Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pulling Strings for Joy: The "Baul" of Madhugiri

Madhugiri baul and his instrument

One of the joys of blundering one’s way through life is that one learns not only the mistakes that can be corrected but also that one could makes unexpected discoveries, especially if one is in unknown territories. We visited Bangalore (from Pune) for Lalitha’s niece’s wedding. Lalitha drove us down because we wanted Bruno, our world’s biggest smooth-haired fox terrier, with us. Having gone to Banglore we had to drive back to Pune, naturally. And what better way to avoid the monotony and the heavy Bangalore traffic, was to use a route less used. At least it is more romantic --- as in adventure if not as in love --- to tread a new path.

So we thought we will go to Dodballapur (Lalitha’s father was born there) and then take the road to NH4 the national highway from Bangalore to Bombay. This road would have made the trip 20 kilometres longer. Taking purely geometrical considerations (two sides of a triangle being longer than the diagonal) we (which really means I) thought we will take a diagonal route to Sira (where there is a famous big banyan tree within 10 kms and some remnants of Aurangazeb’s rule) via Madhugiri (means “hill of honey”). We did not know it, but we drove past the biggest single-stone monolithic hill in Asia, when going to Madhugiri. The view of the hill (which can also be climbed and has one of the finest hill forts that was built by the Vijayangar kings, that we did not know about also) would have been spectacular on a clear day. The day was non-cloudy and should have been a clear blue-sky November day, but there was this frustrating, view-spoiling, brown haze about which we do not seem to worry even if it is a world concern. The road to Madhugiri from Dodballapur could have been avoided because the road was mostly bad. The road from Madhugiri to Sira could also have been avoided. The road itself was not bad but there were so many huge speed-breakers meant especially for trucks and other heavy high vehicles before and after every village we crossed.

Just when we thought that there would be a long, tiring and tedious drive to Madhugiri/Sera, we overtook very colourful man walking briskly down the road. I stopped the car to photograph him. The man had a happy look on him generally; but a resigned look as far his future dealings with me was concerned. I had my camera. He knew I was going to photograph him. He knew he will get some money from me. He looked as if he did not really want the money. He also looked as if he had said to himself that if he was going to put up with it, he may as well ask for some money. I think I figured out the same thing myself. He posed for a still shot. I asked him to sing. I recorded his singing with my digital camera not knowing that I was shooting something I could not set straight. I have posted it as it is after converting it to .mov or .mp4 files (see top of blog).

Unfortunately for me (and fortunately for the madugiri minstrel --- MM, as he may be called --- as well as, I suspect, Lalitha) my camera battery died. I could not record the details of MM’s instrument any further. I did not know the local language and so I could not converse with him. He, of course, was able to impress upon me smilingly, that what I was paying him was not sufficient. He said something which I understood as he was on his way to a temple or a mela or a village. He found another villager who greeted him heartily and they walked away. I think I missed something very important. I should be going back to Madhugiri sometime with his picture to look for MM and listen to him.

What Musical Instrument did MM carry?

A cursory first glance at the MM would suggest to a city-cynic like me that he is just a happy clown making a living by having interesting colours and a strange instrument. Once he started playing the instrument and plucking the strings (video) it was clear to even an untrained ear like mine that both his instruments and his voice certainly were of good musical timbre. After I reached Pune, I searched the internet. I found nothing like him. So here is a report that is licensed to speculate.

The way MM moved with his belonging wrapped in cloth, a stick, and caressing his cradled instrument he could not be anything but the free-est of men --- a wandering minstrel with a song in his heart, stars in his eyes and music on his fingers and holes in his sole. He reminded me of the bauls. Not exactly the romanticized stereotype images of the modern baul, but the bauls I first heard performing for their living in a local broad gauge electric train (new for me at that time) from Rishra to Howrah in the late fifties or early sixties. My late elder bother --- he was in IIT Kharagpur at that time --- was with me at that time and it was he who educated me on bauls, as he did on so many things.

There were two performers in the train. One of them played on a single-stringed instrument, ektara (ek = one, tara = string), which is a (Fig 1a) a sound box made from a shell of a coconut clamped between two bamboo sticks held together at one end. A string from the bottom of the coconut shell is stretched to the joint bamboo at the top and tuned by a wooden key. The notes are produced by simply twanging the string. The notes can be changed by squeezing the bamboo strips held in the palm of the hand. The other played a khamok-like small drum (maybe one should call it a gabgubi) which was held under the player’s left arm while a small brass drum was pulled slightly to control the tension of the two strings (Fig 1b). The fundamental tone of the melody was set by jerking it very slightly and subtly. The strings were plucked by a wooden plectrum held on the right hand.

The music they played was divine to me at that time and their image is etched in mind forever. Their lively faces have been always an unconscious source of consolation throughout my life since then. The madhugiri minstrel (MM) reminded me of them and he has been unconsciously added to my unconscious list.

MM’s instrument was not an ektara, not only because there were two strings instead of one, but also because it bore no resemblance to the ektara (Fig 1a or 1c) commonly used. There were instead, first of all, two strings so that it could have been a dotara (do as in doe = 2) (Fig 1d). It seems that the number of strings does not determine whether an instrument is an ektara or dotara, especially if you are in the parts of Bengal. In the typical Bengali tradition of arguments, a dotara can have four strings. The four-stringed instrument, which resembles a sarod¸ is known as rahr Bangla and could indicate western (Persian?) influence if only (in my unsubstantiated but licensed opinion) because the begatters of the rarhi kulin families, now setteled in the south of Bengal, hailed from kanauj which is to the west of India.

As I mentioned earlier, MM’s instrument is decidedly unique, at least as far as my very limited experience goes.

