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     Volume 7 Issue 15 | April 11, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

Runa Revisited

Neeman Sobhan

I was unabashedly curious and eager as a teenager again. I had come to the concert of a 'singing sensation' of my times and generation, whom I hadn't seen in three decades! As I sat in the hall of the huge Teatro Tendastrisce, in a far flung area of Rome, waiting for the poorly publicised concert to start, three excruciating hours late, my mind drifted away from the present.

I first saw her in the United States. The year was 1977; and the twenty-five year old charismatic Bangladeshi singer, groomed in Pakistan and who had already conquered India, was visiting for her solo concert at the prestigious Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C.

I was a newly married girl, barely out of my teens, who had grown up with the music of this artist in the West Pakistan of the 60s, and was….unabashedly curious to see the singer in person. At a lunch at the home of a member of the Association of Bengalis of the greater Washington area, she walked in slim and pert, with her entourage of youthful instrumentalists with whom she was on joking terms.

I watched her from a distance, observing how confident and focused she was about her music as she went about harnessing all the forces that would create a smooth and successful show. I remember her trying out a Barbara Streisand song in case she had to sing an English/American number for the international audience we were trying to attract.

The list and sequence of songs were discussed at length, but she was very much in control and knew the correct ratio of Bangla songs to Urdu ones, and just how to blend the catchy popular numbers with those that would showcase the range and technical excellence of her voice. Keeping in mind the Bangalis from 'Opaar Bangla', she tried out the popular Bhupen Hazarika song of the era: 'Gonga Amar Ma, Podda Amar Ma'.

In fact, I remember that when some of us from the Association went with her to check out the acoustics of the auditorium, she tested the sound system by bursting forth with this song. The pitch-perfect purity of the 'Maaaa' reverberated not only through the empty hall but went straight into the heart of the few listeners privileged to be there. It made me realise anew the strength and depth of her musical training.

That evening at her show at the Kennedy Center, as I sat among the audience, I applauded that flawless singer behind the flashy young diva whom the compere announced with gusto: RUNA LAILA!

She brought together Bangalis and Punjabis, Indians and Pakistanis; broke linguistic barriers and provided a meeting ground for music lovers without borders. It was easy to be hypnotised along with the others by her singing and her crowd-captivating charm. But over the years, I lost touch with her music except now and then, hearing off-hand some of her Bangla songs, mostly with lyrics that were disappointingly of a mediocre standard. Songs like 'Bondhu teen din,' 'Shadher lau', 'istishaner relgarita, 'Parar lokey boley' etc. were the equivalent of her repertoire of crowd-pleasing Urdu music like 'O Mera babu chail chabila' or 'Daiyya rey daiyya'. Enjoyable though these songs were, they overshadowed her roots in semi-classical music.

For me, Runa Laila's version of Shahabaz Qalandar or her soulful rendition of 'Amaye bhashaili rey' or ghazals like 'Ranjish hi sahee' revealed her true musical virtuosity. But, I realised that her stage performances called for her to deliberately measure out the right dose of popular, hand-clapping, whistle-generating numbers. For an audience out for an evening's 'entertainment', Runa guaranteed satisfaction.

For me, however, 'showmanship' is a quality I consider apart from musical ability: a singer I admire need not be an entertainer. Singing is enough; dancing and audience involvement are unnecessary for me. Still, when the poster for the Runa Laila concert was brought to my attention by one of my students in my Bangla class at La Sapienza, I decided to set an example by attending, and quite a few of my Italian students also bought tickets.

And here I was waiting and waiting, from 5:30 p.m. to almost 8, for the show to start. I dared not look behind me at the rows of yawning and restive young spectators. At last, the wait was over and after a delightful preliminary performance by two youthful guest singers from Kolkata (from Indian Idol show), the diva was finally announced. When she walked onstage I gasped: she was… larger-than-life in more ways than one! I knew she had put on weight but it was a shock to see her so bloated and changed from the svelte girl she was.

Yet, from the moment she addressed the audience and sang her first notes, reassurance flooded me. She was bigger but better. Her powers were undiminished and she had the crowd eating out of her hand: Bangali, Punjabi, Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani all were dancing and clapping. I sat back to observe the dynamism of the singer, her interaction with the audience, and the woman she had evolved into. I was especially struck by her graciousness, at the way she pulled out young girls from the audience to share the stage with her and sing along with her. Her encouragement of youthful singers bespoke a person deeply secure in herself. She exuded humour and humility. I liked the human being I glimpsed behind the singer who still inspires adulation by the crowds.

By the time, she came to her concluding number, I felt that the 'Damadam mast Qalandar' ringing in the Roman air was coming not from the stage a few feet away but from a distant auditorium on the Potomac river where a slim young girl was sending forth a pitch-perfect musical cry to a Sindhi saint from Sehwan which across thirty years was echoing undimmed in the ears of another 'young' girl in the audience, who now applauds a contemporary in life's journey.

On Pohela Boishak, I wish Runa Laila good luck for the rest of the musical journey of her life, and my readers a wonderful new year! Shubho Nobo Borsho!

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