An icon of folk music
Pondit Ramkanai Das is a respected name in the fold of Bangladeshi musicians. He is exceptionally skilled in traditional folk songs, Khemta, Jhumur, Ghatu, Kirton, Dhrupodi, Kheyal, Thumri and Robindro Shongeet. The man's entire career has been spent learning every form of music imaginable. However, despite preaching local music in Europe and the United States, he has always been away from the public eye. He has led a quiet, relatively commonplace life for someone so talented. Though he has invested a lot of effort for the betterment of the music industry of Bangladesh, few know of his arduous struggle. Recently Rafi Hossain and Md. Rasheduzzaman had the privilege of interviewing him. Photos By Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Star Insight: How did your journey into the world of music begin?
Ramkanai Das: My career in music began through my family. When I was a child that had barely learned to speak, any guests at our house would, instead of asking me my father's name or my own, ask me to sing. As a result, I've been singing and playing instruments since my childhood. I quickly became adept at playing percussion instruments. Musical sessions were held regularly in our family and we were known as a family of artistes. My father, the late Roshiklal Talukdar, was a folk poet. He was an expert at folk and wedding songs and other indigenous music. He was a composer, lyricist and singer all in one. Even my mother Bidyamoyi Das, my siblings and my uncles would sing regularly. Therefore, I got the feel of Bichchhedi, Kobigan, Baul, Holly and Ghatu music in my childhood. We all developed a different, comprehensive ear to music. Even as a kid I would understand music and it's intricacies. This helped me throughout my life. However, despite all their musical inclinations, I had to learn the ways of Jatra in secret. My family considered my future to be that of a farmer, not a musician.
How did you get involved with the Jatra Troupes?
Ramkanai: Yes, my uncle Radhakanto Das and I stepped into the Jatra fold during its golden age in the country. At the time, I worked as the music director for the then-famous Gopal Pandey's Bhaggolokkhi Opera, where I met Jatra actors Amolendu Bishshash, Nimai Poddar, Babulal, Dhiren Nondi, Chitto Pal, etc. One day, we did a show in Narayangonj. It drew a very large crowd and I was at the percussion. When the show ended, a man called me and told me that I should leave the Jatra troupe and join the radio. The man was Ostad Bahadur Hossain Khan. I had an epiphany listening to his words, and I immediately decided to join the radio. However, my party was heading to Khulna. We boarded the launch bound for Khulna on time, but I jumped ship just before it left the docks. From then onwards I began practicing as an individual artiste. While with my troupe I had traveled far and wide across the country, and during these trips I experienced the company of countless talented people. I had a habit of learning everything that I could get my hands on. In fact, I've spent my entire life learning something or the other.
Did you receive your formal training at home?
Ramkanai: No, I learned the likes of Dhrupod and Dhamar during the early days of my life through folk music. I remember that as a child I listened to a Kheyal by Gyanendro Proshad Goswami on a gramophone record. That was in the Joyjoyonti Raag. The performance motivated me to learn Dhrupod and Kheyals. Because I was born in a village, I had trouble finding a good teacher. Finally, I got the chance to learn the two systematically under Sree Kalimohon Chokroborty of Azmirigonj. Afterwards, I learned to play percussion instruments under Brahmonbaria's Ostad Shurendromohon Rai and trained for 12 years straight with the guidance of Pondit Umeshchondro Rai. Umesh Babu was very affectionate towards me due to my enthusiasm. He would even buy me new clothes. I learned over a hundred songs and Raags under him. I consider this opportunity to be the most important in my life and I still miss those days. Later I was in the company of West Bengal's Ostad Abu Daud, Sagiruddin Kha and Arun Bhaduri. I never trained under them officially, but their company gave me a very refined taste in music.
When did you experience the most difficult period of your career?
