City of Mirrors

Songs of Lalan Sai

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Editor(s): 
Saymon Zakaria, Keith Cantú
Translator(s): 
Carol Salomon
South Asia Research
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2017.
     648 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190680220.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

City of Mirrors: Songs of Lālan Sẵi is a magisterial work by the late Carol Salomon, ably reconstructed from notes and drafts by Keith E. Cantú and Saymon Zakaria (with a foreword by her husband Richard Salomon and an introduction by Jeanne Openshaw). Prior to her tragic death in 2009 due to a bicycling accident, Carol Salomon was one of our foremost teachers of the Bengali language, and a leading scholar of Bengali religious traditions, especially those known as the Bāuls, antinomian mendicant orders that flourished from the 18th to 20th centuries. Scholars debate their origins, which remain unclear, but they likely go back to at least the 17th century, if not earlier. There have been numerous lineages of Bāuls, and ongoing debates over the term “Bāul.” They are not easily categorized with conventional labels such as “Hindu” or “Muslim.” Bāuls were typically more concerned with the potency of their bodily-based practices (sādhana) than upon ideology or theology, and such practices made extensive use of ritualized sexual intercourse and other transgressive endeavors. Often traveling alone or in small groups from village to village, Bāuls wore distinctive outfits and are best known for their public performances of devotional songs, during which they accompanied themselves on a one-stringed instrument and small drums. These songs, beautifully presented, translated, and annotated, are the primary content of this volume.

Although the Bāuls of the 19th century were decidedly rural and eschewed the trappings of the British colonial system, the educated Bengali elites who benefitted from that system saw in the Bāuls their own lost “roots” in pre-colonial Bengal. As Salomon (and Openshaw) explain, notable Bengali cultural leaders such as Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) popularized the oral traditions and songs of wandering Bāuls, especially Lālan Sẵi (ca. 1774-1890), who left around five hundred often-enigmatic songs that expressed complex views on mysticism, psychophysical practices, and the importance of guru lineages. The fact that Lālan lived fairly recently means that a number of posthumous publications of his songs exist, as well as a number of disciples in various lineages descending from him who can provide oral traditions. But adequately studying these multiple sources of so many songs required a massive scholarly effort, which we see in this impressive volume.

Salomon’s knowledge of, and expertise with, local Bengali dialects, her comprehensive field work, and her remarkable translation skills are all combined in this splendid volume that presents her renderings of one hundred thirty-seven Bāul songs by Lālan. One notable feature of this volume—beyond the superb prefatory and introductory materials—is that it includes for each song the original Bengali version in Bengali script, a Romanized version, a carefully annotated English translation, and a short summary analysis. As she notes in her own introduction, Salomon had to carefully construct the best possible Bengali-language “original” of each song through the careful study of existing manuscript sources and then balance these often-corrupted versions with extant oral versions preserved by contemporary Bāuls in West Bengal and Bangladesh. As Openshaw observes in her introduction: “Equally significant is that this volume is the first to provide a reliable, polished, and at times exceptionally beautiful translation of some of the most important songs in the Bāul (and indeed the Bengali) repertoire, one that will not be superseded for decades to come, if ever. It is therefore not only of importance to academic researchers; it will give non-Bengali speaking readers access to Lālan’s songs” (xxi).

We encounter the elegance and depth of Lālan’s songs in each translation and analysis. The songs express Lālan’s complex worldview, as he often blends Bengali Sufi Muslim concepts of the Prophet and divine light with Bengali Vaișṇava devotional imagery and Hindu Tantric notions of cosmophysiology and transgressive sexual rituals. One major focus of the songs involves the journey to the realms within the body that must be experienced by the adept in order to achieve liberation. Song 55 (264-67), for example, discusses the subtle body using fluidic metaphors that refer to the yogicized sexual fluids that are the basis of Bāul transgressive rituals:

            Only he on whom the guru has mercy

            knows what form the Lord takes 

            in the world of the body.

 

            High up, beyond the border,

            a drop of water, indestructible

            through dissolutions. In the drop,

            an ocean of three currents.

            

            There’s a city up there

            with a thousand districts,

            three roads, and one intersection.

            An invisible rider rides around

            on a horse of wind.

 

            Near at hand, an invisible city

            where waves of many colors surge

            Sirāj Sāi says, Lālan,

           you’re always in the dark.

Salomon does a superb job in her careful footnotes to the verses, where she explains the literal translations, suggests more appropriate alternative renderings, and explains how Lālan frequently uses puns and other linguistic devices based on the Bengali terms. In her analyses of the songs, she reaches down to the vibrant metaphorical worlds conveyed by the songs, as they reveal a dynamic layered cosmos of light, substance, and sound—all of which are accessible to humans should they follow the Bāul path, according to Lālan.

Readers who themselves are dealing with translation issues regarding any esoteric textual tradition will be inspired by Salomon’s skillful and creative handling of each and every song, and they will appreciate how she addresses arcane issues such as scribal errors and orthography. One need not be a scholar of Bengali religions or the Bāuls to benefit from this magisterial effort, as she balances a detailed and nuanced translation methodology with a broader perspective on the history of religions, religion and gender, and religion and sexuality. One possible complaint might concern the way that the songs are arranged, alphabetically by the first Bengali word, rather than in some more useful thematic grouping. However, one can easily use the fine index prepared by Cantú and Zakaria to locate songs on a particular topic. The scholarly community should embrace this superb publication and remember Carol Salomon for her many years of contributions to our understanding of the fascinating traditions of the Bāuls.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glen Alexander Hayes is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bloomfield College and Chair of the Society for Tantric Studies.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carol Salomon was, at the time of her death in 2009, senior lecturer in Bengali in the department of Asian Languages and Literature of the University of Washington.

Keith E. Cantú is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Saymon Zakaria is assistant director of the Bangla Academy. He has delivered academic lectures on language, literature, and culture at the University of Chicago, the University of Washington, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and the Sapientia-Hungarian University of Transylvania.

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