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     Volume 5 Issue 112 | September 15, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Discovering Pure Talent

Hana Shams Ahmed

Competitors performing a chorus at the prize giving ceremony at the National Museum

Music has always been an inseparable part of our cultural identity. From the maharajas to the zaminders, these connoisseurs of music of Bengal gave the great musical maestros a special status. The 19th century saw the birth of one of the greatest literary geniuses of all times. More than two thousand of Rabindranath Tagore's songs, of which he wrote both the words and the music, and a mass of other literary work, won him the first ever Nobel Prize to an Asian. After Tagore, the works of three of the greatest composers and songwriters, Atul Prasad Sen, Rajanikanta and Dwijendralal Ray, made an indelible mark in Bengal's musical history with their patriotic songs. Kazi Nazrul Islam's work pioneered Islamic devotional and patriotic songs to the mainstream of Bangla folk music. From the maestros to the simple folk, from mystic songs composed by Hason Raja and Lalon Shah to the bauls who walk the paths of rural Bangladesh and sing the simple songs describing every day life 'Bhatiali', 'Jari', 'Sari', 'Bhawaiya', 'Chatke', 'Bichhedi' 'Pala', the treasury of music from this part of the world is enormous.

Luva Nahid Choudhury, the Managing Director of Bengal Foundation

But the songs of the greats are slowly losing ground among the youth of today and giving way to the more 'in' form of music- Hindi film songs, Bangla rock, Indi pop, Hip Hop and the purists' nightmare fusion. With this view in mind Bengal Foundation arranged a special talent hunt, Bengal Bikash Bajuk Prane Bangla Gaan (let Bangla songs beat in our hearts) where competitions were held in five different categories- Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrul Geeti, Three Poets' Songs (Atul Prasad Sen, Rajanikanta Sen and Dwijendralal Ray), Folk Songs and Adhunik (modern) Songs.

The journey began in May 2005. The first dilemma was how to inform and invite people from all walks of life all over the country to participate. Advertisements were placed in the newspapers. Unfortunately by the end of the last date for submission only about 500 people had sent in their applications with their recorded voice. Bengal Foundation decided to extend the final date of submission and held press conferences in all the districts and advertised on radio in order to reach the masses. These endeavours turned out to be fruitful. By the final day Bengal received 4,093 cassettes from 18 to 35 year-olds around the country.

Competitors were methodically eliminated at every stage of the contest. Relevant judges were appointed for every category. Rabindra Sangeet artiste Bulbul Islam was in charge of the overall contest. After listening to all the tapes, 2,093 contestants made it through the first stage. The next stage of the competition took place in all the divisions across the country. From the six divisional competitions 239 competitors were chosen for another round in Dhaka. The last round of competitions, before the finals, took six more days which saw 100 very eligible candidates through to the finals. The judges were so impressed with these 100 contestants that they insisted on having their talent known at the divisional level. And so a talent recognition programme was arranged at each of their cities. The finals took place at the Shaheed Zia Auditorium at the National Museum from September 2 to September 5 and the results were announced on September 6. In the Modern songs category Bengal also awarded original works by lyricists and composers.

Mustafa Monowar giving Prizes to the winners of the three poets songs

Many big names were present as judges at different levels of the competition including Promila Chakraborty, Anup Bhattacharya, Iffat Ara Dewan, Shahin Samad, Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, Shubir Nandi, Shujay Shyam, Mridulkanti Chakraborty, Nadira Begum, Mohiuzzaman Chowdhury, Mita Haque, Khairul Anam Shakil, Fahmida Nabi, Yasmin Mushtari, Shumon Chowdhury, Malaikumar Ganguly, Zahir Alim, Nilotpal Shadhya, Laisa Ahmed Lisa, Aditi Mohsin, Sharmin Shathi Islam etc.

The main aim of this talent hunt, points out Luva Nahid Choudhury, the Managing Director of Bengal Foundation who has been in the steering committee from the very beginning, was to work as a vehicle to identify talent in the respective music categories and present it to the whole country. “The fact that these people stuck around with us for more than a year when they knew that there was no money in it for them or the promise of a record deal proves that they really are dedicated to their music,” says Luva.

