One of the most celebrated singers of the country, Ferdausi Rahman has passed seven decades of her singing career while remaining at the forefront of the cultural scene. Equally skilled in various forms of music like folk, modern, khayal, classical, Nazrul Geeti, Rabindra Sangeet and others, the second phase of her career saw her emerge as ‘khalamoni’, an endearment that stuck in the public consciousness due to her iconic programme ‘Esho Gaan Shikhi’.
In a recent interview, the seasoned artiste has shared her thoughts and memories with Karoby Shihab of New Age.
Legendary folk singer and composer Abbasuddin Ahmed’s only daughter, who has followed her father’s footprints and proved her worth in almost all the genre of music, including folk, classical, khayal, ghazal, Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrul Geeti, modern as well as playback for films, Ferdausi Rahman, who is also known as Ferdausi Begum, remembers how Abbasuddin Ahmed named her after the Persian poet Ferdowsi. The name stuck while her nick name Mirna is known by few in the family circle.
The prominent singer would soon be eighty after a couple of years. Her elegance and the nobility shown in her dressing and speech, belies her age. She lives in Banani with her husband Rezaur Rahman.
The veteran reflected on the priceless bonding she had with her father.
‘My father was my best friend. He was a very good and curious listener. I shared almost anything to him without hesitation. He never stopped me from sharing things. He knew how to be a friend,’ Ferdausi Rahman remembered.
She has a glorious career of over seventy years behind her.
Throughout the years the talented singer has won hearts of thousands and has been conferred with prestigious awards like Ekushey Padak, National Film Award in the category of the best music director, Meril Prothom Alo Lifetime Achievement Award, Bangladesh Film Journalists award, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award and others.
Comfortably perched in her mantle of fame, Ferdausi Rahman continued her father’s legacy. She presented Bengali music in all its contextual glory both at home and in the global arena.
The seasoned singer has travelled as a member of various cultural delegations to many countries around the world including India, Myanmar, Thailand, Iraq, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Japan, Afghanistan, Russia and many more. She was the leader of the cultural delegation to Yugoslavia as well.
She wrote a travelogue titled ‘Gang Geye Elam Chine’ after visiting China.
Her versatility in singing also made her successfully dabble in singing foreign-language songs, including Urdu, Punjabi, Pushto, Persian, Arabic, English and others.
Ferdausi Rahman is now busy with Abbasuddin Shongeet Academy, where students receive training on music. She has some big plans regarding the academy.
‘I have dreamt big about the academy and was intent on implementing them. But I couldn’t as I had to depend on others to run the academy. I don’t have the property where I can build a permanent campus of the academy,’ said Ferdausi Rahman.
‘I don’t have much time left. I have asked my niece Nashid Kamal to work for the academy in my absence,’ she added.
Ferdausi was born in Cooch Behar, West Bengal of India on June 28, 1941 to Abbasuddin Ahmed and Lutfunnesa.
Ferdausi is the youngest among four children of this couple.
Mustafa Kamal and Mustafa Zamal were her brothers, who died already. Another brother musicologist Mustafa Zaman Abbasi is in his eighties now.
Ferdausi Rahman developed the thirst for music seeing her father and brother. Her mother was not a professional singer, but she used to sing quite well.
‘I have heard my mother singing now and then. She used to feel shy singing in front of our father. But when he wasn’t around mother used to sing,’ said the singer harking back to the days when they were growing up in the Abbasuddin-Lutfunnesa household.
‘Few days before my mother died, we were sitting next to each other. At one point I asked her to sing. I thought she wouldn’t but she started singing the song “O ki garial bhai”. She sang few songs one after another. That was the last time I heard my mother singing,’ Ferdausi Rahman remembered.
Ferdausi Rahman received her early training on music at home. In 1946, Ferdausi performed on stage for the first time in Calcutta, now Kolkata. She was hardly six years old that time.
After the partition of India in 1947, Abbasuddin Ahmed came to Dhaka along with his family. They started a new life in a new place. They started living in a room at the Nazrul singer Mofizul Islam’s household.
