The Mystic Baul of Bengal
By Rumman R Kalam and Ibrahim
"Right now, as we look around us, Lalon seems to be everywhere. Everyone knows of him and his songs are doing the rounds in our culture. From the middle class to the upper class to the intellectuals to the socialites, everyone has Lalon in their minds now. My interest lies in the reason for this sudden interest.” – Arup Rahee, activist, poet, singer.
Lalon Shah, Lalon Sai or Mahatma Lalon Fakir; whatever you decide to call him, remains a stalwart figure in Bangla history. Amongst the most respected philosophers of the sub-continent, and possibly the world, if you ask around. He is not only a philosopher but a poet and songwriter. Lalon intentionally kept the origins of his birth, ancestry and religion a secret as to not cause a conflict amongst the many castes and religions (Hinduism and Islam mostly). It is said that he lived till 116 when he died on the 17th of October, 1890. And it was in his village in Cheouria, Kushtia that he began his journey into the annals of philosophy and life.
To fit all of Lalon's philosophy into something would require volumes. The reason why his philosophy is followed to this day is because Lalon was way ahead of his time. Sensing that there might be a struggle after his death, he refused to be a part of all religions, caste, creed and any sort of social hierarchy, which was rampant back then. Lalon Shah gave death a lot of thought in his philosophy. Arguably his most famous work "Khachar bhetor ochin pakhi” talks about death, where Lalon Shai uses a bird as a metaphor for the soul.
It is a common confusion amongst people nowadays that Lalon was a Sufi but Lalon cannot be categorised under any rigid culture apart from Lalon himself. It is true that he has certain Sufi influences but Sufis always put their religion before everything else and Lalon was, what we call today, a freethinking man who considered his body and soul the first priority. His ideas always revolved around the body, mind and its surroundings before levelling up to more surreal matters.
Lalon's influence reaches out to many philosophers and authors throughout the past hundred years or so. Great poets like Allen Ginsberg, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore have been known to cite him as an influence.
Arup Rahee, vocalist of fusion band Leela, tells us about Lalon's influence on him. “I grew up in a village where it wasn't uncommon to hear folks bursting into songs with their ektaras. From there I came to know of our minstrels, the Baul Fakirs and their lifestyle. And Lalon's philosophy and ideals, as well as his music, played a big role in my life.”
Lalon's music has probably been the most treasured thing he left behind. According to the experts, Lalon composed around two thousand verses but the bauls say he has over ten thousand songs. It's worth noting that he never once wrote his songs down and it was very much passed on through vocal mediums.
Recently, there has been a surge in interest in Lalon's music and purists have taken this with a pinch of salt. While it is great news that Lalon Shah's works are being put into the spotlight (seeing as he is in the pantheon of literary greats along with the likes of Tagore) but, as is the problem with things recently, it is being repackaged into a consumer good with the intention solely on 'selling'.
“I went to Kushtia during Lalon's death anniversary and I was disappointed to see the whole thing being turned into a commercial fanfare by one of our well-known corporations. It does send the wrong kind of message to people who aren't acquainted with his ideals,” says Rashed, a student of NSU.
Away from the ideals, Arup Rahee agrees that Lalon's music has definitely become a thing of 'fashion' that new-age hipster's have taken up to be their annoying hipster selves. He does, however, stress that there is nothing wrong with playing Lalon's music in contemporary ways and the more the interest in his music, the bigger the chances of his legacy living on. “I believe there should be an outpouring of Lalon's music but that there also needs to be sufficient patronisation of the vision behind his songs. Only then can you truly unravel his brilliance. Because Lalon's songs were never there just for cheap thrills, to put it bluntly.” That's not asking for much because the same courtesy is afforded to Rabindranath and Nazrul and their songs.
And on the matter of fusion music, Rahee believes that it is important and that musical forms do eventually change over time, so long as Lalon's philosophies are not distorted. He also notes that Bauls always had a gruff tone to their voice, something which is present in rock, the pre-dominant genre of Leela. There may be differing opinions on the sudden interest in Lalon but it's worth acknowledging that bands like 'Lalon' and 'Bangla' have done a stellar job of integrating Lalon Shah's verses back into our cultures.
