<i>Nazrul: Gliding through his musical landscape</i>
I had first met Deepali Naag Chowdhury at a concert. I was in my late teens and had been invited to perform a solo concert at her plush bungalow in New Delhi. Far from being nervous in front of such a revered artiste, I was quite excited! During my performance of a thumri by Nazrul, Uchaton mon ghore roi na, Padma Shree Uma Shankar instinctively responded to the magical tune of the song by rising from her seat and dancing to the beat. Later, she said that she would love to perform a Kathak based on that song. How I wish her dreams would materialize and Nazrul's creative ingenuity would once again enthrall the music lovers worldwide.
After the three-hour concert, I was in for another surprise when Deepali Naag told me that one of the songs that I had presented, a very popular Nazrul song, Megho medur boroshay kotha tumi was actually dedicated to her. “The song is inspired by a Hindi tune, the melody and rhythm being the same, the genre falls under bhanga gaan composed in khayal form,” she added.
Such a following of Nazrul songs amongst a revered class of artistes was not uncommon. Around that time, between the late '70s and the early '80s, there were a number of concerted efforts to bring artistes from across the two countries together through programmes dedicated to Nazrul songs. For instance, Channel 4 (BBC) produced a documentary featuring artistes of Bangladesh and India performing several songs of Nazrul. Litterateurs and Nazrul exponents discussed Nazrul's work at length. I was the youngest among the likes of Feroza Begum, Manabendra Mukherji and more. Then in 1984, as a part of a delegation to India, Nazrul artistes Nilufar Yasmeen, Shabnam Mushtari, Ferdous Ara, Jannat Ara, M.A. Mannan, Yaqub Ali Khan and I were invited to perform in Kolkata. Stalwarts such as Shiddeshwar Mukhopadhyay, Dhirendrachandra Mitra and others also performed at the three-day programme which received much acclaim from the critics.
In the '90s, the legendary Feroza Begum was invited to the US by Bangladeshi associations to perform over a three-month period across 12 states. I felt privileged to accompany her as her co-artiste and watched with pride as our first concert was inaugurated in New Jersey by the State Governor who declared May 25 as Nazrul Day. This was the first time a Nazrul festival was held in the US and with Feroza Begum in the forefront, it became a massive success. The performances drew audiences from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and invariably ended with her receiving a standing ovation.
The reason for reminiscing on these events is that, surveying the cultural scene right now, no major events or plans come close to the handful of events I had the opportunity of participating in. Nazrul's works certainly haven't diminished in stature -- it must be our understanding and commitment that have dimmed.
Pranab Rai in his memoir wrote, “All it took Kazi Shaheb to compose songs of different genres at a given time were just a pen and a paper. There are instances when he wrote five Shyama Sangeet in a span of less than half an hour.”
Nazrul's journey in the music world was rocky from the start. Being fiercely rebellious and anti-British Raaj, he stood out amongst many of his peers who were not as outspoken as he. Naturally many of his songs reflected his brand of fiery emotions and patriotism, a far cry from the standard formulaic commercially successful songs.
What this means is that his work, an embodiment of versatility, had endured the fiercest challenges of his times to be handed down to us, a privilege that instead of being nurtured to its highest potential is slowly being eroded by apathy.
As noted by Nazrul scholars, researchers and artistes alike, Nazrul's priceless work has not received the prominent focus it so richly deserves. This, despite the fact that his literature and songs have a mass following both in Bangladesh and overseas. This irony is doubly compounded by the fact that his identity as our National Poet with over 3500 songs to his credit, is very much intertwined with our country's heritage and culture.
It was 111 years ago today, that Nazrul as a newborn first opened his eyes to the world. A century later, let us hope we, the music lovers, open our eyes to the beauty of his work, and restore the dignity it so patently deserves.