A little about Fakir Lalon Shah
“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 and religion. He himself 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. 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’, a curious 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 is situated 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.
Like latter day Baul Shah Abdul Karim, 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. Lalon composed numerous lyrics, which describe his philosophy. Among his most popular songs are “Sob loke koy lalon ki jat songsare, khanchar 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”.
Lalon’s writings can be classified into three idioms: Self-truth, Body-truth and 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 2,000 to 3,000 can be tracked down today while others are lost in time and hearts of his numerous followers. 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. Among the modern Bangladeshi singers, Farida Parvin has recorded over 300 songs composed by Lalon Shah.
Adapted for the Celebration of British Bangladeshi Culture by Dr Sanawar Choudhury 27 July 2014.