interviewed at Townsend Rd, Kolkata
February 25, 2015
- Will you tell us the meaning
of the song you just sang?
- Joy Guru! Lalan Shah here seems to be saying that the quarrel over the inhabited house is never ending. In our body, there are six temptations— anger, desire, etc. Each of these temptations has seventy behavioral patterns. So, there are six main temptations and their various manifestations. These have to be conquered. It is possible to conquer or control these through utterance/ zikr (of the supreme one). Every minute, you need to utter the name of the supreme one or your guru— you have to perform ibadat/ devotion. Every hour, you have to perform this utterance three to three and a half thousand times. So you can calculate how many such utterances you have to perform in twenty-four hours. Also, you have to eat, sometimes even fast. Sadhana/ practice is a form of knowledge which emanates from the guru, it is very difficult and rigorous. Practice begins by a disciplining of the body, through which you can eventually attain the supreme one. For this, you need a guru. This is a sadhana/ practice involving the material body. Sadhana can be of two types- of the material body and of emotions/ bhava. The songs of Lalan Shah focus on sadhana through the material body, by controlling the physical body.
- So where do you live?
- I live in Nadia, village Gourbhanga.
- Give us a brief history of your life.
- My parents were both initiated with a guru. Ilahi Dada was the name of the guru. My mother was his disciple. As a young boy, I remember my father’s mother, Zahera Bibi, who was a fakir. The famous Azhar Fakir, father of Mansur Fakir, was a close friend of my grandmother. They used to chat at our house. I was around ten years old and I remember our house being a place where such gatherings would happen of various fakirs, who along with my grandmother, practiced sadhana and music. I often used to sit in and listen to these sadhus and gurus. I used to love listening to them speak. Musical gatherings were very common at our place. I was slowly inspired by them and used to tell my grandmother that this path intrigued me. This sadhana of the body— which is your material possession— allows you a glimpse of the supreme one, of Allah or Ishwar. Thus, I slowly began sitting with these sadhus. Slowly, I also started learning singing. Me, my father, Ansar Fakir, Mansur Fakir, Khaibar Fakir— all the fakirs of our village used to congregate at our place and we used to practice music. And one fine day, I felt like performing songs publicly. So I began performing in public. After some time, I felt the need to enter the world of bodily sadhana. This is the prime practice. My mother advised me to not get married and become a sannyasi. And I am still following her advice. One day a Lalan song inspired me deeply— “Oh! When will the dust of the sadhu’s feet touch my body? / Touched by the sadhu’s feet, your body becomes as precious as gold…” My mother agreed to my disposition, and I began hunting for a sadhu. I thus began my singing career and also started seeking the company of sadhus. In these sadhu gatherings, I was also given initiation into bodily practice/ sadhana and made to understand how Lalan’s songs revolved around such practice. I realized the importance of this mode of practice and began performing the zikr/ utterance of the supreme one. I began practicing disciplining of the body through utterance/ zikr from a very young age. I also began studying the verses of Lalan. There is a song by Lalan— “Resplendent in his agelessness, he assumes a form through formlessness; / only those with foresight can see…” Lalan has said vis-à-vis Allah that sometimes he takes the form of air and returns to air. I began visiting Data Huzoor in Patharchapri in Birbhum. Travelling thus, I also visited Ajmer Sharif. You have to walk for thirteen to fourteen days to reach Ajmer Sharif on foot. I could only walk for three or four days. It is a hard journey, the journey of a pilgrim. After returning, I opened an ashram at my house. There are daylong musical gatherings at our ashram. My prime sadhana is Fakir sadhana and this is the sole objective of my life. It is a very difficult form of sadhana. Even Lalan himself describes his repeated failures, so how can we even think of succeeding? Lalan Shah, who is a great Pir, had sacrificed everything, and yet couldn’t achieve success. He has shown us the path. We have to conquer temptations such as desire and anger. First we need to conquer desire. And that is a very difficult thing indeed. Performing ibadat/ devotion and zikr/ utterance is the most important objective of the Fakir way of life. One has to retain the life force. Swami Vivekananda, too, had advocated the same. This can be achieved through a bodily sadhana.
