Monday, February 04, 2013

Another search for authenticity ends in disappointment

A travel piece in the New York Times last week goes to a remote Indian town founded by Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabinidrath Tagore. After visiting the school founded by the sage, a museum devoted to his work (from which his Nobel Prize medal was stolen in 2004), and other local sites, the visitor encounters local color:

Toward the end of my stay, I encountered a baul singer alongside the road, strumming an ektara, a guitarlike instrument with a single string. He waved and I steered my bike toward him. With their unruly hair, matted beards and saffron kurtas, the singers (baul means "crazy") are difficult to miss. Neither Hindu nor Muslim, they are said to be insane with the love of God and wander the countryside, as they have for centuries, singing enigmatic songs about the blessings of madness and the life of a seeker. Tagore adored the bauls, and even declared himself one of them.

I sat on the ground and listened to the hypnotic music. Bauls have grown popular in recent years and, inevitably, poseurs have tried to cash in. So when another traveler, a well-off Kolkatan with an expensive camera, joined us, I asked, "Do you think he is a real baul singer?"

Clearly displeased with my question, he said after a long pause, "He's as real as you want him to be."


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