The star attraction of Lalon's Mazaar (shrine) at Cheuria is the holding of the Lalon festivals twice a yearonce on Dol-purnima in the month of Falgun (February-March) and thence on his death anniversary in October. During the festivals, the Lalon akhda (monastery) is thronged with thousands of bauls and devotees from home and abroad. They flock together and observe the festivals amid day-long and night-long renderings of Lalon songs. That does not necessarily mean that the off-festival times are devoid of the rendition of songs. As a matter of fact, hardly a day passes when the bauls, either in twos and threes or in larger numbers do not sit round somewhere at the shrine premises, and go on singing and playing music on the local instruments like ektara (a one-stringed musical instrument and khol (hand drum). They feel heartened when visitors listen to them with overwhelming fascination. Lately the festivals have assumed huge proportions and are being held amid tight security.
I had been a regular visitor to the Lalon mazaar since early nineties when I joined the Islamic University as a lecturer in English. Leaving behind the 'sound and fury' of the capital, I took refuge in the cool lap of a country town, Kushtia. I heaved a sigh of relief for being 'far from the madding crowd'. Although there was little distraction in this small town, I preferred it primarily because of my fascination for this greatest baul of Bengal-- Fakir Lalon Shah (1774-1890). I was one of the regular akhda-goers during the festivals. We used to have bumpy rides on the man-propelled wooden vehicles, locally called van. My van-mates and I would sit on the van and swing our heads to the rhythms of the songs either sung by the van-puller or floating up from the mazaar as we approached it. In fact, the whole town assumed a festive mood and a feeling of joy and merriment among the people became evident during the festivals.
It is said that Lalon Fakir had composed about ten thousand songs of which only two to three thousand are traceable while others are consigned to oblivion or are living in the memory of his numerous followers. But quantity does not matter in regard to Lalon songs. What really matters is quality. The haunting melodies of his songs capture people's hearts and help realize the error of your ways. These are 'our sweetest songs that tell of saddest thought'. From everyone's taste in the country the songs suit almost all tastes around the world.
There are, of course, subtle differences between Lalon songs sung by the genuine bauls of the Akhda School, and those sung on stage by the professional singers with orchestra. The differences lie in pronunciation, intonation, articulation and projection of the words and sounds of the song. Playing the ektara, the bouls render Lalon songs with spontaneous fluctuations of pitch. The sweet melodies of the songs in tune with the ektara or dotara make us dance with joy. The bauls are musical by nature, and hence their songs make us musical. The beautiful melody and the arcane message of the songs leave us with an ecstatic pleasure. I grab every opportunity to visit the centra1 p1ace of baul music, and enjoy the amazingly beautiful songs of Fakir Lalon. I am afraid I may sound dogmatic chiefly to the connoisseurs of music who may disagree with me over my plain views on baul songs. Given the hair-splitting judgmental process of song composition and tune-setting, they may sure dwarf my emotion as sheer nonsense.
But there it is. I know I cannot help it. As one of the teeming Bengali folks, my heart is swayed by the magnificent songs of the baul king. The stunningly beautiful lyrics and melodies like barir pashe arshi nagar (the glass-town by home) or jaat gaelo jaat gaelo bole (saying caste is lost) or pare loye jaao amaey (take me to the shore) have been the eternal source of our spiritual pleasure. Fatigued and sick of the monotony of the humdrum life and chagrined in the heartless concrete jungle, we may sigh with relief, maybe momentarily, and feel lost in ecstasies, if we sit by the shabby and unkempt bauls, and listen to their melodies. We cannot say we are doing trash.
Lalon Fakir is our musical messiah who carries tremendous relevance in our times. His importance as a minstrel can be viewed in the local and global context in the present social and cultural ambience, when the whole human situation is fast deteriorating, hatred rules the roost, and culture suffers at the hands of intolerance, sectarianism, fundamentalism, orthodoxy and fanaticism. A new generation of scholars, writers, and readers has started appraising Lalon's songs with much interest and greater understanding. The true spirit of the songs can help us stand against the long shadow of ignorance, superstition and dogmatism and lead people of various creeds, ideas, and dogmas to peace and happiness in this age of social unrest, political hostility, cultural aggression and religious intolerance. UNESCO has rightly considered our baul songs as one of the 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."
Dr. Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org