Young Rafiqul Alam was among a few Bangladeshi singers who brought significant changes to the contemporary Bangla songs in the early 1970s. He appeared on the scene when most of the musicians blindly followed musical styles tied either to Rabindranath Tagore or Hemanta Mukhopadhyay.
Since the last five decades of his music career, Rafiqul has nurtured his voice as a recognisably sophisticated vocalist. He has become a singer who can deliver melodious songs of poetic intimation — lyrics that depicted tales of love and frustration of a romantic life.
A Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra veteran, Rafiqul’s journey as a passionate singer resumed in the early 1970s when he was merely an amateur.
In a conversation with New Age on Tuesday, Rafiqul talked about his beginning as well as his meteoric rise in the early 1970s.
‘Once in my childhood I badly felt the need of a tanpura, a long-necked string instrument. But this Indian instrument was not available in the then East Pakistan. Meanwhile in 1965 when a war between India and Pakistan erupted, Pakistani commoners were denied Indian visa. As Kolkata was the only sourcing place of tanpura, I dared to cross the border swimming the River Padma — all the way from Rajshahi to India. I had a few Indian currencies.
Fortunately, I found refuge in the home of my friend’s relatives in Murshidabad. The family was well off. They sent me to Kolkata from where I bought a tanpura at Tk 220, now it would cost Tk 1.5 lakh,’ Rafiqul said holding his beloved musical instrument on his lap.
Rafiqul’s elder brother Sarwar Jahan was a musician in his own right and was then a disciple of Pundit Haripodo Das and Abdul Jabbar Khan. Sarwar was already considered an established singer in Rajshahi. The northern district was a hub of prominent music maestros like sarod player Radhika Mohan Maitra and Mozammel Haque Khan.
‘Although I was not given permission to take music tutorials formally as my parents desired that I should continue perform well in my regular studies, I started learning music by myself. I was fortunate that my father Giasuddin, uncles and two brothers were all musicians,’ said Rafiqul, harking back to his childhood days.
His younger brother Khalequzzaman was then learning guitar. His mother Mamtaj Mahal, a learned woman, was also an amateur singer.
Rafiqul recalled, ‘I used to sing Sachin Dev Barman’s Bandhu Banshi Dao Mor Hatete, frequently hummed by my mother.’
Despite being an amateur, Rafiqul sang a Tagore song in a student-focused programme at the newly established Rajshahi Radio. That event was turning point in his life. It not only made him confident but also helped change his parents’ mind.
‘Although Sarwar was still reluctant to let me go, his friend Anup Bhattacharya, a legendary musician of Rajshahi, gave me some primary tips on music,’ he added.
Rajshahi Radio was a veritable congregation place for talented musicians. Dhaka-based singer Ajit Roy went to Rajshahi. Music director and pianist Henry Gilbert, a relative of musician Samar Das, was also stationed at Rajshahi Radio. He was working as its music producer.
In the late 1960s, Rafiqul’s formal apprenticeship began under Pundit Haripada Das. The occasion was marked by the tying of a thread round his wrist. ‘The ritual of becoming an apprentice to a musician was akin to a religious rite at that time,’ Rafiqul recalled.
Despite guardians’ pressure for taking general studies seriously, Rafiqul continued his music lessons. Meanwhile, he was enlisted as a Tagore song singer at Rajshahi Radio.
In 1969, when Rafiqul was a graduate student of Rajshahi Government College, he joined the political movement for East Pakistan’s autonomy. He, along with the local cultural activists, frequently rendered patriotic songs during political demonstrations.
March 1971 onward, during the nine-month-long Liberation War, many Rajshahi people fell victim to the occupying Pakistan army-led persecution. Among the martyred, a Rajshahi Radio employee Sayeed and the then Rajshahi University proctor Professor Mohammad Shamsuzzoha,’ Rafiqul reminisced.
On April 4 of 1971, Pakistani military launched an airstrike targeting many areas in Rajshahi. People affected included Rafiqul’s family members.
The events that followed determined the fate of both the country and our ace singer. One gets a glimpse of history by way of his account: ‘I along with my two brothers and a niece fled our home and took refuge in Murshidabad, India. At first, I tried to join the liberation army, but was denied entry. My well-wishers advised me to join the cultural activities facilitated jointly by West Bengal-based and Bangladeshi refugee intellectuals and artistes.
I was sent to 144 Lenin Avenue of Kolkata where a strong cultural group was formed.’
The liberation war was still at the organising stage. The cultural activists in troupes travelled many places and rendered patriotic songs to convince the host people as well as local and international journalists that the war was not merely an internal problem of Pakistan, rather it showed a growing political instability where a people was engaged in freeing themselves from a repressive regime which would also affect the neighbours.
Rafiqul said, ‘Our message for the international community was that Bengali people belonged to a significant culture which was endangered by the colonial force. That was why we were forced to engage in the war.’
Samar Das’ song Nongor Tolo Tolo Somoy Je Holo Holo was the first chorus Rafiqul lent his voice to among others for the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Bangladesh’s first radio station.
