Scanned image from souvenir sold outside Kalighat Temple, Calcutta.

Further Reading:

Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair : Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess , by Ramaprasada Sena, Clinton Seely (Translator), Leonard Nathan (Translator)


Bengali Songs to the Goddess Kali

Sagaree Sengupta

Forms of the great Goddess known as Kali, Durga or Shakti have been worshiped in Bengal for many centuries(1). These and other goddesses surface in many forms of medieval poetry and narrative, but the uniquely powerful tradition of songs to Kali began in the eighteenth century with the poet Ramprasad Sen (1720-81). The worship of Kali, the terrifyingly bloodthirsty and naked incarnation of Shiva's consort Durga, had suddenly burgeoned in the early eighteenth century. One of the reasons scholars give for this upsurge in Kali's popularity is that she was the protective deity of "robber barons" who held sway over large parts of the Bengal countryside in an era when central Mughal power was weakening. Kings like Krishnachandra Ray of Krishnanagar induced their subjects to worship Kali as well. His and other princely courts around Bengal became centers of Kali-song composition, where court poets, as well as the ruler and his other courtiers, displayed their lyrical gifts.

Although many of the earlier poets of Bengali songs were devotees of Kali who followed mystical yogic practices in order to experience the Goddess directly, the lyrics themselves have always been in a colloquial, almost casual vein of language that made them widely popular. Songs to Kali celebrate in ordinary language the role the goddess plays in the devotee's life. They also celebrate her essential role in the universe, a universe which is paradoxically also made up of Herself. The word Shakti - literally Energy, or Power - is the most abstract way of defining or naming the Goddess. A Shakta is a devotee of this power which makes everything move and change. Usually called "mother" in the songs, the great and terrifying deity is brought down to earth in the most intimate of ways. The charming mother-and-child idiom established by poets like Ramprasad Sen and his close contemporary Kamalakanta Chakravarti (d. 1821) attracted many later poets to the genre. Kali songs became widely popular outside religious and courtly settings. The still-current classics among Kali lyrics are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when poetry was the dominant form of literary art.

Kali songs often reach poetically and playfully into legal and administrative terminology, puns, and trade jargon. Kali devotees are not necessarily renunciants, and worldly concerns commingle with spiritual yearning in the songs. Human inadequacy is often lamented, and protests of the goddess's neglect of her human children abound. The very contrast between earthy metaphors and the goddess's terrific all-powerfulness produces the piquant liveliness of these lyrics. The attributes of the goddess that have made Kali into a cliche' of exotic horror to outsiders are used ironically in the poetic tradition which views her as a beloved, if unusual, mother.

Songs to Kali are an important type of premodern Bengali literature, existing alongside the more voluminous corpus of Vaishnava songs addressed to Krishna and Radha. The term Vaishnava pertains to anything centered on the great god Vishnu, of whom Krishna the sensuous cowherding god is a reincarnation. Radha is Krishna's shy yet passionate lover, and figures prominently as a heroine of this poetic genre. The overpoweringly soft sentimentalism of Vaishnava lyrics seem to have helped determine the atmosphere in which Kali lyrics were composed. Sometimes, there is direct crossover of content from the typically adoring Vaishnava idiom. As Shakta scholars point out, many songs to Kali are catholic in their inclusion of Vaishnava and other religious imagery. Flute-playing Krishna, gentle Radha and other familiars of the mythological world regularly make their appearances in Kali lyrics. Since Krishna is the other dark-skinned god prevalent in Bengal, it may seem natural that he and the goddess be invoked together - but Vaishnava lyrics generally avoid the bloodthirsty goddess. Kali's devotees will sometimes plead with her, in an almost tongue-in-cheek way, to assume the more charming and lovely form of Krishna. Kali's terribleness is as visible to her poets as to anyone else, but they also make extremely familiar - if futile - requests of their "Mother" to abandon the severed human limbs that serve as her garments and wear "nicer clothes."