They had to pass difficult time during that time as they did not have enough space in the room. Besides, they were not habituated to live on the kind of food Dhaka then had to offer.
‘The society was strict then. Girls had to travel by rickshaw and horse cart covered with cloths. It took a while to adjust with those cultures. Besides, I was sad to leave my birth place. I still remember the home Hiraman Manjil where we used to live in Cooch Behar,’ Ferdausi said with a hint of nostalgia in her voice.
She visited Cooch Behar again to attend the Bhawaiya festival. Her paternal grandfather’s home is in Balarampur. There is a road in Cooch Behar named after her father Abbasuddin.
Ferdausi Rahman had the chance to learn from great trainers like Ustad Abdul Gafur Khan, Muhammad Hussain Khosru, Ustad Yusuf Khan Quraishi, Ustad Qader Zamiri, Ustad Munshi Raisuddin, Ustad Gul Mohammed Khan, Ustad Muneer Hossain, Ustad Mastan Gama, Ustads Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. Additionally, she had her father to give her guidance.
Ferdausi Rahman’s voice was first aired in a radio programme titled ‘Khelaghor’ when she was less than ten years old. Later with special permission she started singing in programme in radio for the grownups. On August of 1955, she rendered a Khayal in raag ‘Mian ki tori’.
Ferdausi Rahman was good student per se, she had an outstanding academic record. She started schooling from St Francis Xavier’s Girls’ High School and later she went to Bangla Bazar Government High School. She completed her matriculation in 1956.
A year later in 1957, she had her first record with His Master’s Voice, or HMV, in Karachi. During that time ‘Praner betha ke bujhibe shoi’ and ‘Amay ghor chhara korili’, these two folk songs became very popular.
Meanwhile, she was studying in Eden Mohila College. In 1958 she held the 12th position in the combined merit list in her intermediate examination.
Abbasuddin Ahmed always wanted her daughter to be a playback singer. In 1959 Ferdausi got the chance to fulfil her father’s desire.
In that year she lent her voice to a film called ‘Aaseeya’. Her father Abbasuddin Ahmed was the music director for this film but he passed away before he could finish the project.
In the same year, Ferdausi Rahman sang for another film named ‘Edesh Tomar Amar’, which was released before Aaseeya.
She set out to expand her career at this point of time. She worked as music director as well. ‘Rajdhanir Buke’ was the first film through which she debuted as music director. Robin Ghosh was her co-director for the film. Ferdausi and Robin Ghosh would have a lasting relationship which would continue for years.
Ferdausi Rahman’s engagement in film industry also saw an expansion over the years as she worked in popular films like ‘Harano Din’, ‘Tomar Amar’, ‘Chanda’, ‘Talash’, ‘Jowar Elo’ and others. She simultaneously sang for films made in both parts of the then Pakistan and lent her voice to about 200 films.
The quality of the music aside, which was undoubtedly of top variety Bangladesh had experienced in those days, she became known for her hit songs. They included ‘Mone je lage eto rong o rangila’, ‘Ami rupnagarer rajkanya’, ‘Ei shundor prithibi te ami’, ‘Ei raat bole ogo tumi amar’, ‘Mone holo jeno ei nishi logone’, ‘Eije nijhum raat oi je mayabi chand’ and more.
On the other hand she didn’t let her academic score down. She availed her Honour’s and Master’s degrees in sociology from Dhaka University. Later in 1963, Ferdausi was awarded a UNESCO Fellowship for music and she studied staff notation at the London Trinity College of Music for six months.
‘Those were the best six months of my life. I took my mother with me. After starting my classes I found the course was easy to me. I finished it before my time period. Later, one of the teachers from that institute Miss Williams inspired me to attend advanced course for music composition as well,’ Ferdausi Rahman shared.
There she had the chance to enjoy the melody of Edinburgh International Music Festival.