What made this talent hunt different from the more publicised popular talent hunts on TV is that three winners were chosen from five different categories instead of expecting one person to be proficient in all of them. Twenty contestants made it to the final round of each category and instead of choosing one person as an overall winner, three received the Sreshtho Maan (Top Standard) award, three received the Uttom Maan (Excellent Standard) Award and 14 others received the Shophol Maan (Successful Standard) Award. According to the judges, everyone who came to the final round was talented and deserved to have their talent recognised. “We did not reveal who got the highest mark in any of the categories,” says Luva, “We even announced everyone's name according to their serial number.”

Winners performing Rabindra Sangeet at the Prize-giving ceremony

Nazrul Geeti artiste Feroza Begum, who awarded the winners, praised the effort made by Bengal. “Nothing like this has ever taken place before in Bangladesh. This is a new kind of venture recognising the talent [of the contestants], encouraging them, giving them the opportunity to advance and letting them be known to so many people I really like the idea,” she says. “I'm sure that someone will come up from here whose voice will be heard all throughout Bangladesh and beyond”.

Artist Mustafa Monowar emphasised on the importance of practicing the songs of the three poets, “The three poets' songs not only inspired the Bangalis. We learned to rebel, live and think freely by listening to their songs.”

Bengal Foundation has always been at the forefront in promoting Bangladeshi culture. “Our fundamental concern is that people understand music and perform well.” This thought has been echoed by many of the other judges as well.

Nazrul Geeti artiste Feroza Begum, who awarded the winners, praised the effort made by Bengal. “Nothing like this has ever taken place before in Bangladesh. This is a new kind of venture recognising the talent [of the contestants], encouraging them, giving them the opportunity to advance and letting them be known to so many people I really like the idea,” she says. “I'm sure that someone will come up from here whose voice will be heard all throughout Bangladesh and beyond”.

Artist Mustafa Monowar emphasised on the importance of practicing the songs of the three poets, “The three poets' songs not only inspired the Bangalis. We learned to rebel, live and think freely by listening to their songs.”

Bengal Foundation has always been at the forefront in promoting Bangladeshi culture. “Our fundamental concern is that people understand music and perform well.” This thought has been echoed by many of the other judges as well.

Besides getting a crest from Bengal Foundation, the winners are also set to receive a two or three-year scholarship at Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata where they will be studying classical music under a mentor. In the case of the winners in the Rabindra Sangeet category, their scholarship will involve a course under a mentor in Shantiniketan. For the next one year there will be four special workshops for the winners. “The main aim of these workshops will be to better understand music,” says Luva. “We are not saying that we don't want to go towards contemporary music, but to take this up it is necessary to know the roots. There are still some fundamental problems in all the winners and we need to fill these gaps up to move ahead,” she adds.

Rabindra Sangeet

Shimu Rani Dey, Dhaka
Twenty-nine-year-old Shimu, besides getting the 'Top Standard' in the Rabindra Sangeet category also got the 'Excellent Standard' in the Contemporary Music category. Shimu is a B Muse (Honours level) student at Shanta Mariam University. “My father was a musician. Both my older sisters used to take singing lessons. So I can't really say when I started singing; I have lived with music for as long as I can remember”, says Shimu. She has completed courses in Classical music, Rabindra Sangeet and is now learning Palli Geeti. Shimu is a dedicated music-lover and after completing her Honours in the subject wants to go on to do a Masters and a PhD in it.

Shukanto Chakrabarty, Chittagong

Shimu Rani Dey, Shukanto Chakrabarty and Adrita Anwar

Twenty-year-old Shukanto believes that we are currently faced with a huge crisis in our musical culture. “At one end we are trying to hold on to our roots and at the other end people are listening to contemporary music that has nothing to do with our culture. We are living in the age of fusion and we have to see whether this fusion is going in a positive or a negative direction”, he says.

