While reminiscing about his childhood days at Teliapara Tea Estate of Habiganj, Subir Nandi used to say, “I was born in nature and I was taught music by nature.” As a young boy he would often listen to long plays in the peace and quiet of the tea garden which eventually encouraged him to take up music. Dada’s (he was like an older brother to me) father, Sudhangshu Bhusan Nandi, an army man and a music lover who managed the tea garden, owned a large wooden box full of long play records of various genres. Thus there was no dearth of music for the young Subir to draw inspiration from.
His smile never faded, nor did the exuberance and warmth when he greeted me in Sylheti dialect to which he reverted whenever we met: “Kita a ba, bhalani?” (Roughly translates to “How goes it? Well I hope?”) We had both grown up in Habiganj and shared the same love for music, but unfortunately, not quite the same mastery.
People knew Subir Nandi as a classical singer. Most of his songs were based on the classical genre. He was a pioneer in the Bangladeshi music industry popularising classical music among the people. His unique voice with its strong classical base left his fans beguiled and wanting to hear more.
“To me music should be more about the tune and not the instruments. Music should give you peace and comfort, not pain. So the entire musical arrangement should be like that,” I remember him telling me the last time we were at a private programme where he sang. We sat together and talked for long about Habiganj and the folk music scene of Sylhet region.
Dada expressed his dissatisfaction about the current trends in folk music and the idea of remixing. “Our folk singers are starving and people are making money out of them. It’s unfortunate.”
His plan was to collect folk songs and record them all. We talked about the music of Radha Raman, Deen Bhovananda, Arkum Shah, Sheikh Bhanu, Shitalong Shah and Hason Raja. He used to say that folk is the mother of classical music, so folk music should be promoted.
That day Subir Da sang three songs and left the programme without eating. He was on a strict regimen of plain rice and boiled papaya. Little did I know then that my promise to meet him soon, was never meant to be kept.
He said he used to listen to radio programmes with his father in the mornings when Indian music legends performed. That helped him to pick up classical music faster.
The country witnessed political unrest in 1967. At that time two Radio Pakistan officials visited the district on a talent hunt mission and Subir Nandi got selected. That was the beginning of his career as an artist.
But fate had other things in store. The Liberation War brought about immense suffering for his family and Subir Nandi’s family took shelter in Karimganj in India in 1972. Sadly, his father died when they were on their way back to Bangladesh.
Later he joined Janata Bank as an officer in Sylhet. But he did not leave music. The music patron Bidit Lal Das, a zamindar, formed a music team comprising of young talented musicians and Subir was among them. They sang folk songs and performed in various districts performing in Dhaka on several occasions.
His formal journey in the music industry began when he recorded his first song Jodi keu dhup jele dey which was recorded by another maestro Sujay Shyam, also from Sylhet.
Subir Da was transferred from Sylhet to Dhaka in 1974 and that transfer became a blessing. At that time Sujay Shyam was one of the top music directors in the film industry. In 1976, Sujay used Subir Da’s voice in a playback song “Doshi hoilam ami doyal re”. Since then he gave us one number one song after another.
Subir Da was an ardent fan of the legendary singer Manna Dey. In almost every programme he sang, there would be at least one song of Manna Dey’s. He had the opportunity to perform in front of Tabla maestro Allah Rakha, Mehedi Hassan, Bahadur Khan and many more. Once, while listening to Subir Da, Allah Rakha gave him a USD 50 note with his signature—something he had preserved all his life. In 1994, Subir Nandi had the distinguished privilege of performing at the House of Commons in the UK.
Till a certain point, Subir Da was basically a Nazrul geeti singer. When he came to Dhaka in 1974 and started to perform in different programmes, he faced a number of obstacles. Many Nazrul veterans told him that he sang the songs well—but there were deviations of tune in his singing.
This frustrated him. He once went to the famous musician Mohammed Muzakker and told him that he wanted to sing another genre of music. Muzakker advised him to switch to “adhunik gaan” (roughly translated as modern songs) and the rest is history. All his life he practiced music and though he grew old, his voice never did. “Music”, he said, “had no short cuts and was like praying, one has to practice it all the time.”
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is Senior Staff Correspondent, The Daily Star.