A multifaceted talent, freedom fighter and activist Nasiruddin Yousuff has lent his weight to theatre, film and political activism, affecting how we perceive them in this part of the world. A life full of episodes, he recently shared with Mainul Hassan many that shaped his persona and some that made history.
Nasiruddin Yousuff was born to Abul Fayez Mohammad Yousuf and Begum Samsun Nahar in Dhaka’s Lalbagh on April 15, 1950. He was the seventh child of his parents, who would have ten children in total.
Shortly after his birth the family moved to Purana Paltan.
‘I was told that my parents brought me to the house at Purana Paltan in a horse-driven cart in 1952. Back then Purana Paltan was a heavenly place. There were water bodies, canals, lots of trees, flower gardens and more. In fact the Dhaka wasn’t anything like the city it is today,’ recalls Nasiruddin Yousuff.
‘The Baitul Mukarram National Mosque wasn’t constructed yet. In its place was a canal. There was a small culvert near our house and there used to be a canal where the culvert road is today. Dhaka was inter-connected with canals, which were connected to different parts of Dhaka like Dholaikhal, Shantinagar, Mirpur, stretching all the way to Buriganga, Balu and Turag rivers,’ he continues.
Nasiruddin Yousuff grew up ‘free as a bird amid nature’.
‘Rowing boat on the canal near our house was my favourite pastime. I used to wake up in the morning to the sound of yogurt being made by sweet makers at an adjacent house. I would eat fresh butter from them as breakfast and then go to Ramna Park to collect flowers. There were so many birds in Dhaka back then. There were magpie-robin, myna, wood pecker, weaver bird, common tailor bird, sparrow and more,’ he recalls.
My father was a government employee. He joined government service in 1929. However, being a son of a bureaucrat did not stop me from socialising with children of rickshaw pullers, boatman and others. Even though my parents often told me not to do that but I was never entirely prohibited to play with them, he remembers.
Harking back to the Dhaka he enjoyed living in he says, there were vast empty stretches of land where now stands Dhaka stadium. Gulistan was in its infancy.
Nasiruddin Yousuff and his friends used to go to Malibagh and Rampura for having picnics. There were also no roads connecting Rampura to the rest of the city. The only way to travel was either on horseback or by boat. Khilgaon or other areas didn’t exist back then. There were vast water bodies everywhere. In Purana Paltan, there were only thirty houses mostly one of two-story houses. There were rarely any signs of urban settlements after Shatinagar where people used to cultivate vegetables and sell those in the market.
However, sadly all the trees and canals gradually disappeared due to unplanned construction of roads and encroachment by illegal grabbers, he laments.
‘Buddhadeva Bose grew up in Paltan. In his work Hothat Alor Jhalkani, there is a chapter named Paltan where he wrote about banyan trees of Paltan. Among the three banyan trees, only one remains today near Shatnagar Bazar intersection. We used to play cricket in front of 50 Purana Paltan where back then stood a Banyan tree. It was later cut down for constructing a mosque,’ he continues.
The cultural cauldron
Nasiruddin Yousuff was drawn to cultural activities at an early age. His father used to sing after Fazr prayers and Yousuff and his siblings used to wake up listening to their father singing ‘Amar matha notokorey dao’ and ‘Jokhon porbena mor payer chinho’.
‘We loved hearing him singing. Purana Paltan was a place vibrant with cultural practices. Ashraf Ali Chowdhury used to organise music shows at his home where renowned classical singers used to perform. There I had the opportunity to listen to songs rendered by classical singers Farida Khanum, Nazakat Ali and others,’ he recalls.
Bazrul Karim also lived in Purana Paltan. He established the Drama Circle along with Maksudus Saleheen in 1956. The years 1956 to 1962 saw the rise of group theatre movement in the country.
Artistes used to rehearse plays at Bazrul Karim’s house. Young Yousuff was very curious and could not resist the temptation of looking through the window to see what was happening while returning home after playing football in the field.
‘I could see plays being rehearsed by artistes like Hassan Imam, Golan Mostafa, Maksudus Salehin, Masud Ali Khan and others. My father also used to perform there,’ he says.
After Nasiruddin Yousuff’s father retired the family moved to their village home at Faujdarhat in Cattogram in 1960. Yousuff was admitted to local school there. He also encounterd jatras during his stay in my village.
Local troupes used to stage jatras on Tipu Sultan and Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah. Besides, the troupes used to sign the songs ‘Dhonodhanney pushpey bhora’ and ‘Amar shonar Bangla’ before performing jatra on stage. Yousuff had the chance to play the character of son of Tipu sultan in one of the jatras.
‘I was really excited. I still remember the day. I also sang the songs on stage,’ he recalls.
In 1962, his father returned to Dhaka thinking that the children weren’t getting proper education at village. After returning Yousuff witnessed the student’s movement of 1962.
‘One of my brothers was a student leader who was injured while trying to stop a speeding vehicle during a road blockade. That had an impact on me. Besides, on February 21 people used to bring out rallies. They walked the streets singing ‘Amar bhaier roktey rangano’. I later understood they were recalling language movement martyrs. Two of my brothers had participated in the language movement. I was drawn to the rallies and participated in those like everyone else,’ Yousuff recalls.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman greets young Nasiruddin Yousuff after the war.
— Courtesy of Nasiruddin Yousuff
Fighting for a new country
Nasiruddin Yousuff first saw Sheikh Mujibur Rahman up close during the Pakistan presidential election in which Fatima Jinnah contested.
‘He was a fine tall man with a commanding voice. People were rooting for Fatima Jinnah and were hoping Ayub Khan would lose the election,’ recalls Yousuff.
In 1966, Nasiruddin Yousuff took admission to college and joined Chhatra League where he met Sheikh Kamal. However, he joined Chhatra Union in 1969 as he was soon drawn to socialism.
‘Though I joined Chhatra Union, I still remained friends with Sheikh Kamal. Back then Chhatra League was a more organised platform than today. Meanwhile, Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad was formed. We started working together with other students’ organisations under its banner. Cultural programmes were being organised everywhere featuring performances by Altaf Mahmood, Abdul Latif, Shudhin Das, Sheikh Lutfur Rahman and others. We used to arrange harmonium and tabla for such programmes,’ remembers Yousuff, who was also present on the day Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was bestowed with the title Bangabandhu by Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad.
‘I consider myself very fortunate because I was present there. After that, Bangladesh did not have look back,’ he says.
When Awami League won the election in 1970, Yousuff was optimistic like everyone else that something good will happen but on March 1, 1971 Yahya Khan postponed National Assembly meeting and protests erupted all over East Pakistan.
‘I was watching a cricket game at the stadium that day. When we heard what had happened we protested by setting banners on fire. The game stopped. We came out chanting slogans and met up with the leaders of Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad. We went towards Hotel Purbani hearing that Bangabandhu and other elected members of the assembly were there. He told us to return to our homes. On March 2 the flag of Bangladesh was raised by ASM Abdur Rob and others,’ he recalls.
‘On March 7, Bangabandhu delivered his historic speech. Back then we used to bring out rallies in the morning and returned in the afternoon for having lunch. Then we would go out again in the evening and at night we used to bring out rallies holding torches in our hands. We also used to guard neighbourhoods at night,’ he continues.
March 23 was the republic day but the flag of Pakistan only flew inside cantonment. Across Dhaka people hoisted black flag or new flag of Bangladesh.
On March 25 thousands of people took to the streets. Nasiruddin Yousuff and his friends tried to reach the house of Sheikh Mujib at Dhanmondi but they could not make it past Kolabagan. There were people everywhere.
‘The people were told to return to their respective areas and block roads so we returned at 8:00 and took initiative to block roads of Kakrail and Jonaki. We blocked North South Road intersection with trees and pipes and myself, Malek, Imran, Baby and others took position there. We had a few hand bombs and Imran had a pistol. We thought we could stop the Pakistan army advance there,’ recalls Yousuff while speaking about the fateful night of March 25.
After 11:30pm they heard creaking metallic noises approaching from the direction of Kakrail Mosque. As the noise got closer Yousuff heard sound of cannon fire. Shells began flying over his head and were landing behind him towards the direction of Fakirapul. Within 15 minutes the blockades were all gone.
‘As we withdrew from there we saw tanks advancing followed by the infantry. They went towards Jonaki and disappeared into darkness of the night,’ recalls Yousuff, who took shelter at the house of his friend Hassan in Paltan. He went to the roof with others to see what was happening.
‘We could hear sound of gunfire coming from all direction including Rajarbagh Police Lines, Dhaka University, Old Dhaka and other areas. Soon the sky turned crimson red from the fire set by Pakistani forces in Dhaka,’ he continues.
