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     Volume 4 Issue 17 | October 15, 2004 |

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Cover Story

Melodies for Eternity
Farida Parveen's life in focus


As an only daughter, Farida Parveen's early years were spent savouring the pastoral beauty of the home village as well as basking in the love and attention of her parents and relatives.

Love was never in short supply at their household. She was the only child of her father Delwar Hossain and mother Raufa Begum, and when the little Parveen learned to sing, there was no end to their delight.

Parveen remembers how she was first inspired by the lullabies her mother used to sing. "It was while nursing that my mother used to sing. These lullabies stirred in me the first sense of response to melodies. They kind of awakened a certain thirst in me," Parveen pronounces.

Farida Parveen was born on December 31, 1954 in Natore. 'Shawal' -- her home village -- still brings in a relay of memories. She remembers it as for its beauty, and believes it stands out among the other villages of North Bengal. As a child she was restless but had developed an awareness of her surroundings as well as a predilection for tunes and melodies.

"Although the picture is vague in my memory, I still recall how I used to play around the village. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents used to live across the river Guru. Next to my maternal grand parents' house, there was a huge beel (marsh), where we -- the band of cousins -- used to go to pluck shapla," Parveen remembers.

With these pastoral settings in context, one can easily relate to the songs she later became so famous for. The tunes of Lalon Shain, the venerable baul leader of a loosely-knit sect that believed in exteriorisation of thoughts in songs -- made her a cult figure among many other singers of Lalon Shangeet. It was Parveen, whose distinct voice and vocal craft that brought the king of baul to the middle class audience with its inner spirit intact.

Parveen's mainstream career was launched after the Liberation War in 1971. She moved to Dhaka as Moksed Ali Shain, who had been with the first radio of Bangladesh, had just come back to join the newly established "Betar Bangla", summoned Parveen and asked her to sing Lalon's songs. From that point on, the career of Parveen as a singer saw a meteoric lift. She never had to look back again, as she soon established herself as a national icon.

Curiously, Farida Parveen, whose name is now synonymous with Lalon's songs, was a singer of Nazrul's songs. She was introduced to Lalon Shangeet much later. Even at that point she never thought much of Lalon. It was in 1973 that a local doctor of Kushtia asked her father to sing at the akhra (den) of Lalon, where there was a festival to mark the full moon of dole, which was in mid March 1973. When her father approached Parveen, her reply was a mixture of reluctance and indifference; she said outright, "Why will I sing the fakir's song! It is not logical. I have a good grounding in Nazrul Shangeet, how can I sing songs composed by fakirs. Lalon too is a fakir, and am I suppose sing his songs?"

Lalon, the poet and philosopher, who had written and composed about five thousand songs, was, as the norm went, often referred to as 'fakir'. Although she was unaware of Lalon and what went inside the akhra of this eighteenth century sage, she had little interest in the subaltern sect that carried Lalon's legacy.

However, the doctor, the acquaintance of her father, who himself was an officer at the local government hospital, provided her with the first-hand experience. He sang "satya bal shatpathey chal" (Follow the path of truth and righteousness) for her. Then it was Moksed uncle, the most decisive figure in her life, localy known as Moksed Shain, who intervened and promised to help her master that particular tune. Parveen, however, was still ambivalent. The entreaties of her father as well as the well wisher Abu Zafar, later her husband, made her change her stance. Zafar, who was a local singer and lyricist of Kushtia, often visited their house, and helped the young singer in perfecting her artistry with a few modern Bangla songs.

But Parveen's mind was set on Nazrul's songs. Yet, at last, she let her guru Moksed get the upper hand and agreed to sing a song of Lalon songs. At this point, she started worrying over how she was going to get away with the rendition of a single. "How can I even get on the stage just with one song up my sleeve?" Her guru consoled her and said, "If you begin to take a liking to Lalon's songs there is plenty of time to learn more. First you learn one and sing it during the Dole Festival at the akhra."

Once on stage, Parveen's fear became a reality. "The minute I finished the song "Shatya bal shupthey chall," the audience kept asking for another," I could hear them say 'one more,' 'one more', but I was powerless. Parveen's reply at this point, to her eager and ecstatic audience, was characteristically honest and bold, "Once I master more songs of Lalon, I will come back and sing."