Within this path of sadhana, concentration plays a major role. The one, who concentrates or focuses on the guru, doesn’t need to fear anything. After repeatedly uttering the name of the guru, he or she reaches the state of Fanafillah. This utterance, as Lalan himself has said, cannot be taught to every disciple, as not everyone is capable of such utterance. In the final stages of this utterance, one can obtain a vision of the divine one. “The clay puppet that is made to dance (by the puppeteer)/ is killed and brought to life again/ when the Sai wishes to show himself/ Lalan says, only then can he be perceived.” If you yourself cannot perceive Allah, no one else can make you perceive. Someone who promises to show you Allah is actually a fake, according to Lalan Shah. I myself have been initiated by Data Huzoor. They organized gatherings of fakirs at Damodar. The Fakirs there would exchange various words of wisdom. They would speak about the ways in which to obtain a vision of the divine, if one is a true devotee. The Murshid will show himself and then disappear into the air. I have read some verses by Lalan. I perform his songs, and am a devoted follower. From a very young age, I have been performing his songs. And although I have learnt, I try to interpret his words in my own way. People have their individual paths; no one can walk another’s path. Lalan says, “Each goes his own way in the world of samsara/ Futile is your house, your wealth, your pursuits”. According to Lalan, the world is a dream, an illusion. Once you wake up, you realize you have acquired nothing. The world is an illusion, dharma or your faith is the only truth. And this Dharma can be followed through the sadhana of the body. The body eats from the soil, goes back to the soil. Allah cannot be achieved in one life alone. I love that song by Lalan— “My devotion finds its fruition/ in knowing who I am.” Lalan here seems to be saying that through sadhana, one can obtain a vision of one’s past births. And indeed you can see your previous incarnations if you are a true Fakir. But you can’t tell that to anyone. If the Guru so initiates, you can see who you were, where you were born, etc.
So, according to Lalan, the means of attaining Allah is through the sadhana of the worldly body. You have to perform zikr. “Concentrate upon his name and his form/ If you worship his impression, in your mind you will perceive Allah/ the phrase La-Illaha-Illalah on your lips…” Only by the performance of zikr, one can perceive Allah. But one needs to be devoted to sadhana. Lalan says, “Many can proclaim, yet only two among a crore can perceive…” In India, a land of a hundred and fifty crore people, there will hardly be fifteen or twenty Pirs/ realized souls. Yet, being optimistic, everyone wants a vision of Allah. But only the true devotee, one who practices sadhana, one who has his eyes cast at the feet of his guru, one whose mind in fixated on the divine one, he alone can attain Allah.
- You mention that you were initiated at an early age. How old were you then?
- I was around ten or twelve. In our path, you need worldly experience in order to fully enter the world of bodily sadhana. So you need to start early. Forty is roughly the age from which you can fully immerse yourself into sadhana. But, prior to that, you need to start understanding and practicing the dharma, so that by forty, you are ready. You can’t start growing new crops in the dry season. No matter how much manure you put, even if the plants grow, the fruits won’t come. Lalan has said that once the age is past, you cannot be initiated any more. So, one needs to start at the proper time. You can’t wait till you have enjoyed the world of samsara. If that was the case, everyone would have become a Pir. But people nonetheless hold on to optimism. Those who have the guru’s blessings will be able to come close to Allah. Lalan too says that once the right age is past, one can’t practice sadhana.
- How old are you at present?
- I am around 42-43.
- At present we are seeing a great congregation of Fakir at Gourbhanga. Were they always there?
- Yes. Earlier too, Fakirs were here, and more used to come from Bangladesh to Gourbhanga. Azhar Fakir and also my grandmother, Zahera Bibi, were from here. There were atleast twenty or thirty Fakirs then in our village. Now there are around fifty-sixty performing fakirs and five-six ashrams in our village. It0’s all the blessing of Lalan Shah that our village has such a dedicated tradition of fakirs. At morning, during the day, at evening, at night, there is perpetual music at our village. People come from various parts of the country, also abroad. Music is also taught to young murids. They gain knowledge from the gurus.
- All these ashrams you talk about were established just last year. What was the picture like earlier?
- The ashrams are about twenty to twenty-five years old.
- But. Weren’t these
established last year?
- In a more formal way yes. But the gatherings were always there prior to that. The rooms were straw huts, places of informal gathering of fakirs. The sadhus and gurus would congregate here and talk. They would often perform one or two songs. But the performances were not on the scale that we see now. Then, people would discuss, talk more (regarding discourses of practice and sadhana) rather than perform songs.
- So what do you feel regarding this transition?
- It is a good thing indeed, much better than what used to be. Now, Fakir songs have percolated into every household, people are learning these forms. Earlier, there was a pressure from the fundamentalist Shariati groups of Islam. Now, that has almost disappeared.
- What was the fundamentalist pressure earlier?
