Ramkanai Das is a great singer of our country. Many do not fully comprehend what the words 'great singer' denote… Once I asked some advanced level students of Chhayanaut who they thought was the greatest singer of our musical history. Some mentioned Mehedi Hassan, while some said Abdul Alim. No one referred to Tansen. They were not familiar with Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan or Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.
-- Waheedul Haque
Haque, considered one of the pioneering music exponents and cultural activists of the country, also expressed his admiration of Das' talent as a Khayal singer. The late exponent also referred to Das' impressive repertoire of folk music that had become a part of his family tradition.
Das affirms that Waheedul Hauqe, whom he treated as one of his mentors, had a great influence over him.
Pandit Ramkanai Das was born in 1935 in Sunamganj. Das' family has been preserving and practicing folk music for generations. His parents Rashiklal Das and Dibyomoyee Das, grandfather Prakash Chandra Talukdar and great grandfather Ramcharan Talukdar were all renowned bards of the greater Sylhet region.
Pandit Das exclusively focused on his family tradition until Kazi Nazrul Islam's raga-based numbers opened a new window to him. Das gradually moved from folk to classical music.
However, he never forgot his roots. Throughout his illustrious life the Pandit has dedicated himself to popularising folk music, especially the treasure trove of traditional Sylheti songs.
Though an ardent follower of both classical and folk music, Pandit Das classifies them with different attributes. He considers folk songs to be the essence of his soul. To him, folk song is the 'language', while classical is the 'grammar'.
“Grammar is essential to learn a language thoroughly but it is not a must, as you can say that before learning grammar a child can speak,” said the veteran singer.
He added, “In a greater sense, music has no class limitations. You can choose classical or folk or whatever you want. But first you have to understand what you want. The important thing is to get accustomed to the tune and then you can decide where you want to apply it.”
Pandit Das also finds similarities between classical and folk music. In his view similarities between classical Dhrupad and Ghatu Gaan are noticeable. He said, “Dhrupad is a polished version of folk songs that were sung in villages near the royal court of Agra.”
Pandit Das has collected numerous folk songs, especially of his parents, from his elder sister Sushama Das, who herself is a well-known folk singer.
So far the veteran artiste has released four folk and a classical album. His debut album, titled “Bonder Banshi Baje”, was released by Commitment Productions in 2005, at the age of 70. Bengal Foundation has released two of his albums, titled “Shurdhunir Kinarae” and “Oshomoye Dhorlam Pari”. The other album, titled “Pagla Majhi”, was launched by Laser Vision. The only classical album by Pandit Das was released by Shurer Mela.
The folk albums by Pandit Das feature songs of different bards, including his parents, as well as some anonymous ones. Songs covered by the seasoned artiste are of Radha Ramon Dutta, Rashiklal Das, Dibyamoyee, Jogendra, Haricharan, Adharchan and Hason Raja.
“We have a tradition of folk music that dates back thousands of years. We should focus on this, otherwise this tradition will become extinct,” he said.
In this connection Pandit Das cited genres such as Ghatu Gaan, Gazir Gaan, Noukabaicher Gaan, Kobi Gaan, Fakir Gaan and Akheri Chetan as well as bards such as Haricharan, Kamaluddin, Azim Shah, Madhusudan, Shitalong Fakir, Ramjoy, Lala and Ramcharan.
Pandit Das finds a decline in the practice of traditional songs. He believes that if this situation continues, our culture will suffer an identity crisis. He is less hopeful about the future of present-day folk song traditions in the greater Sylhet region. He finds that banal songs have been produced in a large number instead of quality ones.
He also finds that collective efforts are diminishing and solo performers are coming up in large numbers, which the Pandit regards as a violation of an old tradition. “Baula Gaan [not Baul Gaan] has a great tradition of being performed by a group of people. Nowadays, this tradition is on the wane.”
Nevertheless, he is hopeful about the future. “There are still remarkable songs, which are performed across the Sylhet region. We should take necessary steps to preserve them immediately,” he said.
The singer is writing his autobiography, which will be published at the forthcoming Ekushey Book Fair. Pandit Ramkanai Das runs a music school named Sangeet Parishad, which has a branch in New York. His daughter runs the school in New York. Das' son, Pinu Sen Das, is an accomplished tabla player and a teacher at Chhayanaut.
N.B. The quote by Waheedul Haque is taken from the flap of Pandit Ramkanai Das' album “Shurdhunir Kinarae”. It is a rough translation.