Ramkanai: I joined Sylhet Radio in 1967, where I'd regularly perform either vocally or with percussion instruments. I left the job after 9 months due to low pay. I felt that my work was not adequately appreciated. Meanwhile, I was acquainted with Dhaka's Pondit Barin Mojumdar, Akhtar Sadmani, Dheer Ali Mia, Samar Das etc. In 1972 I got the chance to perform classical songs at a national event, after which I was without work for a long time. No one would ask for my services. This is when I decided that I would have to consolidate my skills. In 1981, I suddenly received a letter from the Shuddho Shongeet Proshar Goshthi. They organize an annual get-together. I went and performed Raag Marubihag, liking the atmosphere there instantly. The variations in the song were very difficult, but I somehow managed to pass with flying colours. Resultantly, I received lots of praise and encouragement that day. The musician Wahidul Haque then gave me an opportunity. He invited me to a program in memoriam of Ostad Alauddin Kha, where I was to sing classical songs. I sang the Raag Shyamkollyan, and Modon Kumar Das played the percussions. That was the true inception of my career.
Please tell us about your music school.
Ramkanai: I founded an organization called Shongeet Porishod at my house in Sylhet in 1988. The aim of this was to train classical singers in a master-student method. I teach students Dhrupodi along with Sylhety folk songs here. In 1995, I organized a music festival in Sylhet, where I invited West Bengal's Shongit Research Academy's teacher Ostad Orun Bahaduri and percussionist Pondit Shamor Shaha. After the get-together I organized a weeklong workshop, where our members were able to learn new things.
Could you say a few words about how we could preserve Sylhet's folk and wedding songs and Ghatugaan?
Ramkanai: These traditional folk songs now face extinction, with only a handful of people practicing them. You are well aware that throughout Bangladesh there's an abundance of forms of music, many of which have been lost already. The problem with this country is that very few people actually make an effort to preserve what's culturally valuable, and as a result many traditions are disappearing. The government never does anything more than what they are bound to do. Therefore we are virtually devoid of cultural heritage. I think experienced elders of the society should come together and accumulate every important form of culture. Even today we see people claiming ownership of songs not made by them. Let me tell you an excerpt from a wedding song composed by my father: “Here comes the groom, a star from the sky. On the bed are the bride and groom.” We don't get to hear these songs anymore. The same has happened to Hason Raja, Radharomon, Jasim Uddin's music along with many others. If we can recollect the music of our country and bring it back into the mainstream, Bengali music will once again spear its head into the global scene.
Folk songs in Bengal are metamorphosing. How do you perceive this subject?
Ramkanai: Truth be told, we haven't been able to retain our cultural heritage. The types of music that can be found in Bengal are innumerable. However, nobody seems concerned about this. Even the government is unperturbed. As a result, today's technologically advanced civilization is removing our roots. It is very important to address this matter.
How do you spend your time nowadays?
Ramkanai: My life is currently being spent in two countries. I recently returned from America after about a year, where I learned and taught music. As of now I'm busy trying to preserve some ancient songs. I'm thinking of publishing these obscure songs in a book. At least that way we will have a collection. Other than this I'm teaching at different institutions and serving as the Co-Chairperson of the Sylhet Branch of the National Robindro Shongeet Porishod.
Almost everyone in your family is now an artiste. How do you perceive this?
Ramkanai: I was able to turn my family members into artistes because of my own abilities in the trade. As a father I am very happy. My son Pinu Das has received percussion training from India and is playing regularly nowadays. My daughter Kaberi and my daughter-in-law Anondita are both singers. I'm very content with my life and there is great peace in my mind.
Wahedul Haque, the renowned late cultural activist, wrote about Ramkanai Das several times. This is a compiled excerpt of his writings.
I am an ardent admirer of Ramkanai Das. Not all artistes are harmonious in their work. These days one can be an artiste, in some cases, with little or no skill. Bangladesh is a country of scarcity, and artistes are no exception. There is but a handful of people who are successful artistes in Bangladesh. Ramkanai is a singer of Kheyals and as far as music is concerned, he has talent, feel, understanding and skill. He is a true artiste and an excellent teacher as well. To add to his pride, he knows and appreciates almost all of Bengal's music.
