Gorbhanga The Soulful Hymns of Baul-Fakiri Land

Distance from Kolkata: 172 km
Driving Time: 5 hours
Road Trip: 2 days

Once a marginalised nondescript village, Gorbhanga in Nadia, has eclipsed its past and blossomed into a hub of artistes whose melodies are redolent of the search of God within oneself. These artistes are practitioners of the soulful Baul-Fakiri music and have garnered a cult following all over the world. Nestled deep within the district of Nadia, the village of Gorbhanga may seem isolated and tepid from the outside but has a core burning with passion and desire, with stories to tell and with an ever-welcoming grace laced with the sinews of heartfelt hymns. To witness the untold tales of the land, Team WHEELS visited Gorbhanga, where the mellifluous tunes of the Baul-Fakiri takes you on an unparalleled trip.

The route to Gorbhanga passes through Krishnanagar – Karimpur – Tehatta – Betai and Nazirpur.

We started from Ultadanga traffic island in Kolkata at around 9.30 am and drove straight through VIP Road towards NSC Bose Airport. At the junction of Jessore Road NH-12 (NH-34) we turned right and continued north towards Barasat. From Dakbungalow Morh at Barasat we took the left fork and passed through Amdanga, Barajaguli, Chakdaha, Ranaghat, Shantipur and Beldanga by the NH-12 (NH-34) to reach Krishnanagar after 3 hours, halting once for tea at Sarai Khana Dhaba at Birohi.

On reaching Krishnanagar, we left NH-12 (NH-34) and entered Krishnanagar town on the right and followed SH-11 proceeding towards Krishnanagar bus stand. We continued thereafter towards Karimpur and drove through Ghurni, Rathtala Chapra Bazar, Tehatta Morh, Betai Bazar and Nazirpur. From Nazirpur Bus Stand Morh we took the road on left, leaving the state highway. Finally, we continued for another 7 km to find the entrance of Gorbhanga village on our right by the road with Babu Fakir welcoming us.

The air of mysticism surrounding Fakirs and their ascetic nature can be traced back to Lalon Shah, ranked 12th in BBC’s poll of the Greatest Bengali of All Time. Influencing the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, Lalon Shah or Lalon Fakir as he is most commonly known, is an icon of Bengali culture. His songs are still sung and his preaching is followed by a wide sect of believers. Born in an era that was dominated by orthodox religious beliefs, Lalon Shah rejected every notion of caste and creed and preached religious harmony. Mocking the division that religion creates in mankind, Lalon was a school of thought in himself and his influence crossed borders to the West as well.

Allen Ginsberg, a prominent figure of the American Beat Generation and the Counterculture Movement that followed, was heavily influenced by Lalon Shah. He wrote a poem entitled ‘After Lalon’. Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Noble Prize in Literature was deeply influenced by Baul music – Purna Das Baul and Luxman Das Baul feature on Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” album cover. Lalon believed in the power of music. He sang in the local dialect songs of his land, of his people and of the state of God being within oneself – the true spirit of the Baul-Fakiri music and lifestyle. This makes Baul-Fakiri practitioners so enticing that people from Europe and America flock to their Akhras.

Before the Partition of Bengal, Kushtia, the birthplace of Lalon Shah used to fall under the Nadia jurisdiction. During his lifetime, Lalon Shah built an Akhrah near the Kushtia railway station which was the place of his devotion. From there spread his music and ideology which was later propagated by his disciples.

Gorbhanga, a mere 8 kilometres from the Bangladesh border, is resplendent with many artistes who still follow the Fakir lifestyle and preach the hymns of Lalon. What makes this land unique and indeed intriguing is its subtlety and immense nonchalance. Rows of banana and jute plantations line the route from Karimpur to Gorbhanga; its demeanour like that of a village from yesteryear, languid and calm. But there’s an unmistakable gush of unadulterated and vivacious exuberance lying underneath.

