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  • পরবাস | Essay
  • Bengali Songs to the Goddess Kali : Sagaree Sengupta
    translated from Bengali to English by

    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!

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

    You're a poor farmer, mind of mine!
    You've let the precious field of human life
    sit fallow too long.
    If only you had planted right
    a golden crop would be yours by now!
    If you had fenced it around
    with the name of Ma Kali,
    no one could ever seize it from you.
    Even the God of Death couldn't smash
    the stout barrier of the wild-haired Goddess.
    Don't you know it could be confiscated
    from under your feet this very moment
    or a hundred years hence?
    Mind, the ownership rights are still yours -
    whisk away the harvest this minute!
    The Guru planted the seeds,
    but the rain of your devotion
    must irrigate the fields.

    #2 Mortgaged To Shiva

    Mortgaged To Shiva
    Ramprasad Sen (3)

    What riches will you grant me?
    What wealth do you have to give?
    Your gracious glance,
    or the lotus of your feet?
    It's all mortgaged to Shiva!
    Is there any hope at all
    of getting your feet back from him?*
    Kali, try with all your might
    to extricate yourself -
    what good can it do worshipers
    if a holy icon drowns
    in its own vessel of offered milk?
    Even if you allowed me a share
    in the grace of your precious feet,
    it wouldn't be worth much
    since Father Shiva's exchanged
    his very own corpse
    for a stake in the same!
    But what of the son's right
    to a father's wealth?
    What will I get of that?
    Ramprasad says: I've been labeled
    an unworthy son.
    My legacy's been snatched.

    *To touch the Goddess' feet in supplication is to also receive her blessings. Kali stands on the corpse of her husband Shiva, so in the eyes of the petulant poet, the great "father god" has usurped the "grace of her lotus feet" from the rightful recipient, namely Ramprasad himself.

    #3 I'm Not Calling You Mother Anymore

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

    I'm not calling you Mother anymore.
    You've given me such agony,
    and keep giving me more.
    I used to be a happy householder.
    You've made me into a crazy ascetic.
    What else can you do to me, Wild-Haired One?
    I'd go from house to house
    and beg my food,
    rather than call you Mother,
    or come to your arms,
    or sit in your lap again.
    I kept calling "Mother, Mother,"
    but Mother, your eyes didn't see
    and your ears didn't hear.
    Can any other misfortune matter
    when a son suffers like an orphan
    with his mother still there?

    #4 It Comes To Nothing

    It Comes To Nothing
    Ramprasad Sen (5)

    Human rebirth is the hope of hopes,
    but my coming into the world
    was just coming,
    and came to nothing in the end.
    A bee imagines a painting
    to be the real lotus
    and stubbornly hovers near.
    Mother, you tricked me with words
    and fed me neem leaves
    saying they were sugar.
    My mouth slavered for sweet
    but tasted only bitter.
    You have cheated me
    my whole life long.
    You put me on earth saying
    "It's time for us to play,"
    but the game you played
    only disappointed me.

    Ramprasad says this outcome
    of the game of existence
    was always meant to be.
    Now night falls, come and take
    your tired child home.

    #5 Always-Blissful Mother

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

    Mother, you're always blissful.
    You charmed destructive Shiva.
    you dance in your own joy,
    and clap your hands to keep time.
    O Elemental, Eternal One!
    Your form is empty space,
    yet the moon adorns your brow.
    Where did you get your garland of severed heads,
    before the universe came into being?

    You are the operator,
    and we nothing but machines
    that run by your rule.
    We stay where you put us,
    and say what you make us say.
    Cursing you, O Destructive One,
    restless Kamalakanta says:
    With the sword in your hand
    you've slaughtered my faith
    together with my disbelief.

    #6 Kali the Trickster

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

    Kali, I know that you know
    how to play tricks.
    You let anyone call you
    by any name they choose:
    The Magas call you Pharatara,
    Europeans call you God;
    Mughals and Pathans,
    Saiyids and Qazis
    all call you Khoda.
    Shaktas say you are their Shakti,
    Shaivas call you Shiva.
    Sauryas think you're the Sun,
    and pious Vaishnavas call you
    O gracious Radha.
    Ganapatyas call you Ganesh,
    and Yakshas call you Kuber.
    Craftsmen call you Vishvakarma;
    boatmen say you're their saint, Badar.
    Ramdulal says this is no illusion.
    From what comes to pass,
    the truth is felt.
    Only the mind misbehaves, and takes One God
    to be many.

    * This poem features a number of different communities found in South Asia during the poet's lifetime; each community is paired with the respective object of its devotion. The Magas are a people of (what is now) Northeastern India and Bangladesh, and Pharatara is presumably a deity in their traditional pantheon. Pathans are from Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan. Saiyids are Muslims believed to have descended from the family of the prophet Muhammad. Qazis are Islamic judges. Khoda is the Persian and Hindustani word for the Islamic unitary God. Sauryas are worshippers of the sun. Ganapati is another name of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, and Ganapatyas are his special devotees. Yakshas are nature deities who often guard hidden treasures, and the legendary Kuber is the wealthiest of the Yakshas. Vishvakarma is the Hindu patron god of architects and craftsmen. Badar is the Muslim patron saint of boatmen.

    #7 Make Me Crazy, Brahma-filled Mother

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

    Make me crazy,
    O Brahma-filled mother!
    I no longer need
    my judgment or reason.
    Intoxicate me
    with the wine of your love!
    I no longer have any use for
    my judgment or reason.

    O Mother who steals her devotees' hearts,
    Drown me in an ocean of passion!

