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A taste of Bengal

By specialising in singing the poetry of Nazrul Islam, Firoza Begum epitomises the golden period of Bengali music

A taste of Bengal
Her sensitivity in conveying deep feeling helped revive Nazrul Sangeet.

The death of Firoza Begum in Bangladesh last week brought back the memories of a long period that saw the end of colonial rule in India, the emergence of East and West Pakistan and then the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

After the creation of Bangladesh one lost whatever little touch there was with the cultural scene in Bengal. Some of the Bengali artistes migrated immediately afterwards while the others left Pakistan gradually. The only news one receives now is when a well-known artiste passes away — as it has happened in the case of Firoza Begum.

Firoza Begum was noticed on Pakistan Television in the 1960s, as she cut a figure of great dignity, draped in white saris, singing with the harmonium. She specialised in singing the poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam, one of the leading poets of Bengali. He was involved in theatre and composed his own songs. As is the wont in Bengal, his songs were sung by many vocalists who were discovered by him and became famous only later on.

A shagird of Chitta Roy, Firoza Begum first started to sing in children programmes at the Calcutta Radio Station and was spotted by Nazrul Islam. Her first record was cut when she was merely 12 years of age in 1942. It was recorded by the HMV in 78 rpm disk format.

With the years rolling by, 12 LPs, 4 EPs, 6 CDs and more than 20 audio cassette records were released.

Her sensitivity in conveying deep feeling helped to revive the genre and made her a household name. Many of the songs in Nazrul Sangeet (compositions of Nazrul Islam) relate to the Indian independence movement although others are spiritual or romantic.

She performed in around 300 solo concerts during her career.

Feroza Begum lived in Calcutta until she moved to Dhaka in 1967 and was married to Kamal Dasgupta, one of the leading composers of film and more particularly so of non-film songs. He was not recognised and appreciated the way he should have been – because, he shunned the mainstream expression of music that was monopolised by cinema yet he was instrumental in bringing out the talent of many who became famous film vocalists. He composed many numbers for Jagmohan, Hemant Kumar Juthika Roy and Talat Mahmood.

Kamal Dasgupta was the shagird of Ustad Zamiruddin Khan, a renowned kheyal and thumri vocalist who was also close to Nazrul Islam. The two met in his presence and became friends and he was motivated to compose to Nazrul Islam’s lyrics.

Kamal Dasgupta was the chief music director of the His Masters Voice (HMV) and Columbia for about 25 years. He created his own tuning system, called his orchestra Shoorosri, in which some of the most prominent instrumentalists played and innovated a system of shorthand staff notation, a convergence of eastern and western methods of notation.

In all, he composed about 400 songs for Kazi Nazrul Islam and since there was great commonality of musical understanding between the two since they were disciples of the same ustad, it is said, he was the only one allowed to compose the songs of Nazrul Islam which did not need any approval from the poet.

Rabindranath Tagore symbolised the renaissance of art and literature in India, which was principally carried out in his native language Bengali, its literature, music and paintings. He was responsible for composing his own poetry and mixing the folk music of Bengal, the Shashtriya Sangeet of North India and some western compositional techniques to create a form of music that has since come to be known as Rabindro Sangeet.

Many poets in Bengal have tried to emulate Tagore and one who was able to do so was Nazrul Islam. The body of poetry composed by him is known as Nazrul Geeti. It also became popular and was sung across the length and breath of Bengal. In what his contemporaries regarded as one of his greatest flairs of creativity, Islam began composing the first ghazals in Bengali, transforming a form of poetry written mainly in Persian and Urdu.  These were then also sung heavily influenced by the ang of singing the ghazal that had developed in parts of North India particularly in the Uttar Pradesh and Dehli regions. This form of ghazal was later owned by film, discovered in Punjab and became one of the most popular forms of music.

Nazrul Islam became the first person to introduce Persian/Arabic/Central Asian themes into the larger mainstream tradition of Bengali music. The first record of songs with such themes by Nazrul Islam was a commercial success and many gramophone companies showed interest in producing them.

A significant impact of Islam was that it made Muslims more comfortable in the Bengali arts, which used to be dominated by Hindus.

Islam also composed a number of notable shyama sangeets, bhajans and kirtens combining devotional music. Arousing controversy and passions in his readers, Islam’s ideas attained great popularity across India.

Firoza Begum too sang these Bengali ghazals of Nazrul Islam and was appreciated for her experimentation of the music form.

Firoza Begum also lived in Rawalpindi where she had some music assignments, and with her was husband Kamal Dasgupta whom hardly anyone knew at that time in West Pakistan. He stayed in the background while she carried out her work. They shifted back to East Pakistan and he was to die soon afterwards in 1974.

Some of the awards that she won were Independence Award (1979), Netaji Subhash Chandra Award, Satyajit Ray Award, Nasiruddin Gold Medal, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Gold Medal, Best Nazrul Sangeet Singer Award, Nazrul Academy Award, Churulia Gold Medal, Gold Disk from CBS, Japan Lifetime honorary award from Meril-Prothom Alo, Bongo Shomman from Mamta Banerji and the Sheltech Award. She was also awarded D.Litt from Burdwan University.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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