Friday, April 19, 2002

Bangladesh Music: Condemned to extinction? - PART I

In a three-part series, Maqsoodul Haque, popularly known as Mac in Dhaka's Band circle, writes about the crippling ailment of Bangladesh's music industry. Outspoken to a fault, Mac's diagnoses and recommendations are worth pondering over both at the policy level and the industry shop-floor. First part of the article was printed on April 19. Editor


"The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh will ensure the protection of its cultural tradition, heritage and inheritance, by nurturing the development of its national language, literature, arts and fine arts, ensuring its enrichment through the participation of every citizen of the country." The Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, Volume II, Para 23

Our Extinct Cultural Commodities - The Muslin Story

It was a story we had heard as children from our doting grandparents that our history textbooks in school would later confirm. It was the story of Dhaka muslin, the finest 'man-made' textile known to man, so translucent that if spread over a vast field one could walk over, it oblivious to its presence, betraying its invisibility if only on the surface, as if a fine mist had fallen on green grass on a winter morning.

It was so fine and sheer and diaphanous that we are told that more than ten yards of the fabric could easily be stuffed into a matchbox. From the grand courts of the Mughal Empire to the Queen of Persia, and on to the royal courts of Europe and even in China, muslin was a precious commodity, comparable to gold, diamond or platinum, and treasured by those that could afford it, i.e. only the richest.

Many museums across the globe today bear testament to the skill of our weaver ancestors. There was no dearth of effort to replicate this high-class fabric elsewhere in the world, but they failed. Other than the skills of our ancestors, the country's topography, environment, water of the river Buriganga and numerous other factors unique to Dhaka contributed to the production of world-class muslin, at a time when much of world to us was an unknown entity. Bangalis were river sailors, never a sea faring race.

Tragically the capacity to produce this superb fabric did not make our ancestors any richer than we are today, for Bangalis had not then, as today, learnt to draw the line between art and commerce, preferring to harbour 'emotions' that fuelled their creativity and made them somewhat indifferent to the bottom line 'profit' that would ensure survival. The reward for their creativity was minimal because it was the middlemen that made the profits, dominated the market and thereafter decided the fate of the muslin trade.

Come British colonialism and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which saw large fabric plants established across Manchester and other European cities, the option for cheaper 'machine-made' alternative fabrics and the wish to capitalise on a ready market in the new colonies was the ambition of our new masters, who had 'innocently' entered our part of the world to 'trade' at the outset. Political dominance and economic control came in quick succession, and when it did, 'cultural genocide' of the most heinous kind perpetrated by our colonial masters sealed the fate of the muslin trade.

In our folklore and recorded history is vividly documented the brutal subjugation through amputations of fingers of skilled muslin weavers of Dhaka. The muslin industry initially went underground, and finally became extinct, as did a very important and significant part of our cultural heritage.

Music as a Cultural Commodity

I have drawn the muslin fabric analogy to give credence to my hypothesis that a similar tragedy washed away, and may again render extinct, a much larger and no less richer Bengali heritage - music.

Unlike muslin, music was an 'intangible cultural commodity' in the bygone era, and was limited to essentially two areas of expression and/or sustenance, i.e. patronage of royal courts and the feudal nobility and aristocracy on the one hand, and diffusion through the oral tradition in our folklore by sincere efforts of bards and minstrels - often the poorest of the poor - on the other.


The royal courts and feudal nobility employed musicians skilled in recognised 'high art forms', specifically the rich and rigorous Indian classical music, with emphasis on instruments and vocals in particular. It was an elitist exercise, which saw the birth of 'gharanas' or 'regimented musical schools' and created a pseudo-nobility that endorsed preservation through constant practice of ragas, passed on from generation to generation in 'guru shishwa parampara' or student-teacher interaction.

Conscientious efforts to preserve or retain the 'mass culture' of the common man in the bygone era, which was in no way less valuable than the classical tradition, was unfortunately ignored.

Research in the field indicates that in the realm of our folk music, from Jaree, Sharee, Bhatiali, Murshidi, Marfoti, Kirtan among others, and perhaps the oldest form, i.e. Baul music, there were as many as four hundred different tunes, reverberating across the length and breadth of Bengal. Their rustic flavour, philosophical implications and the spectrum of a knowledge base are hard to fathom even in today?s cultural context.
Yet it was while researching for my album 'Bauliana', with my erstwhile band 'Feedback' (Soundtek Productions, Bangladesh, 1996), that I was faced with a grim reality. I discovered to my horror that the entire gamut of Bangali folk music had been whittled down to a minimum of 25 different 'tunes' only.

Lest we forget, those were the times before recorders or other means of preserving or 'archiving' tunes had been invented. The International Staff Notation (ISN) has only recently made its appearance in Bangladesh. There are no institution(s) in Bangladesh till date that archive or publish musical scores.


In other words while 'lyrics' of hundreds of songs, painfully preserved by folklorists, give us an idea of the thought process of those times, how these lyrics were put to music and sung is lost to us - FOREVER. Great lyrics are usually supported by great music, but in the case of forgotten Bangali music, it became a lyrical or word-based intellectual exercise, not a musical endeavour.


It is a loss that was inevitable, as the court and feudal nobility, that patronised classical music, relegated folk music to the level of a 'subordinate culture' that were unfit for the refined (or effete) taste of the affluent.

The rich/poor divide is as old as mankind, and in our cultural context and due to the constant downgrading of the mass, what we have lost and will lose constantly, whether that be muslin or music, stem from a singular human obsession - GREED.

It is ironic, but the twenty-five odd folk tunes, that survived in our folk culture, did so by piggy backing on the 'ragas' preserved by the 'gharanas' and we, in our ignorant naivety, have no clue whether the songs we pride ourselves on today as an 'inheritance' are truly 'authentic and original', or are recycled versions of somebody's imagination, somebody that could well have been from the feudal nobility or from the 'gharanas'.


HOLIDAY 19 APRIL 2002

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