Confessions of a poet as organiser
I am a Norwegian, living in the city of Oslo, an author of poetry, novels for adults and children, as well as of non-fiction. I do photography, too. I need to organise time and space of solitude, of words, their sequences and rhythms as well as my archive of photography.
In my grass root commitments, I am, however, ”out there”. This organising effort goes on with Bengalis in Kolkata, West Bengal, as well as in a northern region of Bangladesh. Some other Norwegians are involved with us. The effort is collective. I first had the vision and spend about four months with my people in the Bengali region every year.
How to define oneself. I am a human who cannot not write. I could, possibly, not do photography. Photography means connection. It means play. It means to be-with. It is a kind of immediate gaze and play in and with forms and light that I am grateful to have come into.
Photography, the ”out-there” of it, has some deep connection with grace, gratuité. It is, somehow, given for free. The framing, the position of feet and eyes, the choice of focus have to be chosen or ”organised.”
I could possibly not have spent months in Bengal, again and again, devoting time, mind u0026amp; my ”all” to the vulnerability and beauty of vanishing forms of song, colour and works of the hand (weavers, potters and other crafts-people and artists), in intimate co-existence and co-creativity with children.
This very land is vanishing. Had I not travelled from north to south, or from west to east, and back again, every year, my sensibility and very existence as a poet-person in this world would have been radically different.
I do not know how I would have seen this place, society and mentality, called ”Norway” then. My gaze and senses would not have been what I know them to be. Added to this: what I do not know they are. I am, of course, unknown to myself.
Only the closing down of airports due to natural calamities or political chaos, the impossibility of getting a visa and the frailty of my body, could one day prevent me from seeing, experiencing and thinking from these two radically different places or ”positions”: Northern Europe and South Asia.
In addition to this, there is Central Europe. The digital work on my stills is being done in Budapest. I regularly go there. I see Europe from a Central European perspective as well. The traumas of WWII are very present still. People could not speak out after 1945. I stay in Budapest understanding only faces and the tone of people´s voice. Hungarian is an unknown language to me. I move on by intuition. There is a deep respect for photography in Hungary. Added to that, the rich heritage of folk music.
I use the name «poet». I am always writing, but not always writing what is, in the sense of a genre, called poetry. Poetry is a certain gaze, a radical sense of rhythm, a listening way of being in and with words and of organising them.
Somehow, photography has – maybe only for a while – become the medium of the one-pointedness and direct sensibility of this poet. But the poet is present in each prosaic line that I write.
Not knowing what will be the outcome of it, I set out to write this text. It has no other purpose than being, tentatively, descriptive. It implies some profund thinking.
What is – by me and by us – being organised, in Bengal, is strong as well as fluid. It is being held by a strong vision, more or less clear or half-hazy, in many people. These people are mainly Bengalis. Some Norwegians appreciate the work and serve it well.
I was never hired by an organisation. There could not be any pre-made organisation for this, not in Norway and not in Bengal.
I had more than co-founded a community with and for mentally disturbed and disabled children in Oslo, Norway before arriving in Calcutta for the first time, in 1976. These children could not speak in a way we could understand when they came to live with us, some ”non-diagnosed” adults. They were sensitive to rhythms and tunes. I spent about five years living with them. Formative years, to say the least.
In 1980, I travelled from the Indian west coast to the east (Calcutta) and onwards to the south and to Sri Lanka where I spent fifteen days in a Buddhist meditation centre. I travelled with a notebook but no camera. The experience had long-term consequences. How it prepared me for grass roots commitments in Bengal, ”east and west of the river Padma”, I do not know. It certainly meant a strengthened bond to India. Nevertheless, for twelve years I did not go back there.
In January 1992, I again left for Calcutta. The annual festival (Jay Deb), of the singing Bauls would take place, by the river Ajay in the village of Kenduli, that month. What I knew was simply that thee were ”singing minstrels”. Plain guide book information!
During the festival, there was singing from sunset till sunrise. A light inside of me ”said”: «This is the Address of my Heart.» In this sudden and almost authoritative way, my connection with Bengal was confirmed.
From then on, I have not been able to, not allowed to or not willing to, go away. I had to co-create something for the sake of the Singing and the Folk Art.
It all began with the music, and the experience was profoundly personal, not to say spiritual. No argument, nobody to hire me, no profit. And: no wish to organise anything at all. I was in the music, taken by it and blessed by or through it.
