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
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
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. 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
2. Tripurasankar Sen, ed., Shakta Padavali; Sadhan-Tattva o Ras-bisleshan
(Calcutta: Bama Pustakalay, 1962), 53.
3. Dhrubakumar Mukhopadhyay, ed., Shakta Padavali (Calcutta: Ratnavali,
4. Shashibhushan Dasgupta, Bharater Shakti Sadhana o Shakti
Sahitya (Calcutta: Samsad, 1993), 222.
5. Dhrubakumar Mukhopadhyay, ed., Shakta Padavali (Calcutta: Ratnavali,
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,
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
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
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.