The Bulbul's deafening silence
On a cold winter morning on December 27, 2012, Nazrul's world lost one of its most revered and beloved guardians. The "Bulbul" of Nazrul songs, Sohrab Hossain breathed his last, leaving behind a nation in mourning.
An all-pervasive personality who seemed to cast his protective shadow over the world of Nazrul Sangeet, he was a father figure, a devoted artiste and a mentor to all around him. Sohrab Hossain nourished and preserved the original Nazrul tunes with tireless dedication and passion.
He was among the golden crop of artistes who immortalised the golden era of the 1940's to the 1970's. Abbasuddin Ahmed, Sohrab Hossain, Sheikh Luthfar Rahman, Bedaruddin Ahmed, Abdul Halim Chowdhury, Laila Arzumand Banu, Afsari Khanum, along with Feroza Begum, Sudhin Das, Julhasuddin Ahmed popularised Nazrul songs to grand heights and captured audiences far and across.
Sohrab Hossain -- Sohrab bhai to me - was my guru at Chhayanaut, (the name aptly signifying the shade of a tree) and also trained students at Bulbul Academy, Nazrul Academy and Nazrul Institute.
The sight of him arriving at Chhayanaut on his noisy Vespa motorcycle is an image that somehow refuses to leave my memory. He used to jokingly call his motorcycle the “helicopter”. With a permanent smile on his face he would engage in a friendly banter with Sheikh Luthfur Rahman and Zahidur Rahim to create a lighter mood before our classes started. Behind the easy smile, however was a strict disciplinarian when it came to training, a stickler for maintaining the original notations of Nazrul and a purist when it came to performing.
My earliest memory of him is facing him at the Chhayanaut admission exam held in English Preparatory school (now Udayan) in the Dhaka University campus in 1969. Sohrab bhai along with Sanjida Khatun was taking the admission tests. At Sohrab bhai's suggestion I was admitted not to the “shishu” class, but to a class higher, the “prarombhik” class. During my first performance on stage at the annual function of Chhayanaut, held at Engineers Institute, Sohrab bhai had taught me the song “Biswa Dulali Nabi Nandini”, an Islamic song. Little did I know that for the next 45 years he would be my guide in the journey through the fascinating world of Nazrul songs.
Sohrab bhai's own journey through Nazrul Sangeet has been nothing short of illustrious. His voice had certain inimitable qualities that would mesmerise audiences. Nazrul songs starting from ghazal, kabbyo-geeti to kirtan, folk and Islamic all blended flawlessly with his renditions. The song never seemed the same when sung by following artistes. His gayaki captured listeners with a unique mix of resonating timbre and nimble vocal manipulation. His songs such as Shaon ashilo phirey, Pashane bhangale ghuum, Ke bideshi bon udashi, Beshuur binaye, Gaan guli mor brought to life the inner meaning of the songs.
His mastery of the range of Nazrul songs was well known. He would effortlessly perform kirtan, ghazal and lighter songs such as Amar Hori namey ruchi karon porinamey luchi; Chhuona chhuyona bodhu; Mor pria hobey esho rani; Nirijoney shokhi and Ami kuul chhere cholilam bheshey. In fact, there is hardly any variety of Nazrul Sangeet that he has not performed.
Sohrab bhai would often recall his fascination with the music played on the gramophone records. "I was so desperate to attend theatre that I even had to sell my mother's valuables to buy the tickets! The Minerva Theatre, in West Bengal, was a popular source of entertainment at that time. During the interval of the plays “Sirajuddowla” and “Laili Majnu”, reputed singers like Angur Bala, Indu Bala used to perform songs. Gradually, I could say the drama lines of the characters by heart, not to speak of the songs. This is how my love for Nazrul songs started," he would add.
Continuing in the same vein, he said, “I hardly knew who the composer or writer was behind the songs. I remember one morning when everyone was rushing towards the Ranaghat bazaar. There was an air of breathless excitement. The one thing I remember from that first encounter with the poet, Nazrul, was his wild locks of hair and deep inquisitive eyes. Little did I know then that someday I would be so inspired by the immense creativity of the poet and that his songs would be my ultimate identity.”
After partition Sohrab Hossain settled in Dhaka. From then on he made an entry in the music scene through recitals in the radio.
He was awarded the Swadhinata Puroshkar by the Bangladesh government in 1980; Nazrul Padak, 1982(Nazrul Academy); Nazrul Academy, 1981(Churulia, India) to name a few for his single-minded dedication to preserving and performing Nazrul songs.
Nazrul Islam undoubtedly enriched the world of Bangla songs with his creative genius. However, gifted artistes like Sohrab Hossain, brought Nazrul's work closer to the people. His dedication to training artistes, so Nazrul could be remembered in posterity, underlines the role of a guardian he took upon himself. Losing him feels like letting go of the hand that has guided a legion of artistes for decades.