Back in Oslo, I knew that a new dimension had been added to my existence.
The way I wrote about the Bauls made a person in the Norwegian Red Cross convinced I could go on a text-cum-photography mission to Kigali, Rwanda (1992). I spent seven weeks in a slum area in Kigali, some months before the Rwandan Genocide, came back to Oslo and prepared myself for another visit to Kenduli.
After three visits to Kenduli (1992, 1993 and 1994), I realised that the singing that had taken me in was on the point of being bought up as an exotic commodity by Westerners. It was willingly sold by the very poor musicians as such a commodity. The village musicians had no way to understand the mechanisms of the market. They needed money and some wanted to become ”famous”.
To me, the deep singing seemed to be losing its juice and spiritual truth. The devotion without which the songs could not be truthfully sung, would most probably soon disappear on the global market place.
This loss was somehow unbearable. I had been taken into a rare flow of beauty and truth. Could I then accept to know that the flow or the very texture of deep and ancient village knowledge was disintegrating – without making the slightest effort to preserve and empower what I knew to be so very precious?
The question then arose: How could this deep feeling and the traditions which held the feeling be preserved?
My only tool of discernment was my ear, with my open eye. By now, I had long since begun photographing. I could see the singing. How people became music. I was ”bouleversée”, taken aback. What is this!? It is. And it is in danger.
I began to explore the spirituality and history of the Bauls in the books I had access to. I was intrigued and drawn towards the core of insight in what might be called ”Baul philosophy”. Oral wisdom. Wisdom of Voice and Body. Man and Woman on a Spiritual Journey together. A collective and very distinctive NO to Suppressing Power.
In 1998, a long journey took me to some sand islands (char) in the Brahmaputra river, in northern Bangladesh. A char is an island that may disappear during the next monsoon.
On my last evening on the last island, a decisive event took place. Unexpectedly, I again got the real singing. ”Kenduli with no commodification”, so to speak.
Very poor marfati women, all of them weavers, agreed to sing for the foreign guest. Marifat means spiritual insight. All of them, I was later told, had a master, a pir, on the inner path, in Tangail, Kushtia or Dhaka. Most of the pirs are deeply connected to the wisdom songs of Lalan fakir. (Kusthia 1776-1890).
I had, before they sung to me, seen the women use recycled thread from old sarees to weave towels. The thread and the singing left a mark. It was as if confirmed: we are yours and you are ours. The bond, with no common language between us, was a fact.
This was ”my” second spiritual beginning in Bengal – after Kenduli in 1992 – and it inspired what was, some years later, to become an effort to empower regional musical traditions on vanishing land. This was to be done with children, boys and girls, from Hindu as well as Muslim family backgrounds.
Four years later, I came back to the village of weavers, called ”the Village of Southern Prayer”. I came to other sand islands as well. I knew some rudiments of Bengali then. On one island the villagers, who wanted to give me their very best, and who knew it could only be their singing, brought in front of me a girl child, maybe eight years old. The girl started singing and she went on, with no instrument to accompany her, for almost an hour. I was taken in, and somehow, taken back to Kenduli 1992, blessed and taken aback by the singing of the child. That was the third beginning.
The girl suddenly said, yes, she had that amazing courage, Come home with me. I then said, But it is impossible. She then said that it had to be made possible.
I went with her and her mother handed her over to me. I bought her a red dress made by the local tailor. Before leaving the northern region, I handed over some money to my interpreter, saying: please, see to it that this family gets some animals and make sure the children can get to school and not be married off too early. Again, I left the place, knowing that I had to come back. There was a child waiting.
In 2004, on my last day in northern Bangladesh – with very poor language skills still – a young singer and grass root organiser came to see me. No interpreter was present then. I mentioned to him the immensely rich and vulnerable musical and lyrical traditions of the region. I also added my wish for old musicians to go on singing and playing as well as for some children to learn how to practise the traditions. He eagerly promised he would set out to look for old village musicians. He said he appreciated my way of thinking. That was, in me, the fourth beginning.
I wanted to be connected with this tradition and its people. I believed this young grass roots worker to be one of them. I wanted this singing to go on when ”I” am not going on any more.
Beautiful work was done from 2004 and onwards. More and more people took part. I did not think about hidden agendas.
As written above, it all began in India. The Indian part of the story is the first. It is different from the Bangladeshi one. Nevertheless, the two stories or ”rivers” are now firmly inter-connected.
