A revered singer whose contribution to Bangla songs made him a household name, affecting the way how we perceive songs and singing in the post-independence Bangladesh, Sadiqur Rahman peaks into Subir Nandi’s life, thereby shedding light on his childhood and the phases that went into a long career
On the evening of February 19, when a New Age team reached Subir Nandi’s Dhanmandi residence to take his interview, the popular singer was found passing time with his family members.
Before the interview commenced, a cultural ministry officer intervened suddenly to inform Subir Nandi that he would be picked up at 1:30pm next day to reach the Bangabandhu International Convention Centre in time. Subir was already informed that he was going to receive the Ekushy Padak 2019 from prime minister Shiekh Hasina at BICC on February 20. The seasoned artiste let the government officer know that he would take more time to get ready since he did not want to reach the venue before the audience, which would give the impression that he was eager to collect the award.
‘It would look odd if an award recipient reached the venue before the audience,’ he said with a smile.
To his acquaintances, Subir has been recognised for his stubbornness since his childhood. Fortunately, his wildness and the desire to take up challenges directed him towards accomplishments — being a singer with skills of learning difficult songs is one such accomplishments. He also became known for taking less time than others to master a song.
In the pre-independence Bangladesh, people loved to enjoy Western and Urdu songs. Subir along with Rafiqul Alam and others provided Bangla song the much-needed leg-up it needed after the Liberation War, lending it a diversity it never had.
Growing up as a singer
On November 30 of 1953, Subir was born at Teliapara Tea Estate in Habiganj. He was the fifth among nine children of Sudhangshu Bhusan Nandy and Putul Rani Nandy. When Subir was born, Sudhangshu was a medical practitioner of the estate.
Before serving as the ‘Doctor Shahib’ at the tea garden, Sudhangshu was a captain of medical core under the British Indian army.
Subir said that his music enthusiasm was egged on by his father’s interest in various genres of songs.
‘When my father retired from the army, he returned home with two large teak-wood boxes, one of them was full of long-play records. We, the siblings, grew up listening to gramophone songs,’ he said.
Subir completed his primary education at Teliapara. After that, he shifted to Nandipara of Baniachang of Habiganj, his grandfather’s house and enrolled in the century-old Habiganj Government High School for upper secondary studies. He passed his secondary school certificate exam in 1969 and enrolled in Brindaban College. During his college life, Subir frequented the political and cultural rallies and often joined processions for autonomy of the people smarting under the Pakistan misrule.
‘I met many political veterans including Mawlana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and comrade Mujaffar Ahmed, among others, during their visit to Habiganj in the pre-independence time,’ Subir testified.
Subir’s interest in music was aroused since he was surrounded by elder siblings who had musical talents and were engaged in serious learning.
Subir started his music lessons in a friendly family atmosphere where his mother, whom he considers his first music teacher, led the evening music jalsha. His family and his siblings were always there to support the young and aspirant Subir.
Musician Babar Ali Khan was then their family music teacher. Babar used to travel by train to Teliapara house from Habiganj town. In 1966, Subir tied the nara — a wrist thread — after becoming a disciple of Babar.
Subir also got inspiration from his maternal uncle Gangesh Deb Roy, who used to render songs ‘in a sweet voice’.
‘In my teenage years, I avidly follwed a radio programme where music legends of India used to perform. Initially I was taught juvenile songs. Within one year of formal music training, I became mature enough to learn classical songs, which, of course, were very difficult. Listening practice on a regular basis made me capable of learning classical songs in the shortest time,’ Subir said.
Mohammad Rafiquzzaman and Mohammad Mozakkher, two Radio Pakistan officials visited Habiganj in 1967 on a young artist hunt. Subir, then an eighth grader, joined the audition with a Nazrul song Bou Kotha Kao. He passed the audition. After that, Subir paid visit to Radio Pakistan’s Sylhet station twice a month for recording songs, and he travelled by train.
The zeal for musical success embolden our teenage Subir, and he reflects, ‘Can you imagine that a 13-year old boy travels alone to render songs at a distant location?’
Subir used to get Tk 359 as remuneration for rendering songs in each radio programme. He loved to spend some of the money to entertain with friends and gave the rest of the amount to his mother.
‘There was no luxury in our life. But we had happiness,’ Subir said.
His father permitted him to continue music practice, though he was strict about the children’s education.
‘Despite imposing a strict form of guardianship regarding our education, my father was supportive of his children pursuing cultural activities. He used to be busy whole day serving patients from the tea garden area. But he immensely enjoyed listening to his children presenting songs in the evening,’ Subir took us down memory lane.
On the course to successes
Time was on their side. Subir and his brother Tapan Kumar Nandy secured places in the East Pakistan Music Contest in 1969. The contest was hosted by the Segunbagicha-based Music College established by legendary Barin Majumder.
‘Rebeka Sultana became top of the contest in Nazrul song category. Khalequzzaman Khan stood first in contemporary song category. I was second in both categories,’ Subir recalled.
Between 1967 and 1969, Subir, along with his same-age peers, frequently joined the pro-independence processions at his locality and rendered patriotic songs like ‘Amar protibader bhasa’ and ‘Bicharpati tomar bichar korbe jara aj jegechhe ei janata,’ before the start of all political rallies.