- It’s still there, although less. Music, etc. is seen as haraam/ sin. The ashrams would be broken down; we would be forbidden to perform. Well, society today is more educated; people too are observing and changing their outlook. They realize that humanity is above all these- Dharma, Hindu, Muslim. Lalan too says the same thing.
- So, at present how many Fakir artists are there in your village?
- Around fifty to sixty. Additionally, there are around two hundred in training with a guru.
- You perform in a lot of places right?
- So which places have you been to?
- In India, I have travelled to Bombay and Delhi. Abroad, I have travelled in Europe— London, Switzerland, France. I have also performed in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
- But people abroad do not
understand the language in which you sing.
- But the supreme one, just like the sun, is everywhere. Any sensitive being can resonate with my music. They know what this Fakir is singing. Through music, one can attain the divine. And this resonates with the ones who are sensitive. There are two kinds of Fakirs— the performing Bauls who only sing but are not into sadhana and those who practice sadhana and at the same time also perform songs. The former are mainly householders, they only sing and dance, but do not practice bodily sadhana. One who is both a performer and also a practitioner (of bodily sadhana) is likely to more easily resonate with the receptive and sensitive souls. He can easily conquer the hearts of a hundred thousand. He has that capability, that spiritual power. He knows the Fakir tradition inside out. Yet, these kinds of fakirs are rare to come by.
- So which category do you fall
- That’s difficult for me to say. It is for people to decide (smiles).
- The common people who listen to you may not be attuned to the discourse of bodily sadhana. And yet, they are able to glean some meaning from your songs, right?
- There are four ways— Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat, Marfat. Shariatis are true to the written word, Tariqat adherents follow the actions of the Prophet, Haqiqat adherents strive to know the truth of our being and nature and avoid sin/ haraam, and the Marfatis straightaway begin their search for the divine, and journey into an altogether different realm.
- So who appreciates your songs more- those who already have a certain knowledge about these discourses or the ones that are absolutely uninitiated?
- Those who have some knowledge of course appreciate more. The uninitiated ones simply listen to the music and go their own way. But the ones who really seek to know more about bodily sadhana try and grasp the meaning of the song. Many among them wish to seek a guru, come to him and receive knowledge and instruction. The ones who truly have such a bent of mine will definitely seek out a guru and initiate themselves.
- So in order to fully initiate yourself, how many years do you have to spend with a guru at his abode?
- Let me tell you something. A man, despite remaining devoted throughout his life, may not obtain the divine one. But then, he may attain another birth. Lalan says that human deeds determine your birth. If one engages in bad deeds, he or she will reincarnate as an animal- dog, goat, sheep, etc. but one who leads a devotee’s life, even though he or she may not attain the divine in one birth, will definitely return in human form to continue his or her devotion in the next birth. Lalan says the sleep of a prophet can equal a hundred thousand human years on this planet. It is very difficult to attain a human birth. One needs to pass through eighty cycles of birth before attaining a human birth. So, if a devotee’s sadhana remains incomplete in one life, he or she will definitely return in a human form to complete that sadhana.
- Do you have any other sources of income?
- See, if I only run after material wealth and gain, my sadhana will remain incomplete. I can’t become a nabi or a true devotee if I only pursue material gain. I am devoted to Data Huzoor. I follow his instructions and lead my life accordingly. He is a very renowned saint, and does not easily commit himself to induct disciples. Lalan says, “Allah is bound to the disciple’s threshold.” Allah reveals himself to the true devotee. This knowledge, however, is solely dependent on the guru. The guru shows you the way of devotion and it is by rigorously following this form of sadhana that one can get to perceive Allah. The prophet will never reveal himself directly, but through the guru. The prophet says that you have to keep practicing utterance, and sooner or later he shall reward you by revealing himself.
- You also have a lot of followers in the cities, right?
- So who do you think understands your songs more— people, like us, in cities, or the villagers?
- People in the villages also understand my songs. But they are simple and less clever than people of the cities. In the cities, not everyone wants to embark on the path of sadhana. Many simply wish to understand it objectively. In the villages however, those who pursue a guru do so with complete sincerity. Their approach is not objective. In the cities, life is fast. But if the divine one so wishes, a person from the big city too can embark on the path of sadhana. Most cannot attain Allah in one birth. One needs a certain disposition of the mind to start such a form of sadhana. The Guru understands exactly what the disciple is seeking, and accordingly, will initiate him or her. Lalan has said— “The prophet has displayed precious gems in his shop/ what you wish, you buy.” So too, the Guru understands exactly what a disciple may be seeking and initiates him or her accordingly.