After ”my Baul experience” in 1992, I used to stay with a family of artists in Kolkata when in India. We did not consider any grass root commitments together.
In 2006, I was walking with my camera in a place in Kolkata called Babu ghat. Pilgrims and sadhus each year gather in this place before travelling on to Ganga Sagar in the Bay of Bengal. One of the sadhus invited me to sit down. He took me into his vision: to organise sadhus for the benefit of sadhus, and to make them aware of the fact of climate change. The snow of the Himalayas could melt and little by little disappear.
He introduced me to other sadhus, he taught me much, and he made me aware of the complex reality of the minds of sadhus. He also introduced me to some young men who soon conveyed that they wanted to ”serve children and vanishing arts with me”. They said, my efforts should not go on in Bangladesh only…
I travelled across India with the sadhu. I know more about tribals, sadhus and human minds due to him.
The effort in Bangladesh was vibrantly alive in this period. There was obviously much I ignored. But I could hear and see glow in the voices and faces of the singing children. Our efforts in Kolkata started slowly and modestly in 2009, and is now a beautiful, vulnerable and amazing organism called Earth Care with Art, with its base in Kolkata.
Kolkata is the place of my heart. It is the place where I can lose what I – falsely – had believed I owned and to get to practise some kind of ”walking in the dark”. It is in darkness that full trust is needed. Discernment is needed, always.
Tori-Maa, the centre of Earth Care with Art is my permanent address in Kolkata. The organisation has additional addresses in other places, in Nadia and Bankura, in West Bengal. The effort to empower children and folk art goes on. This effort needs friends.
We have stumbled, fallen, learned to fall, learned to think again, and to have faith again. We have got to know how the playful and creative child much too often is ignored and neglected – to become an object of abuse and profit in families and within very competitive societal mechanisms.
We are learning about society, about fragile land, about beautiful land, about the life of the Ganga, about the dying of the Ganga, about the efforts of some Bauls to be true, and about the realities of Bauls and other folk artists struggling in a society of buying and selling, reduced to being a market only, about the tough realities of the poor who do not get real food, medical treatment or respect. And I still enjoy the amazing hospitality of the city of Kolkata.
The children we call ”ours” learn with the adults, they are, though with our modest means, protected and guided. They get a space for strength and joy. We want to make strong a few nests of trust and knowledge for some children as well as for some adult pathik, wanderers.
I am not a grass roots organiser all the time. I need to write. The adults I am with in Bengal know this. There has got to be a resonance of the artist for another artist. It may be the case that only as a poet-artist can a white person be seen not to come to take (exploit) or to give (be a bank), but to create and to commit energies of the heart in a collective effort.
What I am in deepest touch with in Bengal is the singing, the rhythm, the colours, the energies of the real body in yoga – and the yearning to express oneself and the yearning to surrender this same ”self”.
I did not give up being a poet so as to enter into another kind of commitment. This I know. And I am sure about my commitment to Bengal. As Bengalis sometimes say: undivided Bengal to the east and to the west of the river Padma.
The Bengali land has been divided in gruesome ways. This land is, in more ways than one, one. The oneness is being hidden, disfigured and dismembered by religio-political powers. By the will of the colonial power and the powers of politicised religion, India was divided into Pakistan and India, in 1947. Pakistan was from then on, and until 1971, divided into West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The Republic of Bangladesh came to be in 1971, after what some call a ”selective genocide”.
The first song by Leonard Cohen that brought me in was Suzanne: «If you want to travel with me…» This is may be how Bengal, to the west as well as to the east of the river Padma, is singing to me in me, and has repeatedly been calling me, like a rhythm and a refrain, with no full stop, for about twenty years.
Have I chosen it? Yes, I have. But I have chosen it, so to speak, after the fact.
Can a poet organise? Or has the poet-organiser then left the mode of poetry to enter into another mode, that of organising? Is it possible for the one to be (in) the other?
A poet is, as mentioned above, a constant organiser of sounds, rhythms, metaphors. That is: in the text. How far away is the world then, and must it be forever far. Can there be a shared sensibility, an interconnection or knowledge about a certain oneness, or at least an ”interplay”, between the mode of organising in words and practical organising in the world.
The complexity may be presented as such: a poet is, as such, an organiser of lines and sounds. I am, in addition to this, (co)-organising in a common mental and political world. I am also a European co-organising in other – Asian – people´s world(s).
