Those of us who have been living in Dhaka uninterrupted since the '50s will agree that despite the hassles in our daily lives due to traffic congestion, poor supply of utilities, mosquito menace and garbage, the city still has a unique character. Here are some of the finest architectural beauties in the form of buildings, a gourmet's paradise and a cultural arena that beats many. Once a city in slumber, Dhaka is now a bouncy capital making news; the latest being classical music.
For some unknown reasons, music festivals in the subcontinent have always been labelled as 'conferences' or 'sammelan', a phenomenon that began in Baroda in 1916 with the 'All India Music Conference'. But it was not until the '30s when these took a definite shape, thanks to Dakshinranjan Bhattacharya, Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University.
Kolkata, then Calcutta, was miles ahead of others with scores of music conferences/sammelan like the 'All Bengal Music Conference', 'Tansen Sammelan', 'Sadarang Music Conference', 'Dover Lane', 'Park Circus Music Sammelan', 'Entally Music Conference' and so many others. The peak was in the '50s and '60s when the figure for such annual events once touched 30! These were held in cinema halls like Shree, Uttara, Indira, Prachi, Basuree and the 'bideshi' hall, New Empire, opposite the New Market. The hall owners would cancel the evening and night shows even if the film was a Suchitra-Uttam box office hit.
But alas, barring Dover Lane none of these live today. Why? The answer is simple. Each was a one-man (or one family) show. That being the case, the 'All Bengal Music Conference' that began in 1934 at 47 Pathuriaghat Lane with Bhupendra Krishna Ghosh's patronage, bid farewell in 1953. His son, Manmath Nath Ghosh could pull it that much after his father died in 1937. 'Sadarang' used to hold its programme at Darbhanga Palace in Kolkata and said to amass 5,000 listeners at a time and another 25,000 outside the premise on a typical evening; it died with Kalidas Sanyal. 'Park Circus' left with Satish Sen while 'Tansen' became silent once Sailen Bandhapadhyay was gone. Even 'Dover Lane' which recently has had a tremendous impact in Bangladesh almost had a premature end had it not been for a group of people who revived it to save Kolkata's face.
Interestingly, 'Dover Lane' did not start with classical music; neither did it begin at the present Nazrul Mancha. It has its origin in Dover Lane in the Ballygunj area of South Kolkata. A few music enthusiasts used to have music sessions of some sort in their homes on a rotation basis. As the interest brewed, the group shifted the venue to the nearby Singhi Park; that was in 1952. Historically, this probably is the first open air music conference in Kolkata and was studded with modern songs; Rabindra Sangeet and a few classical renderings were at the tail end. Nobody virtually lives today to recap the past. The last person to talk about it was Provat Kumar Das popularly known as 'Das babu', a founder member of the 'Dover Lane Music Conference'; that also 10 years ago when he was 79. As years went by, modern songs and Rabindra Sangeet were eased out, totally. But some are of the opinion that it began as early as 1953. i.e. from its second year.
Who was not at 'Dover Lane'?
Allaudin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Omkarnath Thakur, Hirabai Barodkar to Bade Ghulam Ali; Nisar Hussain Khan, Bhismadev Chattopadhyay, Tarapada Chakraborty, Amir Khan to Mallikarjun Mansur. The list is endless if you take into account the relatively 'young ones' like Velayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, the duo Nazakat Ali-Salamat Ali from Pakistan, Keramatullah Khan, Shamta Prasad, Kishan Maharaj, Radhakanta Nandi and the 'prodigies' from Bollywood -- Vijayantimala, Asha Parekh, Hema Malini and Vani Ganipathy who were all talented dancers. Well, 'Dover Lane' had Damodar Das Khanna aka 'Lala babu', a head hunter, who would travel the length and breadth of India to invite the best and tap the best to be.
Stories engulf Dover. Hafiz Ali Khan presented a concert with his sons, Rahmat and Amjad Ali Khan, the first major concert of the two brothers in Kolkata. Bhimsen Joshi had the entire audience in tears when he rendered “Ramkali”. Ali Akbar Khan could not play to his liking; he left the stage promising to come back the next day; he kept his word to mesmerise all. When hell broke loose in Kolkata during the riot, lest listeners be attacked in the dark, Gangubai Hangal held them spellbound with her rendition until the morning glow of the sun was clearly visible.
From homes to Singhi Park to Vivekananda Park to Nazrul Mancha, Dover went on and on. The secret? It is run by an organisation of 1,000 members -- like our social clubs but dedicated to sangeet. Two other such organisations come to mind: 'Sur Singar Sansad', Mumbai and the 'Tansen Sammelan' on the tomb of Tansen in Gwalior. Both took off in the '30s.
Sadly, nothing similar comes to mind with Bangladesh. If memory has not betrayed one, Bade Ghulam Ali in his only visit to Dhaka in the mid-'50s was requested to sing film songs (effect of Naushad's breakthrough music in “Baiju Bawra”?) at Gulistan cinema hall, now no more. But that does not mean we did not have pure classical music.
Gul Mohammad Khan (who was based in Dhaka since the '30s); Yusuf Khan Qureishi (who had to make a premature exit in 1966, falling to the big “C” -- cancer); Quader Zameri, a direct disciple of Zamiruddin Khan; PC Gomes; Munshi Raisuddin; Mastan Gama (who like Amir Khan died in a car crash in Dhaka); Phool Mohammad Khan; Fazlul Huq; Yasin Khan Qureishi were very active in Dhaka. Among others were the instrumentalists Ayet Ali Khan; Abed Hossain Khan; Hingoo Khan; Mubarak Hussain Khan; Khadem Hossain Khan; Mir Kasem Khan; and the percussionist, Sakhawat Hussain that one can easily recall. Then there was Barin Majumder who apart from being a vocalist toiled day and night to establish the first institute of classical music on this soil. Courtesy him, we were exposed to some of the finest performers -- Nazakat Ali; Salamat Ali; Amanat Ali; Fateh Ali Khan; Mehdi Hasan; and the charming and beautiful Farida Khanum.
There were always some great patrons too at a private level. Alim-ur-Rahman aka 'Alim bhai' comes to mind first. It was in his Wari residence that Ustads would find abode in comfort during the late '50s and '60s. There was hardly anyone from Pakistan who had not performed at his residence apart from the local artistes. We were then too young to be invited. Asafuddowlah, the well known bureaucrat, singer and champion swimmer also supported classical music in his own capacity. Others regularly tuned in to “Akashvani Kolkata” in “medium wave” at night for the annual 'Akashvani Sangeet Sammelan' that was broadcast simultaneously from Delhi to various radio stations.
The Engineering Institute was one centre where such soirees were held. One could recollect the musical extravaganzas of '60s, though few. Those of us in our teens, unknown and unspoiled, were always outside the building trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening inside; the audio provided for us was invariably poor. All these till 1970.
Post-Liberation at home, we had Ferdausi Begum (yes, she was into thumri too); Ila Majumder; Akhtar Samdani; and Abha Alam who unfortunately died early. There were sporadic cases of some outstanding musicians visiting Dhaka that included Ravi Shankarl Dagar bothers (thanks to Tawfiq Nawaz). Almost 15 years ago, we had Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali at the National Museum and for some years now, on a regular basis, a host of musicians from India -- thanks to Bengal Foundation, which also taps and nurtures talents as a part of its programme.
With Dhaka now in the reliable hands of Bengal Foundation and ITC-SRA, it is one of those moments whose effect becomes prominent with years. Who knows, some day, this city could be a centre of excellence for classical music.
The writer is a music connoisseur and recently published a biography of SD Burman.