On the trail of a diva

Sadiqur Rahman | Published: 00:00, Dec 07,2018 | Updated: 01:03, Dec 24,2018


Fatema Tuz Zohra

In a conversation with New Age, Fatema Tuz Zohra revisited some fundamental issues pertaining to music and life including her ethos and her career across the decades that shaped her 

Music as an invasive spell
Fatema Tuz Zohra, an eminent Nazrul song exponent in Bangladesh, looks at music as a passage to ‘divine peace’. To her, music is like meditation and she pursues her passion for music with the higher goal of inducing a sense of calm in the audience, besides being in a trance herself while she renders songs.
Having been groomed in a culturally inclined family, Fatema, now in her 60s, still attaches cardinal value to her father’s belief that a good presentation of song can purify human soul as well as free the musician and audience of anxiety.
She thinks that music has the power to bring all kinds of audiences under one spell, thereby promoting unity irrespective of their religion, political belief and taste. 
‘Patriotic songs are the best examples of such a spell. People of all sects are thrilled hearing the beats and rhythms which make them feel a strong attachment to the vision of unity the songs provide the ground for,’ Fatema pointed out.
Music has a universal quality and appeal which Fatema enjoys. In many occasions, she has witnessed numerous listeners humming songs with passion though they were unacquainted with the lyric — the music become meaningful to them without the cues to language or meaning. Lyrics may elude many, they may even fail to lip-synch in concerts, but the tune of song is something they may continue to hum.

Music mirroring universality, secularism
A true musician’s mind is set on the spell music is able to institute in all. Its appeal cuts across all peoples, communities, sects and faiths. Music does not take sides, this is what Fatema has always strongly felt while presenting her musical skills in front of an audience.
‘This is the most beautiful part of being a musician,’ Fatema said.
There is a misplaced notion that Rabindranath Tagore was a Hindu poet, while the national poet of Bangladesh Kazi Nazrul Islam represented Muslim community. Additionally, there are also a certain quarter of people who once labelled Nazrul as an atheist.
‘To me this is silly that Tagore and Nazrul are tagged according to particular religions or communities without giving much thought to their works. Obviously the concepts are based on misplaced notions,’ says the diva.
‘Rather the great poets of Bangla language advocated social harmony for greater unity of people,’ she pointed out.
She determinedly follows the paths of the legends of Bangla language, she sings Shyama songs as well as Hamd Naat to reveal the spiritual messages of peace. Besides authoring poems and lyrics, she has written some Hamd Naat herself, efforts that testify to her declared belief in trascendental quality of music.

Rooted in the dialectics of family and tradition
Fatema was born in 1953 at Sonamukhi village of Jaypurhat Mahakuma of Bogura district. His physician father Syed Farid Uddin was a music enthusiast. Fatema used to enjoy musical evening on a daily basis since her childhood.
‘I remember that the tradition was continued till before my marriage in 1975,’ she said.
Farid was a Tagore singer and a close friend of music teacher Habibur Rahman Sathi who used to work at the thana agriculture office that time.
‘I was given primary lessons in music at the tender age of three. One day Habibur, whom I called kaku, told my father about my potentiality. I literally learnt how to play harmonium sitting on the lap of kaku. With care, he taught me classical music.’ Fatema testified.
Fatema’s father was strict about rehearsing music tutorials regularly. He even prioritised music over her general studies. Recalling her father’s contribution Fatema said, ‘I was punished several times by Abba because of my negligence. He was my patron.’
One day, during Fatima’s teen years, she was applying some beauty regimens on her face following advice from high school friends. She used to pursue such practice secretly since her father did not approve of it. Eventually, she was caught by him.
‘Abba told me softly that I should care more for beautifying my soul rather than my skin. He was always a practitioner of transcendental purification. Initially I could not understand the inner meaning of his thought and felt a bit humiliated,’ Fatema said.
Fatema’s chance to demonstrate her skill first came when there was a music competition during the celebration of a cultural week at school. She did not take permission, neither from her parents nor from her music teacher.

Video by Sony Ramany

‘I sang a Tagore song Promode dhalia dinu mon, tobu pran keno kandere, which my father used to sing many times in our own musical evening. Although, kaku was the one who taught me the song,’ Fatema recalled, adding that nervousness gripped her right before the announcement of the score. She was worried about her father’s reaction if she failed to attain a position.
‘Suddenly, an announcement was made that Fatema Tuz Zohra became “first” in the category of Tagore song in the competition. That was also the first time I had ever heard my name through a sound system. That moment was a real stimulation for me,’ she said.
Next month, before the annual Bogura Art Council competition, her father and teacher willingly enlisted her name as a contestant.
She said, ‘I presented a folk song Gorur gari chole, mor Sadher roth chole, which was composed by kaku. I became first in the folk song category, which made my father and teacher very happy.’
Fatema became the top scorer in myriad competitions for the next three consecutive years.
‘Abba did not have the desire to see me performing at radio and television. To give me inspiration, he only advised me to be consistent in presenting good songs which he said would lead to people recognising me someday,’ she recalled.
I was not an attentive student. I spent time singing song mostly. Even I sang till late at night the day before my wedding.

