The morning sky of Gorbhanga village in Nadia district of Bengal is often serenaded by a voice that immediately transports one beyond the corporeal consciousness. The voice belongs to Subhadra Sharma, a 54-year-old Baulani (woman minstrel) whose songs are about her triumph against social subjugation, discrimination and bigotry. Subhadra is now a known name when it comes to Baul music, an age-old tradition of Bengal, carrying influences of the Bhakti movement and resembling Sufi music exemplified by the songs of Kabir.
Born in 1962, Subhadra was a natural singer who deftly intoned the tunes her brothers practised and performed. Instead of appreciating her talent, social norms debarred her from public performance while orthodox family practices tried to stifle her voice by packing her off as a child bride at the age of 10. Recounting her days of horror, Subhadra informs, “Though miserable in despair, I acquiesced in my marriage to buy peace. In those days girls never protested, not even in the face of impending disaster or death.” Unhappy to be married at a tender age, Subhadra never thought that succour would come from her husband who would encourage her to pursue her passion. A daily wager by profession, Subhadra’s husband, Sanjay Sharma was immediately enamoured by the pleasant voice of his young bride.
What followed was a series of battles, small and big. From being socially ostracised for her musical ways, to being catcalled, from coping with the uncooperative attitude of fellow artists to Gurus making unwarranted advances, Subhadra fought against everything. It was her songs and her husband’s steadfast support that kept the fire burning inside her, she says.
Around this time, Subhadra came in contact with Banglanatak dot com, a grassroots social enterprise with a mission to foster pro-poor growth using a culture based approach. Subhadra was the only female voice who made it to the list of singers inducted in their Art for Life initiative, which revives and revitalises intangible cultural heritage as a means of livelihood. This was a time when most practitioners of Baul music from Gorbhanga were male and it was a major breakthrough for her to have made it to the selected team.
“It was a new beginning. I was introduced to a way of life I never thought was possible. Musicians from India and abroad visited our village and trained us in voice modulation, use of microphone, stage appearance et al. The yearlong training built my confidence as a performer and the association with the master artists broadened my horizon. It marked the beginning of my empowerment,” Subhadra enthused.
Today, Subhadra is the most accredited exponent of the ‘Mahajani Pada’. It’s a distinct genre of folk music, which she has presented before captivated audiences in France, Syria, Japan, and Bangladesh apart from many places in India.
Home to more than 100 fakirs who are traditional practitioners of Baul Fakiri songs, the music scene of the village was traditionally male dominated.
Considered a birth privilege only for the fakirs or the male singers of the village, Subhadra’s emergence as a celebrated singer is an assertion of woman power. Today, Subhadra along with her fellow fakirs from Gorbhnaga are artists per excellence, travelling all over the world with their music. Being a female Baul singer, Subhadra has adequately stormed the male bastion and has emerged a role model for the fellow women of Gorbhanga. “With a house of my own and a steady income from my shows, I am now free from all pecuniary anxieties. My journey has taught me the importance of women’s empowerment in today’s world and I have now made it an avowed purpose to empower the women I come in contact with. Without inclusive development which creates a united voice, the situation for women will not change,” affirms Subhadra who has already trained 17 Bauls, five of them being women.
Winds of change have also blown over Gorbhanga, transforming the nondescript village from a mere rural community to a heritage centre and a tourist destination. “Folk Festivals have started to be organised in our village to provide new contexts and events to revitalise the heritage. The larger artist community gets an opportunity to showcase their talent as these festivals highlight how intangible cultural heritage is a way of life of the people and not a one-off event for a single audience. Our village youth and women are also earning by offering hospitality and guide services to the visitors,” enumerates Subhadra who is now a star attraction in these festivals.