In every house
It perches on the apartment
With a thousand rooms
It’s main room
You cannot know it
When it goes there.
In the middle of a room
Framed by mirrors
The bird sits,
Full of joy
Brother, can’t you see?
You will never catch it
Just by stretching out your hands.
It took sometime by humanity to realize that a man in rural Bengal in eighteenth century was referring consciousness as a bird and the material body as a house with thousand rooms. When asked what his religion was, Lalon sang: They are curious to know what Lalon’s faith is/Says Lalon: The shape of religion eludes my vision./Circumcision tells a Muslim from others/But what is the mark of his woman?/The Brahman is known by his thread/How do I tell who is a Brahmani?
Fakir Lalon Shah was known to be living between 1774 and 1890 in a region of Bengal known as Kusthia, now located in the independent state of Bangladesh. He came to be known as one of the most profound philosopher poet as his poetry, articulated songs and stories are now part of classics of Bengali literature. Bearing a name of a Muslim, Lalon defied politics of identity sitting within a time and culture where such efforts would seem absurd in retrospect. Every year in October, there is a fair for three days to mark his death anniversary where both Fakirs (Muslim devotees) and Bauls (a cult and offshoot from Hindu philosophies) pay tribute to Lalon.
As we go deeper into the life and works of Lalon, whose religious origin is marred with contradictory stories (both Hindus and Muslims have their respective claims) and Lalon himself refusing to be belonging to either, a more radical humanistic position of Lalon emerges.
The spiritual richness of Bengal has a tradition of ‘Bhakti’ (devotion) that flows like life blood into the Muslims (Fakirs of Sufi tradition) and Hindus (Bauls). These traditions go into mystical or spiritual search of eternal soul and this construction is very elite, middle class and premised on the divide between ‘modern’ and ‘spiritual’ world. Most importantly these traditions depoliticize the spiritual movements of Bengal (a Bengali Renaissance, if you like) and seek to place it solely on the pedestal of individual consciousness, even somewhat detached from social realities. Such detached individuality is one strong basis of Bengali Nationalism. Lalon, possibly, did more than defying religious identity and related politics, as is commonly perceived. He sprang from Bengal, spoke the language but his messages were clearly global, so seeing Lalon as a center piece of Bengali Culture may be a mistake.
Farhad Mazhar, a noted poet, philosopher, environmentalist and a front ranking intellectual of Bangladesh observes:
“Bangla was Lalon’s mother tongue, but that was a historical accident, he could have arrived anywhere in the world and could have dwelt in any any language. Lalon is global. He dealt with divine possibility of real human being who could be black, brown, white or yellow. Nationalism, humanism or any messianic teleological notions of human emancipation were never his cup of tea.”
That should stop all religious claims on Lalon. He is far too advanced even in the geo-political divides of the world. Lalon defied ANY identification of a human being other than a connectedness with an ever flowing continuum of consciousness from the ground of love and empathy without ever promising any goal where such flow ends or merge into something divine.
This man lived for over a century and left an ethico-cultural practice of a lifestyle that cannot be more relevant and necessary than now.
Interestingly, in Bangla, ‘Lalon’ means ‘to nurture’. This reading of poetry called ‘After Lalon’ by Allen Ginsberg marks how far his influence could reach.
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