The selected translations from a historical range of Kali poets have been arranged in roughly chronological order. Traditonally, lyrics in an anthology are arranged thematically, under headings such as "The Devotee's Plea" and "Seeking Shelter At Her Feet." As some of the lyrics are only available in undated anthologies, it is difficult to pinpoint birth - and death - dates for many minor poets. Style and content, however, can serve as a rough guide to the period of composition.

Ramprasad Sen (1720-81) is seen as the originator of the genre of Kali songs as we know them now, and the freshness of the language in later poets is probably due to his example. The lyrics are full of real-world images and objects and an irreverent playfulness between devotee and deity. The contradictions of Kali are often evoked through whimsical puns, alliterations, and home-spun metaphors. Kamalakanta Chakravarti (d.1820), probably born just a few years after Ramprasad Sen, was a serious Shakta practitioner in addition to being a composer of Kali songs. His output seems somewhat more conventionally polished in its imagery and tone, and his songs taken together show the clear influence of the predominant Vaishnava lyrical tradition. Ramdulal Nandi (1785-1851) was the chief minister at the court in Tripura; only a few well-known lyrics by him are still in circulation. He is represented here by a famous song that shows off his knowledge of the religious practices of many of his contemporary ethnic communities.

Trailokyanath Sanyal, Dvijendralal Ray, Nabai Moyra, Bireshvar Chakravarti, and Kalidas Bhattacharya are among a large number of mid-nineteenth century literary types (not necessarily practicing devotees) who adopted the Kali-song genre as one poetic form among the many that they experimented with. While some refined the style to conform to elite urban tastes, others among them appropriated the image of the mother goddess as a nationalist symbol of India. Poetry sung to different kinds of highly developed musical forms was a chief source of entertainment for urban Bengalis in the nineteenth century, and Kali songs entered the general repertoire.

Two great latter-day composers of Kali Songs are Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976). Belonging to the Brahmo sect of anti-iconic reform Hindus, the Nobel Prize-winning Tagore could not be considered a real devotee of Kali by any stretch of the imagination. But passionate about Bengali poetic traditions, Tagore experimented with many of them. He incorporated his own version of Kali songs into new dramatic forms (based on both Indian and Western genres) which included music, dance and dialog. Like many of his contemporaries, Tagore was adept at translating mother-worship into subtly nationalist rallying songs. Kazi Nazrul Islam was an enormously popular and prolific semi-traditional poet of the early twentieth century whose songs have remained in circulation. His lyrics have a modern freshness, which despite his urbane fluency and polish, occasionally reminds us of the first Kali lyricist Ramprasad Sen. The English titles given to the songs in this selection have been created by the translator. Since this is a sung rather than read form in the original, there are no titles and the first line serves as identification. Near the end of each song, a traditional composer mentions himself by name in the third person. Colophons like this are a common feature in most forms of pre-modern Bengali song and poetry, as they kept the name of the composer in circulation in the oral-aural pathways that the songs traveled. The widespread composition of Kali songs has slowed down in recent decades, but the popularity of the established corpus has only increased with the rise of mass media. Songs to Kali are heard on the radio, are distributed on records and tapes, and command a significant niche in the Bengali music market of the 1990's. Known as Shyama Sangit (Songs of the Dark One), or simply as Songs of the Mother among devotees, they show every sign of remaining a fixture in modern South Asian life.

#1 You're A Poor Farmer!
Ramprasad Sen (ca. 1720-1781)(2)

#2 Mortgaged To Shiva
Ramprasad Sen(3)

#3 I'm Not Calling You Mother Anymore
Ramprasad Sen(4)

#4 It Comes To Nothing
Ramprasad Sen(5)

#5 Always-Blissful Mother
Kamlalakanta Chakrabarti (d. 1820's)(6)

#6 Kali the Trickster
Ramdulal Nandi (1785-1851)(7)

#7 Make Me Crazy, Brahma-filled Mother
Trailokyanath Sanyal (1840-1916)(8)

