As the ace thespian of the theatre, Shimul Yousuf’s life is also entwined with our struggle for freedom as well as the developing cultural movements throughout the decades after independence. Recently she took Sadiqur Rahman down memory lane to reflect on her upbringing, the family’s precarious days during the Liberation War, disappearance of Altaf Mahmud, and her dedication to the theatre and more
Afroza Alam Billah, well known to cultural enthusiasts as Shimul Yousuf, was the youngest among eight children of Mehter Alam Billah and Amina Billah.
Mehter and Amina, both of liberal inclination, made sure that their children’s horizon remains wide so that they are groomed as creative exponents of the society. Nurtured within a cultural environment, though the ruling elite of the society was rather conservative, young Shimul grew up as a child inclined to do performances.
In a conversation with New Age on Tuesday, Shimul harked back to her childhood days, she said, ‘All of my elder siblings were involved in cultural activities like learning music and playing musical instruments. Cultural show was common at our Kamplapur residence. My musician brothers and sisters were my absolute source of inspiration. My mother used to recall that as a child I turned into a ‘dancing doll’ if someone was rendering songs in front of me. I could sing a song even before my speech was in a state of maturity.’
At four, Shimul’s elder sister Zakaria Alam Billah was an apprentice of Ustad Helaluddin, who paid a regular visit to Dhaka from Narayanganj.
‘I used to copy the classical music tutorials standing outside my sister’s rehearsal room. One day, Helaluddin called on my mother to let her know about my enthusiasm for music. My mother gave him positive response,’ remembers Shimul. Zakaria later turned into a dancer with the name Minu Haque.
Mehter, who was a devotee of Sufism and influenced his family members as music enthusiasts, died in 1961. Thus, Amina took the mentorship to continue with her children’s extracurricular activities, although, the mother of eight was strict about their general education.
Amina had a sweet voice. ‘My mother could have been a good singer but failed as she had to maintain family affairs,’ Shimul said.
With Amina’s encouragement, Shimul’s music lesson alongside the training of her elder siblings Nuhel Alam Billah, Fakhrul Alam Billah, Khairul Alam Billah, Sarah Alam Billah (Zhinu Billah), Nawfel Alam Billah, Manzurul Alam Billah (Linu Billah) and Zakaria Alam Billah went on in full swing. Nawfel later gained fame as a Tagore singer while Linu as a tabla player.
The boys and girls found artists Abedin sir, Quamrul sir, Rafiqunnabi, journalist Shahdat Chowdhury and folk poet Jasimuddin, among others, as their mentors.
In 1962, Shimul first performed as a selected child artiste for a child-centric programme of Dhaka Radio. Sultana Kamal was the anchor of the programme titled Khelaghorer Asor. Shimul remembers how Sultana gave her an orientation of sorts and made her confident for the first-ever performance in her life. ‘That was my first “paid programme” for which I was given a Tk 10 cheque,’ she said, adding that even before the programme, she often attended as an ordinary participant of it. The programme was held every Sunday.
In 1964, when the Pakistan Television was launched, Shimul performed at its first ever broadcasting programme. She said, ‘We, a bunch of kids, were rehearsing for a radio programme. Suddenly, our seniors asked us to get ready for going somewhere. We reached at the television centre on five rickshaws. On that very day, we sang a chorus of Dhane Dhanye Pushpe Bhora, Amader ei Bashundhara. I was then only seven years old.’
Shimul won President Award for best children in 1964. She feels rather hesitant to mention about the occasion as she received the award from the then Pakistan president Ayub Khan.
All eight siblings received training in music as disciples of music teachers Phul Mohammad, Imamuddin and PC Gomes. Martyred musician Altaf Mahmud later became a great inspirational figure to look up to in the culturally inclined family.
In 1963, Shimul recalled, ‘We went to Barishal for a cultural programme organised by Kachi Kachar Mela. All the siblings were then members of this children cultural organisation. For the first time, we met Altaf during that programme.’
‘I had joined Kachi Kachar Mela in 1962. Poet Sufia Kamal, whom my mother used to address as ‘boro bon’ (lit. elder sister), was then the mentor of the organisation. What is more significant is that, in that programme, Altaf fell in love with Zhinu at first sight. He asked Sufia khala’s help who would play the role of a matchmaker in his marriage with Zhinu. My mother approved the proposal. Altaf and Zhinu got married in 1966,’ she recalled.
Even before the marriage, Altaf became an integral part of Shimul’s family as a beloved son of Amina. Altaf also supervised Shimul’s music tutorials. She started learning songs of all the genres including patriotic, contemporary, folk, Tagore and Nazrul songs. Altaf also taught Shimul songs, which he himself composed.
