It is said that a Baul is a mystic who is guided by his guru to seek divinity in human beings. The guru is like his guardian angel, and music is his way of giving him guidance. It broadens his mind and illuminates his horizon. And as he masters the language of the body, slowly but assuredly, intractable mysteries that surround life and the universe begin to unfurl before his eyes.

Baul music is, thus, a music employed to probe the inherent divinity of the body, search within the self for meaning, and discover moner manush (The Man of My Heart) “in the deep, lonely path.” But it is also one of awakening for the underclass, of resistance, of class consciousness, and a pursuit of life that is pure and beautiful.

At the heart of the Baul tradition is a seamless blend of these mystical and secular elements. Lalon Shah (1774-1890), who died this month 128 years ago, was a living embodiment of this school of thought who yearned for spiritual enlightenment, but also rejected blind faith and celebrated the liberating power of reason. In that sense, he was both a mystic and a revolutionary— and it is only through navigating the nuances of this connection does his philosophy truly begin to make sense.

It goes without saying that Lalon Shah was the greatest of all Bauls; the Baul ideology found its most mature expression in his work. His extraordinary musical talent and philosophical theories that underpinned his music were behind a distinct gharana of which he was the founder. It should be noted that he was also the man who made Baul music accessible, and acceptable, to the educated class.

Lalon’s music, among other themes, revolves around self-examination, tantric meditation, guru bhakti (devotion to guru) and humanism. The human body occupies a central place in the Baul ideology. Lalon has variously described the human body in his music—as “abode”, “cage”, “boat”, “Arshi-nagar”. The body is a temple, a vessel for the soul and ultimately the supreme being.

It assumes greater significance in that way and exploring the innermost essence of one’s being and thereby determining one’s true place in life can lead to the discovery of moner manush—that ultimate prize that a Baul spends his life seeking. “Who dwells in this abode of mine / Alas, never saw Him for once in my life,” Lalon laments. This quest or longing for oneness with the divine runs through many of his lyrics also.

Another central theme in Lalon’s music is devotion to the guru, who initiates the disciple into the Baul tradition and guides him on the path to divinity. In fact, the Baul philosophy is rooted in the guru-shishya tradition. “Lalon deeply believed in guruism,” or the guru-centred learning approach, according to an article by the Hitkari magazine, published by writer Mir Mosharraf Hossain, on 31 October 1890.

Lalon lived a long life, having devoted most of it to writing music. The exact number of his songs remains unknown. Experts say it could be over a thousand, although the number of songs known to have survived the onslaught of time would not be more than 700. Lalon was illiterate in the traditional sense of the word. He had no formal schooling. But he was a self-taught thinker, for whom life itself was ground zero for his profound imagination, as his preternatural gift for music spilt unbidden out of his lips.

Lalon freed Baul music from its archaic mode of thought, narrow thematic range, uninspired symbolism and insipid lyrics. For this, he was recognised even during his lifetime, by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, and afterwards by many others in different countries. It was an extraordinary feat for an illiterate rural poet-musician but he did that in his own right, thanks to his rich compositions and the transcendental quality of his music.

As a musician, Lalon was candid and unpretentious. He stepped outside the realm of conventional Baul music to incorporate non-mystical themes steeped in social messages, including religious bias, communal hatred, caste system, class divides, social injustices, inequality and so on. For his music, he drew inspiration from his own life. In a way, it was a response to the events and customs that shaped him as a person.

Early in his life, Lalon was cast out from his society because of his association with a Muslim family; he also had to go through the agonising pain of being separated from his mother and wife. His first-hand experience of the impacts of the caste system led him to probe the moral nullity of the practice and other such practices that plagued the society of his time. He lived his word and inspired generations to follow suit.

It’s important to note Lalon’s role in the fight against the class and communal divides and the caste system. Some have called it historic, drawing comparisons to the role of the 19th-century reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy. In this regard, writer Annada Shankar Ray said: “Lalon’s role in influencing people’s perceptions is as important as that of Ram Mohan Roy’s in the reawakening of Bengal.” Historian Amalendu De also acknowledged the importance of a comparative study of the role of Lalon and Ram Mohan Roy in socio-religious reforms.

A comparative study should provide us with valuable insights into Lalon’s historic role as a reformer and his impact on the society of his time and in the subsequent periods. Lalon’s influence was primarily in the rural communities but many who lived in the towns were also deeply moved. Secular humanism, which underpins Lalon’s philosophy, was also a cornerstone of the reawakening movement; it’s remarkable that such messages should come out of a rural poet with no formal education and a society so deeply divided along religious lines.

Lalon believed in a humanity stripped of the pretence of religion, class division or the promise of an afterlife—beliefs that pervaded his entire gamut of work and shaped his thoughts on the internal (mystical) and external (non-mystical) transformations that he believed human beings were capable of achieving. But this has to be done in this life—for “will there be another life like this? / Do what pleases you in this world soon”—and through searching within ourselves for strength and meaning.

The Daily Star