Unlike its more mainstream cousin Shantiniketan, Gorbhanga is yet to be discovered by the masses. There are no hotels or guest houses in Gorbhanga that would help you with a guided tour of its immense cultural stalwarts and their akhras. The place doesn’t boast of concept-marketed natural accommodations either. What makes this place interesting and rewarding for the visitors is its boisterous life articulately hidden from the public eye by a thin veil of equanimity.

Flourishing Phase
Beside its artistic demeanour, Gorbhanga also has a success story of its own. Presently the artistes at Gorbhanga are praised for their musical brilliance and are invited for performances in all parts of the world. But things were not always on the greener side. A couple of decades back Gorbhanga bore the image of poverty. The musicians, though immensely skilled in their trade, did not have an audience to play for. The village was plagued by robbers and its people endured a life of misery. Things started to change for the better with the intervention of banglanatok.com, a social enterprise that empowers communities to develop and hone their skills for overall economic and cultural development. The intervention of banglanatok.com around a decade back came as a boon for the musicians of Gorbhanga who united under their guidance to form the artiste community.

The encouraging turn of events also resulted in these musicians getting invitations for events and concerts in Kolkata followed by other metropolitan cities. This was the beginning of ‘Gorbhanga – Land of the Baul-Fakiri Utsav’ which takes place in the month of November every year. Hundreds of people from all over India, Europe and America visit the festival. This year it is scheduled to be held from 23-25 November. Along with the ‘Gorbhanga Baul-Fakiri Utsav’, ‘Kodomkhali Bhimpur Lalon Mela’ near Krishnanagar, ‘Binnagar Sarabangla Lalon Mela’, ‘Banipur Lokutsav’, ‘Poush Mela’ in Shantiniketan, ‘Joydeb Mela’ and ‘Gangasagar Mela’ are other festivals where Baul-Fakiri music can be heard. All these festivals take place during the November to March period.

A spectacle unmatched, Akhras are the heart and soul of Gorbhanga. They are places of devotion and transcendence and melting pots where musical geniuses come together to play their hearts out.

There are five Akhrahs in Gorbhanga: ‘Datababa Lalon Ashram’, ‘Azhar Fakir Ashram’, ‘Akbar Fakir Ashram’, ‘Siddique Ashram’ and ‘Ashrad Fakir Ashram’ where Mahajan songs are practised every evening. Mahajan songs is an umbrella term under which the songs of Fakir stalwarts like Lalon Fakir, Durdu Shah, Pandu Shah, Abdul Karim, Chandi Das and Bhaba Pagla are sung. The artiste community of Gorbhanga comprises of nearly 100 well-versed musicians with another 200 musicians practising the Baul-Fakiri faith under their guidance.

During our Drive Out we were offered the warm hospitality of Datababa Lalon Ashram, the abode of Babu Fakir, Arman Fakir and Akkas Fakir, residents of Gorbhanga for three generations.

The Akhrahs of Gorbhanga are a revelation with their simplistic approach to life and their dedication to music. They have visitors coming in all day and discussions ranging from the life of Lalon and the philosophy of his songs to the Baul-Fakiri faith. These people have denounced religion, seeking God within themselves. Their songs are full of praise for the human body. The intrinsic nature and easy-going melodies are a reminder of “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return” – that human beings are the embodiment of Earth and God. “Some people search for God in temples and some in mosques, but we Fakirs, we search for God within ourselves. My body is a temple, my body is a mosque,” says Arman Fakir. To be present in an Akhrah and to imbibe the spirit of the evening with the artistes’ mesmerising melodies is an experience worth cherishing a lifetime.

Evenings at the Akhrahs
If you’re going to Gorbhanga to embrace the Baul-Fakiri culture, nothing will get you closer to the faith than an evening with the Fakirs themselves. As twilight descends, Gorbhanga transforms itself from the languid pace of the day and emerges with its wings of melodies. The sound of the Ektara, Dotara, Harmonium, Tambourine, Dhol, and Khartal pierces through the lull as the artistes begin their session with precision and a jovial spirit; each instrument adding its own uniqueness and creating a sound-scape so inspiring that sitting still would be a challenge.