At 3:00am they saw men were coming from the direction of Rajarbagh. Some of them were in their underpants while others were naked. They were policemen fleeing Rajarbagh Police Lines which was overrun by Pakistani occupation forces. Yousuff collected seven rifles and 150 -200 rounds of ammunition from them.
‘I later went to Rajarbagh. It was a horrific sight. Dead bodies were lying everywhere. The painting Guernica by Picasso fits the description,’ says Yousuff.
The next day on March 26, he heard a voice on the radio reading declaration of independence.
‘Abdul Hannan read it twice that day from Agrabad Radio Station and Kalurghat radio station. On March 27 Abdul Kashem Sandip read it and in the evening Ziaur Rahman read it on behalf of Bangabandhu,’ he says.
Yousuff took the rifles and ammunitions and left Dhaka with his friends on March 27 after the curfew was lifted for four hours. They went to Ati Bhawal and began training. There they met members of EPR, police and others. However, on April 2, Pakistani occupation army surrounded the area and attacked.
They committed horrific genocide that came to be known as the Jinjira genocide. People were lined up in fields and gunned down. The whole area was set on fire. Nothing was spared.
He survived the attack and returned home.
‘My mother was crying. She told me not to venture outside. I said I have to go because I have to know what was happening,’ he says.
Later, his mother told him to go to Chattogram to locate his eldest sister. So he left Dhaka on April 11. He walked the whole way on foot and finally managed to find his sister who had went to the village for safety. His sister wrote a letter to my mother. He rested for a day and started his return journey to Dhaka. However, he crossed into India on his way to Dhaka and met major Khaled Mosharraf, who told Yousuff to return to Dhaka and recruit fighters.
‘I arrived in Dhaka on foot, gave my mother the letter and told them I wanted to fight for the Bengalis in the war. My father gave me his blessings and my mother gave me some money. My friends Manik, Asad, Baby and others joined me,’ remembers Yousuff.
After receiving training Yousuff returned to Dhaka in September and started conducting guerrilla operations against targets of interest.
‘The Baitul Mokarram operation was like a mission impossible. It was conducted ahead of Eid in front of Baitul Mokarram. We used a car bomb for the operation. I was the commander of Dhaka North Guerrila Unit. I assumed command after the previous commander was killed in action. We returned from India with 52 fighters. Our strength gradually grew with 450 fighters finally joining in. We conducted operations in both urban and rural areas,’ recalls Yousuff.
His muktijodhya unit carried out many other operations like DIT operation, Malibagh operation, PTV operation, targeted Dhaka City peace committee general secretary and others during the tumultuous days of the liberation war. After the war he met Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who touched Yousuff’s chin affectionately.
Nasiruddin Yousuff, standing at the front, in a military light utility vehicle with fellow freedom fighters.
— Courtesy of Nasiruddin Yousuff
Creating a cultural climate
After the war was over Yousuff was spending his days watching films, hanging out at adda sessions with Nirmolendu Goon, Abul Hossain, Salauddin Zaki and others. He was also following the theatre scene which was then thriving. It was at this point that he joined Natya Chakra and began helping out theatre troupes. He began designing lights, sets and others for productions.
‘I had read works by renowned theatre critic Martin Elsin. At Dhaka University theatre troupes were bringing new productions on stage. I used to watch those plays and point out any flaws that I could notice,’ said Yousuff.
It was during this time that Nasiruddin Yousuff met Selim Al Deen. Little did he know back then that his chance meeting with Al Deen would mark the beginning of a journey that would be full of discoveries, imagination, adventures and which would have a huge impact on the country’s theatre scene.
‘When I first saw Selim Al Deen he was in his white shirt and pant. He told me that he had written a drama for stage named ‘Jaundice o Bibidho Balloon’. He also informed me that he previously wrote dramas for TV. He was a well-educated person possessing huge knowledge on both Latin and African literature. He used to lend me books, which I enjoyed reading. Soon we became close friends,’ he recalls.
Nasiruddin Yousuff was a resident student of Mohshin Hall. He decided to direct ‘Jaundice o Bibidho Balloon’ and participated in the competitive Dhaka University Theatre Festival organised by Natya Chakra.
