Fakir Lalon Shah, the most prominent figure in the baul tradition, is unique as he blended different traditions of devotional rites such as Shahajia of Buddhism, Shahajia of Vaishnavism, Sufism of Islam and several other traditional beliefs, raising some universal questions through simple craftsmanship. Lalon songs have attracted widespread attention for their mystical approach to humanism as well as their melodious tunes. But even after 119 years of the death of Fakir Lalon Shah, we are yet to preserve all of his songs appropriately, though the government, corporate, NGOs and many individuals have been taking initiatives since the 1960s. Most of these programmes have been little more than ‘eye wash’ attempts to preserve something so rare and precious and in many cases have sparked controversy. Although it’s true that many high quality interpretations on Lalon’s philosophy are available, not many authentic works on Lalon’s biography and works exist. – Ershad Kamol
A common problem that arises during the documentation of any orally transmitted art form from the primary source is that nobody can claim his or her work to be absolutely authentic, since words change when it is transmitted from one singer to another. Lalongeeti is no exception to the trend. Lalon did not know how to write. According to his followers, Fakir Maniruddin Shah, a direct disciple of Lalon, used to note down the verses. Over the years, most of Fakir Maniruddin Shah’s manuscripts are now untraceable. Even the followers of Ohedaniat cult, the religious doctrine introduced by Lalon glorifying humanism, do not have all the manuscripts. As a result, for decades these verses have been orally transforming from bauls to bauls. Inevitably the lyrics have been modified.
According to the experts and true bearers of Lalon’s spirit, Lalon composed about two thousands verses. However, many rural bauls claim that Lalon composed over 10,000 songs. The problem is that after so many years of Lalon’s death many pseudo Bauls have labelled songs composed by other baul gurus as Lalon’s. For example, many songs composed by Gopal Shah, Adam Chan, the followers of Sati Mayer Ghar, have been later claimed as Lalon’s.
Moreover, compositions of less popular bards have been labelled as Lalon’s. For example, Sharat Baul’s song titled Chander gaye chand legechhe and Mukundu Das’ ‘Bolo ki shondhaney jai shekhaney’ have been rendered as Lalongeeti by both urban and rural singers. ‘Tin gorbhe achhe re ek chhele’ is another song that is also rendered as Lalongeeti, but the philosophy uttered in the song is not Lalon’s. It’s a pure Vaisnavism based song however Lalon was not truly a Vaishnav neither was he pure Sufi.
Lalon’s shrine draws devotees from all over the country.
“When Lalon became a brand name, alarmingly, many rural Bauls deliberately or unwittingly have blended the genres of baul tradition. Documentation from these sources can easily misguide people,” says Lalon expert and researcher Dr Abul Ahsan Chowdhury, “Many songs that conclude with words ‘Lalon boley’ are not really composed by Lalon Shah. The diction and philosophy delivered in these songs are totally different from the authentic verses by Lalon. Many Bauls have added ‘Lalon boley’ in their own compositions to popularise the songs, a phenomenon that made the documentation of authentic Lalon songs more difficult.
“Except a few seasoned Fakirs, nobody even knows the name of the composers or the songs of the other guru traditions. The practice of blending of genres of different schools of baul tradition and cheating with the brand name of Lalon at the grassroots level have created major obstacles in the course of preserving Lalongeeti authentically.”
All of the Lalon experts in the country agree that only 298 songs published by Rabindranath Tagore in the monthly ‘Prabashi’ from Kolkata are absolutely authentic. Tagore did the documentation in late 19th century inspired by Lalon’s direct disciple Kangal Harinath Majumdar, when Lalon was alive. “It’s an absolutely authentic documentation. I’ve also seen the photograph of Lalon meeting Rabindranath,” says Anwarul Karim, a former treasurer of Kushtia University who did a PhD on Lalon’s philosophy and went to a scholarship programme at Harvard University on Lalon.
“Satinath Jha’s documentation of over 300 songs are also authentic, since he did it from the manuscript noted by Maniruddin Shain. Analysing the craftsmanship and philosophy of Jha’s documentation, one can come to the conclusion that these songs are also authentic,” claims Professor Mridul Kanti Chakraborti, a teacher of Department of Theatre and Music of Dhaka University, “The rest of the documentation is based on the rendition of Lalon devotees, even the popular documentations such as ‘Banglar Baul’ by Upendranath Bhattacharjee and ‘Haramoni’ by Monsur Uddin are not beyond any question.”
Khadem and other Lalon devotees pay respect to their Lord Lalon each evening.
Other experts who have been working on Lalon have raised questions on the authenticity of many popular documentation. Lalon’s verses are in couplets, however, in some lyrics documented in popular records such as Haramoni do not follow the trend. “It indicates that the lyrics included in the documentation are not authentic,” says popular baul singer Kiron Chandra Roy, who was the former cultural director of Lalon Parishod.
