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Phulti Geedali, Shaitol Bishohori

Phulti Barman passed away yesterday on August 22, 2019. 

Better known as Phulti Geedali, Phulti lived in the tiny village of Putimari in Dinhata block in Cooch Behar where she had been the reigning queen of Shaitol Bishohori, a ritual folk song of primarily Cooch Behar. When we first met her in 2014, she claimed to be more than 100 years old and had been performing for more than 80 years! According to her Aadhar card, at the time of her death, she was 112!

Having been married since  she was 7 or 8 years old, Phulti began performing soon after her daughter was born. She was a widow by this time and had to step out to support herself and her family. 

Together with a small group of singers and musicians, Phulti would wander from village to village singing ritual songs, peculiar to Rajbongshi society, like Shaitol, Bishohara (songs in praise of Manosha) and Kati (songs in praise of the god, Kartik) , which she learnt from senior group members along the way. Sometimes she would also work as a midwife in her village. She was the last surviving member of that group. 

Phulti fondly remembered the talented musicians who accompanied her - Kandura Barman, better known as Kandura Kinnor, renowned for his prowess all over Cooch Behar, who played the dhak while Janoki Khoka (Janoki Basiyal) played the Mokha Bnaashi. Her guru in the group was Ichha Barman, but Janoki Basiyal and Shekhar, who was the chief singer of the group, would always be there to prompt her along were she to forget a line. Phulti would learn new songs over a 3-4 day span of rehearsals prior to an event, at which they had been invited to perform.  

Shaitol puja was a popular fertility ritual among Rajbongshis in parts of Cooch Behar and Rangpur. It continues to be celebrated today, in a few remote villages in Cooch Behar, during weddings, the birth of a child, or even the birth of a calf. The puja is always accompanied by songs sung by a band of women, accompanied by a few male musicians. The dhak plays a major role in these ritual performances. 

In Rajbongshi society, and particularly among the folk people who have Rangpur antecedents, the ritual song about Shaitol is always the story of Nilaboti (Lilaboti). According to this story, Lilaboti gives birth only after she is blessed by Shaitol Debi. Thus, Shaitol is always connected with fertility.
In the last 100 years and especially after 1947, through a process of acculturation, however, there has been a gradual shift in the identity of Shaitol. There are many in Cooch Behar who  believe that she is none other than Shashti, the folk goddess of fertility, borrowed from erstwhile East Bengal (Bangladesh).  Phulti too believed that Shaitol and Shashti are one and the same. However, this belief is not common to all Rajbongshis among whom the practice still prevails. 

Phulti was first brought to the limelight by folklorists and cultural activists like Sukhbilas Barma (who also wore a political hat) and Amulya Debnath of the region. Thanks to the former, Phulti  was also brought to Kolkata. She also received the Banga Ratna Samman award. Other awards followed.  But in spite of the recognition she received, assistance was meagre and irregular.

When asked if she had taught her songs to anybody else, other than her daughter, Phulti had squealed in disgust. Nobody but nobody is able to learn, she declared contemptuously! They don`t understand how to control their breath even and are plainly not interested enough to put in the effort.  Therefore, her chorus on the rare occasions that she was invited to sing, provided her poor support. Later, in a more sombre mood, she lamented some women come to learn but left after having learnt just a tiny bit. The absence of glitter and drama, and of instruments like synthesizers and tablas, which have become absolute essentials these days in rural areas, does not make this form attractive enough.

In the old days, she would be performing all year, for seasonal pujas as well as for weddings and births. But as time went by, she and her daughter, Nanduri also had to resort to begging at times. Phulti and her daughter lived in poverty in their tiny home . There was no one to look after them or care for them. 

Of the 4 children she had given birth to, only Nanduri survived. Nanduri, who became a widow early in life, and who herself was over 80 when we met her in 2014, became  companion to her amazing, lively mother. Unfortunately Nanduri passed away soon after and Phulti had to be taken in by her great grandchildren.  

When we met her, Phulti was no longer singing professionally and had to be coaxed into singing for us. She was old and infirm, but once she started, there was no stopping her. Her spirit was amazing. Hats off to this feisty lady!

For more on Shaitol Bishohori, read here.

Phulti Geedali : The Shaitol Bishohori singer