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Cover Story

The Rebel Artiste

Ershad Kamol

Few can forget the distinct, seasoned voice that gave Nazrul's songs the passion and vigour that it deserved. Feroza Begum, a legendary singer, not only popularised Nazrul Sangeet in the subcontinent but also exposed the depth, versatility and sophistication of this genre of music. So much so that it is impossible to talk about the evolution of Nazrul Sangeet without talking about this remarkable artiste. At a time when Nazrul Sangeet was beginning to lose its popularity due to the flawed rendition by singers, it was Feroza Begum whose passionate singing style restored or rather resurrected, the glory of the music genre and infused new life to Nazrul Sangeet in the middle of the last century in Kolkata. By her unique presentation style Feroza Begum has emerged as the most prominent Nazrul Sangeet singer in the subcontinent. Though she is popular as a Nazrul singer, she renders other music genres such as geet, ghazal, thumri, dhadra> and adhunik songs. Her mastery of incorporating the delicate emotions of the lyrics has had the power to really move the audience..

For her unstinting dedication to music, Feroza Begum has been awarded the Shahdhinata Puroshkar, Nasiruddin Gold Medal, National Award for Best Singer, Netaji Shubhsash Chandra Bose Award, Satyajit Ray Award and Golden Disk Award by CBS/Sony amongst for millions of sale of Nazrul Sangeet Shaono rate jodi. She has been awarded the D Lit title from Bardhaman University of India as recognition of her special contribution in the musical arena.

Feroza Begum's formal training in music began under the guidance of Chitta Roy, a close associate of Kazi Nazrul Islam. She had the brief opportunity of taking lessons from Nazrul himself. And she continued learning music from her husband Kamol Dasgupta, a legendary composer who tuned about 400 Nazrul Sangeet, till the last day of his life. Born in the 1930s, the Nazrul singer continues to uphold her legacy.

Feroza Begum's life is a story of struggle, sacrifice and success. The initial stage of her illustrious career was interrupted several times since she had to give up many years to devote herself to her family. Yet there are few artistes who have been able to achieve what she had during the 65 years of her career. She released the most successful Nazrul Sangeet albums in India. She was the first singer to release a long play on Nazrul Sangeet in Pakistan. Feroza Begum is also a part of history: she was one of the two singers to render songs during the inauguration of the Pakistan radio's regional office in Dhaka.

Born in an aristocratic Muslim family in Faridpur district in the 1930s, Feroza Begum became drawn to music in her childhood. She had no formal education in music, but she used to render songs on the megaphone listening to contemporary music on records of the then popular singers such as Aashchorjomoyee Devi, Sati Devi, Angur Bala, Indu Bala and Swarnokumari Devi in the pantry of her parent's house. She became so devoted to music that it was an all-encompassing preoccupation. At this stage of her life she got enormous support from her family and took part in school music competitions.

"I always dreamt of recording my songs and hoped everybody would listen to my music," says Feroza Begum, "Which is why I always wanted to go to Kolkata since songs were recorded there."

Her dream came true in the summer of 1940. While a student of only class four she went to Kolkata to visit her maternal uncle's house. That trip turned out to be her first break. Her maternal uncle and a cousin took her to the rehearsal room of popular music production company HMV where National Poet of Bangladesh Kazi Nazrul Islam and his colleagues used to mingle.

"Before going there uncle told me to render songs whenever asked to do," says Feroza Begum describing her first meeting with Kazi Nazrul Islam and his associates, "I did not know much about Kazi Nazrul Islam nor had I known him. Entering the rehearsal room I found six/seven people ; one of them welcomed me 'esho khuki esho' (actually he was Nazrul). He asked my name and made me sit beside him. His attire, way of talking and especially his laughter set him apart from the rest. I was rather irritated having to talk to so many unknown men. But, the man requested me to render a song."

"I rendered Jodi porane na jage akul piyasha. Then he became more interested and wanted to know about my family and about me. He found me quite interesting and again requested me to render another song and asked another man (Kamol Dasgupta), who was working in the next room, to listen. Then the latter asked me to present the song on a harmonium. In fact, that was a double reed harmonium, which I was not used to. I refused to play that harmonium considering it broken since every time I pressed one key another key from another octave rose," recalls Feroza.

