06.18.10

Road Tripping With Sufi Mystics

Nearly a year ago British author William Dalrymple set off on a world tour with Sufi mystics and stoned Bengali musicians to promote his new book, Nine Lives. He tells the story of his hilarious adventures from getting them through customs to calling forth a deity in Australia.

Today I arrive in New York on the last leg of the world tour I’ve been on for the last nine months to launch my book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. With me on the tour bus—if the last of the visas arrive—will be travelling a smoky-voiced Tamil diva who is struggling to keep alive a dying sacred song tradition from the temples of Tamil Nadu on the southern tip of India; six Sufi mystics from a shrine in the badlands of Pakistan who sing the poetry of an 18th-century saint in a strangely haunting falsetto, and who between gigs have been fending off the Pakistani Taliban from taking over their home town; five dope-smoking Bauls, the minstrels of Bengal who travel from village to village teaching tantric mysticism through their songs; and a dancer and part-time prison-warder who is believed in Northern Kerala to be the human incarnation of the God Vishnu; he travels with his side-kick, a small-town taxi driver who has a second career as a theyyam make-up artist and drummer.

Click Below to Watch Video of a Theyyam Dance

Video screenshot

It’s been an interesting few months: a trans-Continental Spinal Tap, except with tantrics, taxi drivers, mystics, and Gods—but it's certainly not been one of the more relaxing few months of my writing life.

The idea itself seemed a good one, at least in principle. The concept behind Nine Lives was to let nine individuals from different sacred traditions tell their own stories. Unlike my early travel books, the narrator in Nine Lives is almost invisible, and as the text is 80 percent the recorded speech of my nine subjects, it seemed appropriately democratic—as well as much more interesting—to let the people featured in the book share the stage, and to illuminate the text by performing their different sacred arts.

When I started out as a writer, my books used to be launched with a simple drinks party—the usual plastic cups-and-a-couple-of-speeches affair, somewhere at the back of a pub. These days, however, things are changing radically in the way books are launched. Behind this lies the striking growth of the whole global literary festival bandwagon.

Last year, the British satirical magazine Private Eye ran a cartoon showing two survivors of a shipwreck watching their liner sink from a desert island, shaded by a single drooping palm tree. One says to the other: “Well I suppose the first thing to do is to start a literary festival.” There is a serious point here: literary festivals from Hay to Sydney, Sun Valley, and PEN World Voices, New York have proved almost as globally contagious as swine flu.

I plead guilty here: I helped found the first one in India, at Jaipur. The way it has grown is extraordinary. The ball kicked off somewhat unpromisingly with a sparsely attended reading in Jaipur University in 2004. In 2006 we invited our first international guest, Hari Kunzru, who was passing through India on his way to visit his then-girlfriend in New Zealand. In 2007, we moved up a notch, hosting that year’s Booker winner, Kiran Desai, as well as Salman Rushdie, who spoke brilliantly to a standing-room-only crowd. But it was last January that the festival really came of age. Such was the hunger for live literature in India, that in 2009 we tripled the size of the festival and invited 160 authors, performers and musicians; to our astonishment 20,000 people turned up to hear them, and only five years after that first reading we suddenly found ourselves running the largest literary festival in Asia and the biggest free festival of literature in the world. This year numbers virtually doubled again, to 35,000. Other festivals such as that at Hay-on-Wye have had similar experiences. Its seems to be that as we all spend more and more time at our screens, looking at the virtual, the allure of a real presence—of seeing and hearing a living, breathing human being—has exponentially increased.

All this has changed the whole publishing game, and provided a new lease on life to an industry threatened by the massive discounts now demanded by Amazon and the big retailers. In this new world, being an articulate extrovert certainly helps. Those like Rushdie—or from a younger generation, Niall Ferguson—who can speak brilliantly and funnily and without notes, tend to sell more books, and get more invitations, than those who are blushing violets, like say, Jhumpa Lahiri, who is remarkable on the page, but painfully ill at ease on a stage.

In the evolutionary jungle of these book festivals, having a particular act or a special talent is certainly a great help in allowing your literary feedlings to flourish and propagate. Louis de Bernieres, author of Corelli’s Mandolin now tours book festivals with his collection of mandolins and an accompanist on piano, and has developed an idiosyncratic sing-along performance which ends up with the whole audience joining in his rendition of old music hall classics.