According to Shukanto arranging such a competition at this crisis stage is a big accomplishment. “It could be a big turning point in our Bangla culture”, he adds. Shukanto passed his HSC exams last year and wants to study Economics in the future. “It's very risky to take up music as a profession given the circumstances we are in”, he contemplates but also adds that he would not shrug off the idea of going abroad to study music.

Adrita Anwar, Dhaka
An Architecture student at Brac University, 21-year-old Adrita started learning music from a very early age but enrolled in a music school when she was in the seventh grade. “A teacher from my department signed me up for this competition without my knowledge and I did not have much of an interest in the first place”, says Adrita.

Regarding the competition process, Adrita has her reservations. “We did not get the type of training that I thought we should have got. For one year we did not have any guidance”, she says. “It was just before the final round that we worked with the teachers”, she adds. Adrita says that only time will tell whether she will be able to practice both music and architecture.

Nazrul Geeti

Anindita Chowdhury, Sylhet
Anindita, who was awarded with the 'Top Standard' in both the Nazrul Sangeet and Three poets' category, says that she would never have been able to come so far without her mother's inspiration and husband's continuous encouragement. She has left her job at a private company to become a full-time artiste.

Champa Banik, Mohammad Anisur Rahman Parag and Anindita Chowdhury

A final year student at Chayanaut, this 25-year-old who now lives in Dhaka has been practising music since she was a child. Anindita feels that the songs of the three poets are slowly getting lost. “In fact I got to work through their songs only because of this competition”, she says.

After getting to know about the competition through the newspaper there was no looking back for Anindita. “I got a lot of support from Luva apa”, she says, “Before the competition she talked to everyone about their individual problems in tune and melody and we worked on that very thoroughly. Whether I won or not I was always confident about one thing; that I had performed well.”

Mohammad Anisur Rahman Parag, Dhaka
“Our country is very poor”, says 28-year-old Parag, “but it does not lack wealth.”

Parag who wants to represent his country through its cultural wealth of music thinks that this competition is an excellent effort to promote and nurture our cultural heritage. Parag, who now works at a private firm in Motijheel used to hum to himself since, he says, he had the ability to understand. “When I was a little older I was introduced to the tabla and harmonium. Both my parents' families are inclined towards music.” He also studied music at Bulbul Lalitakola Academy. “Classical music is Bengal's identity. And I personally hope that they will be able to continue with the competition.”

Champa Banik, Dhaka
The mother of a nine-month-old girl, when Champa entered the competition she was already expecting. But that did not stop her from winning the 'Top Standard' at the Nazrul Sangeet level as well as the 'Excellent Standard' in the three poets' category. Studying management at Honours' level she is also a music teacher at Sunnydale School.

“My parents were always interested in music and my mother had to run around with me for my music lessons”, says Champa who has now decided that instead of trying to juggle so many things together she will leave everything and focus on her singing and her baby. The 22-year-old has completed a course in Nazrul Sangeet from Jago Lalitkala Academy and is also a student of Bengal Foundation's Parampara workshop.

Three poets' songs (Atul Prasad Sen, Dwijendralal Ray, Rajanikanta Sen)

Anindita Chowdhury, Sylhet
BM Nurul Anwar, Dhaka

Anindita Chowdhury, BM Nurul Anwar and Farhana Rahman Kanta

Nurul is a musician heart and soul. “I am more into music composition”, he says. His latest work was in a classical song in the popular magazine programme, Ittyadi. He has also worked in various TV commercials where he both sang and composed the jingles.

Nurul was introduced to the world of music by his parents when he learned to play the tabla at the age of six. He has also completed a six-year course on music.

At 31, Nurul thought he was too old to enter a competition. “My parents coerced me into it. But once I entered it I was here to win. I was confident about my vocal skill”, he says. “I don't think such a competition can really judge a person's skill though. In my case what happened was that at every stage I ended up singing the same two songs. I think the competition should have been more intense”, he adds.

Nurul has a home-based studio where he is working on creating a fusion with folk, classical and western music.

