Feroza Begum and her Nazrul
Since early morning, the young girl had a twinkle in her eyes. Restlessly she would rush to the window to look up and down the road at the slightest sound of an approaching vehicle. Late afternoon, her long desired package finally arrived - a harmonium especially ordered from Kolkata. For the next few months, her mother had difficulty keeping her busy inside their house at Gopalganj. The young singer would rush off to the quiet cabin overlooking the pond and play her harmonium to her heart's content. Like gentle ripples, her melodious voice would carry over the still courtyard from dawn to dusk.
Some even said the birds that flocked to the pond side seemed unhurried to fly back; such was the sweetness in her voice.
If some people doubted this story as a myth, what was indisputable was the meteoric rise to fame of that little girl to the legend that was Feroza Begum: A legend who dominated the world stage of Nazrul Sangeet for the six decades to come.
By the time she was 12, when all her friends were busy in playgrounds, Feroza Begum was being invited to perform at leading auditoriums. It was around this time that Columbia released her first album that included the Islamic song “Morur Bukey Jibon Dhara” and “Nabiji Esho Go”, composed by Chitta Roy.
“To me, singing was as natural as breathing. At first, when I had no tutor, I simply tried to follow and pick up the tunes from the gramophone records strewn all over our storeroom,” said Feroza. “But I had little knowledge about the nuances that created the mood of a song. Thankfully, at that time, I was fortunate to come across stalwarts such as Chitta Roy (personal assistant of Kazi Nazrul Islam) and later the incomparable composer Kamol Dasgupta, who nurtured my enthusiasm to a more mature level.”
“As I trained under Chitta Babu for almost two years I was fascinated by the exquisite Nazrul compositions 'Chirotorey Durey Choley Jabo', 'Tumi Shundor Tai', 'Tumi Shunitey Cheyo Na', 'Ekadoshir Chand' and more.”
It was however, under composer Kamol Dasgupta, her husband that she blossomed in semi-classical music. Gupta was under the tutelage of the legendary Ustad Zamiruddin Khan, as was Kazi Nazrul Islam. Belonging to the same gharaana, Kamol Das and Nazrul Islam, had a similar mindset, and the music they composed together seemed to find its natural voice in Feroza Begum.
Feroza Begum had met Kazi Nazrul Islam almost by fate. “It was during a training session at the radio station that I met Kazi Shaheb for the first time. As I looked into his inquisitive eyes, he asked me why I chose to sing songs that was so beyond my age…”
“Because my love for the songs defies reason,” Feroza Begum replied, not knowing Kazi Shaheb's identity at that time. “I may have startled him with my answer, but he simply patted my head gently, and well... the die was cast, as the saying goes.”
The famous picture of Feroza Begum on stage, sitting alongside Nazrul has become iconic; a reflection of the close relationship they developed and gifted to the world some of the most memorable music. When Nazrul started to fade away to his crippling disease, Nazrul's undying penmanship seemed to find its way to his adoring followers through Feroza Begum's voice.
In 1960, Gramophone Company of India approached Feroza to record songs for Puja. The Kamol-Feroza pair had established itself by now as a guaranteed success in adhunik songs. However, she took up the challenge to re-invigorate the popularity of Nazrul songs and recorded “Momero Putul” and “Duur Dwipobashini”. The unparalleled style added a new dimension to the genre and sold out for three months in advance. “Musafir Mochh Rey Ankhi Jol”, her second recorded song, rekindled the popularity even more.
In those days it was difficult to attain popularity without singing playback. “I flatly refused to perform playback in movies such as 'Purbo Raag', 'Dukhhey Jader Jibon Gora', 'Mahesh and Mahua',” she said. She resisted the temptation of instant popularity and in so doing, defined herself as an uncompromising artiste who set the benchmark of success on her own terms; success that was to outlast generations.
“In 1979, I recorded 3 LP's of adhunik and Nazrul songs, which were record hits as well. Astounding though it may sound, I performed in a record number of 380 solo concerts.”
Over the next few decades, her name became synonymous with Nazrul Sangeet. She travelled to Delhi, Paris, London, New York and other cultural capitals worldwide. Whenever she performed, admirers would travel miles to listen to her. Having the opportunity to know her from close as I did for the last three decades and more, I never failed to sense the deep love that she evoked from admirers. Touring twelve states in the US for no fewer than three months in 1990 was a further opportunity for me to delve into and understand the persona of this formidable artiste. It was a new insight into the Feroza Begum personality that I came back home with.
In 1962 Feroza Begum organised a Nazrul Convention where artistes of all genres, litterateurs, poets assembled at the Netaji Bhavan, in Kolkata. Angur Bala, Radharani and others had retired from the music scene. It took quite an effort to convince them to step on to the stage once more. Renowned artistes Dhirendra Chandra Mitra, Rai Chand Boral, Konika Bannerji, Suchitra Mitra, Sachin Dev Burman, Debobroto Biswas were among the notable singers who performed Nazrul songs.
The programme ran for two days and was based on different rhythms titled Chhandoshree and Bichitra on variety of Nazrul songs.
“My next venture was to release an LP titled 'Love Songs of Nazrul' in which I assembled several renowned artistes of West Bengal. Manebendra Mukherji presented 'Bou Kotha Kou'and 'Eto Jol O Kajol Chokhey' -- both magnum opus performances. Sandhya Mukherji sang 'Kemoney Rakhi Ankhi' and 'Bidaye Sandhya Ashilo' while I sang 'Mor Ghumo Ghurey' and 'Nohey Nohey Priyo'.”
When Pandit Jawharlal Nehru passed away in 1964, his ashes were brought to Kolkata. At the 'Maidan' adjacent to Victoria memorial, a massive gathering was held to pay homage. Artistes of repute presented bhajans. Amidst pin drop silence in the sea of people, I performed two Nazrul songs – 'Khelicho E Bishwo Loye' and 'Tomar Moha Bishwey'.”
Since that day in the cabin, years ago, Feroza Begum's voice has held listeners in a spell. When she took on the stage even later in life, you could still see the twinkle in her eyes, the slight curve in her lips as her fingers caressed the harmonium. A hushed silence would fall over the audience, as they witnessed a legend gifted with a voice to enthrall.
In time, immortal though her songs were, she slowly became prone to the human frailties that afflict us all. Day before yesterday, on a day that will darken the memories of all who loved her voice, she gave in to a long-standing illness, and left her loving admirers deep in mourning.
If one were to challenge the myth of the birds, who knows what they would see on the quiet pond side today. Maybe there are no birds there anymore. Maybe word has reached them also that the voice that had beckoned them to the shores was no more. Or maybe the voice had become one with Nature to enjoy all around us, to enthrall us all for a long time to come…