‘Artistes and technicians had to sleep in congested rooms on floor beds. Due to sever cold, I suffered from bronchitis.’ He remembered the days of struggles.
But, the radio programmes and activities continued unabated. Alongside performing in chorus songs, Rafiqul had produced six songs including a solo Jay Jodi Jak Pran written by Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal. Among the popular chorus renditions there included Sat Koti Aj Prohori Pradwip written by Sarwar Jahan and Gana Patha Prantore Sagorer Bondore Shuni Hungkar. He produced the first song for independent Bangladesh — Bijoy Nishan Urchhe Oi, which was written by Shahidul Islam and composed by Sujoy Shyam.
After the war, Rafiqul returned to his usual life, simultaneously pursuing music and political science studies.
Political scientist and Rajshahi University professor Talukder Moniruzzaman advised him to publish some theoretical articles as part of a thesis. ‘The professor told me that I did a lot for music and should get ready for a Rajshahi University teaching post as I scored good results. He also opened an opportunity for me to take some classes as proxy when an RU teacher had gone on a leave,’ Rafiqul recounted.
‘At the same time, Professor Mazharul Islam, then director general of Bangla Academy, during a visit to Rajshahi, asked me to join the academy as a research fellow on a research project on Liberation War history,’ he continued.
Rafiqul arrived in Dhaka and started his new job. He was employed to document the legacy of constitution of Bangladesh by interviewing politicians and freedom fighters. His stay in the capital city eventually helped him explore the possibilities in the music scene of the newly independent Bangladesh.
‘At the end of 1972, one of my co-artistes in Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Lucky Akhand, produced a song for Dhaka Radio which I sang. The title was Tomake Jeno Bhule Na Jai written by SM Hedayet. After broadcasting the song, Dhaka-based musicians accepted me as an emerging singer.
Two or three months later, Satya Saha, invited me to sing for Bangla movie Atithi,’ he recounted how he broke into the mainstream.
Amake Bondhu Maf Kore Dao Hoye Gechhi Ami Elomelo was Rafiqul’s first playback song lip-synched by legendary actor Razzak. Within a few days, his debut song not only made him popular but also a crucial playback singer in the country’s movie industry.
Since 1973, Rafiqul has sung playback songs for more than three hundred films including in some films of West Bengal, India.
He received Bangladesh National Film Award twice for best playback male singer.
Though he was trained in classical music, Rafiqul became successful in popularising contemporary Bangla songs which was platted by blending it with folk and traditional tunes. Doyal Ki Shukh Tumi Pao of movie Nader Chand and Tumi Ar Ekbar Ashia Jao More Kandaiya of movie Nagardola, were among the hit playback songs with folk tune Rafiqul had rendered.
Baul songs were still unpopular among the Rajshahi-based musicians in early 1970s. However, baul singer Moksed Ali Shain who frequented Rajshahi Radio at that time played a decisive role in making the mystic genre of songs popular among the Rajshahi-based musicians.
‘Back then we knew only of some folk songs rendered by Abbas Uddin, Abdul Alim and Ferdousi Parveen. But Moksed and Abdul Gafur often presented Lalon songs which were initially sounded very strange, though also thought-provoking, to us,’ Rafiqul said.
Practicing a particular song style and philosophy was a tradition of that time which musicians did not want to violate. When Moksed tried to pursue Rafiqul to learn Lalon songs, initially he showed his reluctance, as he was a contemporary singer.
‘Moksed then tried to motivate me by saying that I had special skills to render baul songs in a unique manner. At last I learnt a number of baul songs which I had sung for audio recording later,’ Rafiqul said.
There was a place at Aamtala of Shabagh where many folk singers and fans including Anup, Bidit Lal Das, Khodaboksh Shai and Abdur Rahman Boyati paid visit to regularly.
‘I frequented the place to listen them singing. That congregation influenced me to take lessons of baul songs,’ Rafiqul added.
If 1973 was the turning point for Rafiqul —he was invited by music director Barin Mazumder and journalist Kamal Lohani to render a unique song in a three-day music conference held at Dhaka Stadium (now Bangabandhu National Stadium). Many Indian music maestros like Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Kanika Banerjee and Ali Ahmed Hussain Khan along with Bangladeshi artistes participated in the conference.
Rafiqul first met with singer Abida Sultana, who would later become his wife, at the conference, where she was present as an audience. They felt romantic affection while recording a duet for celebrating Pahela Baishakh in 1976. The title Durer Akash was written by Rafiquzzaman and was composed by Ustad Mir Quashem Khan.
Rafiqul and Abida soon joined in matrimony. A number of their duet songs gained huge popularity among romantic couples.
In his five-decade-long career, Rafiqul Alam rendered songs in United States, Canada, Sweden, Denmark Holland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, India and Pakistan.
So far, Rafiqul has released eight albums, including two albums from US and London.
Presently, he is working as a member of Bangladesh Film Censor Board and a jury member for National Film Award.
Photos by Sony Ramany
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