Farhana Rahman Kanta, Dhaka
“My mother used to sing and she has been my inspiration from the very beginning”, says 18-year-old Kanta, a Bangla Literature student from Eden College. “The good thing about this competition”, says Kanta, “is that winners are chosen from different categories.”

Despite her laurels, Kanta does not want to take up music as a profession. “I want to be a journalist”, she says, “but music will always be my hobby.” Kanta was the youngest competitor at Bengal Bikash and was nervous about the age factor all throughout. “But when I reached the final round my mother said that to get past all those experienced singers at this age was an achievement in itself and she wouldn't mind if I didn't go on to win. I finally relaxed and won.”

Folk Music

Halima Parvin, Dhaka
Although she has a Masters in Management from Jagannath University and also an LLB, 31-year-old Halima does not want to take either of them as a profession. Halima's father is a singer of Bichar songs and gave her the first music lessons.
“We felt very disheartened because musicians like us were not getting any opportunities anywhere although we were giving it our all,” says Halima, “for people like us who are devoted to the roots of our music, this competition was a very good thing.” Halima was very thrilled with the arrangements they had made for this competition. “After taking part in this I can say that my motivation has doubled”, says Halima. She hopes to expose Bangladeshi folk music to the whole world.

Halima Parvin, Shafiul Alam Raza and Arifur Rahman

Shafiul Alam Raza, Dhaka
With a decades' worth of journalism background behind him, 32-year-old Raza came to cover the press conference [by Bengal Bikash] and learned about the competition and entered it right away. “My village home, Kurigram, is the home of Bhawaiya songs”, says Raza, “and I want to work with this particular song genre and popularise it.”

After coming to Dhaka he was completely cut off from singing for three years while he worked as a reporter fror the Daily Jugantor. But he went on to win the competition. Raza has also won many awards for his investigative reports.

Arifur Rahman, Rangpur
Arifur who is currently doing his Masters degree studies at Rajshahi University in the Theatre and Music department, has studied music at Dhaka Music College for some time and has also studied under various music teachers. This 25-year-old believes that the other competitions that are now so popular have a vested interest in making profit. “The aim of this competition is purely to promote Bangla music,” he adds.

Modern Songs

Nahid Sultana, Khulna
“Since I was very little my parents saw that I was interested in music,” says 29-year-old Nahid, “and I started learning from a teacher ever since.” She won a country-wide competition in one of the in 1996.

Nahid Sultana, AKM Shahid Kabir and Shumona Rahman

“The good thing about this competition,” says Nahid, “is that everyone is judged at their own skill. Many competitions require competitors to sing in different categories, but not every one is skilled in all the genres, so it becomes difficult to make a fair judgement.”

Nahid found the workshops very helpful and from the very beginning her siblings, friends and teachers have always encouraged her along.

AKM Shahid Kabir, Jamalpur
Twenty-eight-year-old Shahid who also got an 'Excellent Standard' in the Nazrul Sangeet category completed his Masters in Physics from Jagannath University. He used to sing at Jamalpur Shilpakala Academy and also studied at Bulbul Lalitakala Academy where he passed with a First class First in music.

Speaking about the popular singing competitions Shahid says, “Even those who have never had a formal lesson in their life can win such contests. They don't have a basis for judgement. What Bengal Foundation is doing is very innovative.”

Shahid wants to continue his music in future but adds, “Unfortunately in this country you cannot make a living on music, so my main line of work has to be based on my studies.”

Shumona Rahman, Khulna
Twenty-nine-year-old Shumona, who now lives in Dhaka, is a housewife and mother of a three-year-old. She has studied music at Notunkuri Sangeet Niketan.

Shumona never completed her course at Home Economics College. “I was never a studious person,” she says.

“I never thought that I would get a response from them [Bengal Bikash]”, she says and adds, “even if I had not won I would not have complained because it was a very fair competition. Before the announcement I stayed up all night because I thought I wouldn't win and all my life I just wanted to do something big. I was very thrilled when I won.”

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006