Surajit Sen

Bengali Language Initiative

Grant Period: Over two years

Over the last three decades, Surajit Sen has been interested in the life and music of marginal groups like the bauls and fakirs in Bengal. While working as a research associate on Ruchir Joshi’s film, Eleven Miles (1988), Surajit found to his surprise that the bauls, though a marginal group, commanded considerable respect for their music and spiritual practices from the larger communities they inhabit. In contrast, the fakirs have remained a neglected and much-maligned community for practicing Marfat, the branch of Islam that believes in hidden knowledge.

While working as a research associate on Amitabh Chakraborty’s film, Bishar Blues, Surajit forged a deeper connection with the fakirs. However, he soon realised that any film project has its limitations, and if he were to make a more serious intervention on behalf of the fakirs, he had to think of a more sustained engagement. This project takes off from Bishar Blues and will build a body of work––a sound archive on the fakirs’ music, an oral history archive and an ethnomusicological travelogue––that is expected to generate awareness and trigger interest in the practice of the fakirs.

As opposed to the Shariat that conducts itself through the mosque, the clergy and The Koran, Marfat lives through the cults of individual pirs, their holy mazhars and music. These mazhars with their guru-disciple systems can take root anywhere, making Marfat immune to any centralised system of authority. Though the fakirs, as practitioners of Marfat agree on Allah, Mohammed the Prophet, and The Koran, their radical interpretation of the relationship between the three creates a textured mythology of Islam that exists outside official sanction. A strong undercurrent of Deho Tatya (belief system centering on the body), a dominant strand of Zikr and Fanah (mainstream North Indian Sufi practice and belief), and an interweaving of the Mohammed and the Krishna stories through their music, make their practice complex and resistant to any classification. Music, in fact, is an integral part of their spiritual practice. Besides, every fakir provides his own twist to the tale. The variations are endless but the central notion is that man himself is the ultimate mythology, and worshipping man is the most sublime form of religion. Since their practice is so open-ended and challenges all forms of established and codified Islamic practice, the fakirs have become victims of widespread suspicion and prejudice. Surajit Sen seeks to make an intervention by demystifying and unpacking for the common Bengali reader, the fakirs’ practice of Deho Tatya through their music.

Travelling across Nadia, Birbhum and Murshidabad––with a sizeable fakir population––Surajit will record approximately 100 songs and document the oral histories of the fakirs. He will transcribe, translate and annotate the songs with the help of Dr Shaktinath Jha, scholar and founder of the Baul-Fakir Sangh, for wider dissemination. Over the medium term, Surajit hopes to collate the songs as Bengali text with English translations and annotations, and publish them as a separate book with an introductory essay on the fakirs’ music. A couple of publishers have already displayed an interest in his book. The sound and oral history archive will feed into the ethnomusicological travelogue that he proposes to write. Surajit is keen to house the sound and oral history archive in multiple locations. Surajit’s project is expected to contribute to the study of oral cultures and popular religion, and generate a robust and critical discourse on the radical syncretism practiced by a minority community.