Updated: Mar 14, 2022
by Sushrita Acharjee.
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One of the many elements that instilled nationalistic fervour in the hearts of the people of East Pakistan during the 1971 War was music. The patriotic songs composed and sung by not just the urban artists but also by the common peoples of the land disseminated the stories of bravery of the Liberation Army across the land, as well as implanted rays of hope for victory among the country people. The wave of inspiration reached the neighbouring West Bengal too, where musicians, artists and lyricists contributed to the rich and voluminous corpus of liberation songs or mukti’r gaan as those were called in Bangla. Musicians on a global scale protested the harrowing condition of the war victims and refugees. One such example would be the famous ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ held in August 1971 at Madison Square in New York. The concert brought together Bob Dylan; George Harrison and Ringo Starr from the English rock band The Beatles; along with Indian musicians Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and so on. Sarmila Bose, the grand-niece of Subhas Chandra Bose in the introduction of her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War recalls,
The tales of the refugees were harrowing, their plight truly pitiful [. . .] George Harrison sang in Bengali, ‘O bhagoban khodatallah moder chhaira kotha gela’ (O Lord God, where have you gone abandoning us). A Bengali singer sang ‘Shono ekti Mujiborer theke lakhkha Mujiborer kanthaswarer dhwani pratidhwani aksathe batashe othe roni—Bangladesh, amar Bangladesh!’ (Listen from the voice of one Mujib a lakh of Mujib’s voices speak and echo around the wind and sky—Bangladesh, my Bangladesh!)[i]
The songs were weaponized at a time when the country was under stringent military curfew—at a time when young men and women were killed by the West Pakistani military force at the smallest display of rebellion; when the streets of Dacca were bathed in blood and crowded with not the living but the dead bodies of the civilians who dared to oppose the perpetrators of terror. Many artists and musicians discarded pistols to take up harmoniums and other musical instruments so as to execute a more challenging task: strengthening the spirit of the people distraught by war and subsequent refugee crises.
Primarily, three organisations were crucial in popularising the idea of patriotic, inspirational songs as a valuable weapon of war: Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro, a propagandist radio platform functioning incognito from where many of the songs would be broadcast; Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Sangstha, a troupe of travelling musicians visiting training camps and refugee sectors in order to invigorate the spirit of revolution in them; and lastly, Akashbani Kolkata, which played an indispensable role in emphasising the interests of the people of Bangladesh by broadcasting songs of liberation.
a. Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra
Belal Muhammad, who was one of the founding members of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, later admitted that the radio station functioning incognito at the time of war was first established at Kolargat, Chittagong. Since 25 May 1971, this radio station began broadcasting from a studio at Ballygunge Circular Road, Kolkata. Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was referred to as Mujibnagar at that time.[ii] In 1971, for the nine months leading to the birth of Bangladesh, the Liberation Army faced the deadly West Pakistani army on the battlefront. While the West Pakistani army incorporated only trained soldiers, a large number of the Liberation Army consisted of middle class young men and women, intellectuals, students, artists—most of whom had never held a destructive weapon before, much less fought in a war. The Liberation War began as a peoples’ insurgency in East Pakistan, and the musicians and lyricists did their best to unite people across class, creed and colour. The inspirational songs broadcast from Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra aided in keeping the spirit of resistance alive. The lyrics vouched for the spirit of dissent towards oppressive forces, the power of the grassroots population and the indomitable potency of revolution and democratic values. The public reception of these songs was monumental as these songs simultaneously brought the freedom fighters and civilians alike to tears and stimulated their desire to be free through even violent means, if necessary. Some of the most popular songs broadcast from Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra are the following:
● ‘Joy Bangla, Bangla’r Joy’ (Hail Bengal, victory to Bengal)
Written by Gazi Mazharul Anwar, composed by Anwar Parvez and sung by the renowned singer Mohammad Abdul Jabbar, this song became a public anthem during the Liberation War. Like most gana sangeet (mass music), this song too is sung in an energetic chorus and propagates the collective rise of the people of Bangladesh as a nation.
