A Baul and his partner, the Baulani, in Kushtia, Bangladesh (photo: Sudipto Chatterjee)
Lalon Shah and the Bauls

The Mystic Minstrels of Bengal

Lalon Shah is the king of Bauls, a unique mystical tradition from the region of Bengal. In Bengali culture Lalon has become an icon of religious tolerance. Hindus depict him as a Hindu and Muslims believe he represents their faith – but he was beyond such notions. By Marian Brehmer

Water is Bengal's foremost element. It traverses through and nourishes the region. It is here in the lands of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, with its capital Kolkata, where the gigantic rivers the Ganges and the Brahmaputra unite.

The division into Bangladesh and West Bengal is only a recent development in history. Bengal used to be a bunch of islands, which merged into a landmass over the course of time. The area is a melting pot of different cultures and religions. It is not ethnicity that binds its citizens, but rather the common language Bengali.

"It must be this particularly manifold character of the region that bore a movement such as the Bauls", says Sudipto Chatterjee. The Bauls are the singing minstrels of Bengal – mystics whose traditions are hard to date. Their philosophy is a potpourri of different schools of thought, comprising Sufi, Hindu and Buddhist elements.

Drawing from Hindu and Sufi Muslim culture

Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition. They are a very heterogeneous group, with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They do not follow any institutional religion. Instead, their syncretic tradition is a reaction to all kinds of institutionalized religion. According to Baul belief, which is inspired by Tantra, the divine resides within the female body. It is during menstruation that the divine emanates and becomes manifest in sexual union with the male. This sex has to be free from lust; the Baul practitioner must not experience orgasm.

Portrait of Lalon by Jyotirindranath Tagore (source: Wikipedia)
Man of the heart: Lalon Shah was a saint, mystic, songwriter and social reformer. His songs influenced many poets and social and religious thinkers in East and West. This is the only portrait of Lalon made during Lalon's lifetime

​​Sudipto Chatterjee, scholar of performance studies and a performer himself, has been studying the king of Baul tradition, Lalon Shah (c. 1774–1890), for 15 years. Chatterjee is a Senior Lecturer of Drama at Loughborough University in the UK, and is now conducting research within the programme "Interweaving Performance Cultures" at the Free University of Berlin, Germany.

He encountered Lalon's songs at the early age of six. "The Bauls used to walk past our house in Kolkata and sing their songs. I sat at the window and tried to sing along," says Chatterjee. What were they singing about, he wondered, and what was the meaning of these mysterious texts full of symbols and metaphors?

Only later, as a student in New York, did Sudipto Chatterjee redevote himself to Lalon Shah and began studying his work. At that time he hit on the idea of a theatre performance dedicated to Lalon. From 1997, Chatterjee regularly travelled to Bangladesh to work on a play about Lalon with his colleague, a theatre director from Kolkata, Suman Mukherjee. The project premiered in Berkeley, California, in 2004.

A man aged 116?

Lalon Shah is said to have been 116 years when he died. "To us this seems unbelievable, but among the Bauls I met men who are older than we would actually consider possible," says Chatterjee.

Lalon lived and worked in Kushtia, a town in today's western Bangladesh. Little is known about the mystic's life. About 1,000 of his songs have been passed on, and about 600 of these written down by his disciples. The Baul repertoire exists mainly within the oral tradition. "The songs are not meant to be written down, but can only be understood by means of performance," says Chatterjee, who believes that this is the only way to allow all the facets of the music to unfold.

It was no less a figure than the Bengali Nobel laureate in literature and perhaps India's greatest ever author Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who was touched by Lalon's songs and spread his fame within and beyond India.

Lalon's songs are often about God and the quest for truth. Sometimes a song starts with a reference to a Hindu deity or to the prophet Mohammed. But this picture dissolves as the stanzas progress. Lalon criticizes blind faith and the quarrelling between religions. He himself did not belong to any faith group. "As he takes up and accepts the traditions of different religions, he denies them at the same time," says Chatterjee.

Lalon believed that the divine lives within the human being. Thus, there is no need for a temple or a mosque – the body is both the temple and the mosque.

Beyond identity

In times where narrowly defined identities have gained in importance, a figure such as Lalon is often misunderstood. Hindus depict him as a Hindu and Muslims believe he represents their faith. Both groups point to relevant lines in Lalon's songs but do not understand that he was beyond such notions. To them, the Bauls are equal to heretics who need to be proselytized.

Sudipto Chatterjee (photo: Sudipto Chatterjee)
Paradox dialectic: Lalon Shah took up and accepted the traditions of different religions – thereby denying them at the same time, says Sudipto Chatterjee, Lalon Shah expert, performer and scholar of performance studies

​​A few years ago a group of Bauls in Kushtia were held up by a group of orthodox Muslims, dragged into a mosque and forced to shave their heads and facial hair. They were made to acknowledge their guilt and vow to follow Islam. There is also a tug of war over Lalon on a state level. Both India and Bangladesh have published stamps with Lalon's picture and claim the poet as their own to serve their respective national interests.

Lalon's songs also deal with politics and express criticism of social conditions. One song is about the pirates "who have come and looted everything in the village" – an allusion to exploitation by the British, but also a coded reference to the enemies within oneself. In another song, Lalon sings of a time when "the blind will lead the blind and the mute will talk loudly".

Almost prophetic, Lalon and his messages of dialogue are timelier than ever, says Chatterjee. In July he and an ensemble of Bengali musicians performed Lalon's songs in the Germany's capital, Berlin. The audience response was thoroughly positive. "Lalon's words are up-to-date, universal and can be understood everywhere," says Chatterjee.

"It is not my intention to play Lalon's biography or even to represent Lalon himself. It is his songs and philosophy that should come to life on stage," says the Professor. His passion for Lalon goes much further than academic interest. "Sometimes," he adds, "I also entertain the idea of dedicating myself to the mystic tradition." After all, every man can become a Baul.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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