On the path of Devotion: Sadhaka Ramprasad Sen and his Shyama sangeet

Ramprasad Sen was a renowned poet and singer of 18th century Bengal. He popularized Shyama Sangeet- devotional songs dedicated to Goddess Kali (Shyama).

Devotees and sadhakas of the Divine Feminine or Devi, expressed their devotion through poetry and hymns.  They addressed the Divine Feminine as the Divine Mother, Mother of the Universe, Adishakti or Adi Parashakti. West Bengal in India is still considered to be a stronghold of Shakti Sadhana because many great Shakti Sadhaks took birth there. Shakti Sadhana involves spiritual and tantric practices that invoke the Divine Feminine in Her various forms. The Divine Feminine is worshipped as Kali, Durga or other local deities. 

In devotion, singing or recitation of poetry is the most common way to praise the divine.

Devotional songs always have a great influence on us. There were different forms of music that were offered to the Goddess but what is called as Shyama (Kali) Sangeet – songs devoted to divine mother had a great influence on people during those times. It is widely celebrated and sung even today by sadhaks and musicians alike. The most popular writer of Shyama Sangeet in Bengali is Sadhak Ramprasad Sen. 

His bhakti poetry took an approach to the Divine Mother as Kali that was at times intimate and personal,  at other times teasing and scolding, and sometimes deeply esoteric and symbolic.

Ramprasad’s songs combined folk melodies with classical ragas, forming a new type of music that became popular in Bengal. An accountant by profession, so devoted was he that even the account ledgers were filled by songs of love and longing for the mighty Goddess, Shyama (Kali).

He sang to the mighty Goddess, the ever compassionate one, “I am your son. I kept calling ‘Maa, Maa’, but Maa, your eyes didn’t see and your ears didn’t hear. Can any other misfortune matter when a son suffers like an orphan with his mother still there?.”

A story goes on like this that one day as if his longing was being heard, the Divine Mother came to him in one of the million ways, she reached to the devout.  But Ramprasad was so absorbed in his daily routine of offering his prayers that he didn’t recognise her.

She disguised herself as an ordinary woman and appealed to Ramprasad, ” Kind Sir, Please sing me some of your songs to the Divine Mother.” Ramprasad replied, “Maa, I am getting late for my prayer. I shall complete my daily worship and sing to you”. When he returned, she was not there and he was left with an unsettling feeling within him. The same day in his meditative state, not knowing whether it was a vision or a waking dream, he heard the Mother’s voice .

The voice echoed in the space, “ I am Annapurna from Varanasi and came here to listen to your songs. But you leave me disappointed.” Ramprasad felt restless and sad, lamenting how he couldn’t sing for the Mother. He left for Varanasi soon because his longing to see a glimpse of Maa and sing for her, left him choiceless. On the way he halted for some rest at the banks of the river Ganga. The divine voice reverberated yet again,

“Stay here and sing for me. Varanasi is not the only place where I live, I pervade the whole universe.” So he sang and continued to do so until one day the music merged with the divine and so did he.

Devotion is all pervading; to see the divine in every creation, to bow down with no sense of self.

These stories have been told and re-told  across generations and it still creates an imprint of  a devotees’ longing in a person who listens to the stories or poetry.  Poetry and storytelling have been the foremost ways of expressing the illogical and experiential dimension of things. They are windows to understanding the essence of the Divine Feminine or Adishakti that exists both within us and everything around us. 

Ramprasad says,

"Meditate on Kali!
Why be anxious?
The night of delusion is over; it's almost dawn.
The sun is rising,
dispelling thick nets of darkness,
and lotuses are blooming
Thanks to Siva at the top of your head.
The Vedas throw dust in your eyes;
blind too the six philosophies.
If even the planets can't fathom Her
who will break up these fun and games?
There are no lessons between teacher and student
in a market of bliss.
Since She owns the actors, the stage, and the play itself
Who can grasp the truth of the drama?
A valiant devotee who knows the essence -- he
enters that city.
Ramprasad says,
My delusion is broken;
who can bundle up fire?

- Translated by Rachel Fell McDermott

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