Vol. 4 Num 310 Sun. April 11, 2004  

The musical duo
A chat with Abida Sultana and Rafiqul Alam

Abida Sultana and Rafiqul Alam are amongst the most prominent singer couples in Bangladesh. Although they perform in duets, they are renowned for their individual contributions to music.

Abida and Rafiq are very busy with stage performances, tours and album releases. They just have come back from Canada where they performed in four stage shows in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. They are now on a government tour to Australia. The latest album of Abida is a joint venture with two of the Indian singers Haimanti Shukla and Arundhuti Holme titled Chokh jure borsha. Rafiq is also working on an exclusive album called The Best of Rafiq, which will be released soon.

Abida started to sing from her very childhood. Both her parents were culture -oriented people. This is why, she reminisces, it was easier for her to build a career in music. In her words, 'When my elder sister Rebecca used to learn music under Ustad Ram Gopal Mohanti, I used to curiously peep into the room. The ustad noticed and called me. He told me to sing a song and I sang accurately. This impressed him and from then on he started calling me a 'tape recorder'. He also gave me music lessons. Later on I learnt classical music under Akhtar Sadmani, Bareen Majumdar and Gul Mohammad. I also learned Nazrul and Tagore songs under Sohrab Hossain, Feroza Begum and Shudhin Das.'

Rafiq's story of learning music runs along parallel lines. He, too, started to sing in his childhood because he felt that music was in his blood. He started to learn music under Anup Bhattacharya a few months before the Liberation War. His gurus are his brother Sarwar Jahan, Abdul Jabbar Khan and Haripada Das. He started to perform on the radio in Rajshahi. Says Rafiq, 'I never had to face an audition. The other singers always spoke highly of me.'

In May 1971, Rafiq joined the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra when he was a teenager. He recalled, 'A cultural group was formed with the Bangalee refugees, with eminent artistes of today. Kaderi Kibria, Probal Chowdhury, Sarwar Jahan, Rezwanul Haque, Uma Khan, Kolyani Ghosh and Shaheen Samad-- are the names which I can recall.' There he performed many songs tuned by Apel Mahmud and Shujeyo Shyam. The recordings used to take place at a small studio in Baliganj Place of Kolkata and was broadcast from a liberated zone.

There, Rafiq met the legendary Tagore singer Kanika Bondyapadhaya. She asked Rafiq to sing a song and he rendered one of Atul Proshad's song Tumi Gao Tumi Gao. She was impressed and agreed to teach him some other songs which Rafiq remembers with gratitude. She also told Rafiq to carry on with his style of singing.

However, Rafiq worked as a cultural activist there for eight months. He said in a nostalgic tone, 'We stayed there in a three storied building and had to sleep on the floor. It was winter and we had no blankets till the Red Cross donated some later. It was truly hard for us but we had no regrets. How could we complain? The freedom fighters were struggling against the Pakistani army in the battlefield and were even ready to sacrifice their lives!

'I was eager to go to the war and felt sorry that I could not do anything for my country. But my friends consoled me by saying that inspiring our people through our spirited songs was a big contribution to the war as well '.

After the war, Rafiq attended a music conference in Dhaka Stadium in the early 1970s where he met Abida for the first time. Legendary artistes of India like Shyamal Mitra, Manobendra Mukhopadhyay, Dwejen Mukhopadhyay, Protima Mukhopadhyay, Suchitra Mitra and Ali Hossain Khan also attended the conference. Famous singers of Bangladesh like Mahmudun Nabi and Khondokar Faruq also perfomed. Rafiq's performance was appreciated by the music domain and he considered this performance as a break through in his career.

'We first met in a Pahela Baishak , we performed our first duet in Pahela Baishakh and coincidentally we got married in another Pahela Baishakh,' said Abida. They got a modelling offer and they took it. But unfortunately the product was banned after a short while.

According to Abida although they come from the same professional background they do not encounter any problems. She said, 'We have competition, not professional jealousy.' And about criticism Abida says, 'Rafiq is very constructive in his criticisms, as he is well acquainted with the basic elements of music. After any performance I usually go straight to Rafiq for the criticism, because I know he won't flatter me. He will speak the truth about my performance even if I do the worst.'

Rafiq echoes the same sentiment, 'Abida and I have absolutely a very healthy competition. We criticise each other's performance and I know her shortfalls. She also knows mine. She is comfortable with singing any type of songs, which is her advantage and quality as well.'

Rafiq and Abida the globe trotting singers