Shah Abdul Karim: the ‘Baul Emperor’ Bard of Bengal

img

“In the spring breeze, my friend, in spring's intoxicating breeze

Scents from my dearest's garden keep drifting towards my house.

My dearest's house's garden, lights up with colorful flowers then

Their beautiful scents enchant me; and bee-like, my mind starts humming.

In a corner of the grove of my dearest's house,

I hear a flute playing - a tune totally captivating;

It's a tune so overpowering, its sheer beauty entrances me

Till totally overcome, Abdul Karim… keeps looking her way dotingly!”

The above-mentioned verses, taken from renowned Bangladeshi academic, critic, translator and current director of ‘Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Research Institute for Peace and Liberty’ at University of Dhaka Professor Fakrul Alam’s English translation of the famous Bengali song “Boshonto Batashe”, portray the everlasting beauty that resonates with the emotion of the rural Bengali people. ‘Baul’ songs are some of the rarest literary creations that can mesmerize billions if they get channeled through the right voices, and there was a soulful voice in this country who earned the undisputed crown and title of the ‘Baul Saamrat’, aka the mighty emperor of all Baul singers. On September 12, 2009, Bangladesh lost its undisputed ‘Baul Emperor’ - and 12 years later of his death, he is still remembered for being the best among the bests in this particular genre of music.

The Ekushey Padak conferred Baul Saamrat was born in February 15, 1916 in Derai village of Sunamganj, Sylhet, under British India. As he was born in the middle of World War I, maybe that was the reason behind his innate soulfulness against all sorts of crimes and violences. Due to the poverty of his family and also the overall socio-economic atmosphere during his childhood, Karim never had the opportunity to attend school to receive formal education. However, his destiny was written in such a significant manner that the brilliant rhymester and the melody maestro eventually followed the true-calling of his heart, absorbed by his surroundings, people, and nature, and became a living legend. Following that inner-voice, Karim first received his music lesson from Baul Shah Ibrahim Mastan Baksh, and never looked behind, holding his dearest ‘ektara’ in his hand.

The ideology of the great Baul tales, most notably Fakir Lalon Shah, Punju Shah, and Duddu Shah, also inspired and motivated Karim. He was also introduced into Kamal Uddin's, Sadhak Rashid Uddin's, and others' spiritual and Baul songs. He has also performed a variety of Baul songs as well as other types of music such as Shariati, Marfati, Nabuwat, and Belaya - but at the end of the day, it was his Baul melodies that cemented his name in the history.

Although he lived a very vibrantly simple yet majestic life, Shah Abdul Karim had a difficult existence since he had to continuously fight against poverty and hunger. Even in the middle of this difficulty, he had written over 1600 songs - out of sheer passion and love. The word ‘love’ has a very strong presence throughout all of his majestic and soulful songs, as he was a true lover himself. In 1957, Karim started living in Ujan Dhol, a village near his ancestral home, with his wife, Sarala Bibi. That was not her original name though, as her birth name was Abtabunnesa - however, Karim called her Sarala, out of his respect and love for his wife. Till her death, Sarala Bibi also ensured to love him back; so much so, that Karim eventually buried her beside their home after her death - as the radical Islamists of his village never acknowledged nor respected Karim, as he was considered a ‘sinner’ due to his unconditional love for music.

How unconditional, actually? Well, here is an example. Once Karim and his only son Baul Shah Nur Jalal, attended a felicitation event in Sunamganj, in honour of Karim’s musical journey. At some point, it was announced that a Tk 3 lakh cheque will be presented to Karim. Hearing this announcement, Karim astonishingly said that Tk 3 Thousand was a huge amount, what would he do with this huge amount of money? The organizers then clarified that he heard it wrong and when they again announced the actual amount, Karim just freaked out - saying that he does not need that money. Hold on, did not this write-up mentioned earlier that he had to battle with poverty throughout his entire life? So why on the earth did he avoid that money? The answer is that Karim absorbed music as his everything, and took himself above every earthly necessity that could distract him from his soulfulness.

Despite the fact that Karim was already a living legend, his music remained mostly unknown to urban audiences until the successful band Dalchhut and singer-composer Habib Wahid began to popularize Karim's songs among urban music fans, particularly the youth. Dalchhut's second album, 'Hridoypur,' was a smash hit right away when it was released in 2000. The band's fame skyrocketed with their most successful album, containing the popular Shah Abdul Karim song “Gari Chole Na,” which was sung by Bappa Majumdar and Sanjeeb Chowdhury. After the debut of this newly mastered edition, the song became an instant hit.

Just three years later, Shah Abdul Karim’s name once again rekindled among the urban youth - this time with pop icon Ferdous Wahid’s son Habib Wahid, who was residing in London for pursuing his higher study. He was exclusively working on modern pop music, EDM and a fusion of traditional Bengali folk music with contemporary techno and urban beats - which at that time was adored and welcomed by British Bangladeshis, while he was living in the UK as a student. Wahid had already been working to establish himself as a music producer, but he needed a performer to complete his first record as a writer. He met vocalist Kaya, a Sylheti restaurant owner, while residing in London, and they decided to work together on the record. Wahid's debut album, 'Krishno,' was published in 2003, and it was a joint effort with Wahid creating the music and Kaya singing. The album garnered success in both the United Kingdom and Bangladesh. Ektaar Music Ltd presented the CD, which was a blend of traditional and modern music, introducing a new genre to the Dhaka music scene. Needless to say, the album was a smash hit. Habib and Kaya's collaboration, which fused folk elements with hip-hop, resulted in an album consisting of extremely catchy and inventive versions of folk songs credited to a variety of Bauls and other folk singers such as Shah Abdul Karim, Arkum Shah, Jalal Kha, and Deeno Hin. Habib further collaborated with Karim’s songs in his next album ‘Maya’ alongside the vocals, Kaya and another newcomer Helal. Karim’s several songs were featured in this album, which further skyrocketed Habib’s popularity. Regarding Shah Abdul Karim, Habib’s father and iconic Bangladeshi pop superstar Ferdous Wahid said, "Habib is what he is today, thanks to Shah Abdul Karim's incomparable songs."

“Jhil Mil Jhil Mil Kore re Moyurponkhi Nao,” “Bonde Maya Lagaise,” “Agey Ki Shundor Din Kataitham,” “Ar Kichu Chay Na Mone Gaan Chara,” “Ashi Bole Gelo Bondhu”, “Keno Piriti Baraila Re Bondhu,” “Gari Cholena Cholena,” “Ami Koolhara Kolonkini,” “Boshonto Batashey,” “Shokhi Kunjo Shajao'' - these are some of the popular songs that the urban youth has been playing and listening for the last two decades, which are just some of Karim's magical creations, out of his 1600+ songs. For his influential role in Bengali music, Shah Abdul Karim was awarded the 'Ekushey Padak' in 2001. Among his other notable achievements, he received the 'Meril-Prothom Alo' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Bangla Academy translated 10 of his songs into English, which has been a rare achievement for any Baul singer in the country.

Karim left the earth on September 12 in 2009 at the age of 93, after losing his battle against respiratory problems and other health complications. He was buried beside his wife Sarala. Although his body is absent in this earthly world, his legacy will remain forever amongst all Bengali music lovers across the world.

  • Shah Abdul Karim
  • Baul Emperor
  • Bard of Bengal

Leave a Comment