“Sometimes even the researchers have distorted Lalon’s lyrics using homophones without analysing the meaning,” says Kiron, “We have found such problems in documentation of Lalon’s songs such as ‘Ke tomare e besh bhushan porailo bolo shuni’ and ‘Onek bhaggyer phole’. And sometimes they have used standard Bangla instead of dialect. For example, the Lalon devotees render ‘Chiro din ichha moner hal dimaye ghash khaba’, while many urban singers render the same song ‘Chiro din ichha moner hal dingaye ghash khaba’. Intentionally the dialect dimaye has been replaced by dingaye. It cannot be any authentic documentation.”
Many scholars have added new words and many have written verses following Lalon’s style and claimed them as Lalon’s. Moreover, a few have written Lalon’s biographies with several contradictions. The controversies on the opinion on Lalon by the ‘experts’ have made even the scholars confused. Professor Sirajul Islam, chairman of Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, says, “We have noticed that one Lalon exponent’s research varies from the other, however, everyone claims his work as the ‘most authentic’ one.”
In case of music and presentation of Lalongeeti the contradictions are even more obvious. Three types of tunes of Lalon songs are familiar in the country: Akhrai tradition, blending of Akhrai tradition and classical music and fusion of western music with Akhrai tradition. The followers of akhrai tradition are accusing urban singers who render Lalongeeti based on raga for distorting the authentic tune of the music genre. The urban singers, on the other hand, are claiming that they present the songs in a more sophisticated form than the ‘fakirs’ at akhras. A few researchers have instigated this debate by raising the question on the types of instruments to be used during the presentation of songs.
Fakir Anwar Hossain, known as Mantu Shah, a cult leader who is also the convenor of Lalon Mazaar O Shebashadan Rakkha Committee, is leading a legal fight against the government to ensure the ownership of Lalon’s shrine.
According to the experts, Lalon’s direct disciple Fakir Manik Shah first attempted to give tune to the verses, which the followers of the cult call Kalams. At that stage verses were considered simply as the manifestation of discourse of Ohedaniat. 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.
Like the other folk tradition, Lalon music has also modified at the grassroots level depending on the style of the singers and the using of instruments. As a result, tunes vary from singer to singer in case of orally practiced akhrai tradition. “I’ve noticed that the same song presented by bauls in Kushtia differs from that of Birbhums due to the use of different rhythm and tempo. To me it happens due to the use of different instruments by the singers from different localities,” says Professor Mridul Kanti Chakroborti.
“In the case of tune we can take Lalon’s devotee Khodaboksho Shain and Moksed Ali Shain as standard. Initiated by Bangladesh Shilapakala Academy, in 1984 musicologist Shudhin Das had done the staff notation of 50 songs taking rendition of Khodaboksho Shain as the standard. I’ve also done staff notation of additional 37 songs based on the rendition of the same exponent. Apart from that no standard works have been done so far.”
Pointing out the difference between the presentation of those Lalon exponents and popular contemporary Lalon, Professor Charaborti says that even the tune of the songs rendered by Khoda Baksha is different from that of songs rendered by many rural Bauls as well as Lalon singers, who render for metro audience like Farida Parveen, Kiron Chandra Roy and others.
Fakir Abdul Karim Shah, one of the very few Lalon singers who are still following the authentic tune. He was a trainer of Lalon Mentor Fellowship programme.
Initially Farida Parveen became popular across the country rendering songs in following Moksed Ali Shain’s akhrai style, however, these days she has modified her presentation style. She is not the only one, rather most urban Lalon singers perform Lalongeeti based on classical music for a more polished presentation. Usually they render songs based on Bhairabi raga. Farida Parveen claims that her presentation style is different from that of the Bauls at Lalon’s akhra. She says, “Fakirs at the akhra sing Lalon songs in their own style. My emphasis is on the classical aspect to give it a more polished form.”
But she is quite critical of Lalongeeti adaptations in band music. According to Farida such fusion music is just creating confusion. Lalon researchers on the other hand, have challenged the use of classical instruments such as banshi and harmonium with Lalongeeti. Ektara, dotara, baya and khamak are instruments used by the Lalon exponents like Khodaboksho Shain, Moksed Ali Shain and others. They advocate that Lalon songs should be rendered only following their style.
The ongoing problem has its roots from the beginning of the Pakistani period when some people 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 closest associates. Rather, in many verses he took a stance against any form of organised religion except humanism and introduced a new cult called Ohedaniat. Moreover, some scholars at this period distorted Lalon’s verses to label him as belonging to chishtia tariquah. 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 many contradictions.