    In your madhouse,
    some laugh, some cry
    and some dance with joy.
    Jesus, Moses, and Chaitanya*
    are all struck senseless
    by the weight of your love.
    Mother, when will I be blessed
    and become one with them?
    In heaven your lunatics
    gather in a parade,
    gurus no better than disciples.
    No one understands
    the whimsical play of your love!
    You too are maddened
    and rave impassioned-
    Mother, you are
    the crowning jewel of the mad!
    Make your beggar servant rich
    with the same love-madness!

    *Chaitanya is the well-known Bengali Vaishnava saint and teacher of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries.

    #8 Clinging To Your Feet

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

    I lie clinging to your feet,
    but you never look at me, Mother.
    You're lost in your own play,
    and engrossed in your own emotion.
    What is this sport you revel in
    across earth, heaven and the underworld?
    The entire universe closes its eyes in terror,
    and calls out "Mother, Mother!"
    while clutching at your feet.
    In your hands, Kali, you hold
    the world's final destruction.
    Under your feet
    even the great Shiva
    lies unconscious.
    Wild laughter issues from your mouth
    and streams of blood flow down your limbs.
    Tara*, forgiving one, end our fear!

    Pick me up like a baby in your arms.
    Come shining like a star,
    with a smiling face
    and in fair dress, like the dawn
    after a pitch-black night!
    All these days, O Terrible Kali,
    I've worshiped only you.
    My puja is done, Mother.
    Won't you put down your sword?

    *The word for star in Bengali is also "tara."

    #9 Strike the Pose of Sweet Krishna

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

    Strike the bent pose of sweet Krishna
    when he dances with the cowherd-girls;
    come stand in the shrine
    of the heart's temple.
    Come show yourself
    as the charming crooked one
    with Radha at your side.
    Take off your skirt of human arms
    and put on the yellow dhoti
    of the cowherd god.
    Put the peacock feather on your head,
    and crook one foot over the other.
    Abandon your garland of human heads
    and put on the garland of forest flowers instead.
    Be the Dark Charmer for once,
    and not the Black Destroyer.
    O woman with heart of stone,
    the lotus of my heart blossoms
    when it sees the black moon!
    Just once, drop the sword
    and pick up the bamboo flute!
    Fulfill the yearning of the faithful!

    #10 The Fire of the World

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

    I'll surely go mad now.
    The fire of the world
    burns in my brain--
    how long can I bear it?
    I lost myself in the pursuit
    of women and wealth, O Tara!
    I'm possessed
    by this wretched burden,
    and I die of fatigue
    from the toil of carrying it.

    I take great pains
    to fix my mind on you,
    but it won't stay.
    It's teased by worldly affairs.
    O Mother Kali,
    your beggar servant
    pleads in desperation-
    he can turn to no one else
    on earth, in heaven, in hell!
    At your gracious feet, he begs
    that his appeal not be in vain,
    the way his life has been.

    *Tara, or "The One Who Helps The Soul Cross Over," is another name for Kali.

    #11 Ferry Of The Soul

    Ferry Of The Soul
    Kalidas Bhattacharya (19th c.)(12)
    [At the end of the following poem, the poet shortens his name to "Kali" as well, to pun with the name of his goddess.]

    Oh Tara, ferry of the soul,
    help me get across!
    I've fallen into the waves
    and don't know how to swim.
    My body is a worn-out boat
    laden heavily with sin.
    What can I grasp, what can I do?
    I can't cross
    this ocean of existence
    on my own.

    I thought I'd go to Banaras,
    and live the holy life
    while waiting to die.
    But I fell into the waters
    of the ocean of desire;
    now I'm drowning again.
    I can't reach either shore,
    they're both so far away.
    You're the ferryman in the middle-
    the poet Kali's only hope
    is Kali at the helm.

    #12 Set Sail!

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

    Your dry riverbed is flooded at last!
    Shout "Mother!" and set sail!
    Hey boatman! Where's the boatman?
    Call out for him!
    Grab the rudder, loosen the moorings!
    Your debts grew every day,
    and none of you did any trade.
    You haven't a penny left.
    You've passed your days tied to the riverbank -
    how can lift your shameful faces!
    Now untie the boat and raise the sail,
    come what may!

    #13 I'm Leaving You Now, Shyama*

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

    Shyama, I'm leaving you now.
    I was only tricked into calling you "Mother."
    You are the stone-hearted daughter
    of the stony mountain god.
    By your magic, you made me
    hard-hearted too - until now.
    Today I see the face of my real mother
    and melt into tears, Mother!
    I'm not beguiled by black anymore,
    now that light has charmed me.
    You had me deceived,
    and now I've deceived you.
    I've recovered from your spell,
    and I go to the lap of my mother, Mother!

    * Shyama is another name for Kali, meaning "The Dark One." In Tagore's dance-drama Balmiki-pratibha [The Genius of Valmiki], Valmiki, the legendary sage and "first poet" of the Indian tradition, is portrayed as a Kali-worshiping bandit who comes to eschew violence and shifts his allegiance to Sarasvati, the goddess of poetry and music. This song is Valmiki's famous farewell to Kali from the work.

    #14 Ink On My Face, Ink On My Hands

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

    Oh mother of mine,
    There's ink* on my hands,
    ink on my face.
    The neighbors laugh.
    My education amounts to nothing -
    I see "ShyaMa" in the letter M
    And Kali in the letter K,
    I dance and clap my hands.
    Only my tears multiply
    when my eyes light
    on the rows of black marks
    in multiplication tables.
    I couldn't care less for
    the alphabet's shades of sound
    since your dark, lovely shade
    isn't among them.
    But Mother, I can read
    all that you write
    on leaves in the forest,
    on the waters of the sea,
    and in the ledger of the sky.
    Let them call me illiterate.

    *The Bengali original of this song plays on the word for ink, "kali," which is pronounced identically with the name of the goddess Kali.

    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.

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