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Preserving Lalon

Ershad Kamol

Baul songs are the devotional songs of a mendicant folk sect, generally inhabiting the districts of Southwestern belt of Bangladesh-- Kushtia, Meherpur, Chuadanga, Jhenidah, Faridpur, Jessore, and Pabna.

Bauls have ghars (literally, house, lineage) or guru-traditions or schools. These ghars are named after the principal gurus: Fakir Lalon Shah, Fakir Panju Shah, Fakir Delbar Shah and Ujal Choudhury and a special section of the Bauls is known as kartabhaja. The latter follow Vaisnava traditions and are known as Sati Mayer Ghar, which is the oldest one. These ghars have some slight differences in devotional rites and music.

Of these schools, songs composed by Fakir Lalon Shah (1774-1890), and later a few of his followers, are the dominating ones. The rest of the traditions, with the exception of Fakir Panju Shah's traditions, are in danger of extinction as verses of these ghars are passed on orally. Except a few seasoned Fakirs, nobody even knows the name of the composers or the songs of the other guru traditions. As a result many of those songs are claimed by some pseudo Bauls to be composed by Fakir Lalon Shah, who has taken Baul songs to a level where it has been fashionable even in the 'living rooms' of aristocrats.

Some Bauls claim the number of songs composed by Lalon to be up to 10,000 but actually their is just about 2,000

Fakir Lalon Shah's calibre lies in his ability to raise some universal questions in simple craftsmanship. And the verses, which the cult calls as Kalams are the doctrines of the devotional rites of Ohedaniat (the belief that glorifies humanism), which they follow.

According to the experts, Lalon composed about two thousands verses, which were noted down by Fakir Maniruddin Shah, a direct disciple of Fakir Lalon Shah. He was authorised to do manuscripts, which were composed by another disciple Fakir Manik Shah. At that stage verses were considered simply as the manifestation of discourse of Ohedaniat. Subsequently, Fakir Maniruddin Shah, and his disciple, Fakir Khoda Baksh Shah, attempted to put these Kalams into a particular frame of music. Khoda Baksh's disciple, Amulya Shah, was a reputed musicologist who set Baul songs, especially Lalon songs, to music. These songs were further developed by his disciples. Baul songs generally have two tunes, one for the first part of the song and another for the second. Towards the end, part of the second stave is rendered again at a quick tempo. The first and middle staves are very important. The first stave is often called dhuya, mukh or mahada. In songs with a fast tempo, the first stave is repeated after every second stave. Some songs have ascending and descending rhythms, while others are accompanied by dancing, believed to have originated from the rural narratives.

Monohar Shah

Like the other Baul traditions two major aspects in Lalon songs are -- dehotatta (analysis of the form of human body) and longing for maner manush (the ideal being). According to the belief, maner manush guides one to become a perfect human being. Every song may be interpreted in two ways: inner meaning and surface meaning in terms of human love and in terms of divine love. And these verses can be catagorised in five ways: Dehotatta, Nabitatta, Chaitanyatatta, Krishnatatta and social issues. Of these categories only songs on social issues are frequently performed for the urban ear.

Fakir Lalon Shah is unique in that he had blended different traditions of devotional rites such as Shahajia of Buddhism, Shahajia of Vaishnavism, Sufism of Islam and several other traditional beliefs and thereby interpreted dehotatta in his own way. For his followers Lalon in many of his verses on dehotatta has implicitly given guideline on physical analysis to be beyond 'physical state' to the metaphysical. Because of the craftsmanship of these songs common readers cannot unveil the inner meaning, but these songs are the base of secret devotional rites, centring on the belief that the human body is the seat of all truths.

This style is not new. To find its root we have to go back to the era of Charyapada, 8th-12th century Buddhist poems from eastern India which provide early examples of Assamese, Oriya and Bengali languages. In the verses of the Charyapada the poets created an enigma to veneer their secret devotional practices based on sexual free mixing. Shahajia followers believe in the simple way of life to feel the sahaja or innate reality that is present in every animate or inanimate object. The followers of this cult think that a simple, direct way is the best means to experience this feeling. The Sahajiya believe that knowledge is synonymous to worship, and this knowledge resides within the self, not outside it. They believe that this knowledge cannot be acquired through study of books, but only apprehended through the advice of preceptors and the indoctrination of sahajasadhana (worship to be simple). Perhaps that's why Lalon, in his verses suggested to search for a maner manush and who will guide one to be a Shahoj Manush (simple man).

