On City of Mirrors: Songs of Lalan Sā̃i | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 20, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 20, 2018

On City of Mirrors: Songs of Lalan Sā̃i

Lālan Sā̃i, also known as Lālan Fakir or simply “Lalon” (d. 1890 CE) was a non-sectarian poet and mystical philosopher who lived in the historically undivided Nadia district of Bengal, today split between Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. During his lifetime he experienced the effects of British colonialism in South Asia, as society had become rigidly divided into different birth-groups (jāt) according to their adherence to Vedic, Vaisnava, Islamic or Christian doctrines. One major objective of his lyrical riddles was to challenge these rigid notions of cultural, political, and sexual identity, and as a result, his folk songs express a longing to understand the nature of humanity, the duties of humanity, and the ultimate destination of humanity. His songs also contain thinly veiled references to esoteric yogic practices (sādhanā), including body-centric Haṭhayogic techniques that can be found in the medieval tantric Buddhist and Nath-Cult literature.

It is believed that Lālan Sā̃i was born towards the end of the 18th century C.E. in the environs of Kushtia. It has not been possible to this date to determine the exact date or place of birth of this great sage, or the religion of his family. Nevertheless, it is an established fact that throughout the 19th century he expressed and circulated his vision through lyrical songs, primarily among lower social classes in different villages of the wider Kushtia and Jessore districts.

Lālan employed an internal dialogue in his lyrics posing provocative questions against the Hindu reformation movements hearkening back to a Vedic tradition. He also criticized the shari'a law of Islam in its various forms. In doing so he introduced and followed the idea that within a person there is an intellect reached through devotion and love. He desired to transcend society's gender division and he also rejected the social norms of his day that treated women as lesser than men, and instead desired to give them the highest position. As a result, many of his songs are steeped in profound metaphors and symbols that contain his high respect for women.

The songs of Lālan Sā̃i are also distinguished by another characteristic:  within the songs he expresses a lack of faith in the established religious belief, and instead positions within the human being a “Teacher of People” (mānuṣ-guru), a creator. He eliminated any conjecture (anumān) at the root of the meaning of practice (sādhanā), and expressed the philosophy (darśan) of jīvanmukhī and bastubādī. Of this he had intimate experience—Lālan Sā̃i's main inspiration is hidden in secret practice (sādhanā), which is called either experiential knowledge (marphatijñāna) or the body-centered practice (dehakendriksādhanā). He resorted to the human body to discern the genesis and root of the creative principle. In his universal practice and at the root of the meaning behind his songs, the human body and respect for human birth are given the foremost acknowledgment. In this he transcended the doctrines of all religions, and in looking deeply it is possible to identify the unity of the Nāth tradition (sampradāy) with that of Lālan's songs.

In 2017, Oxford University Press, New York, USA had published a book of translated songs of Lālan Sā̃i with original Bangla versions. The book titled City of Mirrors: Songs of Lālan  Sā̃i was  actually translated by the US scholar Dr. Carol Salomon, and edited by Keith E. Cantú with me.  This book title is very significant in recording and understanding Lālan's philosophy and is the result of nearly thirty years of work by Dr. Salomon. She also exchanged letters and stayed in the company of adepts (sādhu-saṅga) at the homes of some of the most famous artist-adepts (sādhak-śilpī) of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. It is important to keep in mind that the performances of Lālan's songs have a natural place among the company of adepts, because it is in this company that the Lālan-panthī adepts share knowledge and perform their individual practices.

From the 1980s to 2008 C.E., Carol Salomon was invited to visit the homes of many different Lālan-panthī adepts throughout Bangladesh. Aside from this, in March 1981, she participated in the Lālan Academy of Kushtia's folklore conference and Lālan festival. During this time Carol remained close to the artist-adepts with her audio recorder and notebooks, compiling music lyrics, song meanings, and differences in versions. Furthermore, she photocopied the notebooks of Lālan-panthīs as well as the manuscript of Rabindranath Tagore's compilation of Lālan songs held in Santiniketan. Then she set to her own work on establishing authoritative versions of Lālan's songs and translating them into English. It is important to mention that she would begin her work of translating and assessing versions of the songs by handwriting the song, and then she would make emendations using pen and paper. She would then type up her notes using a typewriter or computer. She deeply engaged herself working alone as a translator-researcher, and through limitless patience and consistent effort she applied to her work of translating the songs of Lālan Sā̃i!

It can be ascertained from Carol Salomon's various files and papers that as early as 1984 she was requested by American and British publishing houses and university publishing societies to continue with her translation work on the songs of Lālan Sā̃i, and that she sent some of her work off for publishing that included translations of a few songs along with a contextual proposal. As far as can be known Carol did not receive a positive response, and yet she continued her work of translating the songs of Lālan Sā̃i. Neither feeling dejected nor deterred, she continued her work with diligence and affection.

At first Carol's wish was to assess, translate, and annotate one hundred of Lālan's songs, and subsequently the number turned into one hundred and fifty. Interestingly, the numbers kept on increasing and in the end Carol had decided to analyze, translate, and annotate around two hundred of Lālan's songs. In her assessment, Carol held the Lālan-panthī adept-artists close to her heart and communicated directly with them through interviews, exchange of letters, and by recording their songs in their own voice. As a result, the translation of Carol Salomon is also a testament to the continuing practice of Lālan Sā̃i's songs.

Unfortunately, Dr. Carol Salomon died in an unanticipated accident on March 13, 2009. We did not want, however, for this untimely circumstance to leave her translation work unpublished. So, with help from her former colleagues and family members as well as the adept-artists, I collected photocopies of Carol's handwritten letters and other kinds of memorabilia. In 2012 Carol's closest friend and dear husband Dr. Richard Salomon invited me to give a lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle for the Department of Asian Languages and Literature entitled, “On the Respect and Admiration towards Carol Salomon by the Adept-Artists of Bangladesh.” While staying at Richard's house I was able to exchange ideas with him and we decided to publish Carol Salomon's book of translations of Lālan Sā̃i's songs.

The work on editing this book began in 2012. In February of 2013, I gave a speech to the Department of Music in the University of Chicago on Carol Salomon's methods of researching and translating the songs of Lālan. In 2014, the student-researcher and aspirant-artist Keith E. Cantú (now he is a PhD candied of the University of California, Santa Barbara) joined the work of editing. There is no hesitation in mentioning that after joining as an editor he transliterated the original Bengali versions of all the songs into Roman script. He also corrected many of the errors in Carol's translations, annotations, and footnotes, and exchanged ideas with Richard Salomon and myself during the process of editing. Here, I must express my heartfelt gratitude to the world famous Bāul researcher Jeanne Openshaw for writing the analytical Introduction.

For assisting this book in various phases of its development, I would like to thank the famous scholar on performing art, Ms. Lubna Mariam, my dear friend Dr. Thibaut d'Hubert at the University of Chicago and his wife Stéphanie d'Hubert, Bangladeshi friend Nazrul Zahid, Nandini Abedin of the University of Washington, Professor Hakim Arif and Salma Nasreen at the University of Dhaka, and literary critic and translator Nurnnabi Shanto.

Finally, we are very grateful to Cynthia Read, who is an editor of the Oxford University press. We are also thankful to Julia Turner and Drew Anderla of Oxford University Press.


Saymon Zakaria is Assistant Director of Bangla Academy.

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