#8 Clinging To Your Feet
Dvijendralal Ray (1867-1913)(9)

#9 Strike the Pose of Sweet Krishna
Nabai Moyra (1872-?)(10)

#10 The Fire of the World
Bireshvar Chakravarti (19th c.)(11)

#11 Ferry Of The Soul
Kalidas Bhattacharya (19th c.)(12)

#12 Set Sail!
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)(13)

#13 I'm Leaving You Now, Shyama*
Rabindranath Tagore (14)

#14 Ink On My Face, Ink On My Hands
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976)(15)

1. The information presented in the introduction has been derived Shashibhushan Dasgupta, Bharater Shakti Sadhana o Shakti Sahitya (Calcutta: Samsad, 1993), and Arunkumar Basu, Shaktigiti-Padavali (Calcutta: Pustak Bipani, 1992).
2. Tripurasankar Sen, ed., Shakta Padavali; Sadhan-Tattva o Ras-bisleshan (Calcutta: Bama Pustakalay, 1962), 53.
3. Dhrubakumar Mukhopadhyay, ed., Shakta Padavali (Calcutta: Ratnavali, 1996), 271.
4. Shashibhushan Dasgupta, Bharater Shakti Sadhana o Shakti Sahitya (Calcutta: Samsad, 1993), 222.
5. Dhrubakumar Mukhopadhyay, ed., Shakta Padavali (Calcutta: Ratnavali, 1996), 241.
6. Tripurasankar Sen, Shakta Padavali; Sadhan-Tattva o Ras-bisleshan (Calcutta: Bama Pustakalay, 1962), 171.
7. Ibid., 137.
8. Dhrubakumar Mukhopadhyay, ed., Shakta Padavali (Calcutta: Ratnavali, 1996), 284.
9. Ibid., 264.
10. Ibid., 292.
11. Ibid., 285.
12. Ibid., 266-267.
13. Rabindranath Thakur, Gitabitan (Calcutta: Visvabharati, 1988), 245.
14. Ibid., 651.
15. Abdul Aziz Al-Aman, ed., Nazrul-giti: akhanda (Calcutta: Haraf Prakashani, 1997), 344.

Annotated Bibliography

Kazi Nazrul Islam. Matripuja: Abismaraniya Najarula [Mother-worship: Unforgettable Nazrul. Calcutta: His Master's Voice, c1984. ECSD 41550. ] This is an audio recording of Bengali songs written by the poet. Nazrul's songs, composed in the 1920's, 30's and 40's, continue to be popular among Bengali listeners everywhere. This recording serves as an introduction to these "golden oldies" from South Asia in the context of Nazrul's interest in Kali.

Kinsley, David R. The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Kinsley's two-part work of the gods Kali and Krishna provides a readable and thoughtful introduction to the classical and popular contexts of the worship of these deities in Bengal. Translated excerpts from Vaishnava and Shakta literature are incorporated into the text.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Ramakrishna is a nineteenth-century saint who was the guru of the Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda. This most famous devotee is remarkable for his graphic mystical visions of Kali and for his widespread and continuing appeal to even nontraditional Bengalis. Kripal's controversial new discussion of Ramkrishna attempts to understand the importance of this model devotee from a psychoanalytically informed point of view.

Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali: The Feminine Force. Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1988. Mookerjee has written many books about sexual mysticism and goddess worship. This volume, like the others, serves well to expose the uninitiated to the world of the Indian goddess and her devotees.

Sen, Sukumar. History of Bengali Literature; New Delhi; Sahitya Akademi, 1971. Sukumar Sen's excellent, if brief, handbook touches on the recognized high points of a thousand or more years of Bengali literature. Sen follows a pattern of nationalist literary history in that he is always looking for naturalism of style and "progress." Sen's tendencies are themselves an important aspect of colonial and postcolonial South Asian preoccupations. Nevertheless, the author provides sympathetic and knowledgeable readings of several lyric traditions of Bengal, with translated samples.