If you go on Wikipedia and look through all the important events in world history on May 5, you won’t find this anecdote – that on that date in 1889, a strange meeting may or may not have taken place between two men in a houseboat on the River Padma, off the shores of Shilaidah in presentday Bangladesh. But in many ways that meeting, if it happened, was a meeting of worlds. One of the men was Jyotirindranath, owner of the houseboat, scion of the illustrious Tagores of Calcutta (who were also the local landlords), artist, playwright, polymath, philosopher, nationalist-entrepreneur, musician, and mentor to his younger brother Rabindranath, whose transcending genius would later obscure his own star. On that day, Jyotirindranath was exactly a day over 40. Although he is now rarely known outside the pale of Bengali nostalgia, at that time he was one of the men who were shaping an emerging national conscience. He was a moulder and a product of history.
The other man in that meeting which may or may not have taken place may or may not have been a staggering 115 years old at the time. He may or may not have been Hindu, or Muslim. He may or may not have been illiterate. His only brush with history would come when he would exit it about a year later, for his death in 1890 is just about the only part of his life to which the archive can lay any claim with certainty. But Phokir Lalon Snaai, which may or may not have been his (un)real name, lived outside of time and history, in a spaceless land of myths and shadow-truths, where stories made with breath and dreams endure, but mere facts are dust and ashes (to paraphrase Neil Gaiman). From that meeting which may or may not have happened, Jyotirindranath would draw a pencil sketch of Lalon, said to be the only true likeness in his entire lifetime. Lalon, for his part, may or may not have sung the following song, one of the 10,000-odd that he allegedly composed:
Baarir pashe arshinagar
Ekghor porshi boshot kore
Aami ekdinona dekhilam tare
(Near my home lies the city of mirrors, where a neighbour dwells. But oh, I have not seen my neighbour even for a day.)
--Arshinagar, the City of Mirrors
Elsewhere, Lalon also speaks of “aayna mohal” – the hall of mirrors. A place where the One Truth is diffracted into a million manifestations, each as real as the ones around it, but ultimately all only reflections. Did Lalon, the man made of many stories, know Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’? But ‘arshinagar’ could also mean the city that lies in the seventh heaven. Perhaps it is the country that Kabir invites us to, when he sings ‘Chalo hamaara des’.
In 2010, filmmaker Gautam Ghosh released Moner Manush (Man of the Heart – a phrase we shall return to later), a biographical film on Lalon, which opens with the same trope as this essay – the meeting between Lalon and Jyotirindranath. In fact, let me admit that I have unabashedly ‘lifted’ the image from the film, because it’s an image I like to dwell on. The boat is almost like a stage, an empty space as Peter Brook would call it, set upon the meta-space of the almost limitless Padma, a river known as ‘the destroyer of human achievement’ – Kirtinasha. Here’s more from the same Lalon song:
Geram bere ogadh paani
O tar nai kinara nai toroni pare
Amar mone boro banchha jaage,
Kamne se gaay jaai re?
(Endless waters surround the village. They have neither shore nor any boats to cross. Oh I wish so much to see his face, but how shall I get across?).
In Ghosh’s film, Lalon’s life story unfolds through what he calls a ‘ballad-structure’ – essentially a series of flashbacks as the two men converse. The Lalon that emerges is one whom many urban intellectuals like to see – a vicious critic of religious strife, one who ridicules division on the basis of jaat, a not-easily-translatable word roughly corresponding to race, religious affiliation, or in the Indian context, perhaps even caste. Ghosh’s Lalon is an almost messianic figure who presides over his ashram, hippie-guru-like in his long-haired, bearded avatar. And indeed, this is one of the many mirror-images of Lalon, the one who sang:
Shob loke koy lalon ki jaat shongshaare
Aar lalon bole jaater ki roop,
Dekhlaam-na ei nojore.
(Everyone asks, ‘What jaat is Lalon in this world?’ And Lalon says, what the shape of jaat is, I have not seen with my eyes).
