begs to be read as a life beset by post-Partition cartographic impositions, and by the stereotypes of bauls who seem to be above all borders, including those of nation states. Openshaw herself acknowledges this when she admits that “the realities of post-Partition trauma in Bengal make it difficult to even begin to investigate these questions” (34), where the questions pertain to tracing the details of Raj’s itineraries. Raj died a year before Partition, but it is his legacy and reception, together with the scholar’s difficulty in reconstructing an unpartitioned landscape (both psychic and physical) in the wake of 1947 and 1971, which is the focus of this admission here; nevertheless, it is an admission that remains unincorporated into the texture of Openshaw’s investigations. One suspects that she too, perhaps, is prone to keeping the baul out of the difficult space of Partition’s traumas. As she declares in her earlier book, Seeking the Bauls of Bengal,

The material concerning Bauls and bartamanpanthis, liminal in relation to householder and renouncer culture, as well as to ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Islam’… calls into question the imposition of mutually exclusive and exhaustive religious categories, such as Hinduism and

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Islam, whether it be on individuals, groups or, in its crudest manifestation, geographical areas, on the pattern of nation states (9).

That Mysterious Thing

Personally, I would resist the temptation of lifting the baul out of the space of post-Partition nation states, and instead use that temptation itself to interrogate how the figure of the baul, as well as baul music, is cultural heritage which bears the very stamp of cultural contestation.

The music and its makers may celebrate music’s erasure of difference – but this is not to be confused with what the music’s own trajectories bespeak. Indeed, contemporary representations of the baul attests to the imperceptible ways in which the effects of Partition linger and multiply in diverse cultural domains. Baul music is a perpetually fragmented repository of collective memory, longing and affect, that different Bengali constituencies return to whenever they seek to recover something of an original “Bengal” that survives Partition and its varied repercussions; what is somewhat ironic is that Openshaw’s own desire to free the baul from stereotypes stops short of historicising the relationship between the baul and Bengal’s modern boundaries. Again, Ghatak’s Jukti arr Takko Gappo provides a valuable supplement to this lacuna. Returning to the scene of the baul song that I earlier described, the character Shatrujit (played by Utpal Dutt), remarks, “these are songs from Bangladesh…lots of people like Bangabala are teeming in the city; the songs are coming along with them”. He goes on to comment on Nilkantha’s paralysis of action: “for thirty years he’s been waiting for this moment, that the two Bengals might unite, but when such a possibility edges closer, he is lost in the fumes of alchohol”. To this, Nilkantha replies: “there is that mysterious thing, you know, whose name is politics”. Raj’s life and music, and their continuing circulation in oral sources, is the story of how both were shaped by that “mysterious thing”, but the tantalising aspect of this book is that, in the ultimate analysis, this particular mystery remains intact.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir ( is professor of the Humanities at the School of English, University of Leeds, UK.

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