Ruchir Joshi is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Calcutta, London and Delhi. He made Egaro Mile (Eleven Miles), a film on the bauls, in 1992. He is currently finishing his documentary on Calcutta. His novel The Last Jet-Engine Laugh was published by Flamingo in 2002. Below are clips from Egaro Mile.
Egaro Mile / Eleven Miles: Getting on the Road.
By Ruchir Joshi
We began to film 11 Miles on the 6th of February, 1988. We shot seven rolls of 16mm film on that first day, got the negative processed, saw the projected rushes a couple of times and then came to a grinding halt.
But what I saw left me in no doubt that I had stumbled into starting off on a magical and very difficult journey. That was the only thing about which I had no doubt – everything else was shrouded in questions and surrounded by seemingly crazy obstacles. At this time, it was completely unclear what kind of a film one would finally complete, where we would find the money to make it and how long it would take.
The letter reproduced below was written across a couple of weeks in April 1988 to a friend from Calcutta who was studying in the USA. Previously, I had shared several journeys into Southern Bengal’s villages with this friend and this letter was both a kind of report to bring them up to date with what I had been doing recently, as well as a kind of diary for myself, to try and put down on paper notes and ideas about this adventure I had embarked on with Mahadeb Shi, Ranjan Palit, Deepak Mazumdar and a few others.
[Going through my papers recently, I found a fading photocopy of the letter. Typwritten on my big, manual Remington in a pre-internet era, I’d obviously made a ‘xerox copy’ before posting of the original. It’s not something I normally did with correspondence but perhaps there was a sense that keeping some marker of this moment might be good idea.]
8 April 88
The heat’s begun, with that weird kind of sapping that always surprises everyone every year. Fruit drinks in little square packets have taken over the market, my personal favourite being one Frooti ready-to-serve mango beverage. Michel Gosai has made the pages of TT, extract from Usages des Plaisir, probably courtesy Paro. Days of massive michhils are back – Con-I, then the M, then our comrades from the SUC…
Just got back from a trip to Bankura. Visited the ashram of one Shri Shri Haripada Gosai and Ma Gosai – now ‘Ma’ and ‘Baba’ to me and Mahadeb. They call me either ‘Eijey-ki-naam’ or ‘Rusi’. HG is the boss-guru of a large faction of Bauls and MG is like the premiere Baulini. HG doesn’t really sing, but Gaur, Subol, Paban and many others accept him as their guru not only in spiritual stuff but also in song and musicality. When he does sing, it’s always the same tune with different words, he wails and the musicians around him create sound sheets resulting in the kind of atonal nirvana that Ornette Coleman would get if he had no sense of tune. Ma G, on the other hand, is a kind of Bessie Smith, booming hoarse voice, fat and graceful, champion of the opposite of what Bessie sang about i.e one animal called ‘Shondhan’ – which in my reductionist manner I have identified as tantric practice of fucking and coming without ejaculating, not yet clear how women are supposed to practice it as well, but they are.
Train to Bardhaman, late, last bus from B’man to Bankura – man on the bus, a regular, says to two women who climb and sit on their ladies’ seats ‘Tomader t^o kono oshubidha nei! Shob jaigay tomader buke’r jonney seat rakha hoy!’ Three hours by rattle-trap to village Chhandar, then moonlight walk across fields to Nabashan gram where HG’s ashram is.
The ashram is all lit up, generator on, jatra on. Our arrival is greeted with much joy, partly because they like my face and partly because no one else from the city has come and neither has the resulting revenue. To clarify, the feeling I get is that whatever bucks etc are welcome but only because they like us, and because somewhere the old man senses we are shojaa and not making the chhobi for venal purposes.
We have missed the big four days of the mahotsav. Most of the two hundred bauls and sadhus who had come, have left. (We were trying to get a 16mm camera and tape-recorder, couldn’t, I wasn’t well, etc) and we are now here to say hello and do some calm research. I feel glad we have missed the big do because that would have been hectic, and distracting at this point when what I am trying to do is make some sense of what I am doing with this film, trying hard to remember this is neither the definitive film on the Bauls nor the only one I plan to make. We have lucked our timing: it’s clear that we haven’t come for a grab and run and it’s a good time to be there – bhanga mela – everyone is tired, talk is distilled, energy only there for essentials. At least that’s what I think.
