Songs of fire

Songs of fire

Translated by Baizid Haque Joarder

Every day after training was over, all the participants would gather around in the middle of the field. The retired soldier would tell me, ‘Shameem, sing.’ I would start singing in my young voice, ‘Joy Bangla, Banglar joy, hobey hobey hobey nishchoy.’ It was the only revolutionary song I knew back then. During the entirety of my stay in Rayapur, this was the only song I would sing every day and everyone would religiously listen to it, in complete silence. The song would never fail to leave a mark—the sheer power of it continues to amaze me to this day.

During the turbulent month of March, 1971, the entire Bengali populace was immersed in the dream of independence, holding meetings, processions and protests to raise awareness for their cause. Alongside these events, cultural activities also played a crucial role in motivating people to fight for independence. From there forth the movement intensified, finally leading to the Liberation War of 1971.
I was a fifth grade student at the Barisal Zilla school, alongside being one of the youngest students at Prantik Shongeet Bidyalay, one of the best music schools in town. Back then, the Pakistani military hadn’t begun killing and torturing civilians in Dhaka. Students and teachers from schools would perform in various neighbourhoods to inspire others. Since I was the youngest, I didn’t get the opportunity to perform but I did manage to find a seat near the stage on a few occasions. The most common tune was Joy Bangla, Banglar Joy—a song I learnt at the school. The young, curious boy in me was greatly intrigued by this song.
From that point onwards, the year’s events began to unravel quickly. News of the Pakistani army’s crackdown on innocent civilians in Dhaka on the night of March 25 quickly travelled across the country. People living in Barisal started to brace themselves for war. Like many others, our family migrated back to our village since it was only a matter of time before the military invaded Barisal. As for me, instead of going directly to the village with others, I went to live at my sister’s in-laws’ house in Rayapur village for about two weeks, some five to six miles away from the city. It was decided that my brother-in-law would send me and my sister to our paternal grandparents’ home. Interestingly, it was during these two weeks that something amazing occurred—an event that fill me with both pride and emotion.
The Rayapur school was located beside an open field opposite the Barisal-Jhalakathi highway, right across the house we were staying in. In the fields young men would train for war using bamboo sticks. Every afternoon, a retired army personnel would come and train them using his lone, ordinary gun. My brother-in-law and I would make it a point to visit the field every day—not to train but to pursue a different agenda. Every day after training was over, all the participants would gather around in the middle of the field. The retired soldier would tell me, ‘Shameem, sing.’ I would start singing in my young voice, ‘Joy Bangla, Banglar joy, hobey hobey hobey nishchoy.’ It was the only revolutionary song I knew back then.
During the entirety of my stay in Rayapur, this was the only song I would sing every day and everyone would religiously listen to it, in complete silence. The song would never fail to leave a mark—the sheer power of it continues to amaze me to this day.
The Pakistani-led forces finally attacked Barisal on April 25. Most of those who trained in Rayapur joined to fight in the war. A number of them returned after independence, others were not as lucky. But the memory of the songs from ’71 still manages to move me.
Bangladesh’s fight for independence is extraordinary and unparalleled. The war was not only fought on the military front – films and plays, culture, literature, music, sports, art, radio, hand-written papers, organised meetings, and hijacked planes – all played significant roles in the movement. Among these, songs from 1971 reached great heights, playing a crucial role that cannot be ignored.

A visit from a friend

During the 60s, George Harrison of the Beatles-fame shared a close friendship with Pandit Ravi Shankar, one of the finest sitar players from the sub-continent. It was Ravi Shankar who taught Harrison how to play the sitar. In 1971, Harrison was working for an album titled Raga in Los Angeles when Ravi Shankar asked him for help in organising a concert to raise funds for the oppressed people of Bangladesh being subject to genocide. In order to raise the $25,000 target, the concert had to be a large-scale one. This prompted Ravi Shankar to ask Harrison to convince other prominent musicians from the time to join the cause.
George Harrison was moved by the newspaper and magazine clippings that Ravi Shankar showed him. The clippings told the stories of the ongoing refugee crisis and the atrocities being committed by the Pakistani army. Harrison decided he needed to do something for the Bengalis.
What followed was penned by George Harrison himself in his book I, Me and Mine.