● ‘Purbo digonte shurjo uthechhe, rokto lal’ (The sun has arisen in the east, blood red)
This song, written by Gobindo Haldar and composed by Samar Das, metaphorically encompasses this epoch-making event of the rise of East Pakistan: the sun has risen in the eastern horizon and so have the people of the nation of Bengal. The time has arrived when all shackles will be broken. During the 1971 war this high-spirited song, speaking of earning independence through bloodshed and sacrifice, garnered unparalleled popularity among freedom fighters and civilians alike.
● ‘Bangla’r Hindu, Bangla’r Boudhha, Bangla’r Christan, Bangla’r Musalman, amra shobai Bangali’ (Bengal’s Hindu, Bengal’s Buddhist, Bengal’s Christian, Bengal’s Muslim, we all belong to Bengal).
Written by Gauriproshonno Majumdar and composed by Shamar Roy, this song speaks of a unified Bengali identity that transcends the limits of time and space. The Bengali identity includes all religions within its purview and all must, therefore, come to the rescue of the land that nurtures such diversity. It reminds the audience of the history of resistance by taking the names of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Khudiram Bose who fought for the liberation of undivided India during the British Raj.
● ‘bhebo na go ma tomar chhele-ra hariye giyeche pothe’ (Think not that your sons have strayed from their path)
Written by Mostafizur Rahman and composed by Samar Das, this rather poignant song is an ode to the freedom fighters and martyrs who sacrificed their youth and their chance at a fulfilling life, for their motherland. They trod a rough, perilous path only to fetch freedom and dignity for their country people.
b. Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Sangstha
During the Liberation War, many artists used to travel to the temporary camps and shelters near the borderlands of West Bengal and Bangladesh and perform motivational songs to the Liberation Army training there or to the refugees fleeing the onslaught of the West Pakistani army. This collective of travelling musicians under the leadership of Wahidul Haque, was officially called ‘Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Sangstha’ since May 1971. Some of the notable members of this collective were Sanjida Khatun (president), Mahmudur Rahman Benu (secretary), Bipul Bhattacharya, Shahin Samad, Nyla Khan, Tarik Ali, Swapan Chowdhury, Sharmilee Bandopadhyay, Mithila Ali, Debu Bhattacharya, Sharmin Murshid and so on.[iii] They used to travel to mukta anchal (free land) and perform songs, street plays, stage dramas and puppet shows. In 1996, Secretary Mahmudur Rahman Benu in an interview told BBC Bangla:
That song ‘Bangla ma’r durnibaar amra torun dol’ (The Bengali mother’s gang of invincible young children), written by Gurusaday Dutta was immensely popular amongst us. Our original history, the indigenous heroes we have and the tales of their bravery—we recounted those stories to the people through songs during 1971 in order to lift their spirits. We would sing 12–14 songs everyday at five–six camps amounting to almost 70 songs per day. Two gentlemen from the Indian Rehabilitation Centre, V.V. Sinha and Ashok Sengupta offered us a minibus in which we would leave at 6 am in the morning. We would return at 12 noon when there would be no strength in our voices to even speak.[iv]
The travelling musicians supposedly covered at least 250 camps scattered across the southern parts of West Bengal and the borderlands of East Pakistan. It was certainly not an easy endeavour but the appalling condition in which the refugees and the Liberation Army were living in those cramped shelters motivated the musicians. These moving songs were, at times, the only balm on their relentless sufferings. ‘About 2000–3000 people used to live in a 5 mile square space. They used to eat, sleep, and excrete within that space. Then came the rain; for three days, those people stood in water that rose up the level of their knees’, recalls Rahman Benu. 'And yet, they built a makeshift stage above the water with bamboo sticks for the travelling Bangladeshi musicians. They sang: "nouka ebar chole moder judhdher samaan loiya" (our boats are now moving with the ammunitions for war).'[v]
