Lalon and the construction of the 'Bhadrolok' Baul
How do we perceive the Baul tradition? This enquiry in the past has wrought a multi-dimensional discourse among the genteel cultural consciousness. Akshay Kumar Dutt, initially, attempted to ascribe the Baul tradition to a discrete genre. In his seminal tome The Ascetic Community of the Indian subcontinent, which was published in 1870, The Baul strain is introduced as a distinct gharana. While delving into the nature of their devotional ascetic expressions, Akshay Kumar opines:
Nature-worship is an integral part of their ascetic practice. They inhabit a peculiar natural condition and devote themselves wholesale to the worship of that condition. These devotional rites are intrinsically esoteric and lie outside the comprehension of the uninitiated. Given the knowledge, it still renders a detailed documentation in writing quite inappropriate. This mysticism is mobilized towards an ultimate quest for divine love which is achieved by applying the techniques of the satiation of the Eros.
Akshay Kumar concerned himself decidedly with the 'piercing of the four moons', a pivotal tenet of the Baul rites. The most striking information that springs out from his body of work is: 'It is alleged that, prevalent among this community is the practice of cannibalism and donning oneself with the clothes removed from corpses.' However, he found it unpalatable to stigmatize the community by identifying them as cannibals. Therefore, in the footnote he explains, 'They do not engage in homicide, they content themselves with eating a dead body if they chanced upon one.'
Moulavi Abdul Wali authored the first 'eye-witness account' on bauliana (manifestation of Baulhood). He read this famous essay to an assembly of the Asiatic Society in 1898. The author states, 'a secular temperament, unkempt hair/beard, a hideous lifestyle' has sustained a long-standing curiosity in his mind. Yet, numerous probing to find out about their 'reprehensible way of life and character' yielded but scanty information. Then, quite fortuitously, a book describing their secret practices fell to his hands. While reading this book he was awakened to an astonishing side of their tale. In his own words:
They are known to the outside world for their- ability to cure illness, rendition of mellifluous songs, unusual habits and periodic revelry. But they are rarely suspected of a subversive effort to crush the conventional norms by generationally living a surreptitious life frought with contemptible, criminal, shameful and vulgar acts.
The hidden life of a Baul characterized by the 'contemptible, criminal, shameful and vulgar acts' has historically haunted the conscience of gentility. Rabindranath Tagore champions the community of 'bhadralok (the cultural elite)' who subsequently became renowned for being a Baul connoisseur, in two of his speeches he ceremoniously praised Baul philosophy. He believed –'Music is… the sole form of their asceticism'. Rabindranath remained staunchly impervious to the 'non-musical' and the 'shameful and vulgar' aspect of their devotional expression. Driven by a heartfelt indignation and suspicion, Rabindranath in refute of this common belief wrote:
At the time when I used to live in the rural countryside, some mendicants would pay me visits; they would enlighten me on the practice of seeking wanton pleasure of the senses in the name of worship. It had its share of religious indulgence to it. I was also informed by these very folks that this indulgence furrowed its way into the city through the network of disciples spread out like tributaries. The reason for the spread of this emasculating, pseudo- religious dribble of greed is that our literature is starving from those societal elements which stimulate the mind towards arduous experimentations that ride high on the tide of weighty thoughts and exercise of the intellect.
Rabindranath remained unsympathetic towards the 'emasculating, pseudo-religious greed'. The extraordinary thing is that the Baul minstrels of the lascivious kind have composed some beautiful songs. These songs, by no means, can be thrown by the wayside. In order to redress 'the tug of contradictions', Rabindranath divided the Bauls into two classes – authentic Baul and amateur Baul. As a result two streams of music emerged – archetypal and freewheeling. Amateur Bauls are foolhardy imposters. On the other hand, non-communalist, anti-superstition, non-violent attitudes sum up the characteristics of an authentic Baul. This is why in Rabindranath's life-long repertoire, there is a marked absence of themes as 'obnoxious' as that of 'piercing of the four moons'.
