1971: Our songs, our war, our country

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There always comes a time in the life of a nation when it must remember itself. For Bengalis, remembrance has largely been a matter of recalling the sacrifices made by their fellow citizens in the year of their biggest trauma and their deepest sense of triumph. For all of us in this land, 1971 remains a watershed in our lives. There was in it a rediscovery of ourselves in as much as there was an emergence in our souls of that certain knowledge of what we as a nation were capable of achieving for ourselves. There are all the songs we sang in the course of the War of Liberation, music that catapulted us to heights we never knew we were capable of scaling. It was those songs, heard in some of the darkest twilights of this land, that inexorably led us to the political goal of freedom.

In very broad measure, the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh effectively began in early March 1971 through the initiation of the non-violent non-cooperation movement. We will not here go into the academics of the situation at the time, save only to say that once the meeting of the newly elected national assembly of Pakistan was put off by the Islamabad based military junta, the idea of Bangladesh assumed something of clarity. The song, Joi Bangla Banglar Joi / Hobe Hobe Hobe / Hobe Nischoi, came to symbolise the new spirit of the country. It was obvious to all astute observers of national politics that a new nation had taken the first tentative steps towards moving away from the communal structure into which it had been thrown back in the 1940s. It was also noticeable in early March 1971 that the Bengali identity was being given a bit more of concreteness through the Tagore song, Amar Sonar Bangla / Aami Tomaye Bhalobashi. It remains a measure of our sense of patriotism that the song was eventually transformed into the national anthem of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

But the power of song truly came into play once the war went underway. It was Abdul Jabbar who in the early stages of the struggle set the tone for the role music would play in the prosecution of the war. His Salam Salam Hajar Salam was a recurrent tribute to the soldiers of freedom, living and martyred, and in a very poignant way served as a harbinger of the battle stories that were to shape up in the course of the nine-month war. Add to that Apel Mahmood's exotic combination of nature and war in Mora Ekti Phool Ke Bachabo Bole Juddho Kori. A remembrance of the tune is revealing, even all these years after the end of the war, of the energy that was passed into the public consciousness by those old songs of the land and its struggle for sheer survival. But while newer songs began to be written as the war turned more intense, there were also the moments when the country went back to Tagore and Nazrul in a renewed search of the land and its heritage. While Tagore was recreated in the form of O Amar Desher Mati / Tomar Pore Thekai Matha, a soothing, reflective piece if ever there was one, it was the militancy that poured out of Nazrul's Karar Oi Loho Kopat in its intensity. Nazrul came again, through the rhythmic sounds of the marching song that is Chal Chal Chal. Yet another Nazrul song, Jago Onoshon Bondi Othore Joto, served to add newer substance to the long story of the military struggle of 1971.

A particular song that was frequently played over Shwadhin Bangla Betar was the Ferdousi Rahman number (the singer, though, was unable to cross over to Mujibnagar), Amar Mon Bholano Chokh Jurhano / Ei Aparoop Mori Mori / Shonar angla Amar Dhaatri Amar / Roop Dekhi Tor Noyon Bhori. Note that within the cadences of the song you have the heritage of the country coming alive. And heritage, of the kind that hearkens back to the glory of old rural Bengal, makes itself manifest through Rothindranath Roy's Chhotoder Boroder Shokoler / Goriber Nishsher Fokirer / Amari Desh Shob Manusher. That heritage then mingles with the new revolutionary spirit of Bengali nationalism to produce Samar Das' Purbo Digonte Shurjo Uthechhe / Rokto Lal Rokto Lal Rokto Lal. The militant nature of the struggle is also adequately reflected in the chorus Jonotar Sangram Cholbe / Amader Sangram Cholbe Cholbe. A particular form of poetry shoots off the Apel Mahmood number, Teer Hara Ei Dheu-er Shagor Parhi Dibo Re. The place of the river in the life of the Bengali, the river as indeed a metaphor, is what lends vitality to the song.

