Volume 2 Issue 58 | May 23, 2009 |


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From The Insight Desk

The Hason Raja Phenomenon

Saba El Kabir

IT would be difficult for anybody to draw the proverbial box and definitively say this is who and what Hason Raja was. The man was simultaneously a paragon of excess and an epitome of modesty, a creature of impulsions and calculations, an agnostic and a man of god, a purveyor of petty rhymes and diatribes and a profoundly spiritual poet. Perhaps his 'box' lies somewhere in these contradictions, or perhaps the great mystic was unaware of the need to have such a box, yet in his heart I believe he was a simple man, a man who only wanted what was coming his way. And what was coming his way was the world, and everything in it.

Hason Raja was born to a Zamindar family in 1854, near present day Sunamgonj, Sylhet. In his youth, he was known have been given to the excesses of the rich and the landed with youthful abandon. Yet when he was thrust into a position of great responsibility by the death of his elder brother and his father in the space of less than forty days he was said to have transformed himself into a more than able administrator, while keeping most his youthful eccentricities intact. In the cold light of day, one would find it difficult to successfully resolve this unfettered youth to the role of lordship over the one of the largest fiefdoms of Bengal. Here was this child of seventeen, totally unaffected by the concerns of the world, driven solely by whims and impulses, shielded thus far by the security of father and a brother, taking on a role of massive duties and responsibilities, and of not little complexities. But despite his probable shortcomings in statecraft he did have attributes that might have proven to be his saving grace.

By all accounts, Hason Raja was a good-looking man, who oozed masculinity and the privilege he was born into. He was also a man of wit and charm, a fact that is made obvious by some of his literary output. And he was a man given to the spectacular. His river-cruises that consisted of entire fleets of entertainers, his elephant hunts in Assam, the horse races he organised, which regularly featured winners from his own stables, and of course his poetry, all added to the allure of this already considerable man. This, added to his other eccentricities- he famously lived in a house made of mud despite all his wealth, his mysticism, and his generosity towards his people- would have made him popular with the masses and would have enabled him to project, in the humble opinion of this author, a cult of personality of sorts, allowing him a much greater hold over his people than the wisdoms of statecraft would have every allowed him.

Entrance to his estate
Hason Raja’s gravesite

Thus installed in the seat of power, his intentional or unintentional charm offensive having won over the hearts and minds of his friends and foes alike, and his hold over his zamindari complete, he proceeded to produce some of the most influential folk songs and poetry to be ever written in Bangla. Of Hason Raja's poems, Rabindranath writes, in a somewhat high-nosed manner completely befitting of the great man, "The significant fact about these philosophical poems are that they are of crude construction, written in popular dialect and disclaimed by academic literature; they are sung to the people, as composed by one of them who is dead, but whose songs have not followed him”. But despite its divorce from academic literature, or perhaps because of it, songs such as Baula Ke Banailo re (Who made the Baul Singer), Loke Bole Bole Re (People Say) Matiro Pinjiri (Cage made of Clay), Nisha Lagilo (Addiction Started), Sona Bondhe (Dear Beloved) have weaved themselves into the cultural fabric of Bangladesh permanently.

The poet’s askan

In his senescence, Hason Raja went through a transformation that was as remarkable, if not more so, than the transformation of the prodigal son to the leader of men and hearts. The mystical poet, the great free spirit, found god, more so than ever before. He started to devote most of his time towards his newfound relationship with god. The rest of his time he would share between spending time at the family graveyard and feeding his birds. His memories, along with the man, started to fade, until he faded away completely, on the banks of Shurma, in 1922.

Hason Raja was a man who profoundly appreciated the transitory nature of the world. He sang about it in his songs, lived in awareness of it through his impulsions. Yet, perhaps what he failed to appreciate was that even in an ephemeral world, permanence is possible, that immortality does not require the philosopher's stone. All it requires is a good rhyme and a decent melody.

Translation of Hason Raja's Loke Bole Bole Re (Oh, They Say)

People say, they say, my house is no good.
What house will I build,
There's nothing here
I’fll build a house,

A school established by him

But how long will I stay for?
I look in the mirror,
I see grey hair that I have.
Thinking of this,
Hason Raja hasn’ft built a house.
Where will Allah take and keep him,
For that reason he cries.
If Hason Raja knew, how long he would live for,
then he would have built his house and rooms in many colours.
People say, they say my house is no good.
What house will I build,
There's nothing here

(Source of lyrics: Wikipedia)

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