"But they kept on requesting me to render more songs. Then I started rendering DL Roy's Kalo pakhita mor-e keno kore eto jalaton, but could not complete the song since I was really quite irritated by then. Then again he (Nazrul) asked me whether was I interested to learn music," Feroza continues, "He offered me to come regularly to the place to learn music."

That was the amazing beginning of her formal training on music under the legends. Chitta Roy was her first trainer, later she had 'voice training' under Kamol Dasgupta from 1942. In 1941 Feroza Begum recorded a few songs under the HMV banner, which used to air on radio during the British period.

"My first trainer Chitta Roy always insisted that I sing easy songs, however, I always pressed him to allow me to render Nazrul Sangeet. At one stage Kazi Nazrul Islam was so delighted by my performance that he wished a bright future in my music career," she says.

A three-day Nazrul festival was held in 1999 at the National Museum. The Nazrul Sangeet Sangstha along with Feroza Begum, the then Chairperson of the organisation render Nazrul songs

But, no sooner had Feroza Begum come into the limelight, she faced hurdles from for family. "At the beginning of my professional career as a singer,” I faced huge obstacles from my family. They told me to quit music and to go back to Faridpur. They tried to marry me off, since they considered that an unmarried Muslim girl should not be allowed to continue artistic career far from home."

"But I could not agree with them. For three years I had to struggle with my family. And then a new door was opened when Pakistan radio launched its regional office in Dhaka after the partition. I managed to get them to allow me to perform in Dhaka. I along with Talat Mahmud rendered songs during the inauguration of the office."

Feroza Begum could not, however, continue her career in Dhaka for long. According to her the scenario in Dhaka radio station was totally different from that of Kolkata. Describing the fundamental attitude of the radio authority Feroza Begum says, "In Dhaka radio the authority always insisted that we render Kalam E Iqbal and created obstacles of rendering thumri and dhadra, considering the music genres to be too unconventional. We were not allowed to render Rabindrasangeet. Even they used to censor words such as 'Shyam' in Nazrul Sangeet."

With Kazi Nazrul Islam and others at Nazrul's Kolkata residence on Christopher Road

Conforming to the wishes of the authority, most of the singers used to render Islamic songs. But, I revolted and made them allow me to sing Rabindrasangeet, Atul Parasad's songs, DL Roy's songs, dhadra, thumri and diversified Nazrul Sangeet," she adds.

But, she could not cope with such a situation and faced hurdles this time in a new form. "I had to refuse many lucrative offers from Kolkata after the partition. In fact, the partition became the main obstacle to nurture my music career," says Feroza Begum.

In 1955, Feroza Begum made the most challenging decision in her life. She migrated from Dhaka to Kolkata to an uncertain future with her optimism as the only constant to bank on. Subsequently she married Kamol Dasgupta and became so engrossed in family life in Kolkata that she could not continue music for six years.

"For my family and three sons-- Tahseen, Hamin and Shafin-- I sacrificed the golden era of my life for six years. My husband did not tell me to do so, however, I considered taking care of my sons as my first priority. Considering the future of my offspring I even sacrificed my music career when I was ranked the master Nazrul Sangeet singer in Kolkata and migrated to Dhaka. Still, I'm a happy mother and leading a harmonious life with my sons, daughters in law and grandchildren," she adds.

Feroza Begum's solo performance at the Rabindra Sadan in Kolkata.

As a singer in Kolkata, Feroza Begum has had some spectacular achievements. An enlisted artist of Akashbani Kolkata, Feroza Begum used to render music genres such as Nazrul Sangeet, Rabindra Sangeet, thumri, dhadra, ghazals, bhajan, geet and folk songs. But, at the begging of the 1960s, she concentrated only on Nazrul Sangeet. Her bold and revolutionary attitude gave Nazrul Sangeet a rebirth in Kolkata at a time when the music scenario was dominated by the master adhunik gaan (contemporary song) singers such as Hemanto Mukhapadhyay, Shatinath Mukhopaddyay, Shondhya Mukhopadhyay, Manobendra Mukhopadhyay, Shyamal Mitra, Manna Dey and Pratima Banarjee. Nobody in those days in Kolkata was interested in Nazrul Sangeet. But, a new challenge was ahead of Feroza Begum to give Nazrul Sangeet the respect it deserved.

