Some songs land on our consciousness with the lightness of the clouds and keep us under their spells for too long. If classics are those that retained their initial appeal across generations, these are unmistakably defined as sources of otherworldly energy. If Abida Sultana is remembered for one such unique gem, she had, and still has, talent for churning out more of these kinds. Mahfuz Mizan speaks to the legendary singer to peer into her life and thoughts.
‘Bimurto ei raatri amar’, is one of the acclaimed works of the legendary Assamese musician Bhupen Hazarika. He was the composer of the song which was written by Shivdas Banerjee. The emotionally-laden lyrics coupled with the delicate tune required a voice which would match the sublime tone and texture of the song. Hazarika, the singer working in the scope of a music director, thus seemed hard-put to find one. However, Abida Sultana, a young diva of that era, was put to the meticulous task of lending her voice to the song and she carried it out gracefully, to the satisfaction of the famed singer-musician of the subcontinent.
Abida Sultana went on to become one of the renowned singers representing Bangladesh and her subsequent success in playback singing would make her a household name. Her career began to unfold slowly almost like that of the quilt depicted in the song, upon which breathes of the dear ones were caught.
The Bhupen Hazarika song, given a final shape by way of her dulcet voice and distinct style, entered the annals of music in this clime. Some even prefer her version, the original one recorded for the movie ‘Shimana Periye’, to the one Hazarika gave voice to later.
The story of Abida’s break that shot her to instant fame among the Bengali speaking people is an interesting one.
‘I never knew Bhupen Hazarika personally. When I went on to record the song which was during 1975, I remember him being sceptical about whether I was the right one after he saw a thin, young and pale version of me,’ she says with a hearty laughter.
Abida got involved with the recording of the song through filmmaker Alamgir Kabir, the director of ‘Shimana Periye’. ‘You will be surprised to learn that I didn’t know Alamgir Kabir personally as well. Apparently he saw me perform on the television and got hold of my address. Later, he came to our house in Naya Paltan and wanted to speak to my father in private. I eavesdropped on their conversation and heard Alamgir Kabir persuading my father to send me to Kolkata for this recording in one of his films, to which my father agreed. After travelling to the studio in Kolkata, that is where I found out the Assamese song translated into Bengali for me and saw Bhupen da arrive as well,’ she recalls.
Egged on by the song’s mercurial success, Abida’s passion for music grew. Nowadays, Abida is strictly involved with vocal performances and studio recordings, and she has no plan apart from singing.
‘I have no intention of teaching music or opening a music school as I believe I have not attained the height necessary to become a teacher. I always believed I was a performer and anything that stressed your vocal cords in this line of work proved to me too hectic,’ the singer who was a household name in the 1970s and the 80s humbly states.
‘I believe people preferred my version to Bhupen da’s because mine came out twenty-five years before his. The song was an Assamese poem translated into Bengali. It was quite long, yet I could pick up the words and the tune quickly which impressed Bhupen da. However, sometimes I wish I asked for more work from him, this thought came to me mainly after his demise.’
The singer recently recorded a few songs composed by the recently deceased musician Subir Nandi, but she is unsure of the album release and, when enquired about it future, she became emotional. Abida responded with teary eyes, ‘Please, I don’t want to remind myself of Subir da’s absence. I don’t know of the dealing he had with the individuals involved with the album, hence unable to speak about its release. I cannot describe what the Bangladeshi music industry has lost. Subir da was like family to me, he was so in love with music. He used to listen to music from every corner of the world. He would often send us links to songs from remote areas of Baluchistan, Kazakhstan or anywhere, ancient genre and what not. Always mentoring us and telling us to listen to this and practice that. He was a wonderful human being, I will surely miss him.’
Abida grew up in a very culturally inclined family and all of her siblings are related to music and performance in some way or another. She is the third among five sisters and two brothers. Her elder sisters Rebeka Sultana is an eminent Nazrul singer and Rehana Sultana is a Hawaiian guitarist, while her younger sisters the late Salma Sultana, was a noted singer and Chitra Sultana is involved with Taranga Lalitakala Academy, a music school. Two of her brothers are also renowned musicians Md Ali Shumon is the front man of the band Pentagon and Shawqat Ali Emon is a popular music director of the country.
Abida explains that this interest in music came due to a rich cultural tradition in the maternal side of her family, ‘My maternal grandfather late Shamsul Haque and maternal grandmother late Begum Lutfunahar were very fond of singing and recitation. On any special occasion, whether it is Baishakh, Eid, or any festival, there used to be a family gathering at our grandparent’s house where a stage was set on the veranda. It was like a magazine show for the members of the family. My siblings and I, along with our cousins, used to perform on that stage which included singing, dancing and recitations. I remember my earliest performance on stage was at such an event where I recited children’s poems such as Katberali and others.’
