Shah Abdul Karim

A little about Baul Shah Abdul Karim


On the month of Falgun in the Bengali year 1322 (1916), Shah Abdul Karim was born into abject poverty, in a village near Sunamganj, Sylhet. He was the only son of a subsistence farmer with five girls and a small plot of land, which was eventually taken away by the landlord as the family could not keep up with the interest payments.

From childhood, he sensed that adulthood would be difficult. There was no means for an education or getting help from anybody – ‘the poor have no relatives’. Baby Karim grew up in the lap of his grandfather. Dada’s love for him and for baul music had a profound impact. Karim’s passion for music grew listening the songs of Hindu, Muslim bauls in his grandfather’s house.

Karim did not get to see his grandfather die. But Dada, on his deathbed, had told his daughter-in-law rather prophetically, that her only son Karim, would one day receive the adoration of good and great people everywhere. Karim spent much of his childhood semi-starved, wondering how he would survive from day to day. He eventually found work as a cow-herd, which occupied him from dawn to dusk, leaving him no choice but to watch other children play, and to work even on Eid day.

Karim got his first break as a young man, when India was still under British rule. The government had opened an adult literacy night school in his locality. Karim had joined enthusiastically and received his first free book which he would read day and night. Empowered with basic literacy, he began to write prolifically and to perform. Baul songs on unconditional love, separation, the indignity of poverty, devotion, the search for meaning and for god, the brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims. The simplicity, depth and honesty of his compositions attracted praise and popularity.

It also attracted the attention of fundamentalists. They attacked him and asked him to promise that he would give up baul songs; Karim refused, saying it is duplicitous to make promises you cannot keep.

Karim’s fame spread quickly and other prominent bauls Durbin Shah, Ukil Munshi, Abdus Sattar, amongst others joined him. With them Karim led the renaissance of baul music across the land. They also developed ‘Maljori Songs’. This format required bauls to construct and recite instant duets debating questions of philosophy, love, sensuality and spirituality. It was poetic jazz and Karim was the master. Karim would later recall this time through his classic song ‘Age ki shundur din kataitham’. It would become a national anthem for reminiscing times gone by.

Despite his genius, Karim remained a deeply humble man. He believed in spiritual guidance and companionship, he searched actively (‘Murshid donohe kemone chinibo thumare’), and eventually found his ‘Murshid’ in Kari M B Munshi, a local mystic Sufi. It was Kari Munshi who would entwine Karim to meeting his future wife, Shorola. The love between Shorola and Karim became legendary. He had become so intensely devoted to her, that when Shorola died, Karim could not let go and so he buried her in a shrine next to his house. Shorola’s death led Karim to write many deeply moving songs in her memory. ‘Keno prithi barailare bhundu’ is perhaps the greatest baul love anthem in Bangladesh today.

Leading up to the birth of Bangladesh, Karim became passionately involved in the struggle for independence. He wrote songs against oppression,the plurality of the Bengali character and for freedom. He was the people’s poet and political leaders adored him. Abdus Samad Azad, Moulana Bashani and even Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, would solicit Karim’s presence at mass gatherings. Sheik Mujib at a gathering in Kagmari commented ‘amra achi Karim bhai achen jekane’. Later, the Bangladesh government would present Karim with its utmost award the ‘Ekushe Padak’ for his contribution to culture and music.

The later years brought no decline to Karim’s phenomenal talent. He wrote some of his best spiritual songs on the futility of the human existence. The words of ‘Ager Bahaduri Akon Gelo Koi’ tells a common truth for all, black or white, rich or poor. In ‘Ami Ki Koribo re prano nath thumi bine’ Karim ends with apologising to his maker and seeks mercy.

Karim died on 12 September 2009. There is little doubt he will remain immortal in Bengali hearts across the world.

Anwar Choudhury, August 2014.