‘… and for three months I was on the telephone setting up what became the concert for Bangla Desh, trying to talk people into doing it, talking to Eric (Clapton) and all those people who did it… we had very little rehearsal; in fact, there was never actually one rehearsal with everyone present. We did it in dribs and drabs and under difficulties. For a date, we had picked a period during which it had to be done. An Indian astrologer had said, this is a good period and he gave me around the beginning of August, and then we found the right day in August that was when Madison Square Garden was free and so we rented it.
‘… And so I got involved. The priority was to attract world attention to what was going on. It wasn’t so much the money because you can feed somebody today and tomorrow and they will still be hungry, if they are getting massacred you’ve got to try and stop that first of all.
‘I said, ”OK, I’ll go to the show and I’ll get some people to come and help. We’ll try and make it into a big show, and maybe we can make a million dollars instead of a few thousand.’ So I got on the telephone trying to round people up. We pinpointed the days which were astrologically good, and we found Madison Square Garden was open on one of those days—1st August.
‘The rest is history. The day was Sunday, August 1 on which, two shows were held at Madison Square Garden, the first was at 2:30pm and the second at 8pm. It was aptly titled “The Concert for Bangladesh.” Indian artistes who performed at the concert included the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, and Kamala Chakravarty among others. While George Harrison led the concert, industry-heavyweights such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and Ringo Starr also performed at this historic concert. The packed show began with the performance of Ravi Shankar on the sitar, Ali Akbar Khan on the sarod, Alla Rakha’s beats on the tabla and Kamala playing the tanpura. The attendance on the day exceeded all previous calculations and in order to meet the excess demand, two shows were held at the venue. Instead of the targeted amount of $25,000, Ravi Shankar managed to make $243,418.50 from the concert. The entire amount was donated to United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF to be spent on the welfare of refugee children from Bangladesh.

The concert for Bangladesh was made into a Grammy-winning triple album and a film, which along with the proceeds of the night raised huge sums of money for Bangladesh, the money being administered by UNICEF.

Pictured here is Ravi Shankar performing at the concert. The photograph is taken by the author of a page from the booklet which came with the The Concert for Bangladesh LP / Shameem Aminur Rahman
  • administered by UNICEF. At the last count – since the album and video are still selling – the receipts were fourteen million dollars. Yet, arguably the biggest benefit of the night was the international attention it brought to a hitherto remote and unfashionable conflict, and a new country.’
  • As quoted in Raga Mala, The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar, edited and introduced by George Harrison; published by Genesis Publications Ltd, Australia, 1997.

The historical significance and success of the concert can be drawn from the comments of the performers at the concert.

‘It was such a unique thing. Everybody was so moved. It had a special feeling apart from just a performance. Overnight, everybody knew the name of Bangladesh all over the world.’

  • Pandit Ravi Shankar

‘The beauty of the event came across and the audience was so great.’

  • Ringo Starr

‘This will always be remembered as a time that we could be proud of being musicians. We weren’t thinking of ourselves for five minutes.’

  • Eric Clapton

‘It was one high level of experience from the beginning to the end.’

  • Leon Russell

George Harrison was indeed successful in uniting so many famous musicians for such a great cause. He said, ‘The musicians completely put down their egos to play together. The whole vibe of that concert was that it was something bigger than the lot of us.’
In Harrison’s own words, we can understand the impact the concert had on the general public in America: ‘There were a lot of kids and general public who, having had the inspiration to go and do something, all started collecting money and were banging on the UNICEF doors saying, “what can we do to help?”’

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of United Nations, also commented on the concert:

‘It was a ground breaking event and since then, of course it has become very common, but in those days it was quite unique and quite daring and they were the pioneers.’

George Harrison’s wife, Olivia Harrison (also the founder of the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF) said:

‘The concert for Bangladesh was one of the most ambitious humanitarian efforts in rock music history.’
The first album titled The Concert for Bangladesh was released on December 20, 1971 in America and on January 10, 1972 in the United Kingdom. The concert was later released in CDs and DVDs while the entire digital album can be purchased and downloaded from iTunes.

The website of the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF reads:

‘In honour of the altruistic spirit that gave birth to the Concert for Bangladesh, each download will benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. iTunes, Apple Records Inc and all artists, songwriters and publishers associated with the concert will keep no income from album sales and have waived all fees.’

