Music and poetry are known to confront social and political schisms in ways more gentle and effective than politicians who preach morality from a high pedestal.
So, when the 18-19th century Bengali saint Lalon Fakir asked, “Keyu mala keyu tasbih gole, Tai theke jaat bhinno bole? (One person wears beads as a necklace, another counts beads on the rosary. Is that how we are set apart, by religious markers?)”, he was making a compelling case against forced identities. Today, in a world riven by such identities, the young Bangladeshi folk singer Kaniz Khandaker Mitu, invokes Lalon’s question in her rendition of ‘Shob lokey koy Lalon ki jaat’ (Everyone wonders, which religion does Lalon belong to). Lalon is known to have influenced Rabindranath Tagore and later Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh; his questioning of forced identities is now a part of Coke Studio Bangla’s oeuvre.
Mitu continues: “But when we depart the world or arrive here, what religious identity do we carry.” Shob lokey… soon merges with singer X Murshidabadi’s rendition of Kabir’s verses to the accompaniment of a manjira (a pair of hand cymbals), cello and a bunch of saxophones. Murshidabadi who grew up in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district goes by the worldly name — Soumyadeep Sikdar. He places before us Kabir’s argument, Kabira kuan ek hai, aur paani bhare anek, bhande mein hi bhed hai, aur paani sab ek (O Kabir, it’s the same one wellspring, our pots are different, but they carry the same water ), highlighting the saint’s rejection of social inequalities.
The paths of Lalon Sain of Jessore and Kabir Das from Banaras never crossed. They were separated by several centuries and regions in undivided Hindustan. But their kinship probably lay in the ritualised flow of the Ganga — a sanctuary for the living and the dead. But the two converged in their rejection of caste and deeply structured religion. Both were in search of a soul free of the human-made world of caste and class. Both chose humanity. So when the two meet in a studio in Dhaka, reprised by Mitu and Murshidabadi, musicians from two Bengals, the union needs to be celebrated.
While Shob lokey deliberates on caste, Prarthona, a piece sung by Momotaz Begum and Mizan Rehman accompanied by the Rajasthani khartal played by Jaisalmer-based Sawai Khan, is a prayer written by poet and composer Abbasuddin Ahmed from Cooch Behar in West Bengal. Allah megh de, paani de, chhaya de re tu (O god, give us cloud over our head, give us water, bestow shade), a song that was a source of fortitude during famines in the Subcontinent, is credited to composer Girin Chakraborty who grew up in Bangladesh’s Brahmanbaria. While Begum sings this popular composition, Rahman invokes Baba Maulana in a well-known piece by Chottogram (Chittagong) poet Ramesh Shil whose songs often addressed issues related to social justice in colonial India. Both pieces, one composed and the other written, are by artists who grew up in Hindu families. The production, interestingly, was released on the eve of Ramadan. In between these lines rests the challenge to the Wahhabi-Salafi philosophy, which claims to be a more puritanical approach to Islam and does not acknowledge Sufi saints and their shrines. It isn’t often that Baba Maulana is sung in the same space as Allah. It’s striking, subversive, and at points, even a stroke of genius despite Begum’s relatively ordinary, and at times flamboyant, attempt.
There is the lovely Lilabali, a poem about a girl and her wedding penned by Radharaman Dutta known as the father of Dhamal songs. Saxophones meet the shehnai, riffs of electric guitars find the twangs of the bhapang, and the happiness on the sets is contagious — like at every wedding in the world. While Shono go — a Bhatiyali song by SD Burman — gets a disco-jazz vibe, Nigar Sultana Sumi croons the raw and philosophical ‘Khajaar naam paagal hoyiya, Ghuriya re Azmer giya re’ (I devote myself to the name of Khwaja, and wander crazily around Ajmer) picked from the vibrant world of Bengali folk. She then goes into the rambunctious ‘Pagol chara duniya chole na’ (This world cannot go on without madness). There is the magical Bulbuli, a Nazrul geet, the story of a songbird and a Bhawaiya song, O Ki Ekbar Ashiya by Abbasuddin Ahmed about humanity’s need for love.
While the pieces are musically on point, it’s interesting how producer and curator Shayan Chowdhury Arnob has gone the extra mile to bathe the first season of Coke Studio Bangla in gentle shades of inclusivity, wading through issues of caste and identity politics. It’s a brilliant lesson in musical diplomacy. One wonders if his ideology has anything to do with his father and painter Swapan Chowdhury, a member of the travelling music band that participated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. These musicians, also called voice soldiers, would go to Mukti Bahini camps to sing songs of courage. Music was believed to transform consciousness. I think it continues to possess that power.
Coke Studio @MTV (India) remains miles away from this music that’s all heart, with a firm head on the shoulders. As far as the politics of music is concerned, even Coke Studio Pakistan, as musically and lyrically brilliant it is, does not come close to what Coke Studio Bangla has attempted.
What began as a marketing strategy by the Coca Cola Company — known worldwide for polluting the environment and racial intolerance in the US, and which has invested crores to tap into the carbonated drinks market in Bangladesh — has ended up supporting some wonderful artists from the country, who are attempting to be subversive, truthful to their music and respectful to the Subcontinent’s history. We are listening.