Like the other schools of Bauls, Lalon followers believe that nobody can get peace only in physical love but rather in divine love. They can marry, even have sexual intercourse but are not allowed to give birth to any child, as the cult believes that by giving birth one takes on the burden of 'rebirth', which is something the Lalon followers like to avoid. Taking 'birth' in earth is considered painful by the cult. That's why the Lalon followers take Khelafat (the highest state of knowledge and sacredness; the cult believes that at this stage one is prepared to absorb shain (Lord) in the soul).

Rab Fakir

After gaining Khelafat, men wear white lungis and long white tunics while women wear white saris and are forbidden to bear children, though some may do so before gaining Khelafat. In his verses, Lalon has also pledged his followers to have a better understanding of 'death' and thereby to taste divine love. That's why after gaining Khelafat one is supposed to give up all earthly matters and take white clothing similar to Kafon (burial cloth). And this idea is derived from Sufism (Arabic tasawwuf) a spiritual philosophy of Islam, the essence of which is to establish a direct relationship with Allah by purifying the soul. Whatever its etymology, however, tasawwuf or Sufism essentially means spiritual meditation for the purification of the immortal soul. The purified soul achieves baqabillah (eternal love of God) through fanafillah (absorption in God). Since God is invisible, it is through love alone that a soul can become one with God. According to Sufism, meditation is the tariqah or way to reach God.

The concept of Shain, is derived from Shahajia of Vaisnavism, whose followers believe Chaitanna to be the embodiment of Krishna as svayang bhagavan, the supreme lord, and an androgynous fusion of Radha and Krishna in perpetual union and separation. So completely equated are Chaitanya and Krishna that to worship one is to worship the other. The brilliance of Gauriya theology and the portability of its primary ritual practices - most notably the simple chanting of the name of Krishna in musical kirtana.

But for hundreds of years, the followers of these traditions of Baul schools have interwoven the philosophy and music of the principal gurus. As a result, in these days, questions have been raised regarding the authenticity of lyrics, tune and philosophies delivered in Lalon songs. And several intellectuals have interpreted Lalon's biography and philosophies in different ways, which is confusing for the common people.

Yasin Shah

The ongoing problem is rooted from the beginning of the Pakistani period when some have intentionally distorted Lalon's verses to label him either as a Muslim or a Hindu. However, Lalon did not disclose his religious background even to his close associates. Rather, in many verses he took a stance against any form of religion except humanism. Moreover, some scholars at this period distorted Lalon's verses to label him as belonging to chishtia tariquah, a Muslim cult. They have added new words and many have written verses following Lalon's style and claimed them to be Lalon's. Moreover, a few have written Lalon's biographies with so many contradictions.

Even in the “Lalon Shah” entree of Banglapedia, the National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh, it asserts that Lalon Shah was adopted by Shiraj Shah. In fact, Lalon Shah was adopted by Moulana Malam Shah and Fakirani Motijan, the couple later became his followers. Anybody visiting the shrine of Lalon Shah finds the tomb of Fakirani Motijan besides the tomb of Fakir Lalon Shah. Shiraj Shah was Lalon's mentor.

The alarming factor is that many of the rural Bauls deliberately or unwittingly blended the genres. Documentation from these sources can easily misguide people. Many songs that conclude with term 'Lalon bole' are not essentially composed by Lalon Shah. The diction and philosophy delivered in these songs are totally different from authentic verses by Lalon. Many Bauls have added 'Lalon bole' at the end of their own compositions to popularise the song, which has made the documentation of authentic Lalon songs more difficult.

Moreover, a few of the pseudo Bauls sold verses composed by other Bauls claiming them to be Lalon's. Say for example, many songs composed by Gopal Shah, Adam Chan, the followers of Sati Mayer Ghar, have been later claimed as Lalon's by pseudo Bauls in India. As a result many are giving confusing data on the number of songs composed by Lalon. Some Bauls claim the number to be even up to ten thousand. In fact, according to the Lalon experts as well as devotees the number is not more than two thousand.

The confusion related to Fakir Lalon Shah and his philosophy has been compounded by a few NGOs and government institutions such as Lalon Academy Complex and pseudo intellectuals who are promoting different interpretations of Lalon and organising programmes on Bauls with the primary objective of getting foreign funds.

Nowadays, preservation of the authentic tunes and lyrics of Lalon songs has become a much discussed topic, after Unesco proclaimed the traditional Baul songs of Bangladesh as one of the 43 masterpieces of oral and intangible world heritage. It is imperative that all of the manuscripts of Fakir Maniruddin Shah be collected from personal collections and then preserved. Lalon music experts must be involved to verify the authenticity of the lyrics as well as the tunes of this remarkable mystic.

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