• Lalan Fakir •
By Ilina Sen
I WAS vaguely aware of Baul music as I was growing up, hearing it sung by itinerant Baul musicians at homes of relatives, on trains and bus stops as one ventured out of Kolkata during our annual visits to ‘see the family’ in Bengal. However, Lalan Fakir, who is reputed to have fathered the Baul tradition, as well as his music, came alive for me much later, when I developed a more conscious ear for Bangla poetry and music as a young adult visiting the Poush Mela of Santiniketan, and the Kenduli Mela close by, during the beautiful Birbhum winters.
Perhaps it was the slightly offbeat life that I was trying to live, working with people in Chhattisgarh, and my daily learning process of the joys, sorrows and concerns of the lives of ordinary people, that added to the Lalan magic. Certainly the long evenings I spent witnessing the Nawa Anjor cultural troupe rehearsing their play on the life of Veer Narayan Singh, Chhattisgarh’s popular hero of 1857, helped to heighten my appreciation for the music and the lyrics that the Bauls sang. However, with time and age I realised that Lalan’s lyrics had shades upon shades of meaning, and that they offered a rich and incremental reference point in one’s own journey of understanding life and society.
To illustrate, l want to share my journey with the lyrics of one of Lalan’s best known songs, Shob loke koy Lalan ke jaat sansare. This song made a huge impression on me when I first heard it one night in a Baul akhra at the Kenduli Mela. As I figured it, Lalan was making a statement denouncing differences of caste and creed and asserting the basic unity of the human experience. I compared this somewhere with a truism of Chhattisgarh’s mineworkers’ movement that was spelled out by Shankar Guha Niyogi — that there were only two gotiyars (communities) among people, the Baghwa gotiyar, and the Mankhe gotiyar. Roughly translated this meant that people were divided only into two groups, one which consisted of the man-eaters (read exploiters), and one that believed in living as humans, with humanity. Years later, when I had travelled some way in figuring out that religious and social structures were inherently patriarchal and built on the premise of marginalising women, the lyrics made this clear to me in Lalan’s inimitable style. Consider these lines:
Sunnat dile hoy musalman,
Nari jatir ki ba bidhan
Bamun chini paitar proman
Bamni chinbi kemone…
A man becomes a confirmed Muslim through the sunnat (circumcision) operation, but what are the rules of confirmation for a (Muslim) woman? A (male) Brahmin can be recognised through his sacred thread; how do we recognise female Brahmins? Lalan’s commitment to gender justice was theoretical as well as practical. Lalan’s Baul followers tried to practise gender equity in their social and religious practice, but as my friend Mimlu Sen has shown in her book Baulsphere, this has not always been easy .
‘Lalan engages with us as far and as long as we are willing to engage with him’
Lalan’s Sufiana lyrics are similarly multi-layered in meaning. Living in 18th century Bengal, standing at the crossroads of Tantrik, Vaishnavite and Islamic cultures, Lalan wrote and sang of an accessible, immediate divinity that was connected to ordinary people. Like Kabir’s at a different time and different place, his life story lays claim to both the Hindu and Muslim traditions. Lalan’s search for the eternal spirit who is also the beloved, takes him to the city of mirrors next to his own, where the neighbour, who eludes contact, lives: Amar Barir pashe arshi nagar, jethay porshi boshot kore, ami ekdin o na delkhilam tare. Sometimes, the beloved is within Lalan himself, speaks to him in voices, but is still unfound after a lifetime’s search. Kotha koy re dekha dai na.. nore chore buker bhitar….tobu khunjle janam bhor mele na.
The mystical Sufi experience is recognisable, and is very close to that of Bulle Shah, and other saints. Yet, at a different level, these songs are about different layers of consciousness within the human mind, and it is possible to interpret these lyrics as locating godliness within the basic human experience, or even as expressions of a schizophrenic mind. It is typical that Lalan leaves the actual interpretation to the listener, and as such engages with us as far and as long as we are willing to engage with him.
Lalan has been a great influence on me in more ways than I can specify. Perhaps, like his poetry, this too will be unravelled in time and space. What I do recognise however, is that Lalan has given me the ability to try to look beyond the obvious, to try to seek meaning and reason in totally nonsensical situations. The beauty of his poetry has kept up my ability to hope in bleak and dark situations.
Professor Ilina Sen is a feminist scholar and human rights activist, who’s worked for many years in Chhattisgarh. Wife of activist Dr Binayak Sen, she’s professor of Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has written two books: A Space within the Struggle: Women’s Participation in People’s Struggles and Sukhvasin: The Migrant Women of Chhattisgarh. She is a life member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties
Photo: Shailendra Pandey