A few of the powerful lines from George Harrison’s famous song Bangla Desh from the concert are as follows:

‘My friend came to me, with sadness in his eyes
Told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies
Although I couldn’t feel the pain, I knew I had to try
Now I’m asking all of you
To help us save some lives
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh’

When the Sun Sinks in the West – Bangladesh: Joan Baez of New York, Lee Brennan of Liverpool and Juliane Werding of Essen

Along with the concert for Bangladesh, at least three individual singers from the West produced their own vinyl records in support of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The famous American folk singer Joan Baez’s song Bangladesh had tremendous influence in inspiring popular support at that time.
Born in the year 1941 in New York, Joan Chados Baez is often considered as a legendary folk singer in the history of American music. The singer strived to improve world peace, raising awareness for the cause through her music. Like other artistes in 1971, Baez too, was concerned about the state of affairs in Bangladesh and its oppressed people.
The crisis during the birth of Bangladesh saw many battles being fought. Apart from military battles, artistes engaged themselves in warfare, picking up music as artillery to inspire people. Song of Bangladesh by Joaz Baez was undoubtedly a source of inspiration and strength for 75 million Bangladeshis at a time that was characterised by innumerable deaths, incredible struggle and persistent turmoil.
The first few lines of Joan Baez’s Song of Bangladesh:

‘Bangladesh, Bangladesh
Bangladesh, Bangladesh
When the sun sinks in the West
Die a million people of the Bangladesh’

From the foreign records revolving around Bangladesh’s struggle for independence which were released at the time, three managed to become very popular: Concert for Bangladesh, Joan Baez’s Song of Bangladesh and finally, George Harrison’s Bangladesh. Apart from these luminaries, at least two other European singers sang in support of Bangladesh’s independence. One of them was Lee Brennan, a singer and poet from Liverpool, England. The military crackdown by the ruthless Pakistani army deeply shocked Brennan.
In order to find ways to help, Brennan started discussing possibilities with Bengalis living in Liverpool. Mahbubur Rahman, former lecturer at Dhaka University and a friend of Brennan, advised the singer to do what he did best—sing for the cause. And so he did. Brennan wrote four songs and successfully released a record combining the tracks. The singer also sang in different pubs and restaurants in Liverpool on a regular basis, to raise awareness about the sorry state of the Bengalis.
The lyrics of one of the songs are as follows:

‘Come unite brothers and sisters of Bangladesh
Unite together and stay that way
And remember the good times
Are coming at last
The freedom fighters are on their way’

Brennan used to urge his listeners to buy the record if they liked the songs. The sales proceeds was handed proceedings to Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury who later became the second president of Bangladesh after its independence. At the time, he was working in London to raise global awareness about the genocide in Bangladesh, both diplomatically and politically.
The record consisting of Brennan’s song is very rare—the only copy in Bangladesh, which was donated by Mahbubur Rahman, rests at the Liberation War museum.
The song list on the 45RPM record are as follows:

‘Side A: Freedom Fighters and Mr. Human
Side B: Fight, fight and We will survive’

A message from Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury on the sleeve of the record reads:

‘People of Bangladesh will fight unto the last for Truth and Justice. Victory shall be ours. Our grateful thanks are due to Lee Brennan, Dawn, Pete Thomas, John Brown, Jimmy Sefton for their sympathy and support at this hour of our grim struggle.

  • Abu Sayeed Chowdhury Special Envoy, Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh’

Apart from Lee Brennan, young German singer Juliane Werding also sang for the people of Bangladesh in 1971. Born in the German town of Essen in 1956, Werding had just began her career as a singer in 1971. Later, she managed to establish herself as a well-known pop-singer, with one of her songs claiming the number on spot on German charts, retaining its position in top ten for 14 weeks. Werding’s song Bangladesh was first released in the form of a record from Germany in 1972.

Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra

The crucial role which Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra played during the surge for independence in 1971 is parallel to none. A major part of the revolution involved the use of music in trying to establish political rights and cultural values. The fiery songs which were played on the clandestine radio station managed to inspire and unite freedom fighters.
During the war, the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra paved the way for the composition of many songs which continue to be remembered as eternal tunes that inspired Bengalis. Many people, including radio officers, engineers, technicians, organisers, writers, lyricists and artists worked tirelessly in order to establish the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra.