The jaat he speaks of encompasses and surpasses not only religious identity, but also notions of gender:
Naari jaatir ki hoy bidhaan?
Aami bamun chini poita proman
Bamni chini kishe re?
(If circumcision makes you a mussalmaan, what then is the dictum for women? If Brahmin-ness is proved by the sacred thread, how shall I know a Brahmin woman?)
This is a ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ Lalon that may be useful to many of us, but to posit him only as such would be limiting, just as it is limiting to look at Kabir only as an icon of Hindu-Muslim unity. For their space-less place is also identity-less, and ultimately, even ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ are only markers of identity:
Ki bolbo porshiro kotha?
O taar hosto podo skondho matha naire
Khonek bhashe shunyer upor
Khonek bhashe neel-e
Porshi Jodi amaay chhnuto
Amaar jom-jatona shokol jeto dure,
Se aar lalon ek khaane roy
Lokkho jojon phnaak re.
(What shall I say of my neighbour? Oh he does not have hands, feet, shoulders or head. Now he stays in the empty space above, and now he floats in the blue waters. If he but touched me, I’d lose my fear of death. He and Lalon stay in the same place, yet a million miles away).
In a private conversation, a noted Bengali musician and musicologist asked me, “Who is Lalon? Or was there a Lalon? Why is this man completely undocumented even though he lived in a time of documentation?” Indeed, the ‘facts’ of Lalon’s life, such as they are, are well-known. People say he was born a Hindu, around 1774, went on a pilgrimage in his early-20s where he contracted smallpox and was left for dead, was rescued by a Muslim couple who nursed him back to health, and thence became a disciple of a wandering Fakir, Shiraaj Snaai, in time becoming a master himself and setting up his ashram in Cheuria near Shilaidah, where he lived, and died in 1890 at a staggering 116 years. All of which is fine, except there isn’t a shred of documentary evidence to corroborate any of this. In his lifetime, if he existed at all, Lalon scoffed at any attempt to construct his life story or confine him to the politics of identity. He was a man, that was all. His whole lifetime was an attempt to discover the man inside, the one that defies all categorisation. Allegedly illiterate, he displays in his rustic songs an astonishing familiarity with the subtlest discourses of Hinduism, Sufi Islam and Tantric Buddhism, all of which he amalgamates in the way of the Bauls – dehatatwa – another untranslatable word roughly corresponding to ‘wisdom of the body’. It is a complex creed involving breathing, meditation, discourse, and yes, even sexual practices. But the body for him was a way – shaadhan, to use his term -- towards emptiness. It wouldn’t be surprising if he was conversant with Adi Shankara’s words – “I am not earth, not water, not energy not the wind, not the sky, not the five senses nor their sum total. I am not one nor many, but that which remains when all these are taken away – I am only the inviolate Self.” Was there a Lalon? Or was he just an articulation of our universal yearning , the man who resides inside, the moner manush?
“One access to the creative way consists of discovering in yourself an ancient corporality to which you are bound by a strong ancestral relation. So you are neither in the character nor in the non-character. Starting from details, you can discover in you somebody other -- your grandfather, your mother. A photo, a memory of wrinkles, the distant echo of a colour of the voice enables you to reconstruct a corporality. First, the corporality of somebody known, and then more and more distant, the corporality of the unknown one, the ancestor. Is this corporality literally as it was? Maybe not literally - but yet as it might have been. You can arrive very far back, as if your memory awakens. This is a phenomenon of reminiscence, as if you recall the Performer of primal ritual. Each time I discover something, I have the feeling that it is what I recall. Discoveries are behind us and we must journey back to reach them. With the breakthrough -- as in the return of an exile -- can one touch something which is no longer linked to origins but -- if I dare say -- to the origin?”
