sound travels:
phil dadson in india
dispatch #2

phil dadson
june 28, 2008

In this second of three dispatches, Phil recounts experiences with temples, shrines and festivals in and around Delhi and encounters some charismatic Bauls and their guru Tiger Baba.

Kali-bali is one temple in Delhi I am told I will need some stomach for, the imagery is so potent. There’s an event on, and being a Bengali temple live music is integral, so my expectations are high and keenly tuned (even O.P Jain waxed lyrical about it).

On arrival the streets are festive and crowded with foodstalls. A long queue dribbles through a gate towards the security search where everyone is touched up for weapons and suchlike. The interior is flower-decorated and full of mesmerised devotees, entranced by an Indian rock-star, mic in hand, strutting about on stage like a cockerel. There’s a loudly amplified backing band with a light show behind. Devotional songs of course, but not what I expected. The image vignettes are off to one side, attracting nothing like the audience of the singer. Kali-bali herself, I have to say, is pretty damn compelling! A diminished but powerful statuette, a black-faced mother goddess in a shroud of sparkling silver with swastikas and other sacred symbols surrounding her. I poke a camera through the grill to take a photo. It’s a good image, but I’m smartly told off by an officious army walla guarding the shrine for doing so. My companion also warns me superstitiously about ill effects from offending Kali, but I assure her my intentions are reverential. Welcome the unexpected! A good motto with every outing an adventure here!

In reverence (the photo through the grill)

The guide book warns that Nizam-ud-in is expensive with the numerous mosque wallahs wanting their pound of flesh, but nothing prepares you, as a foreigner, for the onslaught of the poor the moment you arrive. Then there’s the guy right at the entrance to Nizamudin village market, a covered entranceway that looks like a direct route to the dargah (sufi shrine), with its storefronts selling muslim caps, trinkets and souvenirs, who insists I leave my shoes in his care. Shoes are forbidden in the precincts of the dargah, and I fall for the ploy. There’s no cost at that stage, but I have 2 strings of flowers forced on me to take to the tomb of Nizamudin, little knowing that I’ll be stung for these on the return to pick up my shoes. So, after a little altercation, I proceed, immediately surrounded by a host of poor and crippled locals, grasping for money, money, money. Ten times worse than in Varanasi.

Qawwali at Nizam-ud-in

I shake myself free and stop at a store to change a note into smaller change for easy dispersal, at the same time seeking advice on where to find sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s shrine. The young guy beckons his brother who arrives & says follow, and follow I do, barefooted, down a labyrinth of narrow lanes, with the location of the main dargah still a complete mystery to me. We go out through a narrow opening onto another side of the village, with a dusty patch of ground where kids are playing cricket and babies crawl in the dust. Closeby is the modest entrance to Sufi Khans tomb and enclosure, the familiar winged insignia above its entranceway. I make a quick visit to Inayat’s shrine to get my bearings, a place of immeasurable peace, and then retreat back along the same alleyways to the start of the route to retrieve my shoes, realising by this stage I’ve been duped (we grow wiser with each gaff). After another altercation over the flowers I’m still clutching (100 rupeehas, 50 for each strand, or so I’m told by the vendor, with the crowd around all nodding in agreement), I reluctantly hand over 50 and walk off smartly, putting it down to experience, tailed by grasping children and cloying mothers with babies.

By this time I’ve worked out where I am in the village and make a fast track for the main dargah, simply leaving my shoes at the gate. A group of Qawwali singers are in the small square surrounding Nizamudin’s shrine. A sign saying ‘NO women to enter the tomb’ is posted by an ornately decorated entrance. I follow the guys, hat on head into the enclosure, where some of the devotees bury their heads in the folds of cloth covering the tomb, one completely, beneath layers of cloth and flowers. I lay my floral strings along with the others and slowly circumambulate clockwise, taking time to absorb the atmosphere. The Qawwali singing outside the enclosure is vigorous and charged with emotional energy. I listen for a while, and then return to sufi Inayat Khans’s shrine for the Qawwali that’s scheduled to begin there at dusk.

First to arrive, I slide open the shrine door and settle into its welcoming peace and quiet. It’s an aesthetically austere space, the light falling through patterned stonework grills and metal windows with five cornered stars set into hexagrams. The interior walls are inset with six recessed arched panels, each containing one of the prayers of Universal Worship. Inayat’s tomb is in the centre, shrouded in a gold cloth under a marble canopy. In time, one, then two Qawwali singers arrive, set up a harmonium and drum and launch into spirited, passionate song, gradually joined by others until there are six singing and hand clapping. The group’s guru, an old man and father of several of the younger men, has a high, light voice, but one that’s full of emotional expression and devotion. The listeners are visibly moved. Suddenly it ends, with handshakes and introductions all round, and an invitation to return. I leave to retrace my steps back to the original entrance where I know the taxi driver is patiently waiting, followed and surrounded by grasping hands. Two women and a young boy chase me out onto the busy main road, crossing it and clutching at me desperately. I duck into the taxi, change a note for small change with the driver and share it out. A pathetic drop in a bottomless bucket.

