On Firm Ground
Seven years after the folk music platform was formed, Oikyotaan remains committed to its indie roots and baul music
Even as his singing skills have often found him at foreign shores, whenever opportunity arrives, Kartick Das returns to his roots as a baul singer. This for the Bengali folk singer means boarding the Santiniketan Express from Howrah Station and earning his passage by busking. “Sometimes I earn Rs 100, on luckier days, I earn as much as Rs 500. Soliciting for alms while performing music is a baul tradition, something I don’t want to forego at any cost,” explains Das.
Born and brought up in a vastly different socio-cultural milieu, the 36-year-old Bonnie Chakraborty, Das’ partner in Oikyotaan – the Chennai-Kolkata based folk music platform – too maintains a distinct rigidity about baul music. Offstage, his faded denim, branded sneakers and urbane English tell only a part of Chakraborty’s story. Onstage with Oikyotaan, Chakraborty’s attitude sometimes betrays his rock singing past: as the long-serving frontman of the Kolkata-based rock band, Krosswindz. These days, he uses that sort of nervous energy to deliver homilies to young audience members on the ethos outlining baul music.
Understandably both agree on the need to “respect” the essential core of a form of music that has over the years been interpreted variously, and with varying degrees of success, by bands and musicians across Kolkata and elsewhere. Now even as Oikyotaan is negotiating a deal with “mainstream” record labels for a nationwide outlet for their reworked eponymous debut released in 2003, Chakraborty remains wary of losing the creative rights Oikyotaan held as an independent outfit. “We have painstakingly built up Oikyotaan over the last seven-eight years. Now, though we are in touch with a few record companies, including Phat Phish, we would not want any record label to suddenly start giving us musical directions,” Chakraborty states.
In 2001, after Chakraborty had moved to Chennai from Kolkata, he found in Paul Jacob, bassist and the brains behind Bodhi Records, a willing backer to his plans. With Donan Murray on guitar, KV Balakrishnan on mridangam and dholak and A Saravanan and R Vikram on thavil, Oikyotaan began its journey with Das and Chakraborty on vocals. Using the vast repertoire of baul music as material, the band grew out of a shared revulsion for the term ‘fusion music.’ “Baul is an age-old tradition and I think it’s stupid to perform the music using augmented and ninth chords or basing it on western harmonic patterns. That way, you are taking away all the beautiful notes essential to baul music,” Chakraborty explains.
Oikyotaan thus has channelised much of its energies in finding the right instrumental backdrop for the vital spirit of baul to shine through. Much of their days, Chakraborty remembers, were spent on the western musicians in Oikyotaan reworking their chordal playing styles and adapting to a situation where the instrumentation was laid out in such fashion that Das’s vocals could flit in or weave out at any point of time. The singing works within a tight groove brought about by the bass, percussions and Das’ khamok, a single-stringed instrument used largely by baul musicians in Bengal. The final output though is categorically shorn of the kind of varnish that occasionally allows baul songs to be played in Kolkata nightclubs, though Oikyotaan have in the recent past made greater concessions for vocal harmonisations to come in. “If you commercialise baul music you lose its heart,” reasons Das, who came to the spotlight with Ruchir Joshi’s full-length documentary on the baul musicians of Bengal, Eleven Miles. “Maybe I could have earned some extra money, but I would have lost more,” Das adds.
- Oikyotaan has performed at the Festival of Sacred Music in Berlin in 2003
- Kartick Das has been featured in documentary films like Eleven Miles, directed by Ruchir Joshi, and Bonnie Chakraborty’s New Age Baul
- Oikyotaan’s eponymous debut album, released on Boshi Records, has sold over 3000 copies through independent outlets