In addition to this, my Bengali place is double, east and west. Two different politico- and socio-religious universes, with both common and different sensibilities and memories. I have to organise meaning in more ways than one. And I have to know enough about the meaning-systems in and of others.
Hold on to the thread. The poet alone cannot organise. I am the proof. But it may not be as a poet that I have failed. I simply was not mature enough as a human.
What I have given my heart, mind and time, in addition to money, to organise, may fall apart in an unjust society with many repressive forces. It may fall apart due to my own blindness. And: some people profit from other people´s blindness. I used to be more blind than I am now. But: I am still blind. With more solid people to discern with, and a more profound knowledge of the grammar of culture and language, I may not be as short-sighted as I was.
There are no guarantees. Our small cells of community may fall apart, again. It has happened, and may happen again. It has happened, and for that reason we have been empowered by some deep insights. Also, I am much less alone in the effort.
I may have carried the first grass root vision concerning the empowerment of children through folk art, yoga and folk song. Without the deep commitment of people who live on the soil there is nothing much a vision from afar can do. The day-to-day organising is done by people on the ground.
In northern Bangladesh, a ”house” was built, from 2004 and onwards, to fall down some years later. By ”house” I mean: a collective effort with an administrative and a physical centre.
It takes hard work to build such a house in the first place. It is painful to see it crumble. It takes a long process of discerment – together – to realise whether to build a second house in the vicinity of the first and crumbling one, or to let the first house vanish in wind and sand and quietly leave the region. Bengal east and west is a region where loyalty to Hierarchy and Power is deep-rooted. Whatever else I am, I am also a foreigner. I do not know well enough the spoken and unspoken rules of the games.
The brutal crumbling down took place in Bangladesh, 2014-2016. I was betrayed. We were betrayed. I had put trust where trust should not have been put. But… had that trust not been put at that place in that moment, no new house would have been built after the crumbling down of the first one. And the new house is beautiful.
Had I not been blind, the blows would have been less heavy. Had I not been kept blind, I would, probably, have been less blind. When I became a whistle blower, some people did not want to listen to the whistle.
I did not know the soil and the mental complexities and the strategies of power well enough. I was not aware of the games of jealousy and money. After twelve years of dedication, I left the Bangladeshi organisation that I co-founded in 2009. (Till 2009, it had functioned as a project under a local NGO).
We are fewer now – in Bangladesh – than between 2010 and 2016. Healing takes place, though. It is all about singing ”with bhab”, that is: from the deep Within. That singing heals.
There are at present nine functioning informal song-and-music schools. Maybe 3-400 singing children. Some of them learn to play an instrument as well. (See under Grass Roots Bengal). These ”schools” are beautiful. Some local musicians also revolted against ”the Director” and left, unpaid. I am with these musicians. It is from zero point that we now travel on.
At a certain point, we had to give up all the musical instruments to institutional power. We did not leave the music. We left a structure of power that took joy away and through which lies were spoken.
Since 2017, a new effort goes on. In English: Hear It. In Norwegian Ny Sang. In Bengali, Mayer Tori. The local musicians endured. They have spoken truth to Power. Nine solid informal song-and-music schools are now functioning. The Norwegian support system that used to be solid was shut down in december 2016. A new grass roots organisation may soon be established in Norway.
EarthCare with Art Paschim Banga is a registered Trust in Kolkata. A house called Tori-Maa (Boat-Mother) has been built close to Adi-Ganga in Tollygunj. We want to see it develop as an ashram for children, a refuge, a place of silence and expression of the real self. The building of the house of Tori-Maa was completed in 2014.
Our aim is to preserve, protect and empower vanishing arts and crafts in and through children. Community is at the core. Yoga is at the core. The care for Nature is at the core. When the Bangladeshi musicians visit Tori-Maa, there is music and singing. We are waiting for local musicians to come to teach our children there.
We are acutely aware of the vulnerable location of West Bengal, Kolkata and Tori-Maa in a time of climate change near the Bay of Bengal.
The word for ”nature” is prakriti, in Bengali: all that breathes and belongs within the circle of the living. Having a home and a community of people close to Adi-Ganga and the Bay of Bengal means to exposed to what is, sometimes almost academically, being called climate change.
Our collective effort goes on on a very vulnerable land. There is no other place for it to go.