It’s Dusshera, the final and 10th night of Navrati festival. Delhi is buzzing with anticipation for the annual ritual burning of effigies to celebrate Lord Ram’s victory over the demon Ravanna, as related in the Ramayana, where the ten-headed Ravanna and his two evil cohorts, the brothers Meghanad and Kumbhkaran, are symbolically destroyed by fire, or in some regions of India, by drownings in rivers or the sea.

About 4.30 we head to one of the best local park sites, close by the 12th century Islamic tower of Qutab Minar, where giant effigies of Ravanna, Meghanad and Kumbhkaran are installed, stuffed with fireworks and tinder for the after-dusk burning ritual. We arrive early enough to find seats on an outer ring of terraces, the crowd just gradually arriving. The effigies are impressive with the central figure of Ravanna around 80 feet high. The three are tethered, and tower above a central square of dirt cordoned off from the gathering crowd. As we watch, more fireworks are being setup; giant katherine wheels, cylindrical frames that presumably spin when lit, and mysterious large balloon like structures made of paper. Slowly the light changes towards dusk and the occasional large banger is ignited to keep the audience on edge. A repetitive ear-catching song loops continuously over the PA amidst occasional announcements from the army, supervising the event. Warnings are made to the crowd to be on the lookout and to report any suspicious looking people with bags or objects being worn or carried. Eyes turn to look at me with my backpack between my legs, and camera at the ready!

Suddenly a giant white tissue-paper balloon lifts silently off into the sky with a torch of burning rags hanging beneath, swinging and swaying as it goes, rapidly lifting into the blue and drifting off out of sight. The crowd sighs loudly. Another couple of bangers goes off. Slowly the sun disappears below the horizon. An announcement tells the audience they must wait another 45 minutes. A restless wave goes through the now crowded festival ground as people jostle for an eye-line. More paper balloons are set alight and aloft. I stand up to ease a numb bum and people behind instantly shout and signal me to sit down. It’s the common way; give orders to one another freely so as to preserve your and your family’s rights. I signal, ‘be patient’ . Everyones heads wag, and they smile back.

A large explosion goes off, then another ... cannon fireworks. A band of drummers appear, then a huge procession arrives of all the Ram Lila characters, accompanied by a band of brass and drums. The atmosphere is extremely lively. A text built of fireworks announcing the start of the event is set alight, then a pair of katherine wheels. More balloons are lit, and then, when completely dark the first of the giant effigies is set alight from it’s legs up, the fire progressing rapidly through the body setting off fireworks as it goes, igniting into a giant fireball that rapidly expires as the structure topples to the ground. The crowd ignites with a roar of approval. Then the next evil brother is lit in an explosion of smoke and fireworks and a blast of heat you can feel from where I’m sitting. The sound is deafening! Then the final and central figure of Ravanna is lit from the feet up. The crowd is also fully charged up by now, expectant of a climax that they’re far from disappointed by. The fire travels up Ravanna’s body to his solar plexus and explodes into a giant katherine wheel spiralling into a spinning swastika of showering sparks. Huge booms explode into the sky with cascades of light falling all round. Ravanna bursts into flame, the fireworks climaxing in huge blasts of smoke and light. He topples. The crowd roars. The ritual is complete and the PA bursts back into life with a voice instantly choreographing the slow exit of the throng, who somewhat stunned by the event, patiently wait turn to return to the darkness of the streets and to the start of a new year. I got the lot on video.

Ravana about to be set alight

Sanskriti occasionally hosts cultural dignitaries for glorified lunches. Thousands of golden yellow marigold flower-heads are laid out in patterns on fresh mud and cowdung-plastered earth. Tables are laid in fine cutlery, booze is put on ice, and unexpectedly, a charismatic Baul musician from Bengal appears to welcome and woo dignitaries. The Bauls, much like sufis, have a reputation for ecstatic and spiritually inspired poetry and song. Traditionally they are itinerant bards who earn their livelihood from composing, singing and playing devotional music. Madhu Sudan’s music is spirited and zany and his voice is divine. I’m attracted to one of his instruments also, the single string Ektara drone. It’s an inspiration behind the Gloop family of single string and spring contraptions I’ve been making and playing for the past ten years. Another sensational Baul innovation is the Ananda Lahori (blissful sounds), essentially two drums – one small and held in the hand, the other larger and held under the left arm – with two loose strings connected to the membranes of both. The strings are tensioned, by stretching out the small drum held in the left hand, and strumming them with a large cow-horn plectrum held in the right. The sounds produced range from quirky and humorous to percussive and melodic . . all to do with mood of the occasion and accuracy of the string tension. We strike up an instant friendship and Madhu invites me to his guru-friend Tiger Baba’s shrine for a meal.