- So how many disciples do you have at present?
- I don’t have any disciples as of now. I am still striving to be the perfect disciple of Data Huzoor. So I haven’t begun taking disciples. These days, a guru may have up to four or five thousand disciples. This is impossible. Lalan had only three or four disciples. But these days Gurus have their own forms of knowledge I suppose. They alone know what form of sadhana they are engaged in. It is not easy to have a disciple. “If you wish to perceive the flower so shall you/ even though the seed may not have yet been planted.” Lalan seems to be saying, that a disciple is one who may even be born without a seed being planted. That is the mark of a true disciple. It is actually a very difficult process to initiate another into being your disciple.
- So are you happy with the path on which you have embarked?
- Yes, immensely. It’s a beautiful but rigorous path. I haven’t succeeded in this one life, but I still consider myself rewarded. It indeed is a wonderful path.
- Do you believe in re-incarnation?
- I think it may be possible to believe in rebirth. This is possible only through sadhana, where one can perceive what one was in the previous life. Everyone has a certain goal to reach, more so if you are a true devotee seeking the divine one. Consider a goat or a dog. They have the cage (body) yet no power of speech. You call a dog, it comes. The dog too is under the will of Allah. You give it food and it will eat. It has all other faculties except speech. So human beings have been created as the most evolved, because they possess the power of speech. Allah has given humans this capacity so that they are able to utter his name. But we have forgotten it, trapped ourselves in the world of illusion. Lalan has said, “Passing through extreme torments, I have attained this human form/ yet, forgotten have I those, after coming to earth; / O Guru! Make me the vassal at your feet!” So, trapped in this world of maha-maya (grand illusion), we forget all that we had to endure for attaining this human birth. For someone who sincerely embarks on the path of sadhana, the guru shall be able to show him all that he has endured in his previous births and now forgotten, trapped within illusion. The Guru shall show him the merits he accumulated through sadhana in his previous births. It is not possible to attain Allah in one life.
- So how do you see yourself in your next birth?
- I cannot predict that. If my sadhana is true, my merits shall be carried forward. I live with the hope that I shall be able to attain a human birth again. A true devotee can see his previous lives.
- So what do you find most difficult within this path which you have embarked on?
- It is a very difficult path, one of the most in the world. I do not know if I shall be able to achieve what I seek in this one life. No one can guarantee whether a devotee, even if his faith is true, will be able to attain the divine. Lalan has said, and so have other sadhus, that peace is more important than happiness. Lalan has said, “It is a dangerous thing, if this desire takes hold/ it doesn’t leave your side, it enslaves you/ The Guru observes all…” If your desire for Allah is true, he will manifest himself to you.
- So what role do women play within the Fakir tradition? Why are there lesser female Fakirs than male Fakirs?
- Well, Fakirs have to perform their utterance. This requires a particular context, a place, a time. The moment has to be right. A person does not inhabit the mode of sadhana all twenty-hours in a day. The sadhana of men and women are different. The two belong to different levels. Women practice primary forms of sadhana. Yet, one cannot stay within this primary form for the entirety of one’s life. It is like school level, university level, etc. The first step is to renounce desire. Once you renounce desire, you are able to perceive a strange form of transcendental beauty. You have to forsake desire of the flesh in order to perceive Allah. A young girl is like a young boy. She has not yet reached adolescence, hence not known desire. But once she attains adolescence, desire takes hold. It is very difficult for a woman to renounce desire. Only if she begins her sadhana pre puberty, when she is still like a young boy, can she hope to become a fakir. Woman is supreme in all other aspects. And yet, this path is most difficult for her to emulate. Woman is Fatema. Each practices her or his sadhana according to her or his capability.
- You mentioned that your grandmother, Zahera Bibi, was a fakir? How did she embark upon this path?
- Yes, my paternal grandmother! At that time in our village, a few wandering fakirs would make an occasional appearance. She received her initiations from them and was the first one to initiate me as a child. She was widowed at a young age. I never saw my paternal grandfather. My grandmother raised her two sons- my father, Mujibur and uncle, Fatibur on her own for twenty-five years. She had a very difficult life, living on her own and also pursuing her sadhana. She was the one to initiate me into the fundamental aspects of the Fakir way of life. I realized it was a very difficult path right at the outset. My grandmother used to tell me that if my devotion was genuine, I would eventually find a guru and receive a full initiation. That is how I started keeping company with the sadhus and gurus.
- Who else is there in your family? Do you have brothers and sisters?
