Fakir Lalon Shah: The Great Baul Emperor
Sqn Ldr Ahsan (Retd)
1. Our pride. Lalon Shah is the symbol of our history, culture and civilization, as a Bangla speaking or Bangali nation and also a pride for the nation state, Bangladesh. The melodies, tunes and themes of his Baul songs in Bangla perplex the heart and mind of both the devotees as well as the common men of the world. His songs reflect the metaphysical philosophy as well as the natural beauty, social reality and the facts of common people of this soil.
2. Life Sketch. Lalon’s life history is mysterious! There are differences in opinion about his ancestry, caste, creed & religion. He himself also remained silent and indifferent to the identity of his parentage.
3. Hindu or Muslim(?) One opinion is that Lalon Shah was born in a noble Hindu (Kayastha) family of village- Bharara, Union Council- Chaapra, Police Station- Kumerkhali in the district of Kushtia (former Nadia) in 1774 AD. His father was Madhab Ker and mother was Padmabati. But the another opinion is that he was born in a respectable Muslim family of village –Harishpur, P.S. Hariakundu, in Jhenidahe district in the same year. His father was Daribullah Dewan and mother was Khatun. Lalon was the only son of his parents. Due to financial constraint he had no formal education. And as he lost his father, he had to shoulder the family responsibilities at the early age. He also got married. But soon he became tired of family life due to the family problems as well as the hostile activities of his relations. However, later on he, along with his mother and wife left Bharara and settled in Daspara and started a business.
4. Death News! We learnt that Lalon Shah with his companions visited Nabadwip, (another opinion) Baharampur of Murshidabad on a pilgrimage or to ‘Bathe in the Ganges’. After this pilgrimage, he was coming back home crossing the river by boat, when he had an attack of smallpox and fainted. His companions thought that he had died. Any how they applied fire to his mouth for cremation and left him on the riverside! Afterwards, they came back to Bharara and announced news of his death to his mother.
5. Casted Out! By the way a Muslim village woman, Motijan (wife of Malam Shah, a weaver) was going to the river to collect water. She found him dying by the riverside. She rescued him and brought to her house and cured with loving care and nursing. After recovery, Lalon came back to Bharara. His mother and wife were astonished and overwhelmed with joy at his unexpected return. But his relatives and headman of the village denied to accept him, because they had already observed rituals for his departed soul. Moreover they considered him untouchable for taking food and drink in Muslim family. So, they casted him out. Rejected, Lalon felt hurt, and offended. So, he left home and renounced the worldly life forever.
6. Novice Stage & After. Lalon initiated himself to the Baul doctrine under a guru (metaphysical preceptor) named Siraj Snai. After completion of his novice stage he was instructed by the guru to go to Cheuria, a village on the bank of the river, Kaliganga (which exists no longer) near to Kushtia. Lalon settled an ‘Akhra’ (monastery) there in 1823, (another opinion) in 1830. He was helped and patronized by local artisans. The Akhra was built and developed only by their donations and grants. Soon, his reputation and influence spread in all directions. He used to move around the area with his pupils & disciples to preach his doctrine. There were many people at that time, who, accepted his doctrine and became his disciples.
7. Composer & Singer. Lalon composed and sung his songs and his disciples wrote them down. Two of his disciples Manik Shah alias Manik Pandith and Moniruddin Shah who wrote most of his songs. Lalon composed numerous lyrics, which describe his philosophy. Among his most popular songs are “Sob loke koy lalon ki jat songsare, khachar bhitor auchin pakhi, jat gelo jat gelo bole, dekhna mon jhokmariay duniyadari, paare loye jao amay, milon hobe koto dine, aar amare marishne maa, tin pagoler holo mela” etc.They are classified into three i.e. Self-truth, Body-truth & Spiritual truth. He was observant of the social conditions around, and this reflects through his songs, which spoke of day to day problems, in his simple yet deeply moving language. It is said that he had composed about 10,000 songs of which 2000-3000 can be tracked down today while others are lost in time and hearts of his numerous followers. Most of his followers were unlettered and so unluckily for the lovers of Baul, very few of his songs are found in written form. Lalon first appeared to the literate elites of the then Bengal through Rabindranath Tagore. He first studied him (Lalon), collected some of his songs and published in a booklet and followed his melody styles in his (Tagore) lyrics. Then people came to know Lalon. However, up till now 430 songs have been collected so far. Prof Abu Rushd translated some of the songs into English.
Lalon had no formal education as such but his songs can educate the most educated minds throughout the world. Long before free thinkers around the globe started thinking of a classless society, Lalon had already composed around 1000 songs on that theme.
8. Philosophy. Lalon left no trace of his birth or his ‘origin’ and remained silent about his past, fearing that he would be cast into class, caste or communal identities by a fragmented and hierarchical society. Despite this silence on his origins, communal appropriation of this great politico-philosophical figure has created a controversy regarding whether he is Muslim or a Hindu — a sufi or a follower bhakti tradition—a baul or a fakir, etc. He is none, as he always strove to go beyond all politics of identities. Lalon sang, “People ask if Lalon Fakir is a Hindu or a Mussalman. Lalon says he himself doesn’t know who he is.” The songs of Lalon give subliminal exposures to the reality that lies beyond our material realism. They give a feel of the indescribable. To an engrossed listener, his songs briefly open and close a narrow passage to peep through to the other world beyond the opaque glass ceiling of this world.
