Looking back at the 1971 Concert in Sympathy
It was 50 years ago today when hundreds of Londoners flocked to Sadler's Wells theatre to show their support and donate to the cause of Bangladesh's Liberation War. It, too, was a concert, though not as spectacular as the Madison Square Garden's Concert for Bangladesh organised by the Beatles' guitarist George Harrison and Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar. The London Concert and seven other concerts in the following weeks in various other English cities were known as the "Concert in Sympathy". Sadler's Wells had three shows on the day. And, the key organiser of the series was Birendra Shankar, one of the nephews of Ravi Shankar.
Birendra courted support from politicians, artists from both parts of Bengal, celebrities including Hollywood's top actress Glenda Jackson, and businesses for his concerts. Birendra Shankar, who founded the Sanskritik Centre of Indian Arts, was well known for his devotion in promoting Indian classical music in Britain. Unfortunately, there is not much information available about his experience in organising this huge series of concerts as he passed away in 2015 at the age of 82. Most of the other participants from India and Bangladesh too have died.
Though Birendra reproduced a commemorative album of the concert in 1996, marking the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence, that album too is not available on the market. I found a private collector's copy on eBay in 2019 which now belongs to Prothom Alo. Fortunately, the Islington Local History Centre and Museum of Islington Borough of London where Sadler's Wells theatre is located has kept a flyer and some pictures of the event in its digital archive.
According to an obituary written by his wife Barbara Shankar published in the Guardian on June 18, 2015, Birendra had already successfully organised and managed musical shows of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, a folk festival and a dance festival at Piccadilly theatre, Royal Albert Hall and the ….Scala Theatre.. Powered by such experience, he travelled to India and refugee camps in bordering areas of West Bengal and brought in Ruma Guha Thakurta, Nirmalendu Chowdhury, Sabitabrata Dutta, Radhakanta Nandy, Phani Bhushan Bhattacharya, Chandrakanta Nandy, Mohammad Moshahed Ali and Shah Ali Sarkar to "show something of the soul of the millions". British artists were inducted to express their "sympathy for the suffering people".
The musical soiree was a unique mix of two cultures. On the one hand it was a portrayal of the performing arts of Bengal, mostly folk music and songs, and the other was Western music performed by British artists to express their sympathy. It also included songs of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Another remarkable aspect was the depiction of religion in rural life. The show started with the Azan (call to prayer) at dawn and then a devotional Hindu song "Rai Jaago Rai", followed by a farmer walking to his farming field with bulls and plough. British artists played different compositions with the piano, cello and other instruments. Among them were Jazz artists Norma Winstone, John Taylor, cellist Keith Harvey and pianist Marilyn Knight. Actress Glenda Jackson, who won the Academy Awards as the best actress that year for her role in "Women in Love", recited a couple of short poems. French sculptor Jephan de Villiers donated one of his sculptures—to be auctioned for aid for the refugees—that was exhibited at the foyer of Sadler's Wells.
Describing people who fled persecution and deaths at home and took refuge across the border, the concert flyer said: People! Lonely and lost; baffled and bewildered; disrupted and dispossessed. Once they were farmers, workers, teachers, doctors and artists—now only refugees. But, to reflect the resistance and defiance it pronounced: "Bengal, together with her music and literature is alive! Though all is not well there, we hope that we might reach what all Art seeks to reach—the heart of the matter. A battered peoples' Art lives".
The Earl of Harewood George Henry Hubert Lascelles, who was then the director of the Royal Opera House, Oscar winning actress Glenda Jackson, the vice chancellor of the University of London and the mayors of Birmingham and Wolverhampton were among the nine patrons of the committee. Members of the committee included about 20 members of parliament, including well known supporters of our Liberation War John Stonehouse and Peter Shore. A Nobel Prize winning economist, Professor JT Tinbergen, was also a member of the committee.
Since finding and listening to the album, I have been trying to learn more about the concert. But I could not find any of the organisers and participants except Glenda Jackson—as most of them have passed away. When I contacted her in early 2020, she was again ruling the British TV screen following her return from politics to acting after a 27-year break, when she played the key role in the BBC drama series "Elizabeth Is Missing". For the 2019 production, she won a Bafta TV Award and an International Emmy for best actress. Sadly, when I asked her about the Concert in Sympathy, she could not remember anything. She only said we should all be happy that Bangladesh gained independence and expressed her delight that she had also done something for the cause. Our conversation ended soon, but her recital of the following verses reverberated in my ears, though I could not ascertain who the poet was:
Each day blood flows on Bengal soil
Every traveller leaves behind some of his blood in this blood
Where it is stored for the future needs of the land
Bengal's blood is drawn inexorably towards the soil
And though the river may dry and the sea disappear
The garland of nature she wears may dry
Yet one day from this same blood shall emerge a new river
A fresh garland of nature
The village that was once destroyed
And so who wants to keep his blood in the blood bank at the
Where it becomes polluted with the poison touch of glass
There can be no blood bank better than the Bengal soil
Where each drop of blood donated becomes 10 drops
And that is why people no longer go to the blood bank at the
Bengal's blood is drawn inexorably towards the soil.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1