Owing to Rabindranath's divisive measures the Baul expression assumed a distinctive shape in the mind of the bhadrolok. The Baul that was resurrected was a 'circumcised' one. Under the luminous patronization of Rabindranath the cultural elite came to a consensus that they should absolve the Bauls of the sin of shame and obscenity attached to their love life. At the same time they could also be reconstructed in light of the sobriquet, 'devout secular humanist'. Kshitimohan Sen is another luminous follower of the trail set ablaze by Rabindranath. He, in fact, throwing all caution to the wind, admitted that, in their corporeal meditation, 'piercing of the four moons is a clandestine affair and is quite grotesque'. However, he consoles his ruptured mind positing, 'Piercing of the four moons is undoubtedly a carnal affair. There are Bauls whose reverential expressions are far more sublime.' These metaphysically transcendent Bauls are absolutely cognizant of the fact that:
Piercing of the four moons along with other gross eroticism is not the divine path. Conversely, identifying oneself with the world as well as submitting oneself to it is the path to the eternal and divine. It is foolhardy to transpose this into material manifestation. Piercing of the four moons is but a slave to the tantric and the yogic physiology.
He did not rest simply at defaming piercing of the four moons. In Baul philosophy, he was able to discern a remarkable edifice of a syncretic method of worship which melded together Hindu and Muslim ritualistic expressions. These episodes unfolded right before the bifurcation of the subcontinent when the harmony between the Hindu/Muslim communities has been reduced to a minimal state. In an atmosphere of religio-political crisis he mobilized a significantly positive exercise by discovering a secular ideology in Baul philosophy.
This reconfiguration of the Bauliana discourse merits close scrutiny. At the initial stage, proponents like Akshay Kumar and Abdul Wali, piqued by their curiosity about the Baul ascetic practices embarked on exchanging notes on their nature. Their findings revealed that the minstrels of this sect are gifted singers, but their sexual predilection was absolutely despicable. Therefore, they figured there was an urgent need to recast their sexuality. The transformation began to take shape in the hands of Rabindranath and his followers. A secular image was enshrined and presented as the Rabindric 'temple light' effectively replacing the dishonourable 'piercing of the four moons'.
In the feature film, Moner Manush (2010), directed by Goutam Ghosh, the representation of Bauliana is a testimony, writ large, to the legacy of this reconstruction. In the representation of Bauliana this film focused on two aspects: firstly, the sexual life of a Baul; secondly, a secular philosophy. Through this rendition a new dimension was added to the deity that was erected, though arbitrarily, based on the secular discourse and genteel sense of morality in the hands of Rabindranath and Kshitimohan. The aim of this essay is to critically analyze the production of the elitist discourse of Bauliana in Moner Manush.
In Baul philosophy the idea of corporeal meditation plays a central role. At least, we can easily arrive at this conclusion drawing on the songs available to us from the Baul stream. We have already mentioned how Rabindranath had entirely bypassed this element of the body-oriented shadhana or meditation. However, the movie, Moner Manush, was not so stringently censorial regarding this 'shameful and vulgar' aspect. Within the first half an hour into the movie we witness the first allusion to corporeal mediation which is re-construed in libidinal terms.
What passes for Bauliana of the elite makes itself known from the ensemble of raw materials available in this movie. The movie's Baulina, or boulhood is framed according to the misplaced faith in the ascetic-materialist dyad, through which the sexual is pitted against the spiritual, and worship, by definition, becomes an impossibility while the worshipper is embroiled in the sexual relationship. As such, the notion of worship promoted by the movie accords with the Victorian notions of the 'base' body and the ' sanctified' consciousness, since copulation is recognized as instrumental in satiating the fire of lust. Baul worshipper Lalon is framed around such a concept, as we witness that despite his sexual arousal, he doggedly uses the excuse of his mental inertia as a way out, in order to remain true to his asceticism.
There is ample fodder for thought in this new recipe for Lalon and his philosophy configured by the movie that took shape around sexuality which is construed as an avenue to personal freedom rather than a threshold of corporeal meditation. Lalon, in Moner Manush, becomes the ultimate embodiment of patriarchal Baulina –who is struck by a dilemma as to how he would resolve his bodily desire. Especially, how he would respond to the sexual overtures of Mayur, the damsel summoned to action by Lalon's mentor Siraj Shainto cheer up the dejected Lalon, following his recently failed attempt to bring back his wife. We witness how the dilemma is resolved when at the behest of the guru Siraj Shain, Moyur, offers herself to Lalon and becomes an instrument of his carnal appeasement.
Libido, in this movie, is the prerogative of the man, and the woman as kayashangi or corporeal compatriot, is an object of pleasure, though sexual love is referred to as 'bindu shadana', an allusion to spermatozoa.