The War of Liberation was conceived and waged around the personality of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was his absence that quite took away much of the shine from the struggle; and yet, in a curious contrast, an absent leader became the catalyst for the entire war. Apart from the regular Bajrakantha programme of Shwadhin Bangla Betar, there were the songs that were composed around the Bengali leader. By far the most well-known and regularly hummed is Shono Ekti Mujiborer Theke / Lokkho Mujiborer Konthoshshorer Dhoni Protidhoni / Akashe Batashe Uthe Roni / Bangladesh Amar Bangladesh. Significant too was Jabbar's Sharhe Shaat Koti Manusher Aaj Ekti Naam / Mujibor Mujibor Mujibor Mujibor / Sharhe Shaat Koti Proshner Jobab Peyegelam. There was then the variation on an old Abbasuddin song that turned out to be widely acclaimed as a war number. It was Mujib Baiya Jao Re / Nirjatito Desher Majhi / Jonogoner Nao Re Mujib / Baiya Jao Re. There was too the quite prosaic Amar Neta Sheikh Mujib / Tomar Neta Sheikh Mujib. There will be many who might remember that after Bangabandhu returned home from imprisonment in Pakistan, Sandhya Mukherjee produced a very lilting Bangabandhu Tumi Phire Ele / Tomar Mukto Shwadhin Banglae. The songs were unceasing proof that the destiny of the Bengali nation was relentlessly being shaped around the pre-eminent Bengali nationalist politician of the time. Mujib was the undisputed leader and the war was what his image made it out to be.

The fundamental concept behind the War of Liberation was the secular nationalist spirit of Bengalis. It was just this concept that was underlined in the song, Banglar Hindu / Banglar Bouddho / Banglar Khrishtan / Banglar Mussulman / Amra Shobai Bangali. In addition to evoking the non-communal nature of the war, the struggle was a reminder of a lost past which came in tune with a real present. That was the theme in Shona Shona Shona Loke Bole Shona / Shona Noi Toto Khati / Bolo Joto Khati Tar Cheye Khati / Bangladesher Mati. In 1971, songs spoke of the soul of Bengal, again through the inevitability of Rabindranath Tagore: Aji Bangladesher Hridoy Hote Kokhon Aponi. And the imagery kept diversifying. The soul matters in Banglar Gaan Banglar Praan Ek Shoore Badha / Ektara Ar Dotara Te Hoy Je Shadha. Bangladesh was mother to its children. It gathered its dead sons to its bosom and it sometimes had little idea where some of those children may have disappeared. In Bhebo Na Go Maa / Tomar Chhelera Hariye Giyecche Pothe. The mother imagery appears once again in Bangla Moder Bangla Maa / Amar Tomar Koti Shontan / Epar Bangla Opar Bangla / Shoibe Na Opoman. The sacrifices came thick and fast, one upon the other, to a point where it was emblazoned again in song, Rokto Diye Naam Likhecchi / Bangladesher Naam. To the oppressors, a message went out in the Ajit Roy number, Bicharpoti Tomar Bichar Korbe Jara / Aaj Jegechhe Ei Jonota. On the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr in 1971, an elegy in the form of Chaand Tumi Phire Jao / Dekho Manusher Khoone Khoone Roktim Bangla, drenched the soul in all consuming sadness. Happiness, it said, was on hold until the darkness was swept away.

The dawning of freedom was the moment for a new fusion of song and soul in the country. Saiful Islam's Bangladesher Kobi Aami / Shob Cheye Bhagyoban / Aami Likhte Perechhi Bishsher Shera Muktir Itihash was heard profusely in the early days of freedom. The song, Ogo Bondhu Tumi Chinte Paro Ki Bangla Tomar Bangla / Jaake Rekhe Gachho Ponchishe Raater Aaage, was a recapitulation of the horrors of the genocide the Pakistan army let loose in the nocturnal hours of 25 March.

In the declining afternoon of a winter's day, Dhaka Radio burst into life with Abdul Jabbar's Hajar Bochhor Pore / Abar Eshechhi Phire / Banglar Booke Achhi Danrhiye.

The soldiers of freedom were coming home. The war had been fought and won. It was December, and it was the sixteenth day. There was spring in the air.

  • 16 December 1971
  • Victory Day
  • 1971: Our songs, our war, our country

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