Immediately we discuss the heresy and profane behaviour of Paban and Mimlu. Message being: ‘Paban is getting screwed by his association with Mimlu and he is too naïve to see it properly and defend himself.’
They had organised the mahotsav in Boral and the concert at Mukta Mancha, in Feb, with good intentions and terrible planning. The fall-out is that a lot of the Bauls are saying or thinking that P&M have made a killing whereas, actually, the idiots are up shit-creek for a variety of things.1
14 April: Shubho-nobo-whatchamma.
Anyway, so we spend some time talking to Gosai and Ma. Then we go inside one of the huts where Subol is sleeping. S is now a tenured Baba in his own right. He’s a bit older than Gaur, and they are the two of Gosai’s best shishyas, but Gaur is a maverick nasty and thus misses on this podobi. Open the whisky bottle, Subol pulls out the grass, long chat about P&M, about how ‘logera fail korechhey…jetey hobey Sealdah kintu ora fail kore gechhey, aager stationey neme gechhey, Sealdah pouchhote paarey ni…’ and ‘Ami t^o boli, Rusi bhaalo chhele, koto mishti chhele…’ 2 Rusi doesn’t know if this is for real or whether it’s for show. Subol’s singing and his adhyatmic is supposed to be great. I can vouch for his singing but I don’t see any of that canny, nasty intelligence that Gaur has, none of the street- smarts that a Baul of his stature would always have (as Deepak would insist).
Finally we all go to sleep, wake up early the next day and watch as the remaining people prepare to leave. They touch Baba’s Ma’s and Subol’s feet in a stroking kind of way before going. Whenever someone low down in the hierarchy does this, Baba makes no effort to let him or her find his feet, they have to search for them, and the blessing is given in an absent sort of way, not looking at the blessee at all. Someone more important finds the feet easier to locate and gets a few words.
First met HG and MG in late January. I’d come back from Bombay later than planned, the mahotsav and the Lake concert were on, but in shambles. Gosai was supposed to be presiding over the whole thing, including the digging of the chulhas and toilets at Boral, deciding who of the many Bauls who would come would perform at the Mukta Mancha/Rabindra Sarovar on the last day, etc.
Paban and Mimlu had been inviting people through two melas, Paush and Joydeb-Kenduli. HG had agreed to be there, which meant it was a mahotsav in his honour and under his command. What these guys had forgotten to do was to tell him or anybody else that there were going to be two separate teams – one taping the singing and Yours Truly & Co. with film camera etc shooting the mela and concert. When the Gosai found out he was livid. Gautam Nag, who was doing the sound recording, then found himself up shit-creek because he’d already booked fancy equipment and needed to either conform with an advance of 5 thousand or cancel. Rusi had been lucky: we’d still been trying to decide between video and film and we hadn’t booked anything. So Gautam got stroppy when HG said something very reasonable from his point of view – that he would ask the Bauls once they’d arrived at Boral and then confirm whether these things could go ahead or not.
I just said ‘Fine.’ The old man then turns around and looks at me and says ‘Aami jor korey, laathi diye ode’r raaji koraatey paari, kintu sheita thiik hobey na.’ 3
Anyway, HG pulled it off.
Ranjan was shooting with Govind Nihalani’s fancy Aaton camera for Tripti Mitra in Dhanbad. He came back with it in time for the last day, and a good Nagra tape- recorder, so we saved on the air-fare of cam & attendants to and from Bombay. The camera came back on the 5th and we were ready. Baba had taken to me and a lot to the ‘oijey khepa mey’, namely Vasudha. He tells me ‘Jinishti tomar haathey rakhlam. Ekhon tumi jaa debe nebo aar baaki ta tumi jaano.’ 4 Ref: the alleged big bucks we are about to make from this film. He did make a demand for 2000 bucks immediately for ‘bidaayer taka’5, saying basically he knew the whole business was expensive but maybe we should shoot less or something and look to the immediate needs of the Bauls. Made sense. We got the money and I made an elaborate ritual of giving it to him in front of everybody.