Appearance in national media
After 16 years of formal learning, Fatema appeared first in radio audition for Radio Bangladesh Rangpur station in December 1975, one month after her marriage with engineer AKM Nuruzzaman. Her father accepted the marriage as Nuruzzaman – Tagore song singer, was a graduate of Chhayanaut. Coincidentally, her in-laws’ home was in Rangpur.
During her student life in Rajshahi University, she got the chance to be enlisted for Rajshahi Radio. ‘But my father stopped me to go forward saying that study should be my only priority at this point,’ she said.
Fatema now believes that her father, under the influence of the perceived conservatism of the ‘Syed’ family, did not approve of her availing of an Indian High Commission Scholarship during her university life.
She missed a second opportunity a couple of years later when time came to apply for IHC Scholarship as she was expecting her third child at that time. However, she had full support from her husband Nuruzzaman, who asked her to go forward.
In 1976, Nuruzzaman was transferred to Dhaka from Rangpur. The same year, Fatema became an enlisted artiste of Bangladesh Television.
Famous artist and BTV producer Mostofa Monowar chose a song for her for the first recording. The song was Jochona Koreche Ari – a Nazrul classic, which had been made popular by the legendary singer Begum Akhter.

In the role of an actor, writer
Fatema is a diverse talent — she has explored her creativity in television play, through acting and writing.
She first appeared on a television play as an actor in 1984. The play was Laguk Dola. Late Khaled Khan was her co-actor.
‘In one sequence, I was to respond to a romantic dialogue by Yoboraj (nickname of Khaled Khan) when he was appraising my beauty. I became too shy and failed several times to utter my dialogues. Subsequently, the director had to change the plot and transformed my character into a dumb girl,’ Fatema recalls with a smile.
Dola was an imaginary character created to give a psychological therapy to an wounded man.
Interestingly, stardom seems to create many an interface beyond the arena of culture. Fatema confronted an aged couple in Kolkata in 1998 who still remembered her for the role when she went for a medical check-up at a hospital there.
She said, ‘They were staring at me for a long while. And they said that they could recognise me. They were so amazed by the play that they named their daughter after the character Dola which Fatema played.’
Fatema got the inspiration for acting and writing from her parents. ‘My father used to perform in local theatres. He also wrote in literaturary magazines. His handwriting was so attractive like my mothers’ handwriting,’ she said.

Mother as the role model
Fatema’s mother Fazilatunnessa got married in 1949 at only 13. Since she embraced an early marriage, she was adamant to carry out her general studies even after becoming a mother of four children.
‘My mother completed her intermediate and higher studies along with me. And she was too attentive to her studies and used to prepare her answer scripts of her own accord. She acted like my arch competitor and did not share her notes with me. One day when she was outside her room, I took a glimpse at her exercise books and became astonished seeing her handwriting. The notes were free of spelling mistake,’ Fatema recalled.
‘I was inspired by my mother seeing her continuing her studies despite being a busy and caring mother. She guided us well so that we could groom ourselves into good persons,’ Fatema said.
Fatema’s three siblings are physician and retired lieutenant colonel Syed Sadrul Alam, former bureaucrat Syed Faisal Alam and fashion designer Nigar Sultana.
Fatema has also become a caring person like her mother. She happily takes the burden of preparing suitable meals for individual members of her core family on a daily basis.
Fatema said that she made it a point not to force anything on her children. She says she never insisted that her kids stood first in their schools. ‘There are lots of creative activities which you could find interesting like sports, music and fine arts,’ she used to advice her kids.
In her long career, she gave priority to her family demands including taking care of her three children, which was always a priority over her performances.

Of partisans and a tree
‘I was first called for cultural performance abroad in 1983. The tour was facilitated by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. When the then director general of the academy Abu Hena Mostafa Kamal called me over phone and informed me of the news, I became overwhelmed. But the feeling of joy was cut short as I became worried over my toddler son. He was only two years old that time.’ She said.
Fatema initially refused the offer. However, the academy DG eventually convinced her by giving some advice.
‘The DG knew well that my refusal of government tour would block all the future opportunities. Hence, he advised me on how to manage the issue. Finally I went to India with the other singers including Niaz, Samina, Banya and Quaderi Kibria,’ She recalled.
With endearment and honour, Fatema pays homage to her previous mentors in broadcasting media for whose cordial assistance she overcame all the hurdles she once faced for being a mother cum singer.
In her ascent to fame, Fatema is beholden to many. However, she claimed that she received love and respect from media people because of her skills in singing and she never did pummel any producer to invite her for participation.
In 2006, the exponent of Nazrul song was awarded with Ekushey Padak, country’s top civilian recognition.
Ironically, the non-partisan singer has been tagged with political identity as the award was given to her during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government. For this, she is now unwelcomed in cultural shows organised by the incumbent government.
She said, ‘I did not have enough time to support any particular political party. But very few people understand this. Often I am wrongly tagged with political parties. Like me, many renowned artistes are now barred from participation in local and international cultural events, which is unfair.’
‘There is no problem with political attachment of any cultural personality. But, why an artiste who willingly remain outside the ambit of politics and related activities should be tagged with political identity?’ She argued.
Fatema loves to liken herself as a tree having deep roots in the soil. She considers trees as social entities.
‘I collected a small piece of bark of a tree from the era of World War II. When I touched the tree I felt that as an old person,’ she said.

Photos by Sony Ramany

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