Bauls of Bengal live in concert at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, UK. They are known as the honey-gatherers.
Nisheetha and i just drove a 200 mile round-trip to hear an unknown and illiterate Bengali sing for twenty minutes. You’ll maybe remember the Bauls of Bengal are the itinerant mystic poets of India, the drunken laureates of the spirit. In the local language they are known as the madhukuri , the honey-gatherers. Like the minstrels of mediaeval Europe they travel the villages and small towns of Bengal offering their songs and their inspiration to all and receiving in return rice and dhal and vegetables.
At the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol the writer on Indian spirituality William Dalrymple was reading excerpts from his latest book ‘Nine Lives’. Two Bauls were seated beside him on the stage. He introduced one as the singer Paban Das. Paban stood and tuned his five stringed instrument for a moment. When he opened his mouth the honey poured forth.
I keep bees. At the end of summer we take the boxes with frames full of honey off the top of the hives up to the kitchen. With long knives we cut off the wax cappings, put the dripping frames into a centrifuge tank and crank the handle until all the honey is extracted. Then we leave it to settle for twenty four hours to allow bits of wax and pollen to rise to the top. The kitchen at this time is redolent with the smells of summer, of the fragrance of flowers and the sweetness of the nectars. Then the moment comes. With sparkling clean glass honey jars lined up beside me, i hold one beneath the tap at the foot of the tank. As i open it a rope of thick golden honey flows noiselessly into the jar. This is the beekeeper’s moment of fulfilment, the consummation of a year-long dialogue with nature and the bees.
When Paban began to sing my heart was pierced with sweetness. Tears poured down my cheeks. He sang another song and the roof and walls of the theatre came off and the place was filled with light. In his third song everything disappeared, the singer the audience, the song; only the singing of was left.
Later when we met him and his wife, his soft hands, his warm embrace, his brilliant smile were ordinary markers of an extraordinary master honey gatherer.
who wholly loves
can reach reality.
The secrets of death
are revealed to him
while he is fully alive.
What does he care
for the other shores of life?