‘As musicians we could draw public attention. Our musical performances helped enhance the number of people joining the political rallies,’ Subir recalled, adding that he performed in rallies organised by Chhatra League, Chhatra Union and other pro-independence forces.
When the Liberation War began in 1971, Subir and his family members took refuge at Debrigarh in India where his elder brother used to stay.
When the family was to return in the newly emerged Bangladesh, Subir’s father died at Karimganj on January 8, 1972.
‘Happiness simply withered just after my father’s death. chot-da [Tapan] was compelled to take the guardianship of seven-member family. Most of us were still students. Our maternal uncle and my sister’s husband came forward to rescue the family from disintegrating,’ Subir harked back to the crisis the family had to overcome.
‘The extraordinary situation taught us to face challenges. Tapan took a teaching job at the Srimangal College while I joined the Janata Bank’s Sylhet branch as a banker,’ he continued.
Subir could play the harmonium well. While he was in Sylhet, one day zamindar Bidit Lal Das, a music connoisseur, summoned musicians such as Dulal Bhoumik, Himangshu Biswas, Akramul islam, Jamaluddin Banna, Rakhal Chakrabarty, AK Anam and Subir to form a folk musical team. The team, under the rubric Bidit Lal Das and his friends, later performed at many Dhaka stages. The troupe usually rendered folk songs including Randha Raman’s songs. Anam often wrote lyrics. Sylheti songs such as ‘Prothom azan dhoni babay diyechhe,’ ‘Morile kandish na amar day,’ ‘Kare dekhabo moner dukkho go,’ ‘Binodini go and Surma nodir teer-e aamar thikana,’ are among the famous songs produced and staged by the team.
A star is born
After the independence, almost all the staff including Mohammad Mujakker of Radio Pakistan’s Sylhet station joined the Bangladesh Betar’s Dhaka station. Despite working in Sylhet, Subir often visited the station to meet his previous colleagues. His branch chief used to say that Subir spent most of his salary in travelling long distance between Dhaka and Sylhet.
‘Durig one of my Dhaka station visits, music director Mir Kashem enquired Mujakker about me. Mujakker apparently recommended me, saying that I was an emerging singer from greater Sylhet. Then Kashem asked me to try out, ‘Jodi keu dhup jele dey,’ which was one of his new songs, for recording. Initially, I agreed to do it and I learnt the song within an hour, which made Kashem astonished. He introduced me with music composer Sujay Shyam who took me onboard for final recording. Fortunately, it was an one-take recording and the song was broadcasted on that very day. That was my auspicious start in the mainstream music industry.’
In 1974, Subir was transferred to Janata Bank’s Imamganj branch in Dhaka. Subir remembers a cousin of previously acquainted Akramul Islam who gave him shelter at her Purana Paltan house. Akramul is the husband of late singer Shammi Akhter.
‘The lady accepted me as her brother as did Akramul. Being a Hindu, I never felt discomfort in her shelter as the family was open-minded. The notion of Hindu-Muslim division still did not surface widely in the country at that time,’ Subir said.
However, Subir’s new posting in Dhaka augured well for him.
That was the year Subir first rendered a song at Bangladesh Television in the musical show Malancha. Subir sang ‘Joarer tane bheshe ele.’ Anwarul Abedin wrote the lyric, while Omar Faruque composed the song.
In the mid-1976, Subir was residing at Sujay Shaym’s 578, Peyarabag house. Sujay and Raja Hossen Khan then were jointly composing music for movies. ‘One day, Sujay da told me to accompany him while recording music for Abdus Samad directed Surja Grahan movie. On that day, Sujay Da taught me a song entitled ‘Doshi hoilam ami doyal re,’ to be use in the film. That was my first playback song,’ Subir recalled.
The song led to many more hit songs. Subir presented a number of super-hit songs including ‘Hazar moner kache’, ‘Bondhu hote cheye tomar,’ ‘Din jay kotha thakey,’ ‘Bristir kache theke kandte shikhechi,’ ‘Tumi je amar kobita,’ ‘Amar ei duti chokh pathor to noi,’ ‘Koto je tomake beshechi bvalo,’ ‘Pakhire tui dure thakle,’ ‘Ek je chhilo sonar konna,’ ‘O aamar ural pongkhi re,’ and many more.
In his long music career, Subir worked with famous composers such as Alauddin Ali, Prodeep Saha, Satya Saha, Somor Das, Sheikh Saadi Khan, Alam Khan and some other young generation artistes like SI Tutul, Bappa Majumdar, Emon Saha, Showkat Ali Emon, Habib Wahid and Kabir Bokul.
His remarkable masterpieces in the film Mahanayak (1984) sealed his status as a living legend as well as helped him clinch the very first national film award of his career. So far, he received National Film Award for five times for best playback singing in the films Mahanayak (1984), Shuvoda (1986), Srabon Megher Din (1999), Megher Pore Megh (2004) and Mohua Sundori (2015).
Among other awards, Subir also received Bachsas award four times, respectively in 1977, 1982, 1985 and 1986.
Subir rendered songs at many places in the world. A unique opportunity came for him at the height of his career when he rendered songs at the House of Commons in UK in 1994.
Subir is married to Purabi Nandi of Moulavibazar on October 14, 1981. He said, ‘My first recording for radio was October 14.’
Subir said his music career first flourished through radio performance.
‘I feel proud that I am one of the radio performers who have made Bangla song popular among the listeners.’ Subir concluded.
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