Over a century after his death, the debate rages – Did Lalon Fakir, one of the greatest mystic-singers the Indian subcontinent has ever produced, belong to the Hindu or the Muslim faith? Where was he born? What inspired him? The debate is fierce among his followers, especially in rural Bangladesh, with the Hindus claiming he was one of them, much to the disagreement of the Muslims. The answer lies in his prolific work; and upon closely studying his work, one realizes how by questioning his identity, one violates his teachings.
The details of Lalon Fakir’s birth and early life are vague. What is known is that he was born around 1774 in an obscure village in the district of Kushtia or Jhenaidah, in what is now Bangladesh. The ambiguity in the details is part because of the controversy presented by
scholars representing communal tendencies among Muslim and Hindu writers, and part because of his life-long denial in revealing his social identity. Lalon had no formal education and lived most his life in abject poverty. He grew up to be a prolific songwriter, his songs providing spiritual and social inspiration to the Bengali peasant, his voice, one of the most radical ones in British India.
Lalon’s work celebrates the sovereignty of the body and soul. His songs exemplify the free will of the soul, untainted by religion, caste, colonialism or sectarianism. He is the personification of the Baul, wandering singers of Bengal who draw inspiration from within and the simple yet harsh rural life.
Lalon never revealed his social identity (heritage, religion, caste, etc.). He refused to take part in the politics of identity, which he considered as a root cause of communal conflict and unrest. His view on religion is elegiacally expressed in one of his songs:
Click here to listen to the song, \”Shob loke koi Lalon ki jaat shongsare?\” People ask, what is Lalon’s caste? Lalon says, my eyes fail to detect the signs of caste. Some use the mala and some the tasbih And so they are known to be different When one is born or when one dies What mark does one carry? If circumcision be the mark of a Muslim Then how do you mark a woman? A Brahmin male is known by the thread he wears But how do I identify a female Brahmin? All over the planet, people talk about race But Lalon says: I have only dissolved the raft of signs, the marks of caste in the deluge of the One!Mala: Hindu rosary beads Tasbih: Muslim rosary beads Brahmin: The priestly Hindu caste
In a world of social and religious divisions, Lalon preached that the kingdom of God is within oneself. Lalon’s songs lay in a timeless space, between Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism, a place where human beings and not ideologies meet.
In simple yet deeply moving language, Lalon spoke of the day-to-day problems of society. Lacking a formal education, like everyone in the Baul community, a plethora of his composition was lost. The ones that survived remained in the heart of his followers, who to this day lead their lives on the footsteps of Lalon. Long before philosophers and activists around the world began to think of a society without any classes, Lalon had already composed countless songs on the theme.
Today, many of his followers are ostracized and sometimes tortured because of their progressive views of equality. Their denial of absolute standards of “right and wrong” and their rejection of the material and spiritual divisions within society, has let the globalized society to outcast them. When they sing of Lord Krishna, they are beaten by mullahs; when they sing of Mohammed, they are thrown out of their homes. So much for cultural pluralism and secularism in a country that produced great multicultural giants like Nazrul and Lalon!
Some 130 years have passed since the time when Lalon would freely roam the dusty paths of rural Bengal. A period that has seen independence from the British, the partition of India and the liberation war against Pakistan. A period that has made the people of Bengal question their identity even more. Who is the real Bengali? Is he a Bangladeshi or someone from West Bengal? Is she a Muslim or a Hindu? Does he sing songs of Rabindranath Tagore or those of Nazrul Islam?
If Lalon saw us today, he would laugh. He would then pick up his ektara and carry on the path to the next village – singing songs of unity, songs of freedom.
Listen to my Lalon Fakir Playlist!