‘Pijush Bandyopadhyay, Hamid, Abdul Quader were all resident students of Mohsin Hall. I also invited Asad to act in the play and participated in the eleven-day-long theatre festival where eleven plays were staged by eleven theatre troupes. Kabir Chowdhury and Serajul Islam Choudhury, among others, were judges at the festival. When the results were announced, my play was declared winner in several categories such as Best Production, Best Direction, Best Drama and so on,’ says Yousuff.
‘We soon thought about staging plays for a fee. However, we could not to do that under the banner of Natya Chakra, which was associated with M Hamid and DUCSU. So we founded Dhaka Theatre in 1973. We started our journey with plays like Habibul Ahsan’s ‘Shamrat o Protidondi Gon’ and Selim Al Deen’s ‘Shangbad Cartoon’ and started organising shows. Sheikh Kamal helped us a lot in our journey,’ he recalls.
Though Dhaka Theatre began organising ticketed shows, the shows were being staged to houseful audience.
‘I noticed Shamsur Rahman, Amir Humayun, Al Mahmud, Shwakat Ali, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Serajul Islam Choudhury and others were attending the shows and praising our plays. That was a great achievement for us,’ he says.
As Nasiruddin Yousuff and Selim Al Deen continued their journey they felt that country’s tradition and cultural heritage was missing from the country’s theatre scene. They noticed that country’s theatre scene follows European theatre style. So they founded Bangladesh Gram Theatre in the ‘80s to discover the distinct theatre style they could call their own.
‘Every nation has its own unique culture and tradition which should be reflected in its theatre scene. Our traditional forms of performing art like jatra, gazir gaan, letor gaan and other have distinctive styles, dictions, music and so on. We founded Bangladesh Gram Theatre in the ‘80s to study tradition performing art forms and explore our own unique theatre style,’ he says.
Nasiruddin Yousuff has directed many theatrical performances — about 36 theatre productions in all — including Shokuntala, Muntasir Fantasy, Fani Manasha, Kirtankhola, Joiboti Konyar Mon and others. However, after the death of Selim Al Deen he has not directed any plays of the playwright.
‘Bangladesh Gram Theatre movement received a huge blow when Selim passed away. After his death I have not directed any of his plays. However, I directed two plays of Shakespeare including The Tempest, which I consider an accomplishment. Globe Theatre arranged a festival to celebrate the 450th birth anniversary of Shakespeare, where they invited 37 directors from 37 countries. I was asked to stage The Tempest from Bangladesh,’ he continues.
Nasiruddin Yousuff also lead Sammilita Sangskritik Jote serving as its president for 12 years.
He takes us back to the origin the platform: ‘In 1980s, while the Bangladesh Gram Theatre movement was under way. Kabir Chowdhury, Foyez Ahmed, Kamal Lohani, Serajul Islam Chowdhury organised a meeting at TSC for forming a committee for observing Ekushey. SSJ began its journey from that meeting.’
‘The organisation united cultural activists and students under its umbrella and played a huge role in generation mass awareness against the misrule of the military ruler HM Ershad and later lent its support to Jahanara Imam’s movement and worked with Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee for raising awareness against the war criminals. The organisation is now going strong. Ghulam Quddus is its current president,’ he adds.
Nasiruddin Yousuff has directed three films ‘Ekattorer Jishu’, ‘Guerrilla’ and ‘Alpha’.
‘Ekattorer Jishu portrays freedom fighters who had sacrificed so much for the country and Guerrilla gives the viewers a glimpse into the tumultuous days of 1971. The film Alpha is an experimental film. Alpha portrays the discomfort of a person living in a third world cosmopolitan city in the age of globalisation and marketing,’ he says.
‘In future I want to direct two more films, one on the partition of India and another on the language movement,’ shares Yousuff, who has penned three books, namely a memoir ‘Ghum Nei’, a play ‘71-er Pala’ and a children’s book ‘Titor Swadhinata’.
‘I always walked the world like a wanderer. I did whatever I enjoyed the most,’ says Nasiruddin Yousuff while recounting his life’s journey.
Nasiruddin Yousuff, who received Ekushey Padak in 2010 for his contribution of country’s theatre scene, dreams of establishing a theatre institute one day.
‘Both me and Selim Al Deen dreamt of establishing a theatre institute in a village where we will study our culture, tradition and heritage along with foreign cultures. Where the future generation of our country will be able to develop cultural awareness and steer the country in the right direction. Selim is no more but I still dream on. I have approached the DC of Manikganj for land for establishing an institute but I received no help. However, I have not given up on my dream,’ he concludes.
Photos by Sony Ramany
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