Madhu Sudan das Baul

As a young sadhu, Tiger Baba made his fame regularly pacifying wild tigers and living in a pit with 150 snakes for some months, hence the name. Now in his late 50s, the Baba is an energetic and lovable eccentric who dresses in a leopard spot-patterned nylon doti, a bright checkered cotton jacket, shocking pink socks, and a hand-painted cap and shoes with Om symbols and the name Tiger Baba written on them. He carrys a buffalo-horn trumpet at all times, which he blows loudly whenever the occasion calls for it, which is often.

Guru Tiger Baba at his shrine entrance

Tiger Baba’s shrine–cum–ashram where the Bauls stay, is sited on a main-road corner, close to Kalkaji temple, one of Delhi’s spiritual power spots. A brightly painted plastic chair emblazoned with Tiger Baba’s name welcomes me at the gate. The small single-roomed brick shrine is cluttered and low-lit, with a be-flowered tomb in the centre where the Baba’s mother is buried. Along a back wall ledge, various sculpted images of Kali and Durga preside over the living. The back wall behind is papered with garish bright-coloured religious prints depicting Shiva and Parvati in various incarnations. Two or three old charpoys (camp beds) share the side areas along with a make-shift cooking spot, and a low table holding a conch shell, rattle drum and other ritual objects. I am asked if I like to smoke and ganga is passed around freely as Madhu’s wife, in the background, slowly but effortlessly prepares a multi coursed meal on a one element gas burner.

Ashok das Baul, guru Tiger Baba and Madhu das Baul

Shortly after I arrive a sadhu with a sacred Shiva bull appears at the shrine. Shiva bulls or cows are venerated for their strange extra limbs or leg-like growths that associate them with the many-limbed Shiva. The bull is wearing a saffron coloured robe from shoulder to tail and an embroidered mask-like, cowrie-shell face cover, with holes for mouth, eyes and ears. Its horns are bound in crimson cloth. The bull is led it into an enclosure to one side of the shrine. The sadhu tells me the bull has powers and responds to yes and no questions with a nod or wag of his head. The sadhu mutters something and the bull goes down on all haunches. Madhu asks, “Is Phil’s family all ok?” The bull nods yes. Relief! The sadhu then takes my hand and starts reading my palm. I wonder what I’m in for. “ . . will live to 100 years old . . . . all your money is flowing out, but no worry, in three months it flows back in again . . . . you have four daughters”. Well he’s right on that point. The others, mmmm lets see! Certainly money is draining out of the bank just now and nothing’s going in, so he could be on track. But living to a hundred? mmm, not so sure I want to!

A Shiva cow in Rajasthan

High volume sound and spectacular fireworks are a national addiction in India, and the Diwali hindu festival of lights, 20 days after Dusshera, is one of the annual highlights and another excuse for fireworks mayhem. Delhi started exploding around 3 in the afternoon, beginning with spasmodic sputters, cracks and ear-cracking bangs. Gradually through the afternoon into early evening, the intensity increased, until by 7 there were literally no audible gaps between booms, cracks and every kind of explosive sound imaginable. And central to all this are regular dynamite-like explosions at perspectives near and far. The sonic spectrum is a constant deep background rumble, in full 360 surround, made up of bangs, cracks, snaps, fizzes, pops, booms and whistles, all slicing into foreground, middle and distant perspectives; a continuous cathartic cloud of immensity that subsides back to spasmodic sputters and booms around 5am the next morning.

What strikes me most about Diwali is the realisation that the whole billion plus population of India is immersed in it, and that the same broad-band of explosive frequencies, accompanied by a cloud of black smoke and CO2, is occurring simultaneously from top to bottom, over the entire Indian sub-continent. Observed from outer-space, the triangular shiva-linga shape of the nation is enshrouded in a murky black fog, its edges softened, the entire land-mass emitting a low, slow continuous throbbing pulse of frequencies, sufficient to disturb the bowels of any listening aliens. Diwali, Festival of Light. What might India do with a festival of darkness!

I catch an early morning train from Delhi to Ajmer, and from there take a crowded bus through ancient craggy hills onto Pushkar. I’m here for holy week and the Camel Mela (fair). Travelling across the long expanses of hot dusty plains, daubed with occasionally glimpsed flashes and shimmers of fluorescent-coloured saris and turbans, it’s easy to see why the oasis of Pushkar is venerated as one of India’s most holy pilgrimage sites. This is where the God Brahma dropped a lotus flower on his flight across the desert, causing a spring to issue forth and create the central lake (and heart) of Pushkar, a place where the surrounding architecture and market places zing and sing with colour. And situated on the fringe of the town, where habitation ends and desert begins, is the annual horse and camel fair, a raunchy, secular event bumped up against the sacred.

To be continued ...