Straight from the Heart: Celebrating Lalon Phokir

Prachi Deshpande

Man of the Heart
Presented by East Coast Artists, and produced by the Nalanda LLC Group
Written and performed by Sudipto Chatterjee
Directed by Suman Mukherjee
In English and Bangla

On May 3 2006, at the Kraine Theater in New York City, I watched "Man of the Heart", a multi-media, and a (mostly) one-man performance on the life and times of Lalon Phokir, the mystic poet-saint of 19th century Bengal. The writer-performer Sudipto Chatterjee and the director of the performance Suman Mukherjee deserve tremendous praise for their efforts to showcase the oeuvre and philosophy of this remarkable poet and thinker. The performance succeeded above all in conveying the sheer joyousness and irreverence that pervades so much of devotional, mystic poetry across the subcontinent in so many of its languages. For a student of South Asian history with familiarity with spoken Bangla and the cultural traditions of Bengal, this was a treat.

The primary reason for this success was certainly Chatterjee's performance, which combines an intensely physical and energetic command of the stage with a clear monologue and rendition of some of Lalon's most well known songs. Chatterjee's voice is melodious, powerful and passionate, with a range well suited to the baul tradition of singing: he switches octaves and wanders into the taara saptaka (upper octave) with deceptive ease. Soumya Chakravarti and Bodhisattva Das provided able instrumental support. The live singing, it seemed to me, enabled Chatterjee to "become" Lalon Phokir in the performance in a way that a simple background score would not have made possible; it was an arduous, but immensely successful effort. At times I wished I could have joined in, repeating the lines as part of a chorus and keeping rhythm. It was here that the performance succeeded in what appears to be one of its primary projects: celebrating the work and contributions of Lalon Phokir, the life he lived and the ideas he put forth in his poetry.

"Man of the Heart," however, seeks not just to celebrate Lalon Phokir's poetry and ideas, but also attempts to place him within the wider history of nineteenth-century Bengal and the wider history of colonial South Asia. It does so by harnessing various media: on the main stage backdrop we see clips of black and white documentary footage of the colonial city of Calcutta and of repressive colonial rule, and tantalizing excerpts from a film (one of the organizers told me this was from Ritwik Ghatak's Titash Ekti Nodeer Naam) of the centrality of boats and water to the Bengal countryside (which also features some of the most beautiful Baul singing I have ever heard). Chatterjee also appears in brief video clips alternately as a Muslim and Hindu priest, the twin gatekeepers of conservatism that Lalon's mystic poetry sought to navigate a deeper spiritual understanding through. In the performance, these characters are projected on the loose, swishing, ragged and somewhat soiled white garment that Lalon sports on his body. Lalon laughs as he looks down at them, and their faces contort as they condemn his heterodox views and reiterate a more orthodox version of religious practice. Video clips of contemporary rural Bengal also periodically appear on the main stage backdrop, presumably from the research trip Chatterjee and Mukherjee undertook as part of this project, along with a brief interview of the caretakers of Lalon's tomb and home in Kushtia today. Throughout, English subtitles of the Bangla songs performed are also projected.

This multi-media format is rich and informative, and goes a long way in filling in the historical context of Lalon Phokir's life and times. Chatterjee sketches the colonial history of Bengal and the growing urban-rural split in the nineteenth century with the rise of colonial Calcutta, and the emergence of a Westernised, Bengali middle-class and intelligentsia. Both colonial ethnographers and their native Bengali informants were at once fascinated as well as repelled by rural culture. The "folk" idiom appeared in urban and middle-class life and modern anthropology as worthy of both study as well as contempt due to their contrast with modernity and bourgeous life.

For the Bengali middle classes in particular, this connection to rural life and poetic, musical and cultural traditions such as those of the Bauls was an ambivalent one: although disengaged from it on a quotidian basis, it nevertheless fascinated them as they began to search for their own history and traditions in response to colonial rule and delineate the contours of broader, "national" and "regional" cultures from their own urban, middle-class positions.

"Man of the Heart" explores these different strands of scholarship and discourse that have "appropriated" the Baul traditions and the poetry of Lalon Phokir and assimilated them to larger arguments about nationalism and secularism. Indeed, in a presentation of these themes in "classroom format" Chatterjee "lectures" to the audience (a little heavy handedly at times), conveying and critiquing the scholarly approaches he views as reductionist. In contrast, he seeks to "rescue" Lalon's philosophy and poetry from these labels of "folk", or even "secularist." With brief glimpses of archival records and interviews, we learn the history of Lalon's life: his birth as a Hindu, his abandonment at the age of sixteen by his friends due to smallpox, the shelter he was given by a Muslim preacher (and later his guru) Shiraj Shah and the subsequent refusal of his mother to accept him. Although the performance notes mention this story as a "legend," the performance appears to treat it as fact, interpreting Lalon's poems about the boy Krishna's pleading with his mother for mercy in light of this trauma.

Chatterjee presents Lalon's philosophy as one that "combines a loose reading of Hindu Vaishnavism with a radical interpretation of Sufi Islam, very different from the Ko'ran-based Shariati way, that is known as Marfati." The performance explores in detail the Marfati focus on the body, its functions and pleasures, and the attainment of spirituality and fulfillment through the indulgence of these pleasures. Lalon merged Sufi, Bhakti and Tantric ideas, emphasized the Ko'ran of the heart as a hidden text, with its own compass of morality and correct behaviour, as more important than the book itself. This focus on a moral compass that celebrated physical life in the earthly universe and drew upon, but nevertheless stayed away from orthodoxies of organized religious practice, of course, places Lalon within the larger, subcontinental tradition of Bhakti and Sufi poetry; indeed, I was struck throughout by the similarities with poets across the spectrum from Jaidev to Kabir to Tukaram.

Although the play mentions Chaitanya once, its historical excursion does not include this wider devotional pantheon. Given the project's interest in placing Lalon Phokir in a historical context, I found this an odd omission. Moreover, while Chatterjee sketches out the broader colonial context of nineteenth-century colonial Bengal, it left me wanting to know more about the immediate socio-economic context of Lalon's poetry and the existing musical and cultural traditions of itinerant preachers and devotional, ecstatic singing he drew on.

One of the achievements of the play is its success in conveying complex philosophical concepts through an extremely sparse stage set up: A long white sheet, a few green lanterns and a wooden doorway. This white sheet serves both as the religious gulf that Lalon tried to bridge and the terrain of spirituality and religious borrowing. It also undulates as a wave, twists and turns as the turmoil in Lalon's mind, the dividing line between private and public, and serves as social fabric itself. Mukherjee's direction makes excellent use of these props to convey these abstract ideas; This spare stage and the poems themselves (aided by the subtitles and beautifully rendered by Chatterjee), expressed Lalon's philosophy so well, that they could well have been allowed to stand on their own; the attendant commentary that drove home the point was almost superfluous at points.

In all, this was an ambitious effort to showcase one of Bengal's most well known mystic poet saints; the broader questions it raises is testimony to its success in presenting on stage the rich philosophy and music of Lalon Phokir.

This review was made possible through detailed conversations with Priyodorshi Banerjee.

Published December 25, 2007

Reviewed by Prachi Deshpande.Prachi Deshpande teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley....(more)

Illustrations by Hiran Mitra. Well known artist Hiran Mitra is based in Kolkata, India. These illustrations have been provided by Sudipto Chatterjee.

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©Parabaas 2007