No hint of such devotional rituals (mentioned above) could be found in the ascetic practices of the Baul. In the movie Lalon's dilemma is set against the duality of body and mind – pleasure and asceticism; in contrast to what is actually perceived as a continuum in Laon's discourse, Goutom Ghosh constructs a dichotomy. Where does he derive this from? By way of answering this query, we would propose the name of Mahatma Gandhi. One of the fundamental tenets of Gandhian philosophy is reflective of a squeamishness about questions pertaining to sexuality and copulation. Gandhi problematized sexuality, as a corollary to which he embraced celibacy. An insight into what he conceived celibacy to be is found in a letter he had penned. An elderly disciple writes him a letter voicing her concern over the rumours provoked by Gandhi's peculiar practices. Gandhi rebuts:
My meaning of bhrahmacharya is this … one who never has lustful intentions, who by constant attendance upon God , has become capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they may be, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited. Such a person should be incapable of lying, incapable of intending doing harm to a single man or woman, free from anger, malice and detached.
In Moner Manush we encounter a Gandhian Lalon. Yet, to bestow the credence of discovering Lalon in a new light in Moner Manush would be too myopic. Lalon was probably identified as a celibate first by Lutfur Rahman. In his book 'An Investigation into Lalon (Lalon Jiggasha)' , Lalon was represented as an unmarried celibate.
The issue of corporeal meditation recurred several more times in the span of the movie. Out of these non-linear scenes, there hardly emerges a comprehensive picture of such a practice. Instead, the movie promotes unfettered sexual practices experienced by uninhibited creative denizens inhabiting an unreal world; their existence verges on the lifestyle of the hippy degenerates, about which a section of Bengali cognoscenti always harboured undue fascination with a special focus on the idea of 'free sex'. In one scene, Kalua (an inhabitant of the jungle from the pre-Lalon era), is driven to deranged behavior instigated by Komli's (a female consort) seductive gaze. In order to subdue Kalua's aggression Lalon counsels Komli to attend to Kalua's sexual need. Komli agrees after some dithering.
Thus the movie fails to provide a pertinent statement on Lalon and his thoughts. It only serves to formulate a simplified matrix consisting of a patriarchal notion of sexuality granting the guru an absolute control over his kayashangini. Outside this communal dais of worship we witness the emergence of a few seats of subjectivity. For instance, Lalon claims an individuated locus distinguishing him from the rest of the devotees. Komli has been placed on the singularly high pedestal as the mother of Shimultali. Through Goutam Ghosh's creative efforts, so it seems, the sex life of the Bauls manifests itself simultaneously in plural as well as in individual expressions.
Over the last few decades, within the bhadroloki periphery one particular aspect of the representation of Lalon claimed centre stage. Lalon seemed to have become enmeshed, inextricably with a secular discourse. Secular ideology functions as a significant apparatus within the nationalist discourse as a means of consolidating national solidarity. For Lalon to rise in veneration to be acclaimed as a mahatma could be an outcome of the politics of secularism. Moner Manush embodies a reflection of this discourse. In this respect we must pay close attention to what Goutam Ghosh has to say. In an interview with BBC after clinching the Golden Peacock at the Goya International Film festival, Goutam Ghosh relates:
Actually I first thought of Lalon, or thought of working with followers of marginalized religious cults after the demolition of Babri mosque and the subsequent outbreak of the communal riots. I was asking myself, what would be apt to represent communal conflict – marked as it is by gore, ugliness, wanton killings. I wanted to work with something that reveals our composite culture to people. Then the idea of Lalon occurs to my mind. I did a bit of research on Lalon. At that time there was nothing done around it. Then, in 2008 when Sunilda came out with his writing, I found my plot.
It seemed Lalon was more relevant in today's context. Because we are witness to a worldwide spread of intolerance. Religious intolerance, political intolerance.
A few important issues from this statement must be brought under scrutiny. Goutam has considered making a film on Lalon a long time ago – the terrible catastrophe that was unleashed as a consequence of the razing down of the Babri mosque provided the backdrop to the conceptualization of this film. Instead of making 'gore, ugliness, wanton killings' the subject of a devastating riot, he, on the other hand, wanted to impress the fact of the existence of a composite culture on popular imagination. This is what triggers the thought of Lalon in his mind. Lalon could intercede as an iconoclast for the resolution of the volatile context which essentially gives birth to a bloody conflict. He dreams of creating a movie against the grain of communalist sentiments exposing its futility.