‘Altaf used to utilise me as his audio recorder as I could memorise tunes accurately. Before Altaf’s forced abduction by Pakistani army on August 30 of 1971, he taught me his composed songs before destroying all records. To escape from the grip of Pakistan army’s tight surveillance, Altaf avoided using his name while dispatching music in spools. One of two spools containing inspirational songs composed by Altaf reached the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in India. Unfortunately, the second one could not reach its destination and the bearer was caught and murdered by Pakistani army,’ Shimul said adding that many songs composed by Altaf disappeared during the liberation war.
Altaf and his in-laws together resided at their Rajarbagh home. When the liberation war erupted, they shifted their residence again to Kamlapur.
‘On March 27, 1971, we took refuge at the Kamlapur Buddhist temple. Principal of the temple Bishuddhananda Mahathero was our acquaintance. When they first commissioned the temple several years ago, the entire premises were abandoned. My mother, who respected people irrespective of their religion, was the first one who provided the Buddhist monks with food. After the day, they became familiar to our family. Kaka Babu, (Bishuddhananda) often shared his food with me, which was very rare for the others. In the times of need, the Buddhists gave us shelter.’
When the tension eased after the March 25th mayhem, we shifted to another abandoned residence, a Shajahanpur home of Altaf’s friend. Cinematographer Baby Islam and his family also shared the residence with us.
Two or three months later, the family that struggled throughout the months of the Liberation War returned to their Rajarbagh home from where Altaf was abducted by the Pakistani army.
‘Initially, we did not feel the absolute absence of Altaf as we all believed that he was alive. My mother became desperate searching for Altaf. Despite being a widow, she frequented police stations in Dhaka day after day,’ Shimul recalled in a voice soaked with emotion as she is the one who always accompanied her mother in her search for Altaf, who was to Shimul like one of the trusted guardians.
Her brothers were also caught and tortured by Pakistani army. She said, ‘Altaf’s undertaking ultimately ensured release of my brothers from Pakistani torture cell. What we had learnt later that Altaf sacrificed his life by taking all responsibilities on his own shoulder to save my brothers and freedom fighters who hid ammunitions buried at our Rajarbagh home.’
After independence when news of recovery of the bodies of the martyred intellectuals spread, it dawned on all that Altaf was no more.
In 1973, Shimul got admission at Dhaka’s art college (now Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University). In her second year at the college, she was awarded the newly introduced Indian High Commission scholarship and went to Baroda School of Fine Arts, India. The place was far from Dhaka and it took more than two-day rail journey to reach the city. Once there, a feeling of loneliness engulfed Shimul. Six months later, she returned to Bangladesh in her vacation.
‘At that time, I was summoned to perform as a proxy for one performer in a Dhaka Theatre production titled Bidaye Monalisa, directed by Al Mansur. The play was scheduled to be staged at an English medium school premises in Chittagong. Previously, I took part in the same play independently presented by the art college students during a culture week. My role was familiar to me. When Bacchu (thespian Nasir Uddin Yousuf) requested my mother to allow me to participate in the play, I agreed to do it. That was my real start as a theatre performer,’ she recalled.
Her life became suddenly embroiled in the theatrical performances in the post-independence Dhaka. Shimul also participated in a theatre play titled Uzan Paban, scripted by Abdullah Al Mamun. The play was staged at Dhaka Engineers Institute auditorium in 1972 to raise fund for the wounded freedom fighters.
She said after performing in Bidaye Monalisa, she was destined to leave for Baroda, but she failed as thespian Selim Al Deen of Dhaka Theatre appeared with a call to perform at his play entitled Muntasir. Bacchu insisted me to compose music for Muntasir. I relented and eventually became a part of the play. Since then, I could not be spared from theatre activism.’
She married Bacchu in 1979.
For performing in a street play Nachao Rasta Nachao, directed by Selim Al Deen, Shimul was detained by police during an anti-autocratic movement in the independent Bangladesh.
Shimul’s performance in the solo theatre play titled Binodini, directed by Bacchu, is a watershed event in the history of theatre in Bangladesh. The play was a biography of legendary theatre actor Binodini Dasi, the first female actor of Bangla theatre whose career was launched in 1874. Since 2005, Shimul has performed in 128 shows of the play.
Shimul directed music in a number of full-length movies including Ghuddi, Ekattorer Jishu and Guerrilla. Shimul’s Dhaka Theatre co-activist Syed Salahuddin Zaki directed the romantic drama film Ghuddi starred by Raisul Islam Asad and Suborna Mustafa in 1980.
Shimul’s husband Bacchu directed Ekattorer Jishu starring Pijush Bandapadhaya and Humayun Faridi which was released in 1993. Bacchu directed Guerrilla starring Jaya Ahsan and Shatabdi Wadud was released in 2011. The film won National Film Awards in 10 categories, highest in 2011.
‘I would now be busy in writing something,’ Shimul said, adding that she had a plan to prepare three scripts of play based on her mentor Selim Al Deen’s diary.
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