Feroza Begum could not tolerate the ongoing negligence of Nazrul Sangeet. She says, "In 1962, HMV gave me an offer to record two songs for the puja celebrations due to popular demand. Getting the offer I told them that I would do it, however, songs in the record would feature Nazrul Sangeet. They refused. But, I stuck to my position.

At last, HMV came to an agreement, I could record two Nazrul Sangeets for the puja."

This legendary musician had to go through several obstacles in her kaleidoscopic journey.

"To compete with adhunik songs I selected two light Nazrul Sangeet: Dur dwipo bashini and Momer putul momeer desher. And both of the songs were hits. My husband was overjoyed and conducted the musical arrangement of the songs. In fact, that was a revival of recording Nazrul Sangeet at the HMV rehearsal room," she adds.

Subsequently, to generate interest on Nazrul Sangeet in Kolkata again taking help from leading cultural personalities she initiated to organise a three day Nazrul Conference at Mahajati Sadan. Feroza Begum was the Programme Secretary where legendary singers like Chitta Roy, Shyamal Mitra, Shatinath, Kamala Jhariya, Radharani, Manobendra Mukhapadhyay, Shandhya Mukharjee, Pratima Banarjee rendered Nazrul Sangeet while Tarashankar Bandypadhyay, Probadh Shanyal, Nalini Kanta Sarkar, Baroda Guho, Budhadev Basu and others presented papers at the conference.

Feroza Begum says, "I brought Angur Bala and Indu Bala again to perform live concerts. On my request even legends such as Pankaj Mallick, Shuchitra Mitra and Kanika Banarjee rendered Nazrul Sangeet at the conference."

"On my part, I released hit Nazrul Sangeet records one after another. Records of two songs rendered by me Musafir much re ankhi jal and Amar jabar shomoy holo became so popular that I was invited to Delhi and performed in Durdarshan television. I performed 380 solo Nazrul Sangeet recitals," she adds.

In 1963, the most successful Nazrul Sangeet long play was released under the HMV banner featuring six leading artists: Feroza Begum, Shandhya Mukhapadhyay, Pratima Banerjee, Shatinath Mukhopadhyay, Manobendra Mukhopadhyay and Dhananja Bhattacharya.

Commenting on her huge success as a singer Feroza Begum says, "My struggle and dedication for music is the secret of my success. I'm a born talent and groomed under guidance of Kamol Dasgupta. Through practice I've developed my unique style."

In 1968 the artiste's life took a tragic turn with the death of her husband Kamol Das Gupta. "After his death I felt unsecured living with my three babies in Kolkata. Which is why I wrapped up my journey in Kolkata," continues Feroza Begum, "But, nowadays, I feel that was the worst decision I had ever made. I could have contributed more to uphold the legacy of Nazrul Sangeet if I had continued my music career in Kolkata."

Feroza Begum does not consider Bangladesh an ideal place for nurturing talents. According to her, the government has not been supportive at all, nor has it ever given much thought to patronising cultural activities. "Which is why I discouraged my sons to take music as professions. They play music as a passion but not as a profession," she says.

"More shocking to me is that even the artists are jealous and don't have any respect for others. It's not so in the present situation, but, I have had a bitter experience since my return to Dhaka in 1968. I still can't believe that a few prominent singers actually published statements against me in the newspaper saying that I did not know how to sing," Feroza says.

According to Feroza Begum the current scenario of Nazrul Sangeet in Bangladesh is getting worse day by day. "We don't have many quality singers since getting popularity has become so easy. Here everybody considers himself/herself the best, but can't do anything meaningful," she says.

Firoza Begum with her daughters-in-law (above) and sons Hamin, Tahseen and Shafin (below). Both and Hamin Ahmed and Shafin Ahmed, members of the band Miles, are successful musicians in Bangladesh.

For a better scenario Feroza Begum emphasises on proper training. She says, "Selecting quality vocalists, the government should organise intensive training programmes under someone who has vast knowledge on the music genre. If they offer me I can take the offer. But, I've never received such an offer from the government. In fact, they are least bothered that a living legend like me lives in Bangladesh," she adds quite boldly.

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