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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.