Shah Abdul Karim is one of the most recognised and celebrated baul icons of his time. He was
born into a financially strained family in one of the
most remote villages, Ujan Dhal, under Derai upazilla of Sunamganj district. The bard, who turned 94 this year, was unable to join his birthday
celebrations owing to several age-related ailments.
During a recent visit to his residence (on the occasion of the two-day “Shah Abdul Karim Loko Utshab ‘09″ arranged by the villagers and sponsored by banglalink), this correspondent found that for much of the time the nonagenarian remains asleep. His only son Shah Nur Jalal spoke on Karim’s life and works as well as his current state.
Asked about Karim’s present physical condition, Nur Jalal said that most of the time the bard remains in bed. He does not like being disturbed or talked to. Which is why, initially Nur Jalal had reservations about meeting us. After repeated requests, he escorted us to Karim’s room. Nur Jalal tried to wake him up. An elderly woman, perhaps a caretaker, said that the bard might be up for a while in the afternoon.
After waiting, in vain, the whole afternoon for the ‘Baul Samrat’ to wake up, we decided to meander around the village and try to experience the ambiance that inspired the bard to pen several of his remarkable songs.
First we stopped at the bank of the river Kalni, flowing by Karim’s residence. The beautiful river is a landmark, dividing the landscape in two (the other part of the area is called ‘Bhati Dhal’). During the monsoon, the horizon goes under water and becomes a ‘haor’ (huge lake). In the rainy season, boats are the lone source of communication in the locale. During the dry season, villagers cross miles of distance on foot from one village to another.
At the bazaar, some 15-minute walking distance from Karim’s home, we discovered another honorific by which Karim is known. Many of his fellow villagers call him a ‘Pir’ (holy man)! Villagers even call his residence the ‘pir bari’!
Greater Sylhet is famous not only for its saints but also for mystic bards like Radha Raman, Hason Raja, Shah Abdul Karim and many others.
Karim’s songs often address spirituality but employ everyday issues and incidents that the common villagers can relate to. It can be safely assumed that Karim wrote many songs sitting by the Kalni, watching boats drift by, fishing or contemplating the mysteries of nature. He must have observed homebound cowherds singing soulful ‘bhatiali’ at dusk. Some of Karim’s creations deal with inter-religious harmony and the bard worries that it may not remain the same over the passage of time. Secularism in Shah Abdul Karim’s songs is not forced but is rather intertwined with culture and celebrations.
There is a debate over the accurate number of Karim’s compositions. It is widely known that Karim has composed around 1500 songs, which have been compiled in six books. However, according to Bashiruddin Sarkar, who claims to be a disciple of Karim, the accurate number is close to 2000. Then there are some who say that it’s not over 600.
A great confusion has always surrounded the authentic number of Lalon songs as well. Lalon passed away over a century ago and his contemporaries overlooked his works. Shah Abdul Karim is still alive and it is absolutely possible to collect and preserve the whole collection of his songs to avoid further confusion in future.
On the first day of the music festival, Karim enthusiasts from different areas gathered at his home. They usually honour the bard with their music throughout the night. That night was a memorable one for us. The soiree, locally called ‘ashor,’ took place at the music school run by Nur Jalal, and started around midnight. The soulful renditions soon captivated us. The ‘ashor’ not only featured Karim’s songs but also compositions of many known and unknown bards. Many of Karim’s lesser-known songs were also performed.
The use of instruments at the soiree deserves mention. A percussion, locally known as ‘dopki,’ was the lone instrument accompanying the renditions unless a troupe of three or four musicians started singing with more common instruments like the harmonium and violin. Immersed in messages of Sufism and mysticism, the night passed and dawn knocked at the door unbeknown to the listeners.
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