Every winter, in the heart of Lal Matir Desh (the land of red soil) in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, the community of wandering minstrels known as Bauls converge to warm the air with soulful music. Held at Jaydev Kenduli on the banks of the Ajoy River, the Joydeb Mela is an annual festival organised in mid-January during Makar Sankranti. If songs of love, freedom and poor sanitation defined Woodstock, Joydeb Mela is Bengal’s answer to it.
In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in UNESCO’s list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. The festival is the best place to witness what this means. Kenduli is popularly held to be the birthplace of poet and Gita Govinda composer, Jayadev (although historians contest that fact), and the site where he had a divine vision. The festival is thought to be several centuries old, and over time, has drawn musicians performing kirtans and kabi gaan.
We went past the twin temples of Joda Mandir at Bolpur, halting briefly at the Raghunath and Lakshmi Janardhan temples at Ghurisha, to complete our terracotta temple trail at Kenduli, 42 km from Shantiniketan. The village road was like a millipede: Vehicles bulging with people, headed towards the fair ground that was alive with illuminated Ferris wheels. Like at every provincial mela, hawkers and megaphone announcements competed with music, theatrical performances, and the maut-ka-kuan (daredevil motorbike stunt). Stalls sold snacks and some akharas (religious shelters) offered khichri-aloodum and garam-bhat as prasad. Past this chaos, however, was the portal to spiritual bliss.
The word “baul” is derived from the Sanskrit vatul (batul in Bengali), or “mad”. For Bauls, bhakti is the only religion, even though their philosophy and music fuses Vaishnav, Sufi, Tantra, and Buddhist tenets. The music and poetry of the legendary Lalon Fakir, the founding father of Baul philosophy, resonated from the tents. Draped in multicoloured robes, the musicians employed the one-stringed ektara and a clay drum in their tunes. Like rustic hippies, the long-haired mendicants huddled with travellers around a campfire, in the shared communion of a chillum.
In another tent, we joined a group drenched in the beautiful strains of the harmonium. The admirers of a blind Baul tucked currency notes into his turban. Elsewhere, streams of visitors wended their way into the magnificent Radhabinod shrine, filled with intricate terracotta panels. At Kadambokhandi Crematorium, bodies were being consigned to flames. Under the influence of Baul melodies, the circle of life felt complete.
Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “Baul Bearing”.
This story was updated in December 2016.
When Mid-January, during Makar Sankranti. The festival will run from Sat January 15 – Sun January 16, 2017.
Where Jaydev Kenduli, a village in Birbhum District in West Bengal.
Getting there Bolpur is 160 km from Kolkata. Regular buses and taxis connect Bolpur (35 km) to Kenduli. Bolpur station, 2 km from Shantiniketan, is the nearest rail head and is connected by trains from Kolkata (3 hours).
Guided trip West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation organises packaged tours to Kenduli from Shantiniketan.
Stay Accommodation and sanitation at the fair is basic. People often camp there, but it is not recommended. Some ashrams and villagers also rent out rooms. The WBTDC has a lodge in Shantiniketan. It’s best to stay in Phuldanga (35 km) at Mitali Homestays (3463-262763/94330 75953; mitalishantiniketan.com; doubles from ₹3,000), or Chhuti Resort at Bolpur (3463-252692;www.chhutiresort.co.in; doubles from ₹2,672).