In 2008, the novel Moner Manush by Sunil Gangapaddhya falls into his hands. We must not lose sight of the fact that the theme of the movie has been fixed long beforehand. It is only the plot that is being borrowed from Sunil's book. Goutam observes with surprise that, though the riot has died down some time since, yet the relevance of the film to the current context of the world has but increased. Hence, the onus of resurrecting Lalon for confronting the atmosphere of intolerance that surrounds the various aspects of our life today becomes exigent.
In this regard, Goutam's inspection of Lalon is intimately inspired by commentaries from Rabindranath or Kshitimohan. To say the least, secular liberalism has become an inseparable strand in the nationalist narration over the course of a hundred year old discursive development. Consequently, the movie should be read as a contemporary secular representation of Bauliana in the bhadraloki parlance.
Our proposition entails that, Moner Manush is a representational part of Indian nationalist project. Here Lalon fakir has been subsumed under the Gandhian ideology. Consequently, Moner Manush can safely be branded as a creative strategy of Indian nationalist project. Gandhi, famous for his sympathy for the harijan or the scheduled caste and Lalon, the philosopher with his lower caste lineage, are placed upon the same platform. Nevertheless, Lalon fakir of Chheuria pays a price. In a spell of self-abnegation, Lalon is shown in this movie to have subscribed to non-violence and in the face of his natural carnal inclination, has adopted celibacy. The most luminous side to his character made itself known through his unshakable avowal of celibacy. Lalon is initiated into the Gandhian tradition by means of the combined forces of brahmacharya and anti-racist sentiments. By virtue of which he is furnished as an all-Indian icon of the nationalist grand narrative. Moner Manush is an attempt at celebrating this particular iconography.
Gandhian nationalism easily intersects with the perennial figure of the Hindu rhishi in this clime. A-Al Mamun throws light on such an ahistorical antecedent of Gandhi, he points out that through a superimposition of the actual national icon over an imaginary construction a new system of recall is brought to the fore. He says 'Goutam Ghosh has recreated Lalon in the likeness of the Indian, Hindu muni-rhishi (ascetics of the Hindu religious culture), steering clear of the sufi-dervish of the Muslim strain'. Lalon, whether he belonged to the Hindu or the Muslim sect by right of birth, presents a perennial bone of contention. Yet, in this movie he has affirmatively been identified as Lalon Chandra Kaur. Furthermore, to perpetuate this legacy, he continues to blow into the shell (a religio-cultural practice) religiously long after he has disowned his title, Chandra Kaur. Through this representation the long-standing debate of the non-secular vein that simmered unabated within the bhadralok community over a hundred years was rekindled.
In the first scene of the movie we discover Lalon on Jyotirindranath Tagore's pleasure boat. Jyotirindra is making Lalon's portrait. At the same time, he is addressing a volley of question to Lalon to find out about Baul philosophy. The plotline of the movie is narrated by way of the framework of conversation between Jyotirindra and Lalon. Goutam in his narration of Lalon Fakir draws on Lalon's correlation with the House of Tagores. In this narration the conversation was carried out on the courtyard of the Thakurbari (Tagore household), although some unknown facts came to light , the tales of the Thakurbari remained untold.
We countenance several mentions of the Thakurbari in various contexts throughout the movie.
The Bauls are informed by Kangal Harinath and Mir Mosharraf Hussain , the jungle they inhabited is part of the land space owned by the Tagores. Harinath vouches, though the Zamidaar's are 'educated and respectable', they are very 'stringent in exacting land tax.' Acting on their advice Lalon, weighed down by age, paid a visit to Jyotirindranath solicitously trying to win him over with his talk on philosophy and some songs. Fascinated by the sublime talents of the great devotee , Jyotirindranath ordered his nayeb, quite oblivious to the family legacy of strictures regarding tax repayment, that the Fakir Sahib's village should be officially ratified as a tax-free zone. This is how Moner Manush de-historicizes a historical character that is Lalon and presents Lalon's akhra as part of the Tagores' estate.
