To us, he was simply Phool Da, his pet name, because of his love for flowers. The best gift one could give him was a bouquet of flowers, his favourite being a combination of roses and tulips. Subir Nandi, an icon in the world of Bengali music, fought with immense courage till his last day on earth. His prolonged illness was not known to the outside world but kept within his close circles. Subir Nandi was a man of simplicity, nobility and gentility, the power with which he delved into the world of music. He was an ardent listener first, then a singer, the combination of which established him as the king of a kingdom where his throne was never challenged or shaken. While his music delighted his audience, his gentle, kind nature won people’s hearts.
Phool Da’s simplicity came from a synthesis of experience and wisdom; yet he was down to earth and had respect for everyone, regardless of their age or experience. He was unpretentious and charming, self-effacing yet dignified, exuding an air of calm and confidence that drew people, especially artistes, to him.
I have known this great man for over two decades, although his songs have filled my heart since the 70s, when he started singing in the Bidit Lal Das’s group in Sylhet, mostly rendering folk songs with Akramul Islam, Jamaluddin Banna, Rakhal Chakravarti, Himangshu Goswami and many others.
Subir Nandi was born and grew up in a household where music was an integral part of life. He was raised in Telipara Tea Estate where his father worked as a doctor. His first tutor was his mother who practiced music at home. He learned classical music from Ustad Babar Ali Khan, and ardently followed Pankaj Mallik, KL Saigal, Sandhya Mukherjee, Manna Dey and many others of the genre. In 1972, Subir Nandi recorded his first song, Jodi Keu Dhup Jele Jai, written by Mohammed Muzakker and composed by Ustad Mir Kasem. Many of his popular songs had a rare freshness in the lyrics, vibrancy in the tune and composition which he enriched with the beauty of his voice. That was Phool Da, the artiste who found immense joy in flowers.
Among many of the songs that touched us time and again are Tumi Emoni Jaal Petechho Shongshare, Amar Ei Duti Chokh Pathor To Noi, Ek Je Chhilo Sonar Konna, O Amar Ural Ponkhire.
His unique singing style and indeed many of his compositions are proof of his musical prowess. The dexterity with which he composed a handful of songs kept us wanting more. He had the stamina and adroitness of a brilliant composer who could do much more. He was often sad and talked about the helplessness he felt when his composition of a full album of songs for Shakila Zafar, under the title Mishti Kore Dushtu Bolo, was initially not met with enough interest from the producers who thought that the market was not ready for such experimental work. The album was later released in 2007 and the songs, notably E Kon Phagun Hridoy, O Chand O Jochona, Ojhordharay Brishti Ele Tomar Kotha Mone Pore Jay, and Tumi Mishti Kore Dushtu Bolo, were acclaimed by millions of listeners. One of the main reasons why Subir Da was somewhat disinclined to compose tunes was perhaps the lack of interest among the producers. He was disturbed to see how the songs of Lalon, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam were, in his view, being distorted and sung with changed lyrics.
Although we have known him as an artiste of “modern songs”, his love for Nazrul Geeti and Rabindra Sangeet knew no bounds. Indeed, he sang Nazrul songs on radio quite regularly in the 80s. After I had directed ten Tagore songs for Shakila Zafar in 2011, under the title Labonne Purno Pran, Phool Da did not spare a moment to congratulate us and talked about how beautifully the songs were delivered by Shakila which, in his words, was the result of a meticulous direction. That was a big honour for me which I shall always treasure.
My biggest regret is not having the time and opportunity to honour a request he had made which would have been something to cherish throughout the rest of my life. He had asked me if I could be his trainer for a few Tagore songs that he wanted to sing. There was an interest shown by an audio producer too and we selected a few songs like Prane Khushir Tufan Utheche, Rakho Rakho Re Jibone, Jibone Amar Joto Anondo and Prangone Mor Shirish Shakhay. We agreed to meet sometime during the Ramadan when he would be less busy. Alas, that was not to be, and our promises will never reach fruition. All I can do now is whisper a fond adieu to you, dear Phool Da!
Chanchal Khan is a Tagore singer and researcher.