One could be fooled by Phulti Barman’s fragile health, but once she gets into the groove and starts belting out her popular numbers, there is no stopping her. Her high-pitched, yet soulful voice, which shows no signs of fatigue, is nothing but a wonder to her audiences. This folk singer from Cooch Behar, a northern district in West Bengal bordering Bangladesh, is well over 100 and has defied time with her ageless spirit. Phulti is possibly the only living performer of a rare folk song genre called Shaitol Bishohori.
A tribal song to mark fertility, Shaitol Bishohori was once popular in the Rajbanshi society of Bengal. The tradition continues to hold significance in some parts of the state even today, although the ritual is no longer celebrated with the same fervour.
Geedali’s songs, which are in native Rajbanshi language of Cooch Behar, signify various facets of a married woman’s life. Her favourite one, however, is the one that speaks of misery of a childless woman with no wealth as compared to the one who has a family but no money to feed them.
Although the centenarian has partially lost her vision, she does not mind striking a conversation and obliging her fans with her favourites. “But no one has the patience or willingness to pick up a song or two from me to take the tradition forward,” she rued.
“Phulti is like an aging Banyan tree that only gets stronger with time. Even today, she can pull off any session by her juggling of high and low pitches,” said Nanduri, her granddaughter, adding that Geedali still does all her chores by herself.
Her neighbour, Banghshi Ray, however, feels the woman is yet to get her due. “We want Geedali to get her place in history books. Not many people know about her in Bengal. We also wish the government authorities to come forward to archive the last legacy of Bishohari,” she said.
SDO Krishnara Ghosh considers her to be Dinhata’s pride. “It is true that Phulti Debi is the only one to keep the Rajbonshi songs alive. Even at 100, she can give any lead singer run for her money. We try and ensure that her medical checkup gets done from time to time,” he said.
So what does Phulti Debi consider to be her greatest achievement till date? Her eyes well up as she speaks. “It was when our chief minister Mamata Banerjee felicitated me with Banga Samman. She is like a daughter to me. I enjoyed my time with her and I am glad she found me suitable for the award,” Phulti said.
When asked about her exact age and how long she wants to carry on with her singing, Geedali doesn’t mince words in her inimitable staccato style, “Bayos ki jani na…jatodin pran, tatodin gaan… (I don’t know what does age means… I will keep on singing till I live…).”