The experience left her changed. Not only did it effect her understanding of Lalon but also made her think objectively concerning her future. "I was assailed by the thought that I would never be able to do what Firoza Begum had done in Nazrul Shangeet. Firoza Begum's achievement was the yardstick back then. It was impossible for me to match that. So, I thought I had better try another way." She had just finished her matriculation and it was at this stage that she realised her destiny was tied up with melodies of the mystic and cerebral poet Lalon.

"Back then, very few women sang Lalon Shangeet, only a couple of singers were well-known. There was Laily Begum, who had a distinctly masculine voice," remembers Parveen, who later became the first woman exponent of Lalon Shangeet of unprecedented popularity.

Singing for Parveen began at the age of five. After the early years spent in the village, she became all set to travel where her father, a medical officer, would be posted. "His was a job that frequently transferred him from one place to the other, and this exposed me to many places I normally would not have seen," says Parveen. In Magura, a northern district, the five-year-old Parveen began her quest for learning songs. "I used to copy those numbers by Shandha Mukharjee in the radio. Not that I knew, back then, that it was the Shandha Mukharjee," she adds. The child used to keep her ears pricked to pick up the pronunciations. The most-longed-for slot in the Akashbani Kolkata was the one where they presented a chunk of modern Bangla songs of the Indian Bangali singers. "Back then I had no inkling of who they were, I just loved the songs. I did not even know that Ustad Ali Hussain used to play the <>shanai, but it moved me each time," Parveen retraces the beginning of her passionate love affair with music.

"At home my oldest maternal uncle was the biggest connoisseur of music. He couldn't sing, but he zealously attended soirees," says Parveen. "There was a Hindu locality right next to both of my grand-parents' houses. Their presence had a certain influence on our families. My maternal uncle had friends in the Hindu communities," adds Parveen. The intermingling between the Hindus and Muslims that she recalls may seem unreal after all these years, but it played a vital role in making Parvin's uncle become so culturally inclined. The same uncle first brought in a harmonium to the house and asked little Parvin to perform. She relented. After that, it became a ritual of sorts to spread a pati on the porch and sing songs with a harmonium as the only instrumental accompaniment.

Not that she really needed any musical instrument to render songs. "Songs came naturally to me. My lips were always busy trying to articulate the tunes. Singing had a greater part even when I was out in the field playing or even while studying. If I felt like singing in the middle of my study, I used to do so -- in a loud voice too," remembers the diva nostalgically.

"I was easily distracted. But I was a very good student," Parveen harks back to her school days. She had this dogged determination to succeed in everything. While in class one, at the final exam, she stood second for only one mark. "They made me second and it made me angry. I cried and cried and told my parents that I would not study any more," Parveen reflects.

This stubbornness resurfaced during crucial junctures in her life. Perhaps it even helped her develop as a singer. "While we were living in Magura, I was adamant that my father should buy me a harmonium. And I declared that I did not need to pursue my study as singing meant everything to me. I thought at that point that other than singing everything else was virtually useless in my life," recalls Parveen. "I heard the sound of a harmonium coming from a neighbour's house and I could not resist myself. My mother was ill, but I felt the urge stirring in me. I had to find my way through the vegetable garden and reach the source of the music," Parveen reconstructs her early shenanigans. "They had this harmonium, a thing that I craved for, imagine my frustration," she continues.

At home, my mother kept looking for me in every room of our house. Then arrived my father, whose first enquiry was -- "where is Faru?"-- Faru, the pet name for Farida that her father gave, was nowhere to be found. "It was my mother who realised that it must've been the sound of the music that drew me," Parveen reflects.

She gave an ultimatum: "You either buy me the harmonium or I would stop studying and even eating altogether."

It worked. Soon the first harmonium came to their household. It's parts were brought in from Kolkata and the local mechanics were summoned home to assemble them. It was with this instrument that her musical journey gained momentum.

That harmonium is still with her. "My mother preserved it with naphthalene and put it in a box to make sure it remained intact," says Parveen.

During the war of '71, the only thing the family carried with them was that harmonium. "I buried it under the earth at one point during the war fearing that if the Pakistani army officers saw this they would haul me to the radio station to sing for them," says Parveen. "Whenever I go to see my mother, I unpack it and sing upon her insistence. Only once Parveen erroneously took the harmonium with her to some other place and her parents were in tears. "They consider it a part of me, they say, 'In your absence it is this that remind us of you'," Parveen says.

