Lagaan was a groundbreaking film, but a Bollywood film nonetheless. My favorite song-dance sequence is the one where the villagers, well Gauri and Bhuvan and friends, celebrate Krishna’s birthday. In the song, the girl complains that Radha is anxious about Krishna’s philandering ways and the boy replies that Radha should be understanding because there’s no one else in Krishna’s heart but Radha.
When the meaning of the song is explained to her, Elizabeth asks Gauri: Is Radha Krishna’s wife?
Oh no, Krishna’s wife is Rukmini!
Of course Radha-Krishna are anything but married. Imagine the shock the Victorian girl would have felt upon realizing that the villagers were celebrating an extra-marital affair with such fanfare.
It is not just that Bollywood village in the high noon of Raj. Gita Govinda and other songs celebrating Radha-Krishna are sung in every modern Indian language. And not just in India. Songs on the theme were thriving in an unexpected place, in an unexpected time. Among Bangladeshi youth, in the early years of this century, when the country seemed to increasingly Islamicising. Partly influenced by the music coming out of the diaspora in Londonistan, songs like this one, celebrating the union of Radha-Krishna in the Nikunja Temple became massive hits.
Over the fold, let me note a few examples of Bangla rock – and let’s not be pedantic here, I’ll use rock as a shorthand for western-influenced urban music, including pop, reggae, hip hop and other genres.
Like so many other things in Bangladesh, the story of Bangla rock goes back to the heady early 1970s, when the country won its freedom. And one person stands above all when it comes to that scene – Azam Khan. Known as Guru to his fans, Azam Khan was a cultural activist in the dying days of united Pakistan, and a Mukti Bahini guerilla in 1971.
Bangladesh’s first years were not happy days. Azam Khan captured the zeitgeist of the era. A decade before Bruce Springsteen wrote Born in the USA, Azam Khan wrote Bangladesh, about a slum dwelling infant who dies of hunger. Just like the chorus in the Boss’ anthem somehow affirmed the American promise (so much so that Ronald Reagan adopted the song), Guru’s chorus Bang-la-desh spoke of a defiant people fighting immense odds. I haven’t been able to find an original recording of the song online (a later, and not-so-good cover is here, along with his other hits). Another song that captured the angry mood of the time is Jala Jala – listen to Khan groan frustration, frustration na!
The 1970s saw unprecedented change in Bangladeshi society. Urbanisation kicked off. Social dynamics changed. The Liberation War was also followed by the beginning of the process of the liberation of women. Artists, writers and filmmakers tried to capture these changes. Salahuddin Zaki’s Ghuddi, featuring a very young Subarna Mustafa, who would eventually become one of the most acclaimed actresses of recent decades, is one example of that. The Akhand brothers’ Abar elo je shondhya from that movie is a staple of any musical adda involving Bangladeshis of a certain age.
Major Bangla acts of the 1980s and 1990s included Souls, Miles, Feedback, Ayub Bachchu, James. They sold hit albums. Their concerts filled stadia and auditoria. Their songs played on satellite TV, not just in Bangladesh but across the border too. Here is a brief history of Bangla rock into the last decade.
In more recent years, Bangla rockers have delved into the country’s syncretic past. The result is a fusion of Bangla folk with blues/jazz/rock – very much in the mode of Sachin and Rahul Dev Burmans. Anusheh Anadil is a great example of that movement. And as the video below shows, she is very much known in Indian Bengal.
For all the flourishing of culture and creativity, Bangladesh continues to have a rocky existence, and this ain’t the music I am talking about. The same decade that saw Habib, Anusheh, Arnob and Shumi sing about Radha-Krishna, or revived Lalon Fakir, was also the time of jihadi violence. Bangladesh’s democracy remains fragile with a seemingly never ending cycle of street violence, permanent electioneering and occasional military intervention. A rising living standard is accompanied by grotesque inequalities. Hyder Hussain sang about all of these in the 30th year of Bangladesh. A decade later, as the country marks the 40th anniversary of liberation today, he could sing this again.
Bangladesh doesn’t have a Coke Studio, but it has had a TV revolution very much like that of India and Pakistan. The TV revolution fuelled another one – Bangla rock. In a different time in a different place, people thought that rock music would change the world. We live in a more cynical age, and know better than to expect songs to silence guns.
But wouldn’t it be nice if we were wrong?
(Jyoti Rahman is a well-known Bangladeshi blogger and a frequent contributor to Kafila. This post benefitted from discussions with Rumi Ahmed and Naeem Mohaiemen.)
Previously by Jyoti Rahman in Kafila: