Amay de ma pagol kore
Brahmamayi -- de ma pagol kore
Amar kaaj nai ar gyan-bichare
De ma pagol kore
Make me mad, Mother
Brahma-encompassing Mother – make me mad
I need no more truck with knowing or reason
Make me mad, Mother
This is the beginning of a famous Kali-song (Shyama sangeet in Bengali) written by Trailokyanath Sanyal a hundred or so years ago. Trailokyanath was one of several 19th-century literary men -- Dwijendralal Ray, Nabai Moyra and Kalidas Bhattacharya were some of the others -- who experimented with Shyama sangeet as a poetic form. The genre itself can be traced back to the mystic tradition that has found articulation in, for example, Sufi thought –- the dervishes as ‘mad’ men –- though a feminization of the Mystic is something that is special to Kali. In Bengal, Ramprasad Sen was a pioneer of this genre.
"Ramprasad Sen belonged to Kumarhatta, a place about 25 miles from Calcutta up the Hooghly. His Vidyasundar was written some time in the sixth or seventh decade of the [eighteenth] century. The influence of Bharatchandra is clearly noticeable. In style and characterization Ramprasad is inferior to his predecessor but in poetic fancy he is undoubtedly superior. Ramprasad's humour is also less objectionable. His other works include Kalikirttan and the fragmentary Krishnakirttan. These poems were written in the form of the 'Panchali' style that was developing from the older 'Kirttan' … The simple and appealing melody associated with the songs is also attributed to the poet who is looked upon as a saint. But this melody and the songs pertaining to it may have been the work of another Ramprasad (a Brahman) belonging to Calcutta who was reputed as a composer of 'Kabi' songs. This Ramprasad was a younger contemporary of the first (who was a Vaidya). The songs are purely devotional, being appeals to God the Mother, couched in the words of a wayword but repentant child. ... The sentiments evoked by the songs are a combination of homely affection and pure devotion and therefore their appeal is irresistible." (History of Bengali Literature; Sukumar Sen; Sahitya Akademi; 1960.)
Although many of the earlier poets of Bengali songs were devotees of Kali who followed occult tantric practices in order to experience the Goddess directly, the lyrics themselves have always been in a colloquial vernacular, and this made them widely accessible and popular. Here’s an early Ramprasadi –-
Man re –- krishi kaaj janona
Emon manab-jamin railo pateet
Abad karle pholto sona
Mind mine – would that you knew to farm
Such human-acreage lay fallow
Tilled, would yield gold!
The tilling, the poet goes on to say, would involve devotion to Kali. Songs to Kali celebrate, in everyday language, the role the goddess plays in the devotee's life as a strong, protecting, bountiful Mother. They also celebrate Her essential role in the universe, an universe in which Shakti - Energy - defines the Goddess; a Shakta is a devotee of this Power, which invariably takes female form, which makes the universe move and change. Called Ma in the songs, this great and terrifying force is made intimate. Some examples can be heard here.
Ramakrishna Paramahansa was famously a Kali devotee, and many of these songs are recorded in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which was preached worldwide by Swami Vivekananda.
A long quote from a book on Bengali Sakta Religious lyrics by Edward Thompson (Professor at Oxford) and Arthur Marshman Spencer (no affiliation mentioned), published by the YMCA in Calcutta in 1923 is illuminating:
"[Shakta poems] have gone to the heart of a people as few poets' work has done. Such songs as the exquisite 'This day will surely pass, Mother, this day will pass,' I have heard from coolies on the road or workers in the paddy fields; I have heard it by broad rivers at sunset, when the parrots were flying to roost and the village folk thronging from marketing to the ferry. Once I asked the top class in a mofussil high school to write out a song of Rabindranath Tagore's; two boys out of forty succeeded, a result which I consider showed the very real diffusion of his songs. But, when I asked for a song of Ramprasad's, every boy except two responded. Truly, a poet who is known both by work and name to boys between fourteen and eighteen, is a national poet. Tagore's songs are heard in Calcutta streets, and have been widely spread by the student community and the Brahmo Samaj; but in the villages of Bengal they are unknown, while Ramprasad's are heard everywhere. 'The peasants and the pandits enjoy his songs equally. They draw solace from them in the hour of despair and even at the moment of death. The dying man brought to the banks of the Ganges asks his companions to sing Ramprasadi songs.'
