"This is the country where still rise the sounds of azaan/And are heard the recitations of the Gita, the Bible, the Tripitaka and the Ramayani/"- Bhupen Hazarika sang of the glory of Bangladesh's communal harmony in his famous lyrics. That the Durga Puja and the Eid-ul Azha were celebrated simultaneously in peace and quiet has also proved our long-drawn-out religious tolerance. It is an acknowledged fact that amid numerous communal tensions, the secularist culture prevails over communalism in the end. Lalon has been, among others, instrumental in this continued process of secularisation. A champion of secularism in the sense of religious tolerance and communal harmony, he exerts tremendous influence on our men, matters and morals by his hugely popular lyrics.
The star attraction of Lalon's 'Mazaar' at Cheuriya is the holding of the festivals twice a year-once on 'Dol-purnima' in the month of Falgun (February-March) and thence on his death anniversary in October. During the festivals, the Lalon 'akhda' (monastery) is thronged with thousands of 'bauls' and devotees from across the country and beyond. They flock together and observe the festivals amid daylong and nightlong rendering of Lalon songs. That does not necessarily mean that the off-festival times are devoid of the rendition of songs. As a matter of fact, hardly a day passes when the 'bauls', either in twos and threes or in larger numbers do not sit round somewhere at the shrine premises, and go on singing and playing music on the local instruments like 'ektara' (a one-stringed musical instrument) and 'khol' (hand drum). They feel heartened when visitors listen to them with overwhelming fascination. Lately the festivals have assumed huge proportions and are being held amid tight security.
It is learnt from unreliable sources that even Rabindranath Tagore once visited Fakir Lalon Shah at his Cheuriya 'akhda' during his lifetime and was deeply influenced by the mystic 'baul' and his songs, which found expression in his own songs and writings. However, reliable sources say that Rabindranath's elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore, who was also a famous playwright, musician, editor and painter, used to visit Lalon while staying in Kushtia to look after his paternal estate. Jyotirindranath made a quick drawing of him, which still exists as the only portrait of the 'fakir'. Mir Mosharraf Hossain and Kangal Harinath would pay regular visits to Lalon's shrine at Cheuriya. The more the interest in Lalon and his music is increasing, the more the visit to his shrine in Kushtia is increasing. Even many occidental scholars show interest in this grand old man of 'baul' music and his esoteric philosophy, and visit his 'mazaar'. The flow of visitors - the devotees and the common folks - is always there and multiplies during festivals.
I had been a regular visitor to the Lalon's 'mazaar' since the early nineties when I joined the Islamic University as a lecturer in English. Leaving behind the 'sound and fury' of the capital, I took refuge in the cool lap of the town of Kushtia. I heaved a sigh of relief for being 'far from the madding crowd'. Although there was little distraction in this small town, I preferred it primarily because of my fascination for this greatest 'baul' of Bengal. I was one of the regular 'akhda-goers' during the festivals. We used to have bumpy rides on the man-propelled wooden vehicles locally called van. My van-mates and I would sit on the van and swing our heads to the rhythms of the songs either sung by the van-puller or floating up from the 'mazaar' as we approached it. In fact, the whole town assumed a festive mood and a feeling of joy and merriment among the people became evident during the festivals.
Lalon's credos have a direct relevance to our times. His importance as a minstrel can be viewed in the local and global context in the present social and cultural ambience, when the whole human situation is fast deteriorating, hatred rules the roost, and culture suffers at the hands of intolerance, sectarianism, fundamentalism, orthodoxy, and fanaticism. A new generation of scholars, writers, and readers has started appraising Lalon's songs with much interest and greater understanding. The true spirit of the songs can help us stand against the long shadow of ignorance, superstition, and dogmatism and lead people of various creeds, ideas, and dogmas to peace and happiness in this age of social unrest, political hostility, cultural aggression and religious intolerance. The UNESCO has rightly considered our 'baul' songs as one of the 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.'
It is said that Lalon Fakir had composed about ten thousand songs of which only two to three thousands are traceable while others have been consigned to oblivion or are living in the memory of his numerous followers. However, quantity does not matter in regard to Lalon songs. What matters is the quality. The haunting melodies of his songs capture people's hearts and help realise the error of their ways. These are 'our sweetest songs that tell of saddest thought.' From everyone's taste in the country the songs suit almost all tastes around the world.
There are, of course, subtle differences between Lalon songs sung by the genuine 'bauls' of the 'Akhda School', and those sung on stage by the professional singers with orchestra. The differences lie in pronunciation, intonation, articulation and projection of the words and sounds of the song. Playing the 'ektara', the 'bauls' render Lalon songs with spontaneous fluctuations of pitch. The sweet melodies of the songs in tune with the 'ektara' or 'dotara' make us dance with joy. The 'bauls' are musical by nature, and hence their songs make us musical. The beautiful melody and the arcane message of the songs leave us with a sense of ecstatic pleasure. I grab at every opportunity to visit the central p1ace of 'baul' music, and enjoy the amazingly beautiful songs of the fakirs. I am afraid I may sound dogmatic chiefly to the connoisseurs of music, who may disagree with me over my plain views on the aesthetics of the 'baul' songs. Given the hair-splitting judgmental process of song composing and tune setting, they may sure dwarf my emotion as sheer nonsense.
However, I do not much care about it. I know one cannot help it! As one among the teeming Bengali folks, my heart is swayed by the magnificent songs of the 'baul' king. The stunningly beautiful lyrics and melodies like "barir pashe arshinagar" (the glass-town near home) or "jaat gaelo jaat gaelo bole" (saying caste is lost) or "pare loye jaao amaey" (take me to the shore) have been the eternal source of our emotional pleasure. Fatigued and sick of the monotony of the humdrum life and chagrined in the heartless concrete jungle, we may sigh with relief, maybe, momentarily, and feel lost in rapture, if we sit by the shabby and unkempt 'bauls', and listen to their melodies.
Lalon was a staunch advocate of humanism. He placed man at the centre of everything under the sun, underlined their value and agency, and established his doctrine of being golden through worshipping/loving human beings. This may be called applied humanism, a great idea, which has been shared and disseminated by humanists from pre-Socratic Protagoras down to this great Bengali 'baul.' Lalon's philosophy of humanism can heal the wounds of communalism and help create golden people in golden Bangladesh through mutual love and fellow feeling.r
writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]