9. School of Thought. Lalon sublimates the findings of the principal schools of his time:
a. The Nadia School initiated by ‘tin pagol’, implying Adaitacharya, Nityanando and Chaitanya. This school is different from the Achinta-vedavedbad of Lord Chaitanya (the antonymous realism of individual soul and Super soul, both of which eternally coexist) developed during the post-Nadiya phase of Sri Chaitanya. This latter phase has given birth to Vaishavism. Nadiya’s movement is historically related to Vrindabon, but is two distinct schools. Fakir Lalon Shah did not approve the re-appropriation of the popular political movement initiated by Chaitanya against caste, class and patriarchy by the upper caste elite during his time, and ultimately manifesting the decadence of the great bhokti movement of Bengal. He always insisted on the ‘Nadiya’s discourse — the philosophy of Nadiya’s porimondol (great popular circle of Nadiya.
b. The Nobitattya, another major influence of Lalon on Islam. He approached and appropriated Islam from his Nadiya perspective providing fascinating interpretation of prophets and prophet hood. These are done without forgetting his premises such as Jain, Buddhists and Shankhya (enumeration) philosophy. It was both a critique and appropriation. This phase of his discourse is generally known as ‘Nobitattya’ (the philosophy of wisdom).
10. Legacy. Lalon’s philosophical expression was based in songs and musical compositions using instruments that could be made by any available rural household materials: an ektara (one-string musical instrument) and a dugi (hand drum). The text of the songs was explicitly included the philosophical discourses of Bangladesh (the greater Bengal) continuing since Tantric traditions of the subcontinent, particularly Nepal, Bengal and the Gangetic plains. In Lalon critically re-appropriated the various philosophical positions emanating from the legacies of Hindu, Jaina, Buddha and Islamic traditions, developing them into a coherent discourse without falling into the mixes of being syncretism. Nevertheless he explicitly claimed his belonging to the great bhab (discourse) of Nadiya — lead by tin pagol (three saints).
Like the Bangal or Bangali (a hybrid nation bearing Australoid, Dravidian, Mongoloid, Aryan, Saka, Hun, Greek and Roman, Afghan, Arab, Turk, Persian, Dutch, French, English etc. genetic endowment), their language, literature, culture, tradition and civilization (a mixture of variety of elements) Lalon’s philosophy also bear the same hybrid heritage.
In 1963, a mausoleum and a research centre were built at the site of his shrine, the place of knowledge-practices. Thousands of people come to the shrine known in Bangla as Akhra twice a year, Dol-Purnima, in the month of Falgun (February to March) and in October, on the occasion of the anniversary of his death. During these three-day song melas, people, particularly fakirs (Muslim devotees) and bauls (section of Hindu believers) pay tribute to Lalon.
Among the modern singers, Farida Parvin has recorded over 300 songs composed by Lalon Shah. Another notable exponent of Baul music is Shehnaz Baily, whose recorded works are rare but available in Bangladesh.
11. Last days & the Last song. The worshiper Lalon is known by his songs. His metaphysical thoughts were expressed by songs only. His songs also reveal the humanity & self-understanding of mankind. He was always surrounded by his pupils and disciples, from the day he settled the Akhra at Cheuria until he died. A few days before his death, he had been very ill. The first part of the night just before the point of his death he sung his last song for The Supreme Spirit.
“O, the kind, dear of mine,
Take me from here to thine
Pardon me for my sin
In this, worldly confinement.”
At dawn, 5 o’clock he said to the disciples, “I’m going!” It was friday the 16th of October 1890 he breathed his last at his Akhra, in Cheuria. He was alive for 116 years. Lalon Shah, as per his desire, was laid to rest in Cheuria.
12.Mens’ Fate. Isn’t it true that men have reached the moon? And isn’t it true that they haven’t reached each other? We’ve explored, discovered and invented the earth, the ocean, the sky and the space. The world is now within our fist. But yet we do not know our nearest neighbors. The result is that the mankind is divided and classed by different colors, races, creeds, tribes, religions, sects, castes etc. So, we divide and rule each other, exploit each other, hurt each other & above all kill each other. And ultimately we are going to ruin our sweet home, this small beautiful planet.
13. Lalon’s Professing. Fakir Lalon, the unlettered but nature-nurtured and self-educated saint felt this fact profoundly about 200 years ago. And he repented deeply for such fate of the mankind and expressed it in his songs & melodies. People call him mystic and metaphysical saint. But I believe him to have been a simple realistic man who had passionate love for mankind. So, he preferred to help and make them aware and conscious of their destiny. Almost all his songs reveal this fact. The following one is an example.
My Neighbor Whom I’vn’t Seen
I’vn’t seen him even for a single day!
In Arshinagar near my home
There lives a neighbor,
A group of neighbors, whom
I’vn’t seen even for a single day!
The village is surrounded by deep water;
Neither shore nor side;
Neither boat nor vessel
I expect I would see him!
But how can I go there!
I’vn’t seen him even for a single day!
What can I say about my neighbor?
Who has neither the limb, nor the face
At one moment he floats on space,
At another moment on water.
I’vn’t seen him even for a single day!
Had the neighbor ever touched me
My grim afflictions would go away!
Lalon & he lives in the same place
But the rift is deep and far away!
I’vn’t seen him even for single day.