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Friday, April 06, 2007

1. Fakir Lalon Shah

For Bangladesh the year 1991 passed uneventfully in our willful exclusion of an epochal event of historical significance. It was the death centenary of the agnostic sage Fakir Lalon Shah, whose date of birth while a mystery, it is said that at the time of his ‘departure from planet earth’ - he was well over 100 years of age. In as much as proofs of physical dates, place of birth or his ‘religion’ is concerned, Lalon Shah remains enigmatic and many mysteries surrounded him them, as much as they do now.

In Seuria, Kushtia, Bangladesh where Lalon Shah’s body was interned without any religious ceremony, his legacy has been one of diabolical ignorance, a heritage of an insane struggle to assign him either an Islamic identity by hard-line Islamist fanatics, which directly confronted the dominant city bred (then Kolkata in West Bengal – Dhaka having evolved in importance much later) middle-class precepts of the ill defined Hindu Brahminist supremacist ‘secular’ Bengalee culture; matters even till this day remains complicated in the understanding of the great man and his vision. Compounding more into the confusion are recent forays by local NGO’s propelled by donors money to research the great sage, and the Baul way of life.

There were no fewer attempts to make a Hindu or Muslim out of Lalon as he lived and the century since he died. The sage during his lifetime however, steadfastly repudiated any attempts to be branded a ‘follower’ of an organized religion. Thus till this day to his admirers unwilling to infer religiosity on Lalon Shah, he is simply ‘Shai-ji’ and Bauliana is no religion but a quest, in small insignificant ways, perhaps even a permissible way of life. Lalon never believed in looking UP for inspiration, but inspired others to look within. Where he was starkly different is he did not imply that looking within, meant worship or the deification of one man alone – but MAN, any man, or all Mankind - the creation of the omnipotent Maker.

In later days, the ingrained communal hatred espoused by extremists of both end of the spectrum, stirred by no end of senseless debates as to whose “God” is the better or more powerful, made a small yet significant part of the thinking population to move away from the dichotomy of it all, and examine, identify and try to grasp the aspirations of our ancient Baul heritage. The author of this series of essay is one among many. There were valid reasons for these individual quests. The philosophy, poems or reading into the life of Fakir Lalon Shah, a world class sage is yet absent in any Bangladesh educational curriculum, while many banal, under-average personalities have been ‘respectably’ accommodated.

In the absence of detailed accounts, verifiable or reliably published documentation about him or of the times he lived in, and his entirely private, controversial and secretive quest for a union with the Maker of the Universe, that went public with its wide acceptance, it is not surprising that every aspect of his life has been up for scrutiny. The resultant curiosity have led to myths, half-truths and unfortunate fabrications about the message that he wished to convey, is what we are faced with today. Ironically more than his message and its interpretation, the persona of Fakir Lalon Shah have become of sole importance in serious study of Bauliana to many.

However even before we start discussing the Baul’s, a word of caution here: contrary to popular misconceptions, synonymity with Lalon Shah, and inference to him being a Baul ‘guru’ borders on Bengalee middle class fascination for tokenistically tagging philosophical quests of the marginalised, to a particular human ‘avatar’ over a period in time. The truth is Baul’s existed hundreds of years before Lalon Shah not only in Bengal, indeed similar lifestyle and expressions can be identified in other parts of the world. It is a rarely ‘advertised’ global concept of the alternative, and thus appropriate that we have used the term “Bauliana” in context of these essays.

Music was the vehicle of Lalons’ message, and no matter how esoteric the contents were, it never failed to find a ready audience as the natives of Bengal had a natural inclination and talent for the art form. Together, Fakir Lalon Shah was exceptional in that he personified what the Baul’s in the good old days ascribed as a ‘belief system’ and this saw huge numbers flock around in admiration of the great man in him. Lalon also gave a forceful and somewhat militant voice to the Baul struggle, in his poems set to music of the poorest of the poor, something that was sadly lacking at the crossroad of our socio-political-spiritual struggle that started hundreds of years ago. For Baul’s, Fakir Lalon Shah (as is the popular misconception among urban enthusiasts) was never a ‘guru’, for they never needed one for they were not a ‘community’ or clan, nor were they a mutual admiration society. To suggest any of the above makes us question: Why then do Baul’s reject any ‘home’ greater than the body that houses our unanchored and restless souls?

Rejection of the ‘inevitable self’ then, as much as it is today, as an extension to the ‘inquiry of the self’ was never so obvious. Within the prevailing dogma it immediately elevated anybody with a sense of mission and purpose, to a pedestal for worship. Quite on the contrary Lalon Shah worshipped man in manners that did not subscribe to the prevalent ‘hub and spoke’ notion i.e. Man on Earth and his ‘almost humanoid’ resembling Maker, trillions of kilometers up away in some celestial Heaven – where HE apparently resides!

Removed from society, and in grief and tragedies Lalon Shah evolved: his depth came not from wallowing on the periphery of mainstream beliefs, indeed his protracted period of isolation forced upon by the dominant Muslim and Hindu clergy of the day, were harbingers for his immense understanding into the intricacies of life. Passing on his Message to counter social and religious prejudices in the simplest of couplets for the average person to understand was his mission. Life’s complex equations explained in the simplest of term were his forte. It is therefore not unusual that the word ‘Fakir’ precedes his name, a title and a derivative from the Arabic word Fiqh meaning someone who has acquired deep insight and knowledge through practice, patience, inquiry and sacrifice.

1 comment:

maia said...

Dear Mr. Haque:
Since 1997, when I first became aware of Baul philosophy, I knew it was only a matter of time before a website would be published on the subject. I am grateful to you for you clarity and detail. In 1997 I attended Columbia University in New York City and purely out of my own interest searched for any literature on the subject to quench my curiousity, however the only texts were incomplete, inadequate, and full of misunderstandings as well as poor translations. My best regards to you for your work and dedication. One day I hope to learn Bengali which will be a great help in my quest for knowledge, however, your English website has provided much food for the soul.

Maia Grenell