- Yes, I have my parents, four brothers and a sister. There is a small ashram at my house. My parents as well as my brothers are initiated with gurus. We all follow the Fakir way of life. This is a very important tradition that we wish to maintain and continue.
- Are your brothers performing
Fakirs or do they also practice the Fakir way of life?
- No, they don’t sing. Some keep the company of sadhus. Not everyone is capable of following the rigorous path of sadhana. You need Allah’s blessings for that. There are also other members who are part of the ashram but not directly related to our family- like Arban, Babu, Golam, etc. Khaibar Fakir, Mansur Fakir, Anwar Fakir, Moinaruddin, Ashraf Fakir, Babur Ali, Mehboob, Shohrab— they are all fakirs from our village. We all perform music. Now few of us also have disciples.
- So how many of you are there in total?
- Around three hundred are there who are initiated with a guru. Besides, there are around fifty resident performers in our village. Every evening, there are musical performances at our ashram.
- Out of all these people, is there anyone in particular you think who was attained a vision of the divine?
- I will not be able to say that. Only the guru and the disciple know. They know and sense in their hearts who has become a prophet by attaining the vision. “If you go with the crazy one, you too shall become crazy,” Lalan has stated. The one who shaves his head alone knows how far he has proceeded on the path of sadhana. If I tell anyone I have seen Data Huzoor, or Lalan Shah, or the khwaja, they may not believe me. It is for you alone to understand and sense that you will attain a vision of the divine. It stays within the mind. The true devotee can know and perceive. Others cannot know. Lalan has shown us the path of sadhana through which we can attain a vision of Allah. But if we proclaim that we have achieved such vision, we are in a way disrespecting him, because not everyone is capable of fully following the path shown to us by Lalan, as it is extremely rigorous.
- Apart from Lalan, there are other realized Fakirs too.
- Yes, there are others. But they come later. The path which Lalan showed is indeed the most difficult and rigorous. To us, he is the one who has spoken the true language of the Quran in Bengali. He is the one who has shown us the way of bodily practice. There was another Fakir, Lal Shashi, around five hundred years ago, but he could not attain the level that Lalan did. And there are many who came after Lalan, who used his songs and the philosophy contained therein to compose their own songs. Allah has revealed himself in the Quran and Lalan has revealed the Quran to us in Bengali. Lalan has said, “Those who believe not in the Prophet are muhayats and kafirs in this world/ thus is said in the Quran.”
- How many songs did Lalan compose?
- I have seen around five thousand. Besides, there are around five or six hundred small devotional songs. I have also heard twenty or fifty songs which can be attributed to Lalan and have been passed down orally. These oral transmissions occur through generations of fakirs. There are many fakir elders in our village who know and sing these songs. Lalan’s songs are so powerful, that if you follow just one composition in its entirety, you can reach the stage of divinity. Lalan’s verses are like gold, which will sparkle even if they fall on earth.
 A metaphor of the human body
 A reference to Vaishnavism and the tradition of bhakti
 The term comes from Sufi or Dervish practice, where the ultimate aim is seen as spiritual extinction or a complete effacement in God (fan?’ fi’llah or fenafillah)
 A crore equals 10 million in the Indian numbering system.
 Samsara here refers to the institution of marriage and the life of the householder, where one weds and procreates.
 The reference here is to textual Islam versus a more heterogeneous mix of practices which fall under Islamic cultural practice. Shariati Islam refers to strictly textual interpretations of Islam which put primacy upon the Quran and Hadiths alone. The latter three— Tariqat, Haqiqat and Marfat Islam refer to a diverse range of practices which draw upon a range of religio-cultural discourses. Sufi, Fakir, Dervish practices focus not so much on the Sharia or written word but the latter three modalities of practice.
 It may be noted here that there is no concept of reincarnation within orthodox forms of Semitic faiths. Shariat Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, does not adhere to the notion of previous lives, a concept intrinsic to the Indic faiths- Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea attributed by Akkash to Lalan here is intrinsic to the Indic religions— Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and the notion of karma determining a person’s next birth. What Akkash Fakir seems to be expostulating here is a complex Sufi tradition which draws upon not one but multiple forms of religious practice in the Indian subcontinent.
 Fatema or Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, the Prophet, is held as one of the four perfect women in Islamic tradition.
Recorded at Townsend Rd, Kolkata on February 25, 2015
Interviewer and Director: Aditi Sircar
Camera: Jesse Alk
Sound: Koustav Sinha
Camera Assistant: Rajib Kuila
Translated by Parjanya Sen