Arthur J Pais
attends William Dalrymple’s unique book launch, where India’s Bauls meet Pakistan’s fakirs
RT OF FAITH
M2 THE MAGAZINE
speaks about Nine
The Shah Jo Raag Fakirs from Pakistan perform Sufi music at Willam Dalrymple’s US book
launch in New York
Author William Dalrymple learnt the hard way to never put up a Baul in a stable. Baul singers, whose beliefs draw on the Vaishnavite bhak- ti traditions and Sufi thoughts, wander across Bengal. But when Dalrymple thought he could put them in the corner of a stable with decorated beds at the Jaipur Literary Festival he organizes, he was
“I thought it was a great idea,” he told
, following a literary and
musical event in New York as part of the United States launch of his book
Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.
But one Baul thought he was being
treated shabbily in Jaipur and walked into actor Amitabh Bachchan’s reading to
protest. “It was a Baul rebellion,” Dalrymple recalled.
The author brought Paban Das Baul, one of the best known Baul artists, to the
book launch at the Asia Society. “Like everyone who performed, Paban Das has
long been like family,” said Dalrymple, who has taken his band of performers to
over a dozen cities in India, Australia, the United Kingdom and the US. In New
York, the band comprised the Anglo-Tamil singer Susheela Raman; Haridas and
his Theyyam troopers; and the Shah Jo Raag Fakirs, who sing at the shrine of Sufi
saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai in Sindh.
But the problems with the Bauls were nothing compared to the problems
Dalrymple has with the State Department. Any fakir whose name bears resem-
blance to Al Qaeda suspects does not get a visa, he said. Gul Mohammad, for
instance, who Dalrymple said, was “the most peaceful man you can get,” has been
On the second day of the book launch event, a fakir from Lahore was held for
questioning at the airport for hours. He was allowed in after Richard C Holbrooke,
chairman, Asia Society’s board of trustees till his 2009 appointment as President
Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, intervened. The
fakir arrived a few minutes before the curtain call. “We kept announcing he is at
the airport, he is on the way,” Dalrymple said. “When he arrived, he got a standing
ovation. There was a huge surcharge of sympathy. Many South Asians have faced
some kind of indignity in recent years at airports; they understood his plight.”
At the book reading, he tells stories of how Sufis in Sindh have quietly chal-
lenged the orthodox and the Taliban sympathizers in their province.
There have been other issues too. For the Australian performance, trying to get
the palms and bamboo for the Theyyam head-dress through customs yielded no
result. He had to find local substitutes in the Sydney botanical gardens. The Baul
instruments, made from dried gourd, were released after a lot of haggling.
Dalrymple said he chose Indian and Pakistani artistes for his readings, as their
music and dance explores rituals, ancient traditions and sacred expression in con-
temporary society. The musical and dance interludes shed light on how faith
thrives in India despite huge social and economic changes.
The artists in his band have known each other for quite some time, he said.
Guitarist Sam Mills, now Susheela’s husband, befriended Paban Das and his part-
ner Mimlu Sen many years ago. Some of the fakirs from Pakistan have also come
to know the Bauls, Susheela and Mills.
“They are like a family and yet at each performance they compete,” Dalrymple
said. “It is amazing to see who electrifies the audiences more. Some days Mir
Mohammad, the youngest of the fakirs, is the great surprise. After the perform-
ance, every pretty young woman makes a beeline for him. In London, where we
had more than 3,500 people, Paban Das stole the show. Elsewhere, it is
He loves to have Susheela at the very end. “She raises the tempo,” he said.
“Usually, she gets an entire audience, be it 300 or 4,500, dancing.”
His book reading is also an occasion to discuss some of the colorful people he
has met. Among them is Tapan Goswami, who is in the practice ‘of spirit-sum-
moning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless sui-
cides.’ Goswami was initially secretive. Later he admitted that his two sons were
ophthalmologists in New Jersey and had told him not to give interviews about
black magic; they were afraid it could ruin their professional reputation. ;
JAY MANDAL/ON ASSIGNMENT
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