Beggars and Sainta

Jai Uttal

interviewed by DNA

India has obviously been a rich source of inspiration for you. What attracts you to Indian music?

Jai Utall: When I first traveled to India, I was overwhelmed by an incredible variety of experiences that had no context in my life up to that point. Foremost among these was a strange and unexpected sense of homecoming, of being finally released from an exile I never knew existed. And second was the absolute mind-blowing array of sounds. There was music everywhere, and I felt these seemingly unrelated waves washing over me. This was not the music of concert halls, but rather the music of the temples, the train stations, the dusty back roads and the Himalayan peaks.

Could you tell us more about the Bauls?

Jai Uttal: The Bauls wander around nomadically, singing these incredibly ecstatic songs. It's very unique. They started as a religious sect in the fifteenth century and pulled away from all the orthodox religions and said, "We don't want any of your rules or laws or temples." They combined a lot of different elements of different religions and, because they were so unorthodox, they were hated and treated as outcasts. As a result, their music is distinctly their own. As the twentieth century approached, the Bauls gradually became popular and people started to respect them, but it's only been in the last twenty years or so that they have started doing concerts. On one hand, this is great because they have gone from poverty to being able to make a little money, while becoming more professional. At the same time, the absolute noncommerciality and purity of their music and spiritual expression has changed.

I had a little house in West Bengal, and everyday several Bauls would stop by and sing, play and make food. The word Baul means "madman," and their singing is wild and full of yearning. In the village of Vrindaban, which is famous as the home of Krishna, you find, on every corner, a blind man or a family singing intense prayer songs or songs of devotion. On one level they are begging. They have their cup out and this is how they make their livelihood. But they become so absorbed in their singing that you feel as if they have left the earth. The music of India changes stylistically as you travel, but there is something about the Bauls that stays with you. Their voices are uninhibited by training but schooled by years, maybe lifetimes, of reaching for the eternal.