Bangla Rocks

Posted in music by jrahman on December 17, 2011

Lagaan may be a groundbreaking Bollywood film, but a Bollywood film it is, with its fair share of songs and dances.  My favorite song-dance sequence is the one where the villagers, well Gauri and Bhuvaan and their 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 translated to her, Elizabeth asks Gauri: Is Radha Krishna’s wife?  

Oh no, Krishna’s wife is Rukmini! — is the reply.  Of course Radha-Krishna are anything but married — here is what wiki says about them. Imagine the shock the Victorian girl would have felt upon realizing that the villagers were celebrating an extra-marital affair in such exuberant manner.

Not just that little 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 that theme were thriving in one unexpected place, in one unexpected time.  Among the 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 (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.  And Azam Khan captured the zeitgeist of the era perfectly.  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’s 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 major changes in Bangladeshi society.  Urbanisation kicked off.  Social dynamics changed.  The Liberation War was also followed by the beginning of — and still continuing — 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 an 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 stadiums and auditoriums.  Their songs played on satellite TV, not just in Bangladesh but across the border.  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 the 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 / 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.  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, the same points still hold.

Bangladesh doesn’t have the Coke Studio, but it has been experiencing the same TV revolution that hit India and Pakistan in the past couple of decades.  That revolution has fuelled another one — that of 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 that songs can silence guns.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we were wrong?

(First posted in Kafila).

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