This man is quite fantastic. The day before the whole thing began, I went to Boral. Had only met HG once, at Mimlu’s city house, where he was in gerua robes. Here is this guy, seventy-odd, in a little dhuti-langot, body thin and muscular as I would want, vigorously digging a hole for the bhaat boshaano’r haandi. Yoga and shondhan, he puts it down to, and there’s pictures of him posing in crazy aasans and he tells me to come to the ashram and he’ll teach me and talk to me about many things. Right then, Mahadeb and I decide we will one day do a separate film on Shri Shri Haripada Gosai.
We’ve got this whole bit of him talking on tape, where he says ‘Tomar ei jontro ta aamaake shikhiye dao. Aami shikhey nebo aar taar porey eita niye, boro loker baari giye, tomaader chhobi tulibo!’ 6
One of the first things I did when we got to Boral 6th morning, with the best 16mm camera in India, was to let HG and everybody else have a ‘look-through’ it, so’s they could get an idea of what the animal was about.
We were planning to shoot two rolls of film in the morning at Boral and two more at the R’Sarovar concert in the evening. We ended up shooting seven rolls that day. To give you an idea of what that means, the total number of rolls shot for my New Market film was twelve. Anywise, got good stuff.
The singing wasn’t as electric as I’ve heard before (no Gaur, no Nimai) but the stuff around the singing – horsing around, Ma cooking, make-up before performance, the…jaake boley…ambience…all this. The best bit is this long torko between this old nasty, well past his what must have been awesome prime, called Joya Khepa and a young Baul called Krishna and Ma Gosai. Lots of obscene gestures, sexual allusions, character assassinations of other Bauls, but all done in fucking chhanda7!
Yesterday was Poyla Boishaakh8 and today, of course, is the second day of the year. The first kaalboishakhi yesterday was reasonable. Today, just now, a classic. Deep, deep clouds, massive dust storm, now lightninging outside. Stood in the balcony with my Dad as he tried to regain his old singing form. Then he just read out a stanza from Kalidas where he describes how the young wives of the house, doing things around the sitting in-laws, drop everything and rush off to their respective bedrooms, to be with their husbands – ‘what use, the father and mother-in-law?’ says the Poit.
The concert in the evening, at the open-air theatre was a bit sad. This was the first time the Bauls had organised something on this scale by their own initiative, but P&M and sundry associates has screwed up the publicity and ticket sales and there was a very sparse crowd. Low energy singing, Rusi and Ranjan picking up bits and pieces of performances, but again, some good stuff. Who said it had to be hyped and hyper as Woodstock? No one.
The rushes have come from the Salt Lake lab and they look good. I’m spending a lot of time listening to the tapes we’ve made, talking to people, planning to make more visits to Subol’s, Nimai’s and Gaur’s villages. Trying to be as clear as I can before shooting again. Also planning to shoot one day in the city, in the strangest modern/construction/machinery spaces I can find – my sort of Emptyvee conceit.
Realise as I get deeper into this thing that the shomokalin songs that were the main thing that got me attracted to the Bauls are actually not that common, that very few of them come up with adhunik9 images the way Gaur does, and the first room they take you into is the straight, religious one: shohoj poth, Lila Krishno and Nitto Krishno, Guru ke pawa, and…SHONDHAN KORA!!!
The questions I’m asking myself, (probably the wrong ones, and what are my brilliant anthropology and sociology-soaked associates for, but to set me straight?) are:
Who are these guys, anyway? How does what they say get understood – how do their codes and modes still survive? How do they see themselves?
Without making it overt or obvious–money? When people were arguing about money before we began the shoot, Meera Mukherjee10 had come to see what was happening; when she heard the discussion, she freaked and delivered a heart-felt rant: ‘Since when did the Bauls start worrying about money and being exploited? Eita kintu aager kaaley hoto na, Baul’der jey bhikkha’r riti-totwo chhilo sheita bodhaay apnara haariye phelechhen!’