Parveen, whose eloquent and precise rendition of Lalon made her a household name, received musical training from a string of gurus. Although she wanted to quit studies, going to school provided her with the opportunity to receive to her advantage, for she received training in singing from teachers at schools at an early age. It was in Magura, that she received her first training in sargam. Ustad Kamal Chokravarti was her first mentor. She was then in class one.

When the family moved to Kushtia, the music teacher of Kushtia Girls' School was Ustad Ibrahim. It was Ibrahim who asked her to learn classical music. He provided her with a strong grounding in classical music.

As Parveen grew up, she gradually became embroiled in the cultural scene of Kushtia. She got acquainted with Ustads like Rabinthranath Roy, Motaleb Biswas and Osman Gani. "They taught me how to render classical songs accompanied only by a tanpura; my training continued for six to seven years, she recalls.

The now famous Lalon singer then became known for Nazrul's songs. "In Kushtia, it was Ustad Abdul Kader who taught me Nazrul's numbers. And after that it was Mir Mozaffar in Meherpur who trained me in Nazrul's songs while translating the original staff notations," she continues. By 1968, Parveen was a registered singer of Nazrul Shangeet in Rajshahi Radio.

Although accolades kept pouring in from her near ones and from the teachers of the schools she had been to, Parveen rues over how she was received by the Dhaka's establishment. The year was 1969, and the occasion was the "East Pakistan Music conference", when Parveen came to Dhaka all the way from Kushtia to participate. I remember how the judges disqualified my entry in the category of 'Nazrul Shangeet'. They argued that 'Pardeshi Kotha Jao?' (Where are you off to stranger) was not written by Nazrul," she remembers. As for her entry in the modern category, "they made me third," she continues.

Although the Dhaka cognoscenti failed to notice the burgeoning talent, soon after the war of independence, Parvin's life took an altogether different turn. She sang the first song of Lalon -- Shatya bal shupathey chall, and it altered her musical course for good. After that, she never had to look for approbation of the giants who ruled the musical domain. Her audiences' approval was enough to ascertain her extraordinary talent.

After the stage debut at the akhra of Lalon in 1973, when she was in her first year of college, Parveen realised she was destined for bigger things.

It was after 1971 that she settled in Dhaka. Moksed Ali Shain was desperately searching for a singer who would do justice to Lalon. He tried other famous figures, as well as Sabina Yasmin, a legend of modern songs, but no one could meet his standard. At this point, he accosted Parveen to introduce Lalon Shangeet in his 'transcription service' in the radio. It was Moksed Shain, whom she used to call uncle, who brought her in from Kushtia with his radio programme in mind. "He taught me several Lalon songs and they were recorded," she recalls.

For Parveen, the office of Betar Bangla was another sanctuary of her mentors to be. She impressed Abdul Halim, Kader Jameri and the legendary composer Kamal Das Gupta there. One day when they asked her to sing for them, Parveen obliged and they were moved by her rendition. "I could sing any where, anytime as I had never had this fear or hesitation when it came to singing, ever since childhood," she says.

It was the Shains not the modern Ustads that provided Parveen with the most important knowledge and training in Lalon's songs. Shains are the disciples of Lalon who are the torchbearers of both his philosophy and practice. The Shains that Parveen came into contact with, enriched her in Lalonian brio as well as strengthened her conviction. It was at this point that her fate became eternally tied up with Lalon's songs.

Before the death of Moksed Shain, she received training from Khoda Box Shain and Karim Shain. One exceptional guru was Brojen Das, a barber-turned singer. After Moksed Shain's death, she learned a few songs from Behal and Yasin Shain. It is interesting to notice that Lalon's songs had no original musical notes, they were handed down from one generation of Shains to the next. Now in her 40s, she has a trail of success behind her; a career that has flown her to far off lands and earned her national awards.

"I never even thought of getting into radio, let alone receiving the Ekushey Padak," she retorts when faced with the question of how she looks at her past achievements. She has received countless commendations from different organisations and sections of society and is happy with that.

Rewards, for any artist, comes in many shapes. Especially for Parveen, it always was the effect her passionate voice had on her audience. And the most memorable response came from an audience in an alien land.

