Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lalon Shah the Great Bengali Poet and Folk Singer

'' They are curious to know what Lalon's faith is,
 Lalon says The shape of caste eludes my vision.
Circumcision tells a Muslim from others,
But what is the mark of his woman?
The Brahman is known by his thread,
How do I tell who is a Brahmani? '' -      Lalon Shah

       Fakir Lalon Shah also known as Lalon Shah (c.1774–1890), was a Bengali philosopher, poet, folk singer and humanist. His poetry, articulated in songs, are considered classics of the Bangla language. People call him mystic and metaphysical saint. But he was nothing but 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 melodies, tunes and themes of his Baul songs (one kind of folk song that reflects the fusion of both Hindu bhakti movements as well as the Sufi songs) in Bangla reflect the metaphysical philosophy as well as the natural beauty, social reality and the facts of common people of Bangladesh.

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. Depending on the source, some claim Lalon Shah was born in a noble Hindu (Kayastha) family in the village of Cheuria in the area known as Nodia in the Bengal Presidency of British India, corresponding to the district of Kushtia in present-day Bangladesh in 1774 AD. But the another opinion is that he was born in a respectable Muslim family. 

It is to be said that during a pilgrimage (bath in Ganga) to Murshidabad with other Bauls of his native village, he contracted a virulent type of small pox and was abandoned by his companions in a precarious condition on the banks of the Ganges. By the way a Muslim village woman, Motijan (wife of Malam Shah, a weaver) 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 his community. 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  worldly life forever.

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. Lalon sang, “People ask if Lalon Fakir is a Hindu or a Muslim. Lalon says he himself doesn’t know who he is". Though he obviously knew about his family, his village and his community he nevertheless, revealed his family background or the so called ‘identity’. This act of non-disclosure of his origin that Lalon maintained all of his life is highly political. Living in a society violently divided by caste, hierarchy and communal division, Lalon knew very well that the so-called natural origins or birth histories always create social meaning and produce politics of identities. He was vehemently opposed to caste, all forms of social and economic hierarchies, communal identities or all forms of social difference that might carry slightest potential to breed political division in the society. No wonder, he wrote many songs against caste, family status and hierarchy. He adopted the name ‘Lalon’, acurious choice – it could be a name belonging to any community and could also be a name of a woman.

Lalon does not fit into the construction of the so called 'bauls' or 'fakirs' as a mystical or spiritual types who deny all worldly affairs in desperate search for a mystical ecstasy of the soul. Lalon was a materialist, and he issituated within the tradition of Nityananda. It means that there is no truth outside the material body and separation of the human ‘body’ from its capacity to think is simply wrong or absurd. The ‘body’ is the universe and the universe is the body — it is the first axiomatic principle meaning of Tantra for Lalon. Body as a material being is the way to know the universe. However, within the body of the human being Kam (sexual impulse) and Prem (Love) is mixed together like poison and nectar. It is the task of the wise person to extract the nectar from the poison. One cannot taste love without the material impulse of the body, but love transcends the body – only human being has the capacity to transform ‘kam’ into ‘prem’ – that is love, love for others and that is his point. 

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). 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. Among the modern Bangladeshi singers, Farida Parvin has recorded over 300 songs composed by Lalon Shah. 

Lalon died at the age of 116 years. On the first of the Bengali month Kartik (mid October). The day he was ready to say good bye to his disciples it was a kind of celebration in songs and joy. 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. 

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 profoundly about 200 years ago.

Some remarkable songs of Lalon Shah 

I have not seen her even once 
I have not seen her even once-- 
my neighbor who lives in the city of mirrors near my house. 
Her village is surrounded by deep boundless waters, 
and I have no boat to cross over. 
I long to see her,but how can I reach her village? 
What can I say about my neighbor? 
She has no hands, no feet, no shoulders, no head. 
Sometimes she floats high up in the sky,  
sometimes in the water. 
If my neighbor only touched me, 
she would send the pain of death away. 
She and Lalon are in the same place, 
yet five hundred thousand miles apart.

  The unknown Bird in the cage  
The unknown Bird in the cage... how does it fly in and out? 
Catch it, I would, if I could... 
and put my mind's chains on its feet.
There are eight rooms with nine doors, with latice-work in between. 
On top of that, there' s a central yard and a hall of mirrors. 
The unknown Bird in the cage... how does it fly in and out? 
The Bird wouldn't behave so, had it not been for my ill-luck. 
It has broken through its Cage and flown away somewhere.... 
The unknown Bird in the cage... how does it fly in and out? 
O Mind, you have lived with high hopes, 
but your Cage is made of raw bamboo. 
One day this Cage (too) will fall and break. 
Lalon says, "The door 's ajar, the Bird's flown!" 
The unknown Bird in the cage... how does it fly in and out?

 Everyone wonders, "What's Lalon faith?"  
Everyone wonders, "What's Lalon faith?" 
Lalon says, "I've never ' seen' the face of Faith with these eyes of mine!" 
Circumcision marks a Muslim man, 
what then marks a Muslim woman? 
A Brahmin I recognize by the Holy thread; 
how do I recognize a Brahmin-woman?
Everyone wonders, "What's Lalon faith?" 
Some wear a garland and some the tasbi, 
that's what marks the Faiths apart. 
But what marks them apart when one is born or at the time of death? 
Everyone wonders, "What's Lalon faith?" 
The whole world talks about Faith, everyone displaying their pride! 
Lalon says, "My Faith has capsized in this Market of Desire....
" Everyone wonders, "What's Lalon faith?" 

 His play knows no end  
His play knows no end… 
no telling what shape He'll take, and when… 
How will you understand the Saain's Divine Play? 
Water of the Ganga is called Holy. 
But it's the same water filling The puddle on the road we call dirty! 
That is how the Saain shapes Himself… in size with the vessel He fills! 
How will you understand the Saain's Divine Play? 
He is the room and its occupant, as well as the thief that steals from it! 
He is His own Magistrate, sentencing Himself to chains! 
How will you understand the Saain's Divine Play? 
Eternal streams flow out of the One. 
You and I are nothing in it, nameless. 
Lalon says, "If only I knew 'me,' all riddles would be solved!" 
How will you understand the Saain's Divine Play? 

Who wants to go to the other shore?

Who wants to go to the other shore?
Come aboard the Prophet's boat.
The boat is formed of shapely wood.
There's no chance of it sinking.
Sailors who don't follow Shariat will die in a storm
when the first wave hits.
What can their Badar and Gazi do?
Where will they be then?
Those who don't know the Prophet
are infidels in this world.
Their worship is rejected.
It’s written in black and white.
The murshid himself is the Prophet.
There's no mistake about it.
He is God too.
Lalan didn't make this up.
It says so in the Quran.

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  1. Brilliant. Very informative. I have only just discovered Lalon Shah by chance and think his philosophy and spirituality just what these intolerant times needs. he is indeed a hero of Bangladesh.

    Do you know how I could get hold of more of his song lyrics in English - I'm hooked?

  2. Thank you taxxbiex for visiting my blog.I am also happy to know that you like Lalon Shah. In fact I have posted the song lyrics that I have in my personal collection. If I get more from other sources I will publish it for you.

  3. thank you guys for the information about lalon shah . tomorrow is my examination . i can not find anything from my books or this is
    very important for me,and many many thanks again

  4. thanks for compiling this info about Lalon Shah

  5. Very nice and informative collection I must say. But, May I have the English Transformation of the song JAT GELO JAT GELO BOLE.....Its urgent.

  6. Lalon Shah is my most favorite poet and folk singer. I always do follow his tune when I perform folks songs. He is my inspiration in singing folk songs.