In case of Lalon’s biography everybody writes that Lalon was born in 1774. However, the experts and followers of Ohedaniat claim that Lalon never disclosed his birth story to anybody. Lalon’s biography starts with someone finding him as a young boy suffering from small pox and abandoned by the River Kaliganga. Other stories on his boyhood before that incident are imaginary.
However, instead of initiating researches to give a solution to these unsolved questions as well as preservation of authentic lyrics and tunes of Lalongeeti, only some insincere initiatives with the goal of making profit have been taken so far.
Lalon Loko Shahitya Kendra was founded in 1963 by the government for authentic preservation of Lalon songs, music and doing research on the legend. But, the Kendra ran years without any fund. Later, the government again formed Lalon Academy in 1978 with the same intention, and the fate of the government agency was same. Subsequently the Ministry of Cultural Affairs spending Taka 4.49 crore established Lalon Academy Complex at the Lalon’s Shrine, despite the protest of cultural activists, since the building structure has distorted the ambience of the shrine. Earlier Lalon’s shrine was replete with a lot of greenery in keeping with Lalon’s intense association with nature. This ambience was ideal for the Lalon devotees. After the inception of Lalon Academy Complex, the place is now filled with concrete constructions.
The government institute, under Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, is doing nothing exclusive as per its mandate, rather creating opportunity for many to earn money selling the brand name of Lalon and kicking out the Lalon devotees from the shrine. As no recruitment has been carried out for Lalon Academy Complex, an ad hoc committee runs the academy complex. The main source of income selling the brand name of Lalon by the ad hoc committee members and influential locals is the donation from the visitors at the shrine as well as the fixed fund of the shrine.
The committee members of the complex even deprive the Fakirs who render songs for the ‘amusement’ of the visitors. They get only 80 taka for any performances, although the visitors often pay handsomely upto thousands of taka to the committee members of Lalon Academy Complex.
Tagore documented Lalon’s verses in monthly Probashi published from Kolkata.
Bauls these days perform in the concrete room of Lalon Academy Complex, however, they used to render songs in the midst of nature.
The followers of Ohedaniat cult has been protesting the activities of Lalon Academy Complex. Fakir Anwar Hossain, known as Mantu Shah, a cult leader who is also the convenor of Lalon Mazaar O Shebashadan Rakkha Committee, says, “We are not allowed to visit the shrine of our Guru Lalon Shah, as some infamous influential locals have barred it.”
“Bangladesh Supreme Court issued an order declaring Lalon’s shrine as fakirs’ property, as the fakirs have been taking care of Lalon’s shrine since 1890. However, the syndicate of the influential locals belonging to two major political parties, in the name of ad hoc committee of Lalon Academy Complex, have been violating the Supreme Court’s verdict of continuing its illegal business,” adds Mantu Shah.
Experts and Lalon devotees are questioning the authenticity of many popular documentations on Lalon songs
Development partners, NGOs and corporate companies have been showing a huge amount of interest to initiate programmes on Lalon, after Unesco proclaimed the traditional Baul songs of Bangladesh as one of the 43 masterpieces of oral and intangible world heritage. In the last few years a huge amount of money has been spent in the name of preservation and documentation of Lalon songs.
However, the experts and Lalon devotees see it as nothing but a waste of money. “These days Lalon and his works have been used as a ‘business’ by many, who have earned crores of taka in the name of preservation,” says Lalon expert Anwarul Karim, “To earn money selling Lalon’s brand everybody is trying to prove himself or herself as an authority.”
Preventing such cheap profiteering tendency experts and devotees demand initiatives of collecting and proper documentation of all the manuscripts noted down by Fakir Maniruddin Shah. At the same time they suggest initiating programmes immediately to do staff notation and digital documentation from the archive of the transcription service of Bangladesh Betar. Initiated by Shahidul Islam the transcription service in the early 1970s have also done a huge collection of Lalon Songs rendered by the authentic akhra based singers.
The open space near the River Kaliganga where thousands of Lalon followers gather to observe programmes arranged by Lalon Academy Complex on occasion of Lalon’s death anniversary and Dol Purnima
The tombs of Lalon’s direct disciples inside the shrine.
If such initiatives are taken appropriately, it may set some standard on Lalongeeti for the whole nation. But it is always a debatable issue: Can such initiatives stop the blending of genres and styles at the grassroots level? Can it stop cultural diffusion? Many rich countries of the world such as Japan labelling their traditional art forms and artists as ‘living national treasures’ have tried to preserve their national heritage. Can we stop the ongoing evolutionary process of an ancient oral tradition? Set against the backdrop of free market capitalism, is it possible to resist the tendency of making Lalon as a profitable commodity? The success of such programmes is open to question.