"The Swedish queen invited the Bangladesh cultural delegates to her village home, and I was rendering "Khachar bhitor ocheen pakhi." (The eternal bird in the cage), there, in front of the audience, the queen was literally wailing," she recalls. The queen was asked how she could react in such a passionate manner without even understanding the lyrics, her reply was bold. She said, 'Her singing and the melody made me feel as if I am experiencing the presence of the eternal being, I didn't need to understand more.' The queen, had felt an affinity with the universal pain that the song evoked.

Farida Parveen has elaborate plans concerning the songs of Lalon Shain. Though she thinks that the knowledge or the baul treatise that his songs are based upon are not her concern. "Yes they are based on a certain discourse, yet there are these principles of rhythm and melody, which has the same quality to move everyone. The resonance that a song like 'Milon hobey koto diney' (how long it is till our union) has left a mark in the hearts of people. This is important," she stresses.

However, the debate about whether Lalon's songs can retain its full blow and its original ardour after being introduced to the middle class ears, is still on. Parveen, however, boggles at the mere mention of a section of Shadhus' disapproval of her singing Lalon's numbers. Her response is lucid, "One thing should be kept in mind that I was taught by Moksed Shain, Karim Shain, and among these two, Karim Shain is still alive."

However, she realises how the subaltern cultures are often altered to suit the taste of a sophisticated audience. "There is a difference between the rendition of a baul song by an original baul and by one with a sophisticated voice. The difference that you have in my voice stems from the grounding I had in classical music. But, isn't it obvious that any singer has something personal to offer." she contends. She also adds that many gurus are even following her laid-back, yet emotion-tinged rendition.

So does she believe in the process of the guru handing down the torch to the disciple? "Most people fascinated by Lalon believe in the guru of knowledge, I accepted the guru only in respect of singing," she says. For her, songs take precedence over the knowledge that Lalon generated.

At present, she is working on staff notation of Lalon's songs. Since bauls were a sect who had no faith in earthly fame, they never produced any written documents on Lalon let alone write staff notation and compile lyrics. She would like to fill that gap by developing a trust in her own name. She has a plan to build an archive where the instruments that are used in Lalon's songs would be preserved. "I would also like to preserve the folk songs of Bangladesh for posterity," she says.

Parveen, in an unforeseeable twist of fate, is now alone in her personal life. The famous duo, she and the writer and composer Abu Zafar of Kushtia have severed all ties between them. The fruits of their spiritual union -- between the singer and the lyricist and singer -- will be no more. Numbers like "Aei Padma, aei Meghna" that thrived in the spirit of the shared experiences is only a part of history now. The song like "Tomora bhulyei gechho mallika der naam" (you all have forgotten all about the Mallikas), the creation of the couple, is now just a happy memory in our collective psyche.

The once famous lyricist and composer Zafar abandoned his former life as he embraced an orthodox version of religion. He was a Muslim, but had never practised it with such zeal that it would come in the way of his creative adventures. Yet, this is exactly what happened. When he was asked to comment on Parveen's career and her talent he grumbled, "Allah not only asked women to remain under veil, but also strictly asked them to keep their voice under wrap ... I pray for her (Parveen) and cry for her, and if I have any role in inspiring her in pursuit of songs, I will be ready to face retribution..."

That was Abu Zafar in Kushtia; now, in Dhaka, Farida Parveen, who is devoted to a life that thrives on music, tells us outright, "This is expected of him, as he is a strict follower of the sharia -- the strictures of Islam." "Whether I am an artist or not is not the cardinal issue here, I am a human and as a human I have built a connection with Lalon and there should be no intervening factors between us," she continues.

The couple, who married in 1976, have four children. The eldest, their daughter, is in the final year at the Department of Zoology. Among the three sons, one is studying BBA in the Philippines, another of them are in third year in Sociology, and the youngest is still in Kushtia living with the father studying in class eight.

"He became first in a contest of Sirat Mission, a religious organisation in Bangladesh, which clearly indicates that the genetic factor is there. He has the gift, no man can deny what runs in the blood-stream, no matter how big a fundamentalist he becomes," Parveen concludes.

Lalon professed a view, which vied with all restriction. As far as his songs are concerned they impart knowledge, widen the horizon of the cognitive faculties. Parveen as a singer, must have had a piece of that mind. She cannot afford to swerve and leave her whole life's work behind. She must go on singing.




Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004