Saturday, 11 May 2013


Many years ago, watching her Shri Sanatan Das Baul, perform the story of Kalia, Parvathy Baul had a moment of epiphany. She re-visits that moment and experience and reiterates the power of a good story, well-told

Radha Kohe, Koho Koho Sakhi aro Krishna Kahini,
Lokkho shabodo shunileo jaha puron nahi goni.

Radha says, “Sakhi please tell me, tell me more, the stories of Krishna,
Million words do not suffice to bring his story to a completion”

As long as mankind will exist, stories too will continue to be told. Though weaved in familiar human emotions, every story has something new to open our minds to. There are stories to take us off with imagination beyond the familiar; there are those that make the unexpected, happen. Stories are memories of those which took place and of those that didn’t. The Native American Shaman said, “Stories are told in the silence of memories of a rock since the creations.”

Stories of men and women; of birds, trees, rivers, oceans, mountains and hills… Stories make us cry and laugh. They gift us with food for thought. For me, my songs are my stories; they are are the spiritual history of generations of Baul Gurus, their insights and experiences, their lives and times are reflected in these songs. Their songs/stories are handed down by them to the next one who will keep on singing them, remembering them, re-inventing them. Coming from the depths of self-realization, these songs/stories are ever relevant to each of us. In a sense, ours is a ‘Living Story’.

I grew up with my grandma’s stories, comics, graphic novels, books of short and long stories, movies, theatre, etc, like any other child. But the true power of storytelling was revealed to me when I saw my Baul Guru, Sanatan Baba (Guru Shri Sanatan Das Baul) performing a story of Kalia. For the uninitiated, Kalia is Krishna. For me, all that existed around him - the stage, decorated background with hanging flower garlands with names of sponsors, the musicians, the spectators, everything - became irrelevant. I was not aware of the ambience around me anymore; subconsciously, I entered a new arena through his story. I could, in a sense, see, visualize, what he was singing about - the lanes of Vrindavan, the cowherd boys, Radha’s friends with earthen water pots, the dawn  breaking in Vrindavan... I saw Radha’s window, I pictured her sitting at her window, I saw the trees, the birds sitting on the tree singing to Radha, and her looking at the sky which reminded her of Krishna… I could even see the colours of her Chunri.

It happened again when I attended a Vaishnava festival of Padhavali Kirtan (that has been happening for the last 500 years at Shreekhanda in Burdwan district in West Bengal). Padavali Kirtan is basically a set of Vaishnava poems sung in a storytelling format based on a specific style of Dhrupad composed in very intricate rhythmical patterns. The singer was Saraswati Das of Nawadweep and her spectators/listeners were sitting on all three sides, surrounding her.

At one point in the story, when she was humbly singing of the surrender of Krishna to Radha, tears started flowing from her eyes, and yet there was not the slightest snap in her voice. A man amongst the spectators, sitting on the other side of Saraswati Das, attracted my attention. He was sitting with a straight spine in the lotus posture, as if he was meditating. He was so untouched, sitting still in that eager crowd of listeners. His eyes wide open fixed on the singer, he was equally present in the space as the storyteller herself. His tears too started flowing at the same time as the storyteller, his body trembled in bhakti but his facial muscles didn’t alter his outer expression of stillness. His hands were wide open as if he was embracing the sky. 

Being the outside-eye to this unique relationship of the story, the storyteller and her spectators/listeners, I realized that they were experiencing what is called Sahaja Kumbhaka, a state of unconditional Love/bhakti in their bodies through the love-epic of Radha and Krishna.  I became aware of the far-fetched potential of storytelling to transcend the border of mind or even its imagination.

From being a witness to both my Guru’s storytelling and Saraswati Das’ rendition, I felt like returning home after a long day of wandering. It is unique in the bhakti tradition of storytelling to use story as a medium to transcend the layers of the mind or thoughts into an open space of abundance in true surrender. Unlike other forms of storytelling that are based on the series of incidents that take place, this form is based and composed on Bhava and Rasa. The stories of Baul are based on Asta Swattik Bhava or eight divine qualities. These qualities represent direct experiences in a Sadhaka’s body. In Chaitanya Charitamrita of Shri Krishnadas Kabiraj, we find that Mahaprabhu Chaitanya reaches a state of divine oneness by listening to Vaishnava Padavali. The bhavas expressed in a story are a transitory passageway to accomplish the much-enduring state of Rasa. In both Baul and Padavali, Rasas are five - Shantya (peace), Sakhya (courteousness), Dasya (eternal servitude), Batsalya (compassionate innocence) and Madhur (sweetness of divine love).

The other part of storytelling in Baul is connected to the life-stories of great Sadhakas. These inspiring life-stories deal directly with the different stages of spiritual journey of a Sadhaka, a radical spiritual quest and attainment of a Bhakta/Sadhaka.

I have often found different patterns, symbols and images connected to the Baul story/song in my Guru’s notebooks, and in some other master’s note-books, but paintings are not used in Baul storytelling. While singing these stories, the storyteller envisions all the imageries connected to the story. I started painting the mirror images of these images that I had envisaged during singing these stories in my presentation. That’s really how Chitra Katha Geethi was born in the year of 2001. Since then, I have been looking after and working on every detail, exploring different ways of conveying stories to a range of audiences, beyond the borders of Bengal… 

The writer is a singer, painter, storyteller and practitioner of the Baul path from West Bengal

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