Vocalist Shumi of the band “Lalon” regards him as a huge influence upon her life, music and automatically, the band. “Lalon” has been known to funk up the tunes with their bassist Turjo and drummer Titi, and guitarists Bappy and Salekin provide the soul-gripping melody to sooth the ears.
The legacy that Lalon left us is one that cannot possibly made to fit into one article or even a book (unless you count 1 feet tall monstrosities as books). Each generation grows up to seek and read about foreign philosophers when we have someone like Lalon right here in Bangladesh. And we consider him to be still with us because Lalon's body may have left the Earth but his soul lives on through the verses and teachings he left us. The true beauty of his verses can be identified by anyone with even a minimum sense of the language. So today, we celebrate one of the bastions of our beautiful language. Someone who deserves all the recognition he gets. And the beauty of his teachings, of love and respect should ruminate throughout the times because here was a man who brought out the expressions of joy in our language like never before. Celebrate the 21st by opening a book of his verses and reading through. You won't be disappointed.
Shades of 52'
As the epicenter of the movement, ProjonmoChottor, continues to attract bodies to form a vociferous platform for people from all walks of life, the place of its birth remains inundated with opinions, points and counter-points. We are at a time when cyber power struggles are no longer a laughing matter. It is there for everyone to see and everyone does see it, make no mistakes about that. But what's intriguing in the case of the Shahbagh movement is the uneasy silence being maintained by the majority of the global media, broken only in the form of passing afterthoughts here and there before turning mute yet again. Is it because we are insignificant (or as a friend bluntly put it, 'You won't be famous unless you have oil.')? Or is there a deeper flaw, that of gross misinterpretations?
In the week leading up to the 21st of February, a few hours of procrastinating by yours truly lead to the discovery of a number of international articles doing the rounds about Shahbagh. Surprisingly, quite a few were from much-maligned Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, most of them were quite pointless. However, one article that caught my eye was from Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Express Tribune. Here, the professor mentions how nobody on the dark side of the moon cares about the happenings on this side. And he points the finger at how 'history' depicts us as a footnote in their textbooks: the ugly sister who broke away because of Indian intervention. Quite clearly it doesn't paint us in the most favourable of lights but a hasty glance through all of our own textbooks proved that they were just returning the favour. Struggle against Pakistan forms an intrinsic part of our fledgling history. But what else do we know, or are bothered to know about them, apart from our blood-stained victories and the frequent caricatures of terrorism that the West paints? The dangerous subjective priorities of 'history' rears its ugly head here. For over 42 years, our demand for an apology has fallen on ears feigning deafness. But what exactly would the current crop of Pakistanis have to apologise for if they don't know much about it? This was evident from Hina Rabbani's recent visit and it must be said, the ignorance goes both ways. Ours comes into sharp relief when you hear some of the chants at Shahbagh. Not all of them extremists, just like not all of us are like our politicians.
There don't come better days than this one when trying to promote understanding between different cultures and transcending the barriers of language. It brings to mind the Language Movement of 52', when Bangalis fought against oppressors of speech and identity, so that we would be able to express ourselves as best we can for years to come. And it was for this that martyrs happily laid down their lives, for the stringent belief that it would lead to a better place.
Decades have passed and it is down to the current crop to carry the unceasing battle forward, a peaceful battle that speaks of tolerance and freedom, and one that shows our ability to express ourselves and the vibrancy of our culture.
The way forward is definitely through words. There have been several misconceptions floating around about the Shahbagh movement in International quarters but we have today what previous generations weren't privy to: an unadulterated connection with the rest of the world. So speak out, explain yourselves and tell everyone where Bangalis stand with all their sentiments and then let them make up their own minds. Listen to varying opinions and absorb all the colourful cultures around the world because that is what International Mother Language day is all about. Don't make the (deliberate) mistake that history books all over the world have made in their attempts to put nations at loggerheads. After all, we did fight extremely hard for our right to speak.
Note: The global media has cited the demands for capital punishment as one of the prime reasons for their silence. Even though I am strongly against capital punishment, the fact remains that there is a modicum of double standards present. From the very first international war crimes trial held in Nuremberg, death sentences have been handed down and the USA itself sentenced 43 inmates to the death penalty. All this points to the fact that it isn't exactly an unprecedented demand.