All this has led me to where I stand now: spending nearly a year of my life circling the globe with a busload of saffron-clad holy men who even in their native Bengal are known as the Bauls, which mean simply: the Madmen.

The story of how I got into this strange roadshow has its roots in a trip I made to Bengal six years ago, in the winter of 2003.

Throughout their 500-year history, the Bauls of Bengal have refused to conform to the conventions of caste-conscious Bengali society. Subversive and seductive, wild and abandoned, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings on breath, sex, asceticism, philosophy, and mystical devotion. They have also amassed a treasury of beautifully melancholic and often enigmatic teaching songs which help map out their path to inner vision.

Around the middle of January every year, several thousand of these wandering minstrels begin to gather in the flat flood plains 100 miles north of Calcutta. It is the biggest gathering of tantric musicians in the world, and makes Woodstock look like a Rotary Club dinner. As night draws in, the Bauls gather around their fires, and begin the singing and frenzied dancing that will carry on until dawn.

Click Below to Watch Video of Bauls

I was there to write an article on a group of three celebrated Baul singers I had heard on a CD. By the time I found the house where they were staying—a simple unfurnished Bengali hut—it was dark and the Bauls were already in full song. They had scattered straw on the ground and were sitting in a circle around the fire, cross-legged on the floor, breaking their singing only to pass small tin cups of Old Monk rum from one to the other: “Never plunge into the river of lust,” they sang, “for you will not reach the shore.

It is a river without banks,
where typhoons rage,
and the current is strong.

The article I was writing eventually evolved into Nine Lives, a book about how South Asia’s diverse sacred traditions, like those of the Bauls, are managing to cling on in the new India. Much, of course, has now been written about the way that India is moving forward and transforming itself at the most incredible rate—its economy will overtake that of the U.S. by 2050—but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected the great Indian traditions of mysticism, monasticism, music, and dance.

Nine Lives explores this process through nine very personal stories—a Sufi, a possession dancer, a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a Tantric and so on, each telling their own story, aiming to show how faith and ritual are clinging on in the face of India's commercial boom. The idea is to find out what it actually means to be a holy man, a mystical musician or a tantric minstrel seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past.

For while the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself beyond recognition. Certainly, as I have travelled around India over the last two years for the book I have found many worlds strangely colliding as the velocity of this process accelerates.

Last November, for example, I managed to track down a celebrated tantric at a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal. Tapan Goswami was a feeder of skulls. Twenty years ago he had been interviewed by an American professor of comparative religion, who wrote a scholarly paper on Tapan’s practice of spirit-summoning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. It sounded like rich and intriguing material, albeit of a rather sinister nature, so I spent the best part of a day touring the cremation grounds of Birbhum before finally finding Tapan sitting outside his small Kali temple on the edge of the town, preparing a sacrifice for the goddess. It felt a little like wandering into a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The light was beginning to fade and a funeral pyre was still smoking eerily in front of the temple. Tapan confirmed that in his youth, when the professor had interviewed him, he had indeed been an enthusiastic tantric skull-feeder. Yes, he said, all that had been written about him was true, and yes, he did occasionally still cure skulls, and summon their dead owners, so as to use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumors of the family dabbling in Black Magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice. Now he thought he might even give away his skulls, and go and join them in the states.

On another trip, to Pakistan, travelling in the deserts of Sindh I came across the Shah Jo Raag Fakirs. These fakirs live together in a Sufi brotherhood and are custodians of one of the greatest and most unusual Sufi traditions in South Asia. Every day they sing the verses of the greatest poet in the Sindhi language, the 18th-century Sufi master, Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit Shah. Latif is the province’s most revered saint whose poetry mixed Islamic mysticism with Hindu Yogic thought. He died in 1752 and every day since then, his music and poetry have been performed by his hereditary fakirs every night in front of his tomb at the shrine where he once lived.

The idea of bringing some of these different traditions together, and putting them on stage with readings about the lives of the performers, came during last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival. One of the most remarkable events was an evening mixing Baul poetry with Tamil thevaram hymns as sung by the celebrated London-born Tamil vocalist, Susheela Raman. The Thevaram songs which Susheela sings are taken from the seven volumes of devotional hymns written by the south Indian saints, first performed over 1,000 years ago in Tanjore and the other great temples of Tamil Nadu. Shortly after being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2001, Susheela moved to a village near Tanjore and learned to sing Thevaram from one of the last great masters. The performance where we mixed the two was electric, and by the end of the festival, as the different elements fell surprisingly and effortlessly into place, the idea of the roadshow was born.

