"Learning to Swim in the River of Desire": Bhaba Pagla's Songs in Their Performative Context


Carola Erika Lorea

PhD defended at: 

La Sapienza University of Rome, Italian Institute of Oriental Studies



In Bengal, folk-songs can represent an encyclopedia of beliefs, theological doctrines and yogic practices, particularly for the Bauls and other heterodox religious movements that sprouted out of the Tantric – Sufi confluence. Studying songs as the fundamental corpus of a religious movement in practice is particularly important in the context of Bengali language and literature: for its first eight hundred years, the history of Bengali literature is consistently “a history of Bengali songs” (S. Cakrabarti 1990:13).
A vast number of songs performed by the Bauls have been composed by a Śākta saint called Bhaba Pagla (Bhaba “the mad”, 1902 - 1984), a witty and talented lyricist from Amta (Bangladesh) who is still renowned as a very talented musician, an ecstatic composer of religious songs (defined by the community as sādhanā saṅgīt) and an enlightened spiritual teacher, revered by his extraordinarily heterogeneous devotees as a realized saint and a perfected being with miraculous powers.
Within his historical context, Bhaba Pagla is one among the many little-known migrated gurus who had to leave East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) in order to escape religious and political persecution, and find a shelter in a new homeland, i.e. West Bengal. The story of Bhaba Pagla and his community of disciples follows the journey of a cultural group displaced and resettled in a new “home” space across the border, where traditionally transmitted folk-songs came to represent also a sense of belonging, a shared territorial identity and a migrated repertoire of jealously preserved oral literature.
My research focused on the reception of Bengali esoteric songs and their understanding according to different kinds of audiences. How can the same song, concerning a boat in the middle of a stormy river, be interpreted as a metaphor of human life, of the human body, and of the female genitals? How can a song about death be interpreted as a song on ejaculation? Proposing oral exegeses of a selection of songs as evidences, I argue that the enigmatic metaphoric language employed by Bhaba Pagla in particular, and by Tantric literature in general, allows heterogeneous interpretations. These on one hand reinforce the creation of a new orthodox Hindu movement, while protecting, on the other hand, the transmission of secret esoteric beliefs and practices shared by unorthodox lineages of disciples.
Through the analysis of a selected set of interpretations of some of Bhaba Pagla's songs, I show how the form and literary devices utilized in Bhaba Pagla's sādhanā saṅgīt justify the emergence of apparently contradictory religious strands in different lineages within the same community; the evidences presented enable to uncover a connection between the way in which Bhaba Pagla's language is understood, and the increasing institutionalization and divinization of Bhaba Pagla as a twentieth-century Bengali representative of “religious madness” (McDaniel 1989; Feuerstein 2006).
The concealment of the esoteric doctrines in Bhaba Pagla’s cult tell us how an initially esoteric tradition may opt for disguising as an orthodox, devotional tradition for successful proselytism and institutionalization by some of its followers. In this sense, this study on Bhaba Pagla reveals how an esoteric cult is able to survive in the 21st century, and what are its strategies of transmission and self-defense from judgments and persecution; at the same time, both esoteric and exoteric teachings were already potentially contained in the message of Bhaba Pagla, each one addressed to a different audience of disciples. Such an inherent openness and ambiguity, I argue, is responsible for later institutionalization and "domesticization" of a number of Tantric religious movements.
A methodological aspect I address in my dissertation concerns the broader significance of the use of an “ethnography of metaphoric speaking” and the use of oral exegesis as a primary source. Inserted in the wider field of folkloristics and Indian religions, a methodology concerned with the study of local interpretations improves our understanding of religious practices and social change, to the extent that, while examining the functions of the songs' enigmatic language, we can gain information about performers/practitioners' beliefs on the body, longevity and health, on love and human relations, on rivalry and politics of power among the different branches of one lineage. The same approach could be applied more broadly in the study of ancient as well as contemporary Tantric literature in order to “step out of the text” and clarify much of the confusion that affected the field of Tantric studies in regards to transgressive and obscene language within religious literature.