Lalon: Heart of Madness

Lalon: Heart of Madness

Filmed Theatre Review by Nasreen Akhter

Lalon is considered as one of the greatest philosophers and spiritual poet-musicians
in the Indian subcontinent, especially in what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Reputed to be born in 1774 and living to the grand age of 116, he did not have any
institutional or formal education. Yet he left behind a vernacular legacy that is
unbeatable by even the most prolific of minds. This Baul fakir or wandering
spiritualist created between 2,000 to 8,000 mystical, social and political songs that
passed over the generations through his followers – a fact that is little known outside
of Bengali/Bangladeshi circles. Although Lalon has been mostly renowned for his
philosophy on dehotottowthat is, ‘truth in the body’, the central theme of Baulism
that the universe resides in the receptacle of the body - he also espoused the idea of
releasing oneself from the bonds of self. He truly believed that we are all equal, not
just with regard to class, caste, and religion but also gender. 
It is with this message that the play, Lalon: Heart of Madness - written by Raminder
Kaur and directed by Mukul Ahmed - shines with brilliance. Luna, a British Bangladeshi
woman in her late twenties, travels to Bangladesh to enjoy her last moment of
independence as a single person before getting married, arranged by her family.
Played by the singer and actor, Sparsh Bajpai, she is also commemorating her father’s
death by exploring her desh - her country of roots from the routes that her family had
taken to live in England decades ago. 
While she was visiting the riverside town, Kushtia, with her younger brother (Sheikh
Naz) - famous for its Lalon Akhra, the shrine of Lalon fakir - Luna experiences a
renewed calmness and sustenance in the meaning of life that is inherent in Lalon’s
songs, mysticism and philosophy.  This is the main thread of the drama, Lalon: Heart
of Madness, which I had the pleasure to watch on a digital platform at a time of the
COVID-19 pandemic. The filmed theatre was first screened as part of the Season of
Bangla Drama festival in November 2020, followed by a fuller version in December
2020 by an impressive team working for the producers, Sohaya Visions and Mukul &
Ghetto Tigers. 

I truly appreciated how the writer tried to integrate Lalon’s songs into the narrative of
the drama by weaving the past of Lalon’s era and the present of Luna’s dilemma
between independence and betrothal. The songs were beautifully re-enacted by the
performers, Delwar Hossain Dilu and Sadia Chowdhury. And the message was
profound: based on Baul philosophy, the irrelevance of barriers such as caste, class,
and religion and, in particular, the fluidity of gender and women as the embodiment of
fundamental powers and nareer shakti conveying her power to choose. 
A young woman, born and bought up in the so called ‘modern world’ yet living under
a strong patriarchal system (emphasised ironically by her widowed mother who ‘now
wears the trousers’), Luna realised that she had the shakti inside her to choose the
‘madness’ of the divine universe rather than the ‘maya’ or veils of deceptions erected
by people. Inspired by the philosophical songs of Lalon, she discovers the strength to
resist social stigmas and slurs at such a woman as ‘a slut’, or ‘a mad and bad woman’
in the eyes of the world. 
Even though in a patriarchal society like in Bangladesh, women have been considered
as submissive and dependent on men – father, brother, husband - the drama shows
how this phenomenon continues to apply to women from more modern contexts such
as London. In this respect, Lalon was a revolutionary and a visionary: at a time when
the norms of society were regulated by gender, religion and caste, Lalon spoke, or
rather sang out against their artifice and evils so many years ago. Luna chose to
respond to this message.

The drama starts with an ethereal rendition of Ami Opar Hoye Bose Achhi (Helpless,
I’m Waiting) by what appears to be a woman dressed in white walking through a
forest. Lalon’s songs are then conveyed through a male figure. This transition was
intriguing and powerful as if it did not matter who wrote or performed the song. It is
the song’s lyricism and significance that mattered the most. 
The songs immediately transported me to the Lalon Akhra, where Lalon’s followers
and Bauls made their home, and annually celebrated with a festival. Though it was
an artificial set, I felt that I was walking amidst the magic of that spiritual land. The
sounds of the river - finely edited by the filmmaker Tarun Jasani and the sound
designer Sarah Sayeed - reminded me that we are all but one miniscule part of that
river, every person flowing and mingling like the rippling and cascading currents no
matter what their individual identity. It was an evocative metaphor for each of our
life’s journeys. 

Luna too gets lost in the flows of the river and everything it evokes and encompasses
– people, life, death, and different times and spaces. She wants to reconnect with her
brother as much as she does with the spirit of her father, also an enthusiast of Lalon.
She wants to forget the Whitechapel that she came from in east London and explore
the Asian shrine that inspired her in north Bangladesh.
Provoked by her conservative elder cousin (Rez Kabir), she realises it was this spirit
that she needed to chaperone her, not a male relative. She discovers that as a woman
she has the shakti to overcome the hurdles and carve out her own path even though
she might be called a slut, beshya, were she to do so. Through Lalon’s vision and
calling, she finds the power to shake off social shackles and become her true self.
In one of his most famous compositions, Lalon said: '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?’ Way
over a century ago, Lalon noted the limitations of identity for a woman, but this
message is still relevant to the contemporary, materialist world of the new millennium
where women and their roles continue to be defined by menfolk. 

Lalon steadfastly celebrated the powers of women: ‘in the ancient temple women
were the prime priest, respect women for the shakti she holds. Everyone has a choice’.
And when a Baul extends an invitation to Luna to join the madness of the universe
rather than the maya of the world in the drama, Luna inevitably chose madness –
the true reality beyond the veils of caste, class, religious and gender distinctions.
This is the most enthralling theme of all - who are we to categorize or
compartmentalise the universe or those within it?  The drama elevates this theme
with elan, prompting me to think that we all are part of the flow of the river,
enhanced by the sounds of its currents and the place at the creek‘where different
rivers meet and merge into the sea of oneness that is deeper, richer and more
Lalon’s philosophy proclaims manobotabaad (humanity and humaneness) where
there is no discrimination. It is a humanist vision but not one that owes to
Eurocentric Enlightenment ideas that, however enlightened, still discriminated
against women and other races and ethnicities. Lalon: Heartof Madness is an
instructive reminder that Europe is not the only origin or fount for free thinkers and
progressive philosophers. In an original and alluring way, the drama emphasises
that philosophers, secular thinkers, or progressive free-minded intellectuals
emerged in the Global South as well. It also highlighted how women always had
and have the power to choose, to carve out their own path, that South Asia is not
just the site of their submission. 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of chaos, misery, grief, isolation and
challenges to our everyday lives. But it also brought profound creativity, amplified
by digital platforms. Even though I could not applaud the drama as I might as part
of a live audience, I applauded it and all those involved in it from the madness of my

Photos by Rez Kabir and Tarun Jasani


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