In 1995 a documentary film titled Mukti’r Gaan was made by Bangladeshi filmmakers Tareque Masud and his spouse Catherine Masud about this troupe of travelling musicians, where they used real footage shot by American filmmaker Lear Levin during 1971.Tareque and Catherine Masud came across many warriors of the Liberation Army during the making of the documentary film, who retained a vivid memory of these musical performances. They were especially moved by the folk songs written by composer and lyricist Mushad Ali— ‘ei na shonar bangla!’ (Isn’t this the golden Bangladesh!) and ‘Pak poshu der maarte hobe’ (The Pak beasts must be beaten) incited them in fighting the good fight for liberation. Lubna Mariam, who was an indispensable part of the Shilpi Sangstha and who was also featured in the documentary film Mukti’r Gaan states:
When there is a popular movement ongoing, then everyone very easily joins hands. Barriers of gender, religion, and economic disparity become subservient to the ‘cause’. The vibrant cultural movement from 1952 to 1971, had an explicit political goal of achieving Bengali unity, by prioritising all that was Bengali. So, it embraced value systems beyond boundaries of caste, creed and religion, as long as it was Bengali. The cultural movement and political movement together re-constructed value systems. As far as was possible in that age, women were equal participants.[vi]
Similarly, celebrated Bangladeshi musician Shaheen Samad believes that she and her fellow artists of the Shilpi Sangstha, such as Lubna Mariam, Naila Zaman, Bipul Bhattacharjee, Mahmudur Rahman Benu, Dalia Nausheen, Debu Chowdhury and others, contributed to the Liberation War through music by uplifting the morale and providing spiritual and psychological support to the refugees and freedom fighters. She recalls having gone to a camp at 1:30 p.m. during the Liberation War, where the wounded freedom fighters were waiting for their truck to arrive.
We used to sing the Tagore song ‘Oi Pohailo Timir Rati’ (Behold, the dark night breaks), the Nazrul song ‘Karar Oi Louho Kopat, bhenge phel kor re lopaat’ (The iron cage of the prison, break it, do away with it), Mushad Ali's ‘Shonen Shonen Bhaishob’ (Hark, Hark, my brothers), ‘Barricade Bayonet Berajaal’ (Barricade Bayonet Fence), ‘Jago Jago’ (Rise) and many more! [vii]
Apart from encouraging the dispossessed, the travelling troupe of musicians raised a considerable amount of funding to support the millions of refugees taking shelter in the eastern parts of India by organising charity concerts.
List of songs:
● ‘Bangla ma’r durnibaar amra torun dol’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlFmqDyrA3w)
● ‘oi pohailo timir rati’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWIB2OxopmQ)
● ‘karar oi louho kopat, bhenge phel kor re lopaat’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRNqnxoKBes)
● ‘Pak poshu der marte hobe’ (https://www.bbc.com/bengali/news/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan6; 3:30–4:32)
c. Akashbani Kolkata
During 1971, Akashbani Kolkata became one of the most crucial components upholding the nationalistic spirit of the peoples of East Pakistan. They would broadcast the performances of Bangladeshi musicians who had taken refuge in Kolkata and organise programmes that advocated the cause of the war-torn land. The cultural realm of West Bengal had extended its unconditional allegiance to East Bengal (then East Pakistan) since the 1952 bhasha andolon (the Bengali language movement), protesting the unfair imposition of a homogenous Urdu language on the Bengali speaking community of East Pakistan. The year 1971 saw a rise in the production of art in Bengali language as a means of solidifying the nationalistic ardour. Pankaj Saha, who was then working at Akashbani Kolkata, recalls his experience of unwittingly recording one of the finest public speeches ever given by a political leader. On 7 March, as he was fiddling with a machine that received news from various correspondent centres, he recorded the famous speech of the founding father of Bangladesh—Bangabondhu (friend of Bangladesh) as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was lovingly called—at Ramna Race Course in Dacca which undoubtedly ignited the passion for dissent and civil disobedience in the hearts of the common people of East Pakistan. Later, he and his associates decided to broadcast this historical moment interspersed with a song written by Bengali artist Angshuman Roy—‘shono ekti Mujiborer theke lakhkha Mujiborer kanthaswarer dhwani pratidhwani aksathe batashe othe roni—Bangladesh, amar Bangladesh!’ (Listen, from the voice of one Mujib a lakh of Mujib’s voices speak and echo around the wind and sky—Bangladesh, my Bangladesh!). This song garnered massive popularity when it was broadcast by Akashbani; as Bangabondhu Mujibur Rahman’s fiery speech reminded the people of their right to freedom, Angshuman Roy’s song brought to the fore the rich cultural legacy of the land—‘shilpe kabye kothaye ache haye re amon shonar desh!’ (Is there such another golden country that excels so well in art and poetry). The song further reminded the audience of the glorious beauty of the lush green land of Bangladesh by drawing references from venerated Bengali poets, Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das who eulogised the land in their poetry: ‘Biswakabi’r shonar Bangla, Nazrul er Bangladesh, Jibananander Rupashi Bangla, rup er je tar neiko sesh, Bangladesh!’(Tagore’s golden Bengal, Nazrul’s Bangladesh, Jibanananda’s enchanting Bengal, Bangladesh with its infinite beauty!)[viii] Saha also recounts his memory of collaborating with the Bangladeshi musicians. When he and his associates came to know that many such musicians had taken shelter at a house at Dharmatala and were rehearsing for a programme through which they wanted to express their dreams and aspirations for their motherland, they immediately went to visit them. The musical performance was staged at Rabindra Sadan, Kolkata. The musicians performed on a stage set in the backdrop that displayed an image of a powerful hand breaking shackles in front of a rising scarlet sun. Later, these musicians were invited as guest artists to Akashbani Kolkata and were given slots to perform the liberation songs in the wake of war.[ix] Another song that was immensely loved in West Bengal was ‘Bangabondhu dake re, Mujib bhai dake re’ (Bangabondhu is calling, Mujib bhai is calling), written by Gouriprashanna Majumdar and sung originally by Nirmalendu Choudhury and Banasree Sengupta. The resounding philosophy of this song harps on the democratic tone of the revolution: Bangabondhu is extending his plea to all peoples from the city as well as the village and therefore, irrespective of their religious identity—Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, they must join hands to free the land to which they all belong.
List of songs:
● ‘shono ekti Mujiborer theke lakhkha Mujiborer kanthaswarer dhwani’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbXhaGekrWc)
● ‘Bangabondhu dake re, Mujib bhai dake re’ (https://www.bbc.com/bengali/multimedia/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan1; 9:28– 9:59)
[i] Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 3.
[ii] ‘Muktijudhdher Gaan, part 4’, BBC Video, BBC News Bangla (5 January 2011) (available at: https://www.bbc.com/bengali/multimedia/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan4; last accessed on 5 March 2021). [iii] ‘Remembering the choir of freedom’, Dhaka Mirror (16 December 2013) (available at: http://www.dhakamirror.com/art-culture/remembering-the-choir-of-freedom/; last accessed on 27 March 2021). [iv] ‘Muktijudhdher Gaan, part 6’, BBC Video, BBC News Bangla (5 January 2011) (available at: https://www.bbc.com/bengali/news/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan6; last accessed on 5 March 2021). [v] ‘Muktijudhdher Gaan, part 6’, BBC Video, BBC News Bangla (5 January 2011) (available at: https://www.bbc.com/bengali/news/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan6; last accessed on 5 March 2021). [vi] Elita Karim, ‘When music paves the way’, The Daily Star (16 December 2018) (available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/1971-the-battles-women-fought/news/when-music-paves-the-way-1674016; last accessed on 27 March 2021). [vii] Zahangir Alom, ‘Fighting for the country with music’, The Daily Star (16 December 2015) (available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/arts-entertainment/music/fighting-the-country-music-187702; last accessed on 27 March 2021). [viii] ‘Muktijudhdher Gaan, part 1’, BBC Video, BBC News Bangla (5 January 2011) (available at: https://www.bbc.com/bengali/multimedia/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan1; last accessed on 5 March 2021). [ix] ‘Muktijudhdher Gaan, part 6’, BBC Video, BBC News Bangla (5 January 2011) (available at: https://www.bbc.com/bengali/news/2011/01/110102_mb_gaan6; last accessed on 5 March 2021).