There are usually designs of animals, peacocks, birds either on the main body or on the neck of the instrument. MM had a peacock/bird at the bottom of his instrument (Fig 2a). The main body was of bamboo just as the hollow body of any lute. Unlike the ektara MM’s instrument had frets of an unusual kind. Another of the more important features in MM’s instrument was that it had three resonators. Maybe one of the resonators was for his voice. If I remember right, the white-pumpkin-shell resonators were cut open at the bottom. One of the two strings was strung over a bridge so that it must be the melody string. Quite strangely, one bridge seemed to be at the top (Fig 2a) of the instrument and another was at the "normal" position. The other string was perhaps a drone. The rounded bridge (Fig 2a) at the bottom of the instrument satisfies Raman’s description of the bridge in the veena which “…set aside the validity of the Young-Helmholtz law and actually to manufacture a powerful sequence of overtones including those which ought not to have been elicited according to that law …”.

The way two of the dried gourd resonators are located and fixed to the bamboo tube may be thought to be similar to that in the rudra-veena (Fig 1f) which has a tubular body about the same length. Two large-sized, round resonators, made of dried and hollowed gourds, are attached under the tube in the rudra veena. The rudra-veena has raised metal-fitted frets as in MM’s instrument even if the raising of the frets may be a bit exaggerated by MM. The extreme resonators (one big and the other small) have some resemblance to the shruti veena and also to the saraswathi veena.

madhugiri baul 3

Another feature is the pipe-like object coming out from the top. It is fitted into the main tube-like bamboo body of the instrument. I have not seen anything like that before. The way it is fitted into the main body gave me impression that there was an acoustics purpose. I gave it the name “pipe-resonator”. It has occurred to me that the purpose of the pipe perhaps serves the purpose of a muffler in a car exhaust, muffling out some of the undesired (defined by the dimensions of the pipe) sounds/vibrations.

How did MM arrive at his instrument which is certainly not unwieldy or inconvenient? It is unlikely that he knew about the physics of it. When C. V. Raman carried out his experiments on Indian stringed instruments, he had the advantage of his father being a violin player and knowing about Helmholz resonances from Helmholtz’s book “The Sensations of Tone” which re-inforced Raman because of his interest in the physics of the violin.

In that very short and lively book by G. Venkataraman on “Raman and his Effect” (Orient Blackswan 1995) the experiments of Raman on ektara was illustrated (Fig 3). Raman had said

Strange as it may seem, there is in actual use in India, a musical instrument, a rather crude one, it is true, the working arrangements of which, are in essentials, the same as in the figure (a). It is styled the gopijantra or oftener ektara [literally meaning single string], and is chiefly used, I find, by vocalists --- those of the poorer sort --- for striking key notes and marking time. The users of the instruments are apparently totally unaware of its characteristics.

It is a mute point on whether the world lost out because the “poorer sort” (read baul) were unaware of the characteristics (physics) of their instruments or whether the world may have lost out when physicists imposed their learning on the instrument. It may have worked for western instruments but the truly free spirit does not and should not depend on the bounds set by current knowledge of physics. The Madhugiri Minstrel represents that freedom and I yearn to meet him and listen to him once again and perhaps get to know him well enough so that I can ask him about his instrument.

History of Ektara.

As usual, I should have stopped here, but speculation on ektara is a world pastime. It may as well be mine and, hopefully, yours too. There’s much more to Nebuman and hyksos that I have written below. That will be for another day.

Remember, that the earliest recorded image of a lute-like instrument if not an ektara is from an Egyptian king, Nebamun’s tomb (Fig 2b), which dates back more than 3350 years. This was during the reign of the Hyksos, who were dark-skinned semitic tribes who came from the “east” which could have been from or through Ethiopia or Somalia. The hyksos ladies had oriental Jamini-Roy-like eyes with long hair. The ladies had long hair (Fig 2b and 3). One can see a resemblance between the appearance (Fig 2c) of Parvathy Baul (the figure has been taken from her homepage) the modern Brahmin lady who became a baul (if that was necessary). The lady baul of Fig 2c is dancing with an ektara (Fig 1a) which is different from what the ladies of Fig 2b are playing. But wait!

There is a Egyptian hieroglyphic which is a combination of symbols for windpipe and heart and means “beautiful, good, perfect” . The hieroglyphic for nfr resembles the dotara of Fig 1d. This character is seen in the top corner of Fig 4. The hieroglyph (if it is a hieroglyph) next to the two nfrs resembles a flute that the lady on the right of Fig 4 is holding. The hieroglyph next to the “flute” could look like a banjo or a guitar with four tortoise-like legs and (with my licence) I now claim that is close to the kachapi veena of Fig 1e. The kachapi veena it seems has played in the vedic age for geet or samgan and the speculation (not mine) is that geet + tar = geetar = guitar?

So what is the Persian setar? It has three strings and looks like what the ladies are playing in Fig 2b. It spread to Persia around the time of the spread of Islam when contact with Arabic traders with east of India (Chittagong port) because of silk trade was increasing. The setar is supposed to resemble the four-stringed dotara or bhhawaiya which originated in rahr Bangla (where else?). So did the somaliann/Ethiopian hyksos people of 1350 BC (with the “setar” in Fig 2b) bring the ektara or dotara or setar to India? Or were the hyksos people of Egypt from Mohenjodaro? or vanga or Bengal? Did they migrate (remember my licence?) during the great drought around that time?

An article in the internet on "Plucked, fretted instruments in Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Scotland" begins with
"Determining exactly what instruments were played anywhere during the medieval period is never an easy task. One writer's gittern is another writer's cittern. And poetic imagery may be just that - a product of the imagination."

The image of the Madhugiri Minstrel should suffice.