These words belong not to Lalon, but to Polish theatre maestro, traveller, seeker and questioner Jerzy Grotowski. Yet here he too becomes Lalon, for what he is speaking of is transmission, of the body as memory, and art as wisdom. These are things Lalon would have known. He bloomed out of an enormously rich counter-culture of Bauls, Phokirs, Dorbeshes and other ‘sacred lunatics’ (to use a Grotowskian term), whose path was the confluence of Chishtiya Sufism, Tantric Buddhism and Vaishnavism. In this immense merging of human spiritual streams, the figure of the Guru was central. If the body is that which we perform, then what you performed was merely what your guru had poured into you, and his Guru before him, reaching back in a continuous line of transmission to what Grotowski calls the Performer of primal ritual, and what the Bauls and Phokirs of Bengal call Moner Manush (the man of the heart), Alekh Snaai (the unseen master), Manuraay (king of the heart) and so on. Grotowski visited India several times, and interacted extensively with Bauls. He spoke of re-evoking “... an ancient form of art where ritual and artistic creation were seamless. Where poetry was song, song was incantation, movement was dance”, perhaps thinking of the path of the Bauls – Shahaj Path (The Simple Path).
Interestingly, the Alekh Snaai that the Phokirs speak of could have a curious etymology, for Alekh may well be derived from the Arabic Alaq – meaning clot but referring to sperm, after a Quranic verse. So the invisible, formless origin merges with the very palpable seed of life. Indeed, sexual practices, perhaps inherited from Tantra, played a central role in the creed that Lalon belonged to. For only in the union of the man and the woman can the formless manifest itself, and thus the quest for emptiness was rooted very much in the corporeal. In a very different vein, Rabindranath Tagore would talk about the union of the body with the formless:
Sheemar majhe ashim tumi
Bajaao apon sur
Amaar majhe tomar prokaash
Taai eto modhur.
(Amidst the finite, you are infinite. You play your own music. That is why your efflorescence in me is so sweet, so beautiful).
Tagore may never have met Lalon, but he definitely heard many of his songs breathed out by the Bauls, and their words were inscribed in his mind, as he says. He speaks of one of Lalon’s most famous songs:
Khnaachar bhetor ochin pakhi
komne ashe jay
Taare dhorte parle mono beri
Ditam pakhir paay.
Which Tagore translates as:
Nobody can tell whence the bird unknown
Comes into my cage and goes out.
I could feign put round its feet the fetter of my mind.
Could I but capture him.
In his presidential address to the Indian Philosophical Congress of 1925, quoting these lines he says: “This village poet evidently agrees with our sage of the Upanishad who says that our mind comes back baffled in its attempt to reach the unknown Being; and yet this poet like the ancient sage does not give up the adventure of the infinite, thus implying that there is a way to its realisation.” In his famous Hibbert lecture of 1931, ‘The Religion of Man’, he would further say: “I felt I had found my religion at last, the religion of man, in which the infinite became defined in humanity and came close to me so as to need my love and co-operation. This idea of mine found at a later date its expression in some of my poems addressed to what I called Jivandevata, the lord of my life.”
Tagore, who himself walked the pathless path, knew his fellow traveller well. Perhaps Grotowski knew of him too, from all his travels within and without with the Bauls. They and Lalon are images of each other in the City of Mirrors.
And which image of Lalon shall I finish this little essay with? Perhaps the Lalon that is rooted in the ever-present moment of the body, a Lalon caught in the throes of the ecstatic dance of the Bauls. For what this Lalon has to tell us is that the body is what matters – it is the body that is oppressed, it is the body that is forcibly displaced, the body that is consumed, the body that is genetically modified, subjected to the AFSPA, the body which is commoditised. It is only by emphatically asserting the body’s autonomy, by celebrating it, that we can live in the ever-present moment – the few moments that we live here on this earth.
--Arka Mukhopadhay is a writer, theatre person and Sufi-practitioner, currently based in New Delhi.
The illustration is by Dyuti Mittal, an artist and illustrator based in Delhi.