Sister Nivedita compared Ramprasad with Blake. He resembles rather Herrick, in his self-consciousness and his habit of looking at himself from outside. But these are only casual and partial affinities. His lyrics at their simplest often have the quality of a snatch of nursery babble, and sing themselves into the memory of an illiterate folk by a riot of punning sound and alliteration, a musical toss and play of similar syllables. Ramprasad took a childlike pleasure in these, and that untrained literary instinct out of which folklore and folksong are born, takes the same pleasure and has heard him with rapture. Much of his imagery is fanciful and conceited, and of anything but universal validity; yet even this has a charm, examined with patience and sympathy. The student of his poetry will be rewarded with a wealth of local thought and custom and of such stories as flower in the undergrowth and byways of authorised legend. This 'local habitation' of Ramprasad's mind is strength as well as sometimes weakness. His range of ideas and illustrations is narrow; but within that range he is a master.
It is profitable to study the attitude of the remarkable poets of the people, which every century has produced, in every part of India. Indian philosophy has reasoned out certain conclusions; its typical expression, as everyone knows, is the Vedanta; and no one would deny that even the thought of the illiterate has a pantheistic tinge. This has often been pointed out. Perhaps too much has been made of it; men forget how St. Paul confidently looked to find at least this tinge, alike in the thought of idlers in the market-place at Athens and in that of Lystra peasants. If we study the folk-poets, and through them the mental outlook of the simple folk of India, we find vulgar thought often in absolute revolt from those findings of the philosophers so readily and dogmatically put forth in Europe as Indian belief. These are only one side of Indian belief. Tennyson has not expressed more incisively than Ramprasad the rejection, by the mind that has loved, of the doctrine of loss of personal life. What is the use of salvation to me, cries Ramprasad, if it means absorption? 'I like eating sugar, but I have no desire to become sugar.' No thought anywhere--aware as he was of Sankaracharya's monism and in sympathy as some of his moods show him to be with pantheistic teaching -- is more emphatically theistic than his normally is, or rests more decidedly upon interchange and intercourse between a personal goddess and a personal suppliant and worshipper. With the popular religious idolatry, and especially its crudities and cruelties, he has no part. He scoffs at pilgrimage, and offerings to images. 'I laugh when I hear that a worshipper of Kali has gone to Gaya.' He is sturdily ethical, will have nothing to do with the suggestion that good and evil are the same thing, philosophically considered. He is terrified of those six passions who leap over his life's low wall. In a passage famous with his countrymen, he looks past the blood-stained image which represents his 'Mother' to the many, sees with revolt the butchered victims and the red stains upon the flowers of worship, and cries out to that World-Mercy which he has found for himself and which he adores, that he will sacrifice not living, quivering flesh but the Six Passions, the sins of his heart and mind. This passage has never been forgotten by his countrymen. "
Shyama sangeet, along with the more voluminous corpus of Vaishnava songs addressed to Krishna and Radha, constitutes pre-modern Bengali literature. Two later composers in this genre are Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. A Brahmo, Tagore could not be considered a devotee of Kali in any real way; but Rabindranath incorporated his own take on Kali songs into new dramatic forms, which retained the musical structure but substituted the motherland in place of mother-worship –-
Your dry riverbed is at last in flood!
Shout Ma! and set sail!
Boatman! Where's the boatman?
Grab the rudder, loosen the moorings!
Your debts grew every day,
None of you did any trades.
Now you haven't a coin left.
You've passed your days tied to the riverbank -
how can lift your shameful faces!
Now untie the boat and raise the sail,
come what may!
Nazrul Islam, the rebel bulbul, was a Muslim Kali-bhakta in the syncretic Indian sense, and his words hark back to the first fiery Kali lyricist Ramprasad Sen:
Amar kalo meyer payer talai, dekhe ja alor nachan
Roop dekhe dai book pete Shib, jar hate maran bnachan
Kalo meyer andhar kole, shishu rabi-shashi dole
Mayer ektukhani rooper jhalak, snighdha biraat neel gagan ...
Vishwe Ma-yer roop dharena, Ma amar tai digbasan
Below the feet of my dark girl, come see Light itself dance
Her beauty makes Shiv yield his breast, He whose hands hold Life and Death
In the black girl's dark lap, infant sun and moon rock
A small glimpse of Mother's beauty, is that giant calm blue heaven above ...
The Earth couldn’t hold Her beauty, so Mother mine is clad by the sky (i.e. is naked.)
Hear it and others here.
There's kali (ink) on my hands,
ink on my face.
The neighbors laugh.
My education amounts to naught -
I dance and clap my hands.
Only my tears multiply
when my eyes light upon
rows of signs in multiplication tables.
I couldn't care less for
the alphabet's shades of sound
since your shade of dark
isn't among them.
But Ma, I can read
all that You write
on the leaves of the forest,
on the waters of the sea,
and in the ledger of the sky.
Let them call me illiterate.