On Lalon & The Lost Lustre of the Bengal Renaissance

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

Bengal Renaissance rejectionists are a dime a dozen, especially in the current "Bengali Intellectual scene". Sunil Gangopadhyay, one of the biggest names in Bengali Literature, published two novels on the topic - সেই সময় (Those Days) and প্রথম আলো (First Light), even winning the coveted Sahitya Akademi award for the former.  But this literary giant, an expert on the topic, himself rejects the very notion of the so-called "Bengal renaissance". "People claim it happened," says an aged Sunil Gangopadhyay on Rituparno Ghosh's talk show, "But actually it never did. A certain time period can only be categorised as 'Renaissance' when all spheres of art are developed simultaneously. Moreover, this sudden wave of development should take everyone along with it. This wasn't the case for Bengal. Rich men and women mostly reaped all the benefits. The Tagores dominated both literary and cultural spheres. The Brahmo Movement was mostly restricted to the rich upper-classes. There was little to no development of art. Even the plays being written by Girish Chandra Ghosh and Amarendranath Dutta were highly derivative and commercial." No one could argue against Mr. Gangopadhyay's statement, and slowly but surely, the numbers of 'Bengal Renaissance Rejectionists' (The B.R.R, if you will) grew. ​ Two of the biggest names to come out of Bengal during this time period are Lalon Fakir and Rabindranath Tagore. While everyone knows Tagore (him being the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize For Literature, besides being championed by none other than W.B. Yeats), few know Lalon Fakir, a baul tales quales non.  Now, Lalon Fakir enjoys a sort of cult following here in Bengal. His songs are played on the radio often, they are covered on youtube by eminent singers, and he is often credited with influencing Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore. Then why is it, that when BBC conducted the polls for Greatest Bengali of All Time, back in 2002, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam bagged the second and third positions respectively, while Lalon came twelfth? The answer simply boils down to the fact that both Rabindranath and Kazi Nazrul Islam enjoyed international fame.  Rabindranath experimented with love, loss and religion through his poetry while Nazrul spoke about the beauty of Bengal. Eminent scholars and patrons of art read their work and they were given room to grow and experiment. Lalon's music, however, was characterized not only by its otherworldliness but also by his financial condition. Lalon sang about his life and as he did not have a huge estate at his disposal his songs often tackled themes of deprivation. In short, his songs did not resemble the kind you'd hear in the durbars of kings and zamindars. Lalon was a mystic minstrel, deriving his power of song from Sufism and Vaishnavism. He celebrated cosmic love and called for religious unity. "How does religion look?   I've never laid eyes on it.   Some wear malas [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,   Some tasbis [Muslim rosaries], and so people say they've got different religions.   But do you bear the sign of your religion   When you come or when you go?" Lalon was not only a Baul but an eminent philosopher. Then why is it that he is hardly known by anyone outside of Bengal? We know about Camus, we know about Satre, we know about Nietzsche, we know about Hegel. We know about Sun Tzu, we know about Confucius, we know about Siddhartha, we know about Rumi. But we do not know about Lalon. Only one sketch of Lalon Fakir exists in the world today - done by none other than Jyotirindranath Tagore. The sketch is not very good, Jyotirindranath himself has made vastly superior sketches. Nonetheless, this is an important sketch - for two reasons:

  1.  It captures the true essence of Lalon Fakir

  2. This sketch generated a little rumour

The first one is self-explanatory. The second one, on the other hand, requires a bit of justification. Rabindranath was heavily influenced by Baul music - so much indeed, that Lalon Fakir's followers claimed that Rabindranath plagiarized his songs. They claimed that Rabindranath borrowed Lalon's book of song and never returned it. They justified this idea of theirs by claiming that since Jyotirindranath knew Lalon, Rabindranath must have known him personally too.  But Lalon Fakir died (at the grand old age of 117 no less) when Rabindranath was just 24. Rabindranath never got to meet Lalon and the rumour remained a rumour and nothing else. This, however, was of little help to Lalon's legacy.  It is true that Tagore was deeply influenced by Baul music and even wrote about it in the book "Religion of Man": "I have mentioned in connection with my personal experience some songs which I had often heard from wandering village singers, belonging to a popular sect of Bengal, called Bauls, who have no images, temples, scriptures, or ceremonials, who declare in their songs the divinity of Man and express for him an intense feeling of love." Rabindranath was notorious for referring to himself as Rabindra Baul and he wrote plays and books about Bauls, and even acted as a blind Baul in one of his plays. He saw Lalon more as a teacher than as a tool for plagiarism. Lalon, in his 117-year long life, composed over 2000 songs but he never wrote them down. The only reason his music is still alive today is that Tagore collected a few of Lalon's songs and published them in an issue of the Prabashi magazine. Tagore knew the importance of Lalon, and it is high time that we do too. Lalon spoke of religious unity and communal harmony at a time when such beliefs were few and far in between. With the steep rise in communal tension, we could all benefit from Lalon's teachings and learn to love one another and see through religious divides.


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