She got really upset and went off. Don’t know if I accept what she said whole – that you should do what you are doing and let this guy shoot his film without worrying about it. If he exploits you, he exploits you, baas!
Find it very interesting that Gaur is often accused of greed and venality among the Bauls but he’s also still the most dynamic performer of them, that Paban is also one of the most electric but so naïve and so misunderstood by the gang.
The women and sexuality. The French film11 hardly had any Baul women in it. Someone like Ma Gosai, when she starts to sing in her hoarse voice, can take over the territory completely; then there’s the quiet old ones like Joya Khepa’s wife and Dinabandhu’s wife and then the younger lot who keep in the background in a city/public type jaiga but not so at all when on their own ground. What is the morality of shondhan, having more than one relationship, this whole idea of shorirer podaartho ke rokkha kora?12 The women’s songs which are so different?
I don’t think I’m being very clear. I guess the moments I am looking for are the ones where, despite the many despites that spite the master-discourse, they make happen the magic they are ‘supposed’ to make happen. The moments also where their theatricality comes into a direct confrontation with the modern whirld and prevails or retreats (like Gaur sitting in a place where you are supposed to be quiet and well behaved, like someone’s living-room, and starting to sing, to impose his song and moving people from shock and discomfort to some acceptance and even – arrgh – sublimity).
Try and examine whether they are actually involved in what the Eco calls (and Deepak claims) a cultural/semiotic guerilla warfare. (Can we imagine, for instance the M or the Con-I finding a functional use for a Baul as they do for Shyam Sundar Chitrakar, the patua? Or like when Anand Patwardhan in Bombay lends me his spool-tape deck to listen to the tapes and gets into the music and then immediately asks me if he can use a bit about Hindu-Musholman eki manush13 for his communalism film. I say ‘maybe’, reluctantly and then am amused because his film’s premises are hack and I think that with the right song maybe they’ll get undermined for the people who understand the singing.)
Or are they falling apart into becoming a group of tepid and irrelevant impostors?
Form: playing around with too many ideas as usual. One is to have the beginning heavily montaged, short shots, diverse things, ‘keu Ek hotey paarey ni’14, different sounds, interviews, songs cutting into each other; then to have things coming together, longer takes, less interference from the itchy hand of Rusi, sound and image matching in a way that is perfectly understandable, ideas come together, get explained – anthro flick, but done with a calm verve; then the ending where things begin to fall apart again, but in a different sort of way – with a memory of the sequences that have just gone before.
Vasudha warns against imposing such a schematic from the before, and I heeds the warning. The challenge for me is going to be to try and make, on the one hand a ‘polished and comprehensible’ film without, on the other, losing the chance to develop a few things that began to work with ‘Bargain’15, i.e jaake boley a dense and multi-levelled whark.
The safety net is that after one or two more days of shooting we will have the ingredients for a perfectly safe, entertaining, even mildly thott-provoking documentary. Put in three good songs, link then with a couple of interviews about what/who is a Baul, and one more about a beleaguered traditional performing art in danger of extinction/corruption, use as a last shot this one I got Ranjan to shoot, which is a pan in slow-motion of the entire group that went to Rabindra Sarovar sitting against a white wall, getting ready for the concert; everyone flattened by telephoto, every ordinary movement poetically heightened, linking tableaus of sub-groups at rest, in beautiful compositions…
It is precisely because I want to do justice to this shot – wherever I use it – that I don’t think I’ll go for the soft option. Thinking (and afraid to think at the same time) of a one-hour long film16. What’s life without risk? Creativity without the risk of boring people or bearing their ridicule? Aah.
Aar nanarokomer chhoto-khato kaaj korchhi17, big ideas jostling each other in the outhouse of my mind as usual.
Do give this some thought if you can, fine if you can’t, this was one of the best ways I could think of, to get some coherence down on paper myself.