Shaktinath Jha

Shaktinath Jha

interviewed at Town Hall, Kolkata


Subha: Regarding the terminology of ‘Fakir’ and ‘Baul’, in the last few years we have seen a rise of such terminology, and it does seem to refer to nationality and in some peculiar way to religion. This is strange, because ‘Baul’ is meant to be above these traditional religious frameworks. Would you like to comment?

Shaktinath Jha (responds in Bengali to the Bauls): Certain categories are created by the ‘bhodrolok(1)and imposed on us from above. Suppose there is a requirement of ten Fakirs. The family name of Golam (referring to Golam Fakir) is not ‘Fakir’. But this title is given to him so that he becomes marketable. Other such examples include Mansoor Ali Khan and Lokman Shaikh who have appropriated for themselves the title of ‘Fakir’. They have done so in order to fit themselves within this category.

Those among us who are studies in language and linguistics; we know that ‘Fakra’ is a Turkish word and entered the Bengali vocabulary via Arabian. In the Turkish community, there were eighty different kinds (categories) of Fakirs. These are still extant. In fact, there is a proverb in Bengali “I will make you dance like a Turkish.” This too is an allusion to the Fakirs. If you have ever been to Istanbul, you can still see these practices. Sometimes they are also telecast over television. For a while these practices had been banned there but are now again on the rise. Do we have any of these Fakir Communities or traditions in our country? When a word is borrowed from English to Bengali, we don’t call it a ‘Christian’ word. Yet, owing to an unhealthy political campaign, we mark certain medieval Iranian or Semitic loan words as ‘Muslim’. This is a strange practice! Ramprasad Sen was neither Muslim nor a Fakir. Yet, in his musical compositions he uses the word ‘Fakir’— ‘Fikire Fakir Kare Boshe Achho Rajkumari’ (O proud princess, yonder you sit, / having depleted me/ of my opportunity.) Lalan didn’t just call himself a Fakir. In his words, Caitanya at a very young age chose a life of Fakir-hood. In orthodox Baul/Fakir tradition, once you are initiated into this way of life, you have to renounce all material possessions, property and wealth. Lalan Shah had done the same. Harinath Majumdar (Kangal (2) Harinath), disciple of Lalan, who swept the entire undivided Bengal into a frenzy of Baul music, was known as ‘Fakir Chand’. Even Nilkantha Mukhopadhyay, who was a high-caste (‘Kulin’) Brahmin, has used the term ‘Fakir’.

Even Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather is said to have taken the guise of ‘Fakir’. What I am trying to put forth is this— within the Bengali language, the term ‘Fakir’ has a completely different meaning altogether. Linguistically or even etymologically, it simply refers to a group of people who have renounced the material world or maybe are just in a state of mendicancy. It does to refer at all to a ‘religious’ community of any sort. It is thus not an ‘Islamic’ or a communal word at all. Owing to the Islamization of Bangladesh in recent times, this word was imposed as a category from above and a ‘fatwa’ was issued for the destruction of this community. There is a book written in Bengali on the subject. It is called Baul Dhongsher Fatwa (The Fatwa for the Destruction of Bauls). We, who have done some research on the subject, know that some words, in due course of time, loose their original inflection and begin to sound the same. The word ‘Baul’ has parallels not only in Persian and Arabic, but also in the Buddhist language; it occurs four times in the Charchapad (3). ?Examples would include bajule and bayura. Similar words also exist in Sanskrit. Etymologically the word ‘Baul’ thus has various roots. Uma (referring to Umarani Das who is sitting in the audience) does not identify herself as ‘Baul’ in her everyday life. She does so only when she identifies herself before people like us because if she doesn’t identify as a ‘Baul’, nobody would invite her to perform. We have thus emptied the words of their original meaning, invented these categories and thrust them upon these people and upon society. Within the Muslim community, the word/category ‘Baul’ was eventually done away with. And I can cite numerous such examples where the word ‘Fakir’ occurs within Hinduism. If you read the writing of Akshay Kumar Dutta, you will know exactly what I am talking about. The person who constituted the Ghosh-para (referring to the neighbourhood where people belonging to the ‘Ghosh’ community dwell) called himself ‘Fakir Thakur’. It is we who have created the categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Mussalman’; ‘Baul’ and ‘Fakir’. It is ironical that people who have critiqued and questioned the very notions and boundaries of caste and religion are being forced back by us into those very same boxes owing to the imposition of the categories of ‘Baul and ‘Fakir’. This is lamentable!

I have made one small error, allow me to rectify. Within Islamic tradition also the word ‘Fakir’ has existed. Someone resides in the 24 Parganas and sings the songs of ‘Muskil Asaan’ will know what I mean. There are a group of people within the Islamic community who choose a life of renunciation and mendicancy and identify themselves as ‘Fakirs’.

In recent years, the term ‘Sufi’ has come in vogue. All of you know that the terms ‘Sufi’, ‘Fakir’ and ‘Darbesh’ are synonyms. Also, ‘Sufi’ is an Anglicised word. The root word in Arabic is ‘Tasauf’. Within Islam, a lot of people wish to create a separate identity for themselves by the use of the term ‘Sufi’.? And the Europeans and Americans, who control the world, see ‘Sufi’ Islam as more innocuous and acceptable to orthodox Islam. Hence the identity ‘Sufi’ is gaining currency. However, this too is an imposition from above. People who have researched on the Bauls of Bengal such as Enamul Haque, in his book Bonge Sufi Probhab (The Influence of Sufism in Bengal) published in 1935, has refrained from naming the Bauls of Bengal as ‘Sufis’. Neither has Rizvi in his renowned book ever used the term ‘Sufi’ to refer to Bauls. There may be Sufi elements, on Buddhist elements on Nath elements in Baul philosophy and music, but Bauls are Bauls. Outside Bengal (here I am referring to both Bengals) the word ‘Baul’ does not exist. It is a localized identity, practise, music, philosophy, whichever way we choose to see it. Other similar traditions may exist, influenced in various degrees by the Bhakti movement, but none are as radical as the Bauls. ‘Love’ is not their only point of focus. The ‘Baul’ tradition openly critiques concepts of caste and skin colour and openly renounces any notion of the ‘material’, whether it is the human body or wealth and private property. Their struggle against all such existing systems is an ancient one and has been continuing for generations. And they are carrying on their struggle, against a society which believes in class and categories through their music, but more so through their philosophy and their way of life.

Shaktinath is here referring to the bourgeois middle-class ‘gentleman’ of Bengal.

2.‘Kangal’ literally means a mendicant and in the context of Baul/fakir, symbolizes someone who has renounced all wealth and material possessions.

3. The oldest written text of the Bengali language.

Translator: Parjanya Sen