It was a time when the freedom movement against the British rule was gaining momentum. Bengal , the place through which the British East India Company made its inroads in the country, was still the centre of national politics.
Calcutta, the cultural capital of the country, was back then the national capital of India (Brit capital for 150 years until 1911)and the Bengal province was an undivided (division took place in 1905) mass of land that subsumed areas of the present-day Bihar, Odisha and Assam.
It was during this time that the great Baul poet-cum-singer Lalon Shah (1774-1890) made his mark in the world through is simple-yet-deep ballad-like compositions. Born in what was known to be the Nadia province in the undivided Bengal, the region was known for its cultural eclecticism that banked on multiple sources including the Vaishnava, Shakti, Buddhist and Sufi traditions, among others.
Lalon’s songs likewise reflected the borrowings from these diverse cultural sources. Being part of an oral tradition that believed in the guru-shishya system for indoctrination, none of Lalon’s compositions were compiled in a book-form when he was alive.
It was Rabindranath Tagore, who picked up a manuscript-a collection of over 200 songs of the poet- from his Akhda or Akhera in Chheunriya - and published a compilation of 20 songs later. This was how Lalon entered the imaginations of the educated middle-class in and beyond Calcutta.
In the compiled series of the Hilbert Lectures that was published in 1930, Tagore was quoted as saying: “That is why, brother, I became a madcap baul, No master I obey, nor injunctions, canons or custom. Now no men-made distinctions have any hold on me, and I revel only in the gladness of my own welling love, In love, there’s no separation, but commingling always. So I rejoice in song and dance with each and all.”
The poet was recounting a tale shared by Professor Krishti Mohan Sen, a fellow-worker of Tagore at the Vishvabharati University in Shantiniketan.
Lalon’s songs not only carried an imprint of the rich and diverse traditions he was exposed to, but they also bore a social relevance in a country where differences in the name of caste, religion and even nationalistic sentiments were at their peak.
‘Jaat gelo jaat gelo bole’ is one the songs he composed wherein he speaks about the existing caste-divide, prevalent within Hindu community in Bengal.
Jaat gelo jaat gelo bole
Eki ajob karkhana
Satto kaaje keona raji
Sob dekhi ta na na na
(Caste no more, Caste no more they say
What a strange manufacturing/concoction is this?
No one is ready for truthful action
That is all I see)
Given that the Baul community itself was constituted by a group of extremely marginalised individuals – major chunk of whom would comprise Dalits, the song is a daring critique of the age-old oppressive practice.
Lalon goes on to say-
Jokon tumi bhobe ele
Tokhon tumi ki jaat chile
Ki jaat hobe jabar kale
Sei kotha keno bolona
(What caste were you in when you came to the world
What caste did you choose in it
What caste will you be when you leave
Think a little on this)
It is no surprise then that Lalon’s compositions that resonated the progressive principles of humanism and egalitarianism made a deep impression on the nobel laureate, who was one of the pioneers of the Bengali renaissance movement. The literary movement was a reflection of the progressive ideals of the new Bengali ‘elite’ who were bred in European values through education.
Turning the clock back to today’s world, Baul songs have now gained international popularity among the youth contemporary artists as well as the classical legends. Indigenous bands such as the Cactus and Bhoomi have used the adage- Lalon says- generously to make the over three-hundred year old tradition relevant in the contemporary era.
The tradition that was once kind-of-a-counter-culture constituted by the most marginalised sections in Bengal is now a global phenomenon with an array of world-famous Baul singers like Purna Das Baul, Jatin Das baul, Sanatan Das Baul and Bapi Das Baul, among others.
This, however, has its own boons and banes. While the global exposure has, definitely, given the Baul artists their duly deserved recognition, besides being a blessing on the monetary front, many feel that it has also led to an erosion of cultural sensibilities and a dilution of the Baul art/poetry itself.
“Now-a-days anybody can google it up and start singing and composing Baul songs. This is not how the tradition developed. Songs were composed after learning the deep philosophical underpinnings passed down to pupils from their gurus in akheras. They were a reflection of the sampradaya (community); a universal understanding of the world,” says Nitai, who was tutored by his father, grandfather and his guru in the hinterland of Birbhum.
Birbhum, known as the land of the red soil, is considered to be the birthplace of the over three hundred-year-old mystical-cum-devotional tradition called Baul in West Bengal.
Despite such concerns over cultural erosion and the loss of an ancient art, the charm of Lalon’s poetry remains unfazed. Even after over hundred years of the poet-cum-bard’s demise, when violence in the name of religion is becoming more and more visible, his songs continue to challenge the ideologies that fuel and warrant a violent outbreak-
Gopone je beshaar bhaat khaye
Taar jaater ki khoti hoye
Laoon bole jaat kaar koye
Yei bhorom toh gelo na
(One who eats behsyar bhaat in secret
What harm does he/she pose to dharma
Lalon says what is caste
This illusion has not gone yet)