The unforgettable jalshas | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 21, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 21, 2020

The unforgettable jalshas

My mother recollects childhood memories of participating in ‘jalshas’ with great fondness. She was hardly eight or nine at the time, and had the chance of dancing in musical soirees held in Shantinagar, where we live even after more than five decades.

The events were attended by my uncle and luminaries living in our neighbourhood at that time. I was only a child and they never let me pass by a chance of dancing before the audience wearing keys and anklets for ghungroos.

Perhaps, such musical soirees were not arranged in her locality only. In the mid ’50s, it was common for any given area of the city to hold such programmes. A generation later, they are less common, but have not faded in the cityscape of this metropolis.

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My mother still performs at events. Her aspiration to become a professional dancer never materialised, yet, till to this day, she never let’s go of a chance to attend a soiree. Today, she resorts to reciting some of her poetry, a much-cherished practice that she has clung to since her school days. Her celebrated peers in the cultural scene sing or play instruments, and musical laymen like her choose to opt their own treaded paths.

Winter evenings are now chalked with numerous programmes in and around the city of Dhaka. The cool climate, in apposition to sultry summer days, give the perfect, pleasant backdrop to an evening filled with cultural activities.

An evening of sitar, ghazals, or live classical music are all too familiar to us now. In their glory days, such events were much cosier, having been arranged in very private settings. Friends and fellow cultural activists would gather and evenings would be filled with renditions of Nazrul, Rabindranath or even the avant garde poetry of Jibanananda Das.

Flutes were popular, as were sitars and sarods; back in the old days. And of course, there was the ubiquitous harmonium — like today, no jalsha was ever complete without it. But even without an instrument, vocal renditions were no less enchanting.

At times, they were weekly affairs, the venue changing from one household to another. Often, they were just spontaneous outbursts of a gathering of a few individuals with shared interests.

Ahmed Jamil, a retired government employee now in his early ‘70s, recollects memories of a yet another setting.

“I used to take sitar lessons, and most of the times, we would just listen to what ustadji chose to play. At times, he used to ask us to play along, or instruct us to play a certain raga. And there was nothing fixed about any of it,” said Jamil. 

He added, “What I remember most about those golden days is the spontaneity of the whole affair. It was complete improvisation, and this not only made the tunes more enjoyable, but also helped us develop our musical ears.

“The more we listened, the more we could refine our own playing skills. Very few of us wanted to become professional players at that time; most never even thought of performing beyond the four walls of those late-night musical soirees. We could not wait for the next such gathering, and the best thing about it was that we were clueless as to when the next time the mood will be set for a jalsha at ustadji’s place.”

Jalshas are by no means in their deathbed. Yet, in all certainty, they are found in unforeseen forms. There is still a segment of this generation who cherish the eastern traditions in music wholeheartedly, and some have taken it up as a profession, without caring for the consequences.

But then there are others, for whom music is only a pastime and musical soirees within their private spheres are ‘jamming sessions’ where guitars replaced sitars, and tablas are being replaced with simple hand percussions.

“I am not very musically inclined, and truth be told, I would be very intimidated with an old school jalsha. While I was growing up in Chattogram, I saw my elder cousins and friends carry a guitar. It influenced my musical taste. Till this day, just two guitars harmonised with one another are all that we need for an enchanting evening of music. And I to stick to that only,” said Shihab Kamal, a thirty-year-old university lecturer. 

Kamal further said, “It would be wrong to say that musical soirees with western instruments lack the level of panache that can match with the jalshas of the past. There are evenings when jamming sessions are as musically rich and as puritan as any soirees that our fathers, mothers, and aunts and uncles rave about.     

But few can help but be moved by the old school charm of the sounds of an eastern string instrument, the beat of the tabla, and the note of a bamboo flute. There was a time when our entertainment options were limited, and society itself was culturally sounder, perhaps even more rigid than what we have today. With the dawn of newer options, eastern jalshas are now being replaced by jammings. What happens in the next decade or two is for us to see.

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed

Models: Jui, Daud, Manoshi

Special thanks to Apurba Deb at Tabla and Ebadul Huq Shaikat at Sitar

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