“Amare chinina ami…
Khuji tare asmaan jomi
Ki bhishom bhromero bromi
Ami Konjon shey konjona
Ke kotha koye re dekha dey na…”

(I don’t know myself; I’m searching for you in the skies and in the plains; What a dreadful illusion; Who am I? Who is she? Who speaks but can’t be seen? )

Lalon’s words channelled through the euphonious voice of Babu Fakir set the tone for the evening. Arman Fakir and Akkas Fakir soon followed with their renditions of classic Baul-Fakiri songs. The Akhrah had 12-15 participants that evening including us. Everyone took turns at singing, as the instruments went from one performer to the other. Everyone present at the Akhrah knew how to sing and play. “They come here every evening and believe in the same faith that we do. Soon they will become well-versed musicians on their own accord,” Babu Fakir said of the evening participants.

The energy with which the participants practice is nothing short of a stage show. Arman Fakir’s rendition of classic Bengali qawwaliDillite Nizamuddin Auliya Elo” was probably the most energetic piece of the evening. It isn’t hard figuring out how they have garnered such a strong fan-base amongst people from America, Europe and India. From festivals in Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi to international venues in London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, and cities in Switzerland, Tunisia and Sweden, Babu Fakir, Arman Fakir and Akkas Fakir have travelled the world. Their favourite so far has been London where they stayed for well over a month. “Obviously they don’t understand the language we sing in and when we listen to their local artistes, we don’t understand their language either, but it’s the rhythm, the melody, the way we move our bodies when we sing that binds us all together. We are all bonded by the same energy, of course,” exclaims Babu Fakir with a broad welcoming smile that only an artiste true to their art can generate.

The musical sessions last from 7 pm to 10 pm every evening. The Datababa Lalon Akhrah doubles up as a resource centre. Every village that banglanatok.com is associated with has a resource centre of their own and is crucial to skill development in that village. Along with being a centre of practice, Baul-Fakiri music is also taught to children every Sunday at the resource centre. Presently 60 children are enrolled for the Sunday classes where the average turnout ranges from 30-35 in each session.

‘Home away from home’ is the feeling you’ll be left with after visiting the Akhrahs at Gorbhanga. They are open every day and to everyone, their warm hospitality a staunch reminder of the village’s principles.

During our stay at Gorbhanga Datababa Lalon Akhrah, we were treated to sumptuous homemade lunches and dinners, and family members took personal care, leaving their rooms for us, to ensure we were well-settled in the new surroundings. From tales of their village to their concerts abroad, the Fakirs have many delightful stories to share. It is such a humbling experience to be in their midst.

For all their achievements as artistes, they remain down-to-earth and accommodating. If for nothing else, then for this virtue alone Gorbhanga deserves your visit. These artistes have denounced the materialistic way of life and thus there aren’t any fixed ‘charges’ or ‘rent’ that one has to pay for accommodation. The Fakirs gladly accept any remuneration paid to them in good faith. “This is an Ashram where we practice the faith taught to us by our Gurus. We are more than glad to accommodate guests and we never ask for anything in return,” says Arman Fakir.

If you’re planning to visit Gorbhanga then the ‘Baul-Fakiri Utsav’ in November would be the ideal time. Since there are no hotels, makeshift accommodations are put up in tents.

A day-drive to the village is not recommended since a round trip from Kolkata takes nearly 10 hours and you would certainly miss the evening addas around the Akhrahs. To witness the maestry of the Fakirs at evening sessions, you’d have to stay there for at least a night. Make sure to inquire with the Fakirs well in advance regarding accommodation and their availability as they are frequently out on musical tours and festivals.

The Fakir groups accept event and festival invitations as well and charge `25000 – `30000 for a performance of 2-2.5 hours.

Gorbhanga with its rustic appeal, carefree life, artistes and Akhrahs, comes together to create an essence of immense vibrancy. It is a treasure trove of Bengali culture and warrants a visit from everyone who would like to discover a new way of life.

Datababa Lalon Ashram Gorbhanga, Nadia
Babu Fakir – Cell 9733948841
Gorbhanga Baul-Fakiri Utsav: 23 – 25 November

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