A photograph taken by the author of the cover of the The Concert for Bangladesh LP / Shameem Aminur Rahman

Initially, the station played previously recorded songs. This made the authorities realise the need for songs about the independence. The task of finding these songs was handed over to Kamal Lohani, the news editor of the station. Lohani told, Kamal Ahmed, a friend from Kolkata about his quest for songs on independence. Later, Ahmed brought Gobinda Halder, a young lyricist, to Dhaka. Halder gladly handed two of his diaries consisting of lyrics to Kamal Lohani, according to whom, the former was a ‘saviour’ at a time of great need. One of the diaries, a white one, had the slogan ‘Joy Banglar Gaan’ written on the cover.
The lyrics in his songs managed to capture the true essence of independence—those who experienced the war were lucky to have witnessed history in the making. Kamal Lohani approached Apel Mahmud, artiste-composer, and Samar Das, music producer, to work on Halder’s songs. Apel Mahmud, almost instantly, tuned the famous song Mora Ekti Phul ke Bachabo Boley Juddho Kori and within a few days, it was aired on the radio. Samar Das then composed the timeless song Purbo Digontey Shurjo Uthechhey, which too, left an impact on listeners.
Right after achieving independence on December 16, Gobinda Halder penned the historic song, Ek Shagor Rokter Binimoye, Banglar Shadhinota Anley Jara, Amra Tomader Bhulbo Na. Played right after the 8pm news on the then Bangladesh Betar—the song touched millions of hearts. On December 16, the station played the late Abdul Jabbar’s Salam Salam Hajar Salam, Shohid Bhai er Shoron e and Hajar Bochhor Porey Abar Firey. However, the most frequently played song was Joy Bangla, Banglar Joy which was used as the signature tune of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. These songs were accompanied by Bijoy Nishan Urchhey oi, composed by Sujeya Shyam. The memory of the first time the song was played still makes Shyam feel emotional; the appeal of these historic songs hasn’t been lost to time.
Other songs including the likes of Gobinda Halder’s Purbo Digontey Shurjo Uthechhey, Mora Ekti Phul ke Bachabo Boley Juddho Kori, Teer Hara Ei Dheuyer Shagor, Anshuman Roy’s Shono Ekti Mujibur er Thekey, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s Karar oi Louho Kopat, and Chol Chol Chol, Nayeem Gouhor’s Nongor Tolo Tolo, Samar Das’ Bhebo Nago Ma Tomar Chhelera, Abdul Kashem Shondhip’s Rokto Diye Naam Likhechhi, and Gauriproshonno Majumdar’s Banglar Hindu, Banglar Boddho, Banglar Christian, Banglar Musolman—formed an integral aspect of Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
Songs by Altaf Mahmud, Sheikh Lutfar Rahman, Ajit Roy, Sukhendu Chakraborty, Mahmudun Nabi, Iqbal Ahmed and others, also ignited the fire of revolution among the populace. There were a few songs by Salil Chowdhury and Gananatya Sangha which were on the verge of being lost to the tides of time. On the contrary, songs by Rabindranath and Nazrul were an intrinsic part of cultural programmes held during the time, adding a different dimension and inspiring many during that period of struggle.

Songs from the road

Among the many cultural organisations working relentlessly to uplift the spirits of freedom fighters and the millions of people seeking refuge in West Bengal and other border areas, the cultural troupe Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Sangstha was by far, the most active one. Eminent artist Shaheen Samad, in one of her essays, writes:

‘We used to travel to refugee camps and parts of Muktanchal (free areas) to perform patriotic songs, arrange puppet shows and stage dramas to inspire freedom fighters and other people with the spirit of war. We would be welcomed graciously even at a time when resources were scarce. There were a few other troupes like us who were working in the areas. Even though there were many challenges while organising each event, it was all worth it in the end. Freedom fighters would be fascinated by the performances. To be honest, the Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Sangstha truck became our home—eating, sleeping, washing, everything had to be done on the truck. But despite the many problems, we enjoyed inspiring people. We were a family living under the open sky and that is how time went by.’
The troupe came into contact with American film-maker Lear Levine who at the time was in India to make a film on Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. Levine was unsuccessful in making the film but his footage from the time was later used by Tareque Masud in his ground breaking documentary, Muktir Gaan.
The Bangladesh Shohayok Shamiti in Kolkata, led the way in bringing together artistes and intellectuals from Bangladesh who were seeking refuge in India to establish Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Sangstha on 144, Lenin Shoroni, Kolkata; this later became the hub of cultural activism. During the Liberation War, artistes used to convene on Lenin Shoroni to rehearse revolutionary songs, perfecting them so that they could be performed at the various refugee camps.
The chair of the organisation was Sanjida Khatun while Mahmudur Rahman Benu was the general secretary. According to Shaheen Samad, there were only 17 members of the troupe when it began its journey and by the end of the war, there were 117 active members. The troupe performed in many significant events held at different venues, including Santiniketan and the Mohajati Sadan auditorium in Kolkata. While reminiscing, artiste Mustafa Monwar mentioned that the troupe was scheduled to perform alongside the renowned Calcutta Youth Choir after the Mohajati Sadan show. The performance of the troupe at the programme was outstanding – enough to make Ruma Guha Thakurta, the head of the choir – hesitant about getting up on stage with her choir. Mustafa Monwar also led the troupe at a performance on Delhi Television for which they garnered widespread applause.
The Bangabandhu Shilpi Goshthi was another cultural group which actively performed at various programmes during the war. Led by Barrister Badal Rashid, the 14-member troupe travelled around Indian cities including Bombay, Goa, Pune and Kanpur to collect donations. Luminaries such as Apel Mahmud, Abdul Jabbar and Shopna Roy were members of the group, among others. From artiste Namita Ghosh’s writings we learn that the shows were produced by renowned Bollywood actress, Waheeda Rehman and included the active involvement of illustrious music producers Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Salil Chowdhury and others. Popular music producer Bappi Lahiri was also seen playing the tabla with the Bangladeshi artistes in Bombay. Quite a few of the shows from the time were organised under the banner of Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra.
Artistes from both Bangladesh and India jointly organised many shows at the Kolkata Jorabagan Park, Park Circus field, Rabindra Sadan, and in schools and colleges to collect donations for refugees. Along with the Bangladeshi artistes were prominent singers such as Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Banasree Sen Gupta, the sons of Kazi Nazrul Islam—Kazi Sabyasachi and Kazi Aniruddha, and others.
The last time Namita Ghosh performed for the cause was at the Priya Cinema Hall on December 12, 1971 at 10am. The show ended with the performance of Bangabandhu Shilpi Goshthi. Reminiscing about the last song she performed with the rest of the members, Bulbul Mahalanabish shares, ‘There was excitement in everyone’s eyes, wondering when the clock would strike 4pm. We had to record the song by then. After all, it would be the song to be played on Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, right after the declaration of independence is made.’

‘Bijoy nishaan urchhey oi
Khushir howa oi urchhey
Banglar ghorey ghorey
Muktir alo oi jhorchhey’

And with this song, Shahidul Islam, Ajit Roy and Shujeyo Shyam became an integral part of the history of Bangladesh.

The impact of the songs from 1971

Julian Francis, an OXFAM officer who coordinated OXFAM’s refugee operations in camps in West Bengal, was honoured with the Friends of Liberation War Honour by the Bangladesh government in 2012. During the war, doctors working at the camps observed that depression was a key reason behind the deteriorating health of refugees. They believed that a harmonium and a pair of tabla in each camp would be able to uplift the morale of those living there, as well as improve their health. A resident in the camp, Samir Pal, a university teacher by profession requested Francis to arrange a few instruments for the camp. It was from the teacher that Francis learned about the language and culture being important roots for Bangladesh’s surge for independence. Hence, the cultural war was as vital as the war being fought on the battlefields. Francis arranged a harmonium and tablas for each camp by himself, without seeking permission from his superiors.
On one fine monsoon day, Samir Pal came up to Julian Francis and said, ‘Look around Julian Bhai, we have nothing and we have everything. We have our music, our songs, our dream and our respect. Thank you for helping us and believing in us.’
After a few months, doctors working at the Gobardanga camp in West Bengal praised Francis for the improving health of refugees.

Shameem Aminur Rahman completed his bachelor’s in architecture from BUET, Dhaka. Having an avid interest in Bangladesh’s history, art and music, he regularly contributes to periodicals, providing new perspectives on these subjects. His books Dhaka’r Prothom Akashchari Van Tassel and Shilpir Chokhey Dhaka 1789-1947 established him as a noteworthy author. Currently, he serves as Additional Chief Architect at the Department of Architecture under the Ministry of Housing and Public works.

Translated by Baizid Haque Joarder Every day after training was over, all the participants would gather around in the middle of the field. The retired soldier would tell me, ‘Shameem, sing.’ I would start singing in my young voice, ‘Joy Bangla, Banglar joy, hobey hobey hobey nishchoy.’ It was the only revolutionary song I knew…

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