If we attempt to do a bit of dredging we are faced with a dilemma regarding the situatedness of the akhra. Sudhir Chakrabarty claims, 'Lalon's akhra was built in Chheuria on 16bigha of land donated by Malam Shah, a disciple.' However, in the movie it was established as part of a jungle owned by the Thakurbari. A distinctive feature about this akhra is that a cult of devotional philosophy evolved around a lower caste populace on a piece of land inhabited by the same group, but subsequently,as to why this famous 'marker' was passed off in the movie's representation as a dispensation of the Thakurbari stirs controversy. It is nothing new that, there is a trend to place Lalon heavily in dept of an upper caste patronage. Jyotirindranath has undertaken to draw Lalon on his boat, shares with Lalon his foreign cigarettes, pleads with Lalon to assign him a patch of land in Anadabazaar, exempts tax on the lease of land occupied by the akhra – this graceful encounter is posited on the imaginary benevolence of the Thakurbari. A community of artisans was chiefly responsible for assisting to build Lalon's akhra- this is an indisputable fact. Nevertheless, in this movie, the Thakurbari is made to shine in the glory of its sole contribution to the building of the akhra. Some words from the unpublished diary of Harinath have also been used verbatim as part of his 'dialogue' in this movie. This knack for appropriating elements almost in the manner of 'cut and paste' is something to take note of. The criticism that Harinath had penned in his diary against Debendranath, is conspicuously absent in this movie.
It is important to keep in mind, that meaning emerges through the intermingling of what is revealed and what is concealed. The relationship between Thakurbari both with Lalon and Harinath is partially exposed, with its fair share of the fictional, while the rest has been buried into oblivion. Through this maneuver a definitive Thakurbari came into being and a new form of relation has also been formulated between the place and the relevant players across the narrative course of the movie. Moreover, this pattern of integration and rejection brings to light the nature of 'intention'.
Between the conventional bhadraloki discourse and the construct that came to be known as Thakurbari in Moner Manush, there lies a strong similarity with the movie The Garments Girls. Moner Manush maintains that the contingent of staff presided over by the nayeb is to blame for the wrongdoings, which leaves the zamindaar inordinately scot-free. The zamindaars (feudal lords) of Thakurbari are reclusive thinkers and they live outside the concerns of the state. The movie The Garments Girls is woven around the same sentiment. It is the middlemen and not the owners who are the culprits in perpetuating the workers' suffering.
Following this traditional pattern of argument, in Moner Manush, Thakurbari was acquitted of moral charges. Sunil Gangapadhya in his novel included an incident wherein armed thugs, who are on the payroll of the Thakurbari, had raided Harinath's home. But Goutam had excluded this unsavoury scene from his movie.
Theocracy has been triumphantly marked out as the enemy of Bauliana. In this movie the enemies of secularism and Bauliana are identical. In order to protect their life and assets from the clutches of the fundamentalist forces, the Bauls took to arms in response to Harinath's counsel. In scenes the Bauls are also seen walking on stilts as a maneuver to stave off wild animals. In all the scenes of conflict in this movie the invariable opponent presents itself in the one and only form of the fundamentalist forces. Let us bring to mind the episodes of conflict one by one: first, the symbolic attack on Moniruddi bayati (folk-singer) by a joint coalition of Hindu and Muslim priests/friars, second, resistance against satidah (self immolation, which actually manifests in setting a widow aflame) coupled with abduction of a sati in her gold fineries; third, during the instrumental debate in Aatgharia, the assault by anti-forces followed by Kalua's martyrdom.
Through these conflicts of various degrees , the Thakurbari has been furnished as a benign force whereas the fundamentalists are portrayed as the opposite, the malign and the devious.
Goutam Ghosh's Moner Manush has stolen the hearts of the elite. Many had expressed their fascinated reaction including The likes of Dr Anisuzzaman, Tapon Roy Choudhury – connoisseurs as such are full of kudos for the film. We have consciously kept the aesthetical analysis of the movie at bay, as the narrative has little to do with the picturesqueness Goutam applies to please the retina. Our objective has consistently been an attempt to expose the form bauliana has assumed in the badhralok discourse. Our only hope is to have succeeded in fulfilling that goal to a fair extent through this long drawn-out discussion.
TAIMUR REZA is a writer and researcher and Assistant Editor of quarterly journal Protichinta.
Translated by SHARMILLIE RAHMAN