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Rendezvous with an Iconic Artiste

Tamanna Khan

Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya. Photo: Zahedul I khan

As I wait inside one of the classrooms of Lalmatia Girl's School, where the classes of Shurerdhara are held in the evenings, I hear Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, teaching students “Gram chara oi ranga matir poth” (the red-earth road beyond the village). The students are the first batch of Music for Development project, an initiative taken by Shurerdhara (Bannya's music school) in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme to integrate deprived children into the society. The 28 boys and girls, all from poverty-stricken families of the Mohammadpur Beribadh area, are fortunate enough to learn Rabindrasangeet (Tagore's songs) from one of its contemporary maestros-- Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya. As the class ends, the sweet-voiced, renowned Rabindrasangeet artiste enters the room in her simple yet elegant attire and talks with the Star, a few days before Rabindranath's 149th birth anniversary, about the development, popularity and status of Rabindrasangeet in Bangladesh.

She reminisces her entrance into this world of music:“There was an environment for Rabindrasangeet at our home. Everyone used to listen to music. My uncle used to sing the songs and I too had learned Rabindrasangeet from childhood. I have grown up within the culture of Rabindranath. When I started singing I just liked it as song. Now, the depth and spirituality of his songs appeal to me.” Bannya agrees that the popularity of Rabindrasangeet in Bangladesh is urbanised and she cites education to be the sole reason for the music's urban presence. “It is possible to spread Tagore's song in rural areas only on the advent of education because the songs are actually meant for the educated class. Its taste, lyrics, messages are meant for educated people. So as long as education does not reach the grassroots, it will not be possible to popularise Rabindrasangeet in rural areas. Thus only when education reaches the rural population, then Rabindrasangeet will reach them too,” says Bannya. When asked whether the practice of Rabindrasangeet can be spread across the country by building institutions and through schools and colleges, she again highlights the importance of education as a precondition --“For practise, Rabindrasangeet can be kept in the syllabus. Yet I shall say that you can't popularise songs only through practice. Love and interest for the songs have to be present. Once attraction is created people will have interest to learn the songs. To do that, we need education first.”

Bannya thinks that Rabindrasangeet has developed a lot in Bangladesh. In the past, Rabindrasangeet belonged only to a certain class of people. Now the publicity of the songs has increased. More people are showing interest and learning the music in towns and villages. In fact Rabindrasangeet has created its own space in cultural programmes arranged by multinationals and local corporate bodies at conferences, seminars, representative meetings and even annual general meetings.

Bannya also feels that the increase of practice of Rabindrasangeet will rather add to the quality of the music. However she does not support change in the presentation style of the music using western musical instruments. She believes that the young generation has interests in the music and it is evident by the huge number of children who come to learn the song at the music schools. “We try to infuse the message and the meaning of Rabindrasangeet inside their minds,” Bannya says. “But ultimately they may not retain all that we deliver, due to study pressure. Besides, Rabindrasangeet cannot make a breakthrough because of the huge influx of western culture in the society.” She also adds, “I do not support if the presentation is made like that of a band by using instruments. Tagore's songs are not mere songs. The songs form an ideology that has to be retained. Tagore's songs have a philosophy, a message. It will not do if we just sing it loudly in a band with beats and dance. The beats or dance or the rhythm are not the main issue here. Tagore's songs relay much more than the words that make up the songs. The message of the song moves forward from the point where the lyrics ends. This is the uniqueness of his songs. His songs are multidimensional. Take any one song for example. You can draw a picture of the song, you can offer love and prayer; you can offer yourself. This multidimensional aspect forms the main essence of Rabindrasangeet. Therefore, instead of paying attention only to rhythm to popularise the songs, I would rather like to motivate the young generation to get into the depth of his songs. If these children understand the profundity of his songs, especially those who sing, then they will automatically have their interest grown.”

Recently, Shurerdhara and Gandharva Loka Orchestra, a European group that specialises on Sri Chinmoy's songs, performed Rabindrasangeet jointly at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre with philharmonic orchestra. The group was highly motivated by the message and tune of Rabindrasangeet. Many of them now want to learn the music. Bannya feels that Rabindrasangeet should be taken at the international level through orchestration, translation of the lyrics and multimedia projection, so that foreigners can understand the inner message of the songs. When asked to compare the status of Rabindrasangeet between West Bengal and Bangladesh, Bannya says, “We are doing well in Rabindrasangeet, in our country. In West Bengal the Rabindra-culture is age old. It has been there since the time of Rabindranath. As a result it is much more deep-rooted. In our country the culture is recent. The trend has started especially after the Liberation War. Thus the foundation here is still not that profound.”

Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya is currently working as Associate Professor at the department of Theatre and Music at the University of Dhaka. She also runs Shurerdhara, a music school for Rabindrasangeet and classical songs. Launched in 1992, Shurerdhara has a separate section for children, which focuses on the creative development of the students while learning music. “We do this by nurturing their thoughts on the song that they are learning. We ask them to draw a picture of the song; we take them outside to places where they will find the natural objects mentioned in the lyrics. We take them to villages, near river, bird sighting, to botanical gardens etc. Each month they arrange a literary meeting where the children express their feelings in the way they want” informs Bannya. On occasion of the upcoming 149th birth anniversary of the great Bengali noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the children of Music for Development project will perform live at the Rabindra mela studio of Channel i. The regular artistes of Shurerdhara will perform with other cultural groups at different locations. Except for the annual programme on Chaitra Shankranti, Shurerdhara usually does not arrange separate programmes on other occasions.

An ardent pupil of the legendary Kanika Bandyopadhyay of Visva Bharati University, where Rezwana Chowdhury Banyya has completed her masters, she believes that the essence of the songs is in its multidimensional message that needs to be understood. The appeal of Rabindrasangeet will never die away as long as good taste for music remains.

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