‘I was lucky enough to listen to Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin and other world famous musicians playing live. Besides Famous dance troupes performed there. I experienced the enchanted melody of opera as well,’ said Ferdausi Rahman with as her eyes glinted as she remembered those great moments.
During her six months in London, Ferdausi was invited by the High Commission of India to sing. Indian legendary playback singer Mohammad Rafi sang in the programme as well.
After coming back Ferdausi Rahman became the first singer to perform in the newly formed Pakistan Television, now BTV, in December 1964. She rendered the song ‘Oi je akash neel holo aaj she shudhu tomar preme’.
As a music teacher, she also unfolded another success story in the form of Esho Gaan Shikhi. As a host of this music training programme where students used to attend live classes, she came to be known as ‘Khalamoni’ to children of the entire country. This career move from a revered singer to a loving teacher made her happy.
On her marriage the eminent singer said, ‘I was too busy with my singing career. I didn’t have time to think about marriage. Even my parents never forced me. Rather my relatives tried to push me but my parents didn’t pay heed to them. They used to bring proposals for me. And eventually I got married,’ Ferdausi said with a laughter.
It was in 1966 that the singer got married to Rezaur Rahman, an engineer and industrialist. After their marriage Ferdausi had to stay in London for one year with her husband.
‘That was a hard time for me as I was away from my community. I was missing my career and people,’ she said.
In 1967, she had her first long play ‘Best of Ferdausi’ recorded also with the HMV.
Ferdausi and Rezaur Rahman have two sons namely Rubaiyat and Razin, both are now settled in abroad with their family.
However, Ferdausi stopped singing for the film industry. Why did she do that? She had her rationale, ‘I didn’t like how music composers started stealing tunes from foreign music industry. It was against my ethics. That is why I thought of quitting playback singing.’ The hint of disappointment was there in her voice.
The achievements of her long career are clearly comprehensible in more than 500 disc records, a few Long Plays, a good number cassettes and CDs, which were released from both India and Pakistan.
In 1971, Ferdausi Rahman stayed in Dhaka for the whole time with her husband and three-year-old son. She was a known face among the masses. So the Pakistani military officers often tried to invite her to sing in programmes. But she denied every time saying she is sick and by showing other excuses.
‘Though it was a tough time, I saw unity among our people. They were ready to help each other. However, one day Altaf Mahmud came to my house to ask me to go to India to join other singers. But I was unable as my son was too little. After few days on December 14, Pakistani military took him away and he never returned,’ Ferdausi Rahman related.
When asked about the present scenario of music industry and her engagement she said, ‘Many think that taking singing as profession doesn’t help in the long run. Some singers of our industry feel that most singers don’t end up living of their work, let alone become solvent. But obviously there are different reasons behind such a situation,’ Ferdausi observed.
‘Most artistes don’t think about their future much. Whatever they earn they splurge on luxury things. But I think saving for future is important. Otherwise one might face terrible times at the last stage of one’s life,’ she argued.
She also mentioned some names of singers who are suffering or have suffered and facing financial crisis.
‘I feel very bad for my fellow artistes. Arranging charity concerts or seeking support from the government cannot be a solution. Only a handful of singers enjoy the privilege. But there are many instrumentalists who are working in different media and are living a measurable life,’ said Ferdausi, regretting such crisis in the lives of her fellow artistes.
She brought another issue into light while reflecting on talents and privileges. She thinks that political parties should not exert any influence on the cultural arena.
‘I will not mention any names but the fact is undeniable that few political people try to dominate artistes’ careers. Banning any particular artiste for a term is very common in our country. Anybody have the right to support anyone but being deprived for political belief is not acceptable. Besides, I hate to see an artiste seeking political shelter just to ensure a smooth career,’ she added.
Ferdausi Rahman is now writing her autobiography. She is also working on publishing books of her own songs.
‘I think I needed to give more to my country. But the time is running out. I am thankful to the almighty for whatever I could achieve in my life,’ Ferdausi ended the interview with expressing her gratitude.
Photos by Abdullah Apu