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Sunday, April 11, 2021

It is doubtful if any other medium provided the motivation like music in the Liberation War

Concerts of Joan Baez, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and others stirred young people abroad and helped build public opinion in different parts of India

Updated: April 4, 2021 9:37:04 am
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Bangladesh introducing members of his cabinet to the Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi on her arrival in Dacca on March 17, 1972. (Express archive photo)

Written by Muntassir Mamoon

Something stirred in my heart. It was an early winter night. The night was deep and its silence sometimes was pierced by the sound of jeeps and trucks of Pakistani soldiers and occasional burst of gunfire. I was listening to a BBC programme. Suddenly I heard that a listener from Noakhali in Bangladesh had requested for a song by Joan Baez. In a melodious voice, she sang, ‘We shall overcome some day’. Tears welled up in my eyes. But immediately, it seemed she was right, that “we will do it. Everything can be done, we will overcome.”

There are many memories of 1971. Even after 50 years, they remain unfaded. Most of them are memories of war, genocide and torture. These are always written about. But there was another thing that touched our heart, and that was music. We still sing those songs, broadcast on the radio, with joy, sometimes with tears.

The radio stations that the people were glued to at that time were Akashbani, All India Radio, BBC, Radio Australia and Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra of the Bangladesh government.

During the War of Liberation, Bangladesh was divided into 11 sectors. I would say there was another sector, Sector 12, which was radio.

The role that BBC played in the Second World War was played by Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in 1971. The songs it played reminded us over and over again that we have to survive.

Songs composed in the last half of the 19th Century or the beginning of the 20th Century to 1971 were broadcast by the Kendra. These were patriotic, mass awakening songs. Rabindranath Tagore was there, as were Kazi Nazrul Islam, Atul Prasad Sen, Dwijendralal Ray and Govinda Haldar. Those songs inspired people during the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the anti-British movement in the Forties of the last century. In the same way, they motivated Bengalis and became known as the songs of the Liberation War.

When the war of Liberation started in 1971, along with these old songs, the lyricists, especially those from West Bengal, wrote new songs. Famous artistes sung those. All those songs were broadcast regularly from the Kendra.

Basically the songs were of four types — first, songs composed from the last half of the 19th Century to the 1940s, called Swadeshi Sangeet. Most of these songs were composed by Tagore, Nazrul, Ray, Sen and others. These songs were sung by the IPTA or Gananatya Sangstha in the 1940s, of which Salil Chowdhury’s songs were the most popular.

In the 1940s, in the wake of the Communist movement, many members of the Gananatya Sangstha composed songs in different languages. Jyotirindra Maitra, Binoy Roy, Salil Chowdhury and others composed and wrote the melodies. They also converted various Swadeshi songs into gana sangeet through chorus. They sang many songs of Tagore.

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas wrote in this context: “Through famine or invasion, imperialist oppression or proletarian upsurge, the voice of Tagore remains the voice of Bengal, consoling, exhorting the people of the great unhappy land.”

In 1971, songs written by Tagore were widely broadcast from the Kendra. The Kendra would frequently broadcast 16 songs of Tagore and 10 songs of Nazrul. The songs that were composed from the time of the language movement of 1952 to the 1970s were re-broadcast against the colonial rule of Pakistan and its exploitation. Most of these were studio records of Dhaka or Chittagong radio centre or gramophone records, published in Dhaka.

Notable was a film song, Joy Bangla Banglar Joy, written by Gazi Mazharul Anwar (Composer: Anwar Parvez). The Kendra’s session would start and end with this song.

More than 50 songs were broadcast from the Kendra. Among them was a song written by Gauriprasanna Majumdar of West Bengal — ‘The voice of not one but a million Mujibur singing. Bangladesh, My Bangladesh’. It is still sung often.

Apart from this, there were concerts over Bangladesh in many countries. Many sang. George Harrison’s Bangladesh and Joan Baez’s ‘When the sun sinks in the west, millions dies in Bangladesh’ would enthrall us. The song of Lata Mangeshkar, Mere Watan, was also occasionally played as well as the national anthem of Bangladesh, Amar Sonar Bangla.

Neither the Western countries nor the American government were in favour of Bangladesh. But these songs motivated the civil society in those countries to support the Bangladesh cause.

It is doubtful whether any other medium provided the motivation like music in the Liberation War. Concerts of Joan Baez, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and others stirred young people abroad and helped build public opinion in different parts of India. Mumbai became a centre of music for Bangladesh. Sachin Dev Burman, Manna Dey sung some inspirational songs. The influence of music was strong in the border areas, especially in Tripura and West Bengal.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 4, 2021 under the title ‘Through 1971, the songs on our lips’.

Mutassir Mamoon currently holds the Bangabandhu Chair at Chittagong University. Translated from Bangla by Murshida Bintey Rahman

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