What further increased my admiration of Ramkanai was the fact that he writes books on music. There is no dependable tome for music students in this country. It is my belief that his first book will solve that predicament. He does not delve into the fantastic, nor does he unleash a plethora of facts; his book consists of the very essentials of musical education. The third edition of his book has recently been released, which is exceptional in today's music-devoid Bengal. What's more, the manuscript of his second book is almost complete. At a time when a society does not 'need' music, even in its upper echelons, Ramkanai has started rowing against the current. He has mettle, skill and talent. Add a little responsibility and some heart, and we've got a recipe for a culturally richer country.
For three hundred years the subcontinent's premier mode of music was the Kheyal. Ramkanai is a talented performer of Kheyals. I was impressed by this very attribute of his, as well as his understanding of music as well as sense of melody. Eventually I came to know of the unbelievable treasure trove of music that he has, his collection of folk songs from the Sreehotto area. He is an adept player of Kheyal music, and these are songs from his heart.
If someone asks me who the best Kheyal singer in Bangladesh is, the question would not be pertinent. Despite that, however, one name would instantly spring to my mind: that of Sylhet's Ramkanai Das. People know him solely as a Kheyal artiste, but he's a lot more than that. Ramkanai is always on top of the tempo, and he has exceptional understanding of beats. It is primarily because of this understanding that his music is so melodious. This is a person who has truly found music, and not gotten lost in its numerous compartments. This is proved by both his mastery of folk songs and his love for Rabindra Sangeet.
I have met him countless times, and every single time I have experienced something memorable. On one of these occasions he took me to his newly built abode in a tea garden on the outskirts of Sylhet. There, I met his daughter Kaberi, also a singer, and her husband who is a civil engineer. I was amazed when I learned of Ramkanai's hidden talent in gardening. Even in that, it seemed, he had embarked on some competition where he wanted to be on top through effort and investment. His fruits were to taste what his flowers were to beauty. Night fell while I was still under the spell of all this, and I failed to find transportation on the way home. On those dark, hilly streets I heard the astonishing, even mythical tales of his life. He was the hero of his own stories.
The son of a farmer, he spent his days plowing the field. One day, the music bug bit him. He knew he would not be allowed to learn the art of Jatra by his family, so he devised a plan that enabled him to do so. He told his father that he was going to build a 'machaan' in a distant crop field to guard it at night. His father was very pleased at his enthusiasm. He had no idea that every night his son would sneak out and visit all the Jatras in the area. Ramkanai had to work in the fields all day in order to not get caught. He wreaked havoc on his body, but his prowess in music became so great that one fine day he bid goodbye to his father and joined a Jatra troupe. A large chunk of his youth was spent as a percussionist for various Jatra troupes. Whenever he had free time he spent it learning more about music from masters. He had to face it all, from having to live with gypsies to presenting 'ostads' with marijuana. He remained illiterate till well into his life, but then decided to clear this obstacle. He was especially successful in this endeavour.
At one point he spoke of the zamindar's house in his village. There was a gramophone there that would be played for a considerable 4 annas (25 paisa). Nine of his friends along with himself would arrange the funds. One day, during such a session, he saw an audience of strangers laughing fitfully while listening to the gramophone. When they eventually went home (still laughing), Ramkanai sat down quietly to listen to the song they had been laughing at. He sat transfixed. He had not known music like this before and never found such music again. From that moment on he came back many times to listen to that very song. I asked him what the song was and who it was by. He said that the song was by Aftab-I-Musiki Faiyaz Khan, and that its name was 'Raag tori, bol garwa mai son laage'.
Ramkanai Das is one of the few in the country fighting against the stream to preserve some of the most important parts of the Bengali cultural identity. It is because of people like him that we know, as a people, where we come from and who we are.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009