Vol. 5 Num 1133 Mon. August 06, 2007  

Rabindra Sangeet: Awakening Bengali nationalism
In conversation with Fahmida Khatun

"Hrini taar kachhe ajibon, jar konthe Rabindranath-er gaan bache" -- poet Shamsur Rahman expresses his gratitude to Tagore exponent Fahmida Khatun in the poem Hrini. Indeed, Fahmida Khatun, along with her sister Sanjida Khatun, have played a pioneering role in propagating Tagore songs in Bangladesh.

As the nation was gearing up for its liberation, Fahmida's rendition of Sharthok jonom amar jonmechhi ei deshey and Amar shonar Bangla at public gatherings took her closer to millions. During the Liberation War, Aji Bangladesher hridoy hotey, rendered by her, was repeatedly aired from Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra and was a boost to the morale of the freedom fighters.

To Fahmida, Tagore songs are expressions of a particular way of life, emblematic of Bengali culture and nationalism. "In his works depiction of universal emotions enabled people from different generations and eras identify with the expressions in their day-to-day existence. The visionary poet's songs open ways to an enlightened life and his ideas guide us in every struggle," Fahmida explains what Tagore songs mean to her.

Starting off as a dancer, the artiste soon turned to singing. As a school student, she took lessons in classical music at home. As her elder sister Sanjida Khatun was leaving for Shatiniketon, she tried to impress her with toppa (semi classical songs). Soon she developed a fascination for "oprocholito gaan"(uncommon songs).

In 1956, Fahmida won much acclaim rendering songs of the 'mother' character in the dance drama Chandalika. Gradually, she grew into prominence as a Tagore singer with her performances in radio, television and stage. Her rendition of Ami tomar shongey bedhechhi amar praan in Dharapat, the first Tagore song used in a film made in the then East Pakistan, was a huge success.

Her mentors were Ustad Munir Hussain in classical and Sanjida Khatun, Kalim Sharafi, Abdul Ahad in Tagore songs. EMI Music brought out two extended records and HMV re-released them. She also has a long play record and five CDs.

Recalling the difficulties that they had to face in learning and practicing Tagore songs during the pre-Independence period, Fahmida points out that the situation has changed. "Chhayanat, Rabindra Sangeet Sammilan Parishad and several other organisations have yielded positive results in promoting Tagore songs. The songs now enjoy greater exposure than before.

Responding to the debate whether Tagore songs are enjoyed by a certain class, Fahmida draws from her experience where she found rural audiences attending musical soirees and requesting for more, even after 3/4 hours into the programme. She argues, "These questions are raised out of hostility. These arguments derive from their embedded cultural judgments. Tagore songs deserve a moral and aesthetic response, much more than only a brief inspection or broad generalisation to unlock what it has to offer."

Fahmida is very enthusiastic about young singers. However, she feels that they should delve deeper. "The profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful songs are much more than tools to demonstrate vocal charisma. One has to grasp the message in the song to be able to move the listener," she says.

Another important aspect of singing that is often ignored, is tempo. "It is extensively stated how the songs are to be sung. Some performers today tend to stretch too much, hoping to provide a better performance. Several singers today tend to sing on higher scales. When an artiste has to put extra effort into singing, the song loses its appeal. The best way to present a song is to sing it with ease. Young singers should take note of musical expressions, phrases, idioms including nature of lyricism," she says.

Tagore came to East Bengal to manage his family estates at Shilaidaha and Shazadpur. The poet spent nearly a decade in Shelaidah, Kushtia.

These years were an important milestone in the poet's life. This is evident in his wonderful letters that portray the real essence of Bengal and Bengali life, written to his niece Indira, which was later published as "Chhinnopatra". The lyrical beauty of Bangladesh, the rivers, the boats and the simple life gave the poet serenity as well as inspired him to write "Postmaster", "Shonar Tari" (a collection of poems), "Chitrangada" (dance-drama) and more.

Most of his short stories were written in this period.