The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Quest for the self with wandering minstrels

Harry Matthews had come to Bengal in search of his ‘moner manush’. The quest took the New Yorker to obscure pockets of Calcutta, Bolpur, Sagar islands and finally within his self.

“My project was a documentary on bauls. It ended as a feature film on my own search,” says Matthews, sipping endless cups of coffee at Moviewallah studio, where his work is being edited.

And the most exciting stop in his journey has been baul Gaur Khyapa. “He is simply amazing, a genius, quite a Jimi Hendrix or a Bob Marley in his genre of music,” Matthews shakes his head in admiration. “People had warned me that he is completely mad. That is so true. We hit it off from the moment we met,” he adds, smiling fondly. The magic moments of melody-making are all caught on his video tapes.

Matthews, who converted to Buddhism at age 18 after a visit to Nepal, has been to India earlier, travelling mostly in the Himalayas. But it was an acting assignment that brought him to Calcutta. The film never took off but the visit gave him a special experience. “My grandfather had spent 10 years here in the 1920s. He met my grandma on the way to India on a slowboat. They got married at St Paul’s Cathedral here.” Grandson Matthews made it a point to look up the marriage registers (“this big fat book with half an inch of dust on the pages”) at the church. “It was a chilling moment when I found their signatures. I am told that I am a mirror image of my Grandpa, whom I never met,” he says emotionally. “The experience gave me a special feel for the city.”

If Matthews the actor had come visiting in 2000, the two subsequent visits have seen the musician cum filmmaker at work. “I come from an artistic family. My father is a painter, my mother and sister are actresses, and my brothers musicians. So, I am a bit of a Jack of all trades,” says the guitarist, who acts on stage and does a lot of street performances in New York. “That gives me an affinity with the bauls, you see,” he says, adding that he has even picked up playing the dotara.

Matthews’ first meeting with the baul community struck a jarring note. “I had made a documentary on bauls, which I wanted to redo. But when I went to Biswanath Das Baul, the main character, he asked for an insane amount... you see, some of them have been to the West and know about dollars,” he observes. But on hindsight he considers it to have been a lucky break as it took him to Gaur Khyapa.

While baul music will constitute a major part of the film, the 36-year-old has written the rest of the music himself, which he will record with Shibaji, the Cactus drummer. “I will take Moner Manush to film festivals round the world. But next year, I want to be back in Bolpur and play more music with Gaur,” he strums off.

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