* * *

Of course, we didn’t even begin to guess what we were letting ourselves in for back then. In the early heady, optimistic days of planning before we opened the tour in the Barbican at the end of September, we didn’t know, for example, that almost every one of our fakirs turned out to share their names with leading al-Qaeda operatives, making it almost impossible to take them anywhere outside Pakistan without major visa issues.

In the 72 hours, before they were due to appear at the Barbican, with no visas forthcoming, we had to enlist the help of the former British Ambassador in Pakistan, his successor, and his successor’s newly appointed replacement. Even with their joint intervention, it still took a few days to get a final yes from the British visa department in Pakistan, which has now decamped from Islamabad due to the terrorist threat level, and is now located somewhere in Abu Dhabi. In the end, the fakirs were able to catch the last plane out of Karachi and arrived in Heathrow just three hours before curtain-up. They were then held a further two hours by customs, and made it to the concert hall just 20 minutes before the performance started. This has been repeated in various ways ever since: in India they arrived a day late for their slot in the Jaipur Literature Festival; in Bombay they turned up 20 minutes after the end of the concert, having been made to collect 12 security permits from eight different Delhi offices in order to proceed beyond the capital. By the time they got to the amphitheater, the police had closed down the PA system, but they nevertheless performed a magical hour-long acoustic set to the 300 people who stayed to hear them, everyone leaving their ticketed seats to sit cross-legged around the stage.

Expecting trouble, we planned long in advance for their U.S. appearance, but so far only three of the five have received security clearance, and we opened in the Smithsonian in Washington on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Bauls were stopped by British immigration at the Gare du Nord last week, and managed to miss our slot at the Guardian Hay Festival in Wales.

Visas have not been the only issue. For our performance last month in Sydney, trying to get the palms and bamboo used for the Theyyam headdress through Australian customs proved completely impossible, and we had to find last minute local substitutes in the Sydney Botanic gardens; the instruments of the Bauls, which are made from dried gourds, were only released after hours of haggling.

Then there was the issue of whether our Theyyam deity, Hari Das, who normally only incarnates the deity during the winter Theyyam season, would be able to turn into a God during summer. It turned out that the Sydney Writers' Festival actually made the incarnation of the deity into a ticketed event, so it was important that he did. It is all very well going into a trance with 15 Keralite drummers beating their drums in a moonlit forest clearing, but would the trance take place in the modernist foyer of the Sydney Opera House? In the end it just about did, but the possession was far less frenzied than in India—the Gods apparently being somewhat lukewarm about intercontinental travel.

Nothing however proved more nerve-racking than the prospect of taking our deities and Hindu devotional singers around the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The British Council, which had generously supported the rest of the tour, told us that they could not officially advise us that it was safe to go, and even the venues who offered to host us said that the events would have to be invitation-only as it was too dangerous in these days of daily bomb blasts to advertise such events. In the event, the Pakistanis were warmly welcoming and enthusiastic, though I’ll never forget explaining the intricacies of Tantra to a Karachi audience that seemed to consist entirely of the veiled wives of generals and industrialists. And it's true that our Lahore venue, Peeru’s, was bombed shortly after our visit, though not—I hope—because of it.

That said, the mystics all took to international travel with greater enthusiasm than anyone could have imagined, and several of them turned out to have travelled much more extensively than I could have guessed. Shortly before going on stage at the Barbican I asked Kanai, our star blind Baul, who lives in a hut in a cremation ground in remote Tarapith, 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Calcutta, how it was that he already possessed a passport. “I’ve had one for years,” he said, “ever since some British singer invited us to sing at his house in London in the '60s.” I asked what was the singer's name was. “Was it… Mick something?” replied Kanai. On further questioning, it turned out that Kanai and his Baul-brother Debu had played at Mick Jagger’s housewarming in Cheyne Walk for the launch of Beggar’s Banquet.

It’s been quite a ride. But for launching my next book, I think a gathering at the back of a pub with a small group of friends and a few toasts to the success of the book will be more than enough.

William Dalrymple, Paban Das Baul and the Bauls of Bengal, Shah Jo Raag Fakir, Susheela Raman and Chandu Pannicker Theyyam Danc Group will be performing at the Asia Society in New York City on June 18 and 19.

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William Dalrymple is the author of seven acclaimed works of history and travel, including, most recently, Nine Lives. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.