Abida points out that her parents must be given credit for her interest in music. ‘It was not like it was my aim to become a singer. In fact I always wanted to become a dancer. My father Md Abdus Salam used to write poems and mother Muslima Begum also used to write in the Begum Magazine, they were very passionate about poems and music. It was my mother’s decision who persuaded me for pursuing a career in music, as she thought dance would have been a challenging in those times.’
Abida then started learning singing from Ustad Babu Ram Gopal Mohanto and later enrolled as a student at Nazrul Academy where she would subsequently train to become a seasoned singer.
‘The gurus that I received training from included Ustad Ful Mohammad, Ustad Barin Mazumdar, Ustad Akhtar Shadmani. Besides, I received vocal training from Zaheeruddin Khan. It felt great to learn music from such personalities. I even remember the time when Anubala Devi and Indubala Devi came to Nazrul Academy and many such instances really inspired me. I consider Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey and the Arabian singer Fairouz as my idols and locally my favourites are Subir Nandi, Nilufar Yasmin and many others.’ She also received she Bachelors degree in Music (BMus) from the College of Music in Dhaka.
Later, she got married to the noted singer Rafiqul Alam, ‘It was a love marriage and Lucky Akhand bhai introduced us to each other. There was a conference in Dhaka organised by the Music College in 1974, where Rafiqul Alam came from Rajshahi along with many other Ustads that is where I saw him face to face. He is very supportive and since both of us are singer it makes life easier.’
Apart from all this, Abida also rendered songs in 32 different languages. She mentioned that singing in different languages was actually a hobby, ‘I started doing it because I liked the idea of it. It all started during the time I sang in BTV. A gentleman whose name I can’t recall anymore made forty of us children sing in various languages for a programme in BTV. We sang in German, French, Japanese and many other languages, that technique stuck with me.’
This idea of singing in other languages paved a whole new avenue for the singer, ‘In 1986 there was a programme for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, OIC in short, in Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy where I had to sing a song in Arabic. One of the Sheikhs from Abu Dhabi was extremely pleased with my performance and invited the whole group to Abu Dhabi. Ever since that performance, I was invited to sing in various languages for all the delegates that came to Bangladesh. It was hectic as I had to travel from embassy to embassy learning the songs and as we had no internet back then, it was quite tough.
Additionally, one thing which I must address is that our Bangla language helped me a lot. I have discovered that the Bengali is actually a very scientific language and if it is spoken with certain perfection it helps you to adapt to any language,’ she asserted.
Even with a busy schedule, Abida still has time for her husband and their son Farshid Alam, the front man of the band Bohemian. ‘I have organised my life accordingly. Just like my husband and my son is my family, my music is also a family. I have to take care of them both,’ she says.
When talking about her son she says, ‘Farshid is very innocent and spends his time with music, research and is an animal lover. Whenever he is in front of the main gate of the house with his car, his pack of dogs surrounds the car. They won’t let him leave unless and until he spends time with all of them.’
She further added, ‘A lot of people ask me about him being part of a rock band. I tell them that’s because I also grew up in a very culturally affluent family and it’s in the blood. My paternal grandparents had a house in Jalpaiguri where they owned tea gardens and many Ustads from Kolkata would go there to perform. My grandfather went to do his PhD in London via a ship. It was pretty normal for me to be exposed to Western music and its cultures. I was familiar with a lot of English band of those times, so it’s only natural that my son would turn out to be a rock musician.’
When asked about the difference between singers of those days and now, she says that nowadays there are not many new things being brought to the table.
‘The singers of today in TV shows or in live performances are stuck in the past. They are doing covers of old songs or the new songs are inspired from the same tunes. Although whenever I used to sing I always wanted to sing Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle songs, but I believe when we used to perform professionally or the singers of my generation always had something unique to offer. I often wonder do they even try to do something new, that’s another question altogether.’
Her advice for the singers of today is that they should not to get carried away by the thought of acceptance from audiences. ‘I have even seen this phenomenon that the singers of today and even playback singers tend to worry over what the audiences want. This has led to the disappearance of classical or similar types of music. Where are you going to put playback songs which we sang in today’s films or show? I don’t see that passion for music anymore, rather it’s a rat race for quick money and fame,’ Abida sums up today’s dilemma.
As a singer she has won the hearts of the millions. As a playback singer she was lucky enough to work for the films ‘Abar Tora Manush Ho’, ‘Alo Tumi Aleya’ and ‘Yea Kore Biye’, besides ‘Shimana Peryie’, her crowning glory. In an interview with a local daily, she once said, ‘I think that, to love others is the best way to live a peaceful and successful life.’ She still tries to live by that ethos.
Photos by Abdullah Apu
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