Starting from this Sunday, October 16, thousands of people have travelled to the shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah at Chheuriya of Kushtia to pay homage to the great philosopher, spiritual leader and poet-musician. While not much is known about his life, it is mostly believed that Lalon died on October 17, 1890, at the age of 116, leaving behind somewhere between 2,000 to 8,000 songs of mystical, social and political content. Although he did not leave behind any written compositions, his songs have been passed down through generations of his followers, and is now receiving renewed recognition for his poetic expression and progressive thought.
From Rabindranath Tagore to Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, Lalon's works have influenced many literary greats of our times. However, Lalon's greatness is not just in his work, but is portrayed in his philosophy and way of life – he truly lived and inspired others to live a life of mysticism, set against social binaries of religion, caste, class and gender, and looking beyond the trappings of the materialistic world. But what exactly did Lalon think of women and gender?
Women in traditional societies
Through Lalon's philosophies, Bauls preach of how the world is created by the same Creator – and if all the world is His creation, then why is there so much division and dissent? Why focus so much on material wealth and getting ahead at the expense of others, when we finally take nothing to the grave? From the very onset, there is a notion of releasing yourself from the bonds of self and truly believing that we are all equal – not just with regard to class and caste, but gender as well.
However, Lalon has specifically spoken about the plight of women in traditional societies too. At a time when the norms of society were regulated by gender roles defined by the rules of the Hindu caste system and the rules of purdah in Islam in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Lalon did something very few men did during his time – he acknowledged the inequality in status that women were given. It is evident when he wrote in one of his most famous compositions, titled 'Everyone asks, to
which caste does Lalon belong':
“A Muslim is marked by the sign
Of circumcision; but how should
You mark a woman? If a Brahmin male
Is known by the thread he wears,
How is a woman known?”
Thus clearly identifying the lack of identity for a woman in our society at the time, when she tended to be defined by her male counterpart or family member.
Rutger University's Milly Sil has also written - “their (Bauls) songs embrace and preach oneness of all religion into humanism, universal brotherhood and also gender equality. It’s just like an estuary where different rivers meet and merge into the sea of oneness that is deeper, richer and more liberated.”
Spiritual freedom for all
According to Saymon Zakaria, folk expert and assistant director at Bangla Academy, Lalon has also written of specific women in his songs, especially Fatimah, thus reminding us of the women who have played important roles from within the religion itself, but who are seldom mentioned when discussing Islam.
“Lalon also placed great emphasis on the respect that is accorded to mother - when he wrote of she who is 'nobir boro, khodar choto (above the Prophet and lesser than God)', he was clearly speaking of the Prophet's mother,” he added.
While some might argue that the emphasis on motherhood might just trap one in the same traditional rhetoric that binds women to one role, that was definitely not Lalon's intention. The fact that he truly envisioned a liberal society devoid of gender discrimination and traditional gender roles is also evident when he wrote - “kuler bou hoye mon ar kotodin thakbi ghore” (How long will you sit at home and be a wife).
And this traps the essence of why Lalon's philosophy was so radically progressive and continues to be relevant to this day – because of his total breakdown of roles imposed on one by society, and his believe in every person's right to pursue their spiritual freedom as a priority, regardless of who they were and where they came from. It is astonishing when you think about – this wild, unlettered man, roaming the dirt tracks of rural Bengal who sang of a classless and gender equal society, long before the birth of the modern philosophy of feminism.