Friday, February 25, 2005

Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 3

5. Era of Commercialism: The Dawning of Abuse

“Music like religion unconditionally brings in its train all the moral virtues to the heart it enters, even though that heart is not in the least worthy.” Jean Baptiste Montegut

The time in history when Music moved from being an Art form and became an ‘Industry’ as in Commerce, is when problems we seemed to have inherited possibly started. Man moved away from creating, composing and performing and focused this art form to ‘please patrons’ – who in turn passed on the secrets of ‘sharing musical pleasures’ to their kin, and by that, they were certainly the richest of the rich in times gone by.

The visual imagery all too often played over in South Asian movies, of strings of pearls, jewelry and diamonds being flung in appreciation at dancers and singers by Maharajas and their cohorts, are indicators of the wealth and prosperity that logically followed Music Makers, and it would be inappropriate to imagine that this did not lead on to competition. It did, and in most cases, they were of the most unwholesome kind. The Gharana (Music School) Wars revolved around affinity and approachability of musicians to Imperial Courts of the time, to Ministers and noblemen. Musicians moved and jealously guarded their turf, sometimes with deliberate stories that revolved around the surreally absurd – the ‘Star’ was born!

Take for instance the near mythical figure in Mia Tansen in the 16th century courts of Emperor Akbar. It is said that no musicians could claim to be a musician if he was not good enough to ‘challenge’ the court sage and one of Akbar’s acknowledged ‘nine jewels’ of reverence. If any of this is to be believed, the Courts of the Mughals not only set the highest standards in Music, it also laid bare the highest penalty in its cruelty – death - should anybody ever ‘dare’ and fail. It tragically underscores that Music in the Court of the Mughals was akin to Gladiatorial Sports of the Romans, and many gifted musicians actually had to pay the penultimate price with their lives.

Thankfully it had to be the insane captive Baiju Bawra who eventually challenged Tansen, defeated him by ‘melting a marble slab by his song, a feat witnessed by no less than the Emperor’ – and in turn made two wishes to Akbar; wishes which history records were granted. The first that Tansen (who was prepared to be executed should he lose) be spared his life, and secondly that everybody be able to sing. Music in a round about way returned to where it all started -- to the people. Yet what never stopped was other then the ‘marble slab melting’ phenomenon’s, are astounding tales debated for centuries over whether or not Tansen could bring in the rains by singing Megh Malhar or create a forest fire by the Dipak raga?

All these phenomenon borders on the mythically ‘spiritual’ and an element of ‘religiosity’ had made an entry into Music by that time. Making Music that didn’t satiate ears of the royalty was Music not worth the reckoning. Clearly Music by the time of the advent of the overzealous Mughal had become a sanitized ‘upper class’ fare, and as argued earlier, imbibed competition, nepotism and corruption within its practitioner that did more harm then good in the long run.

6. Essence Man: Does Music have a ‘Religion’?

"Music is an agreeable harmony or the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul." - Bela Bartok, 1881-1941

That brings us to focus the hard question if Music has a ‘religion’ as such – or as many of us remain perpetually confused -- is this is a religion in totality, or has the potentiality to be driven by religious rituals? In the case of Muslims in our part of the world the debate of whether or not Music is taboo in Islam has been vexed and unnecessary for if we only look at it historically, three bare and hard facts emerge:

Firstly, Muslims were the ones that first looked at Music as a mathematical science, the calculations in ‘freita’ the precursor to the fret-boards in guitars (also a Muslim invention and a direct descendent of the oud) being the most significant invention and one that have remained untouched and unchanged in that many years. It was a necessary invention because Muslims turned music from a 'hearing' regime to a mathematical science - to take off the stigma of the uneducated wilderness prevalent then, since the Harp was the most 'un-tunable' instrument known to man. Also, it was Muslim musicians who invented harmony as a concept about 1200 years' ago - together with 'tones' the precursor of tonality.

With that came newer inventions like tempo, meter et al. And as if that it isn’t enough – the Betaksari Sufi Order of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim invention ‘Mehtar Bant- Jannissary band’ – or concept of the military marching bands which for centuries accompanied marching Ottoman armies into battle, was a symbol of sovereignty and independence, and its ardent sounds instilled soldiers with strength and courage. The military band was in fact one of the three symbols of independence in Islamic States.

Last if not the least, the greatest of Islam’s contribution to the modern world has been Music that it sent pummeling from the heartlands of Arabia and Persia, to Europe courtesy of the Moors down to the shores of Spain and beyond, the finest of written treatise on Music that date back as much as 1400 years were penned by Muslims and documents evolution of music as a technology with emphasis on instruments, accompaniment and experimentation on newer forms. Fusion between Persian and Vaishnavite forms in Bengal is first thought to have been tried successfully between 1265 and 1325 i.e. in the lifetime of the legendary Amir Khusro and help compliment Islamic music tradition with that of the rich Hindu traditions.

Which brings us to conclude this essay – and confront present realities in Bangladesh, of supposed blood thirsty mullahs hawking hate, and turning against all that we hold most valuable, our tolerant Sufi heritage which fused with the Buddhist and Vaishnavite trait’s of our forefathers --- that not only taught us Music, but fundamentally implanted the first ideas and inspirations that makes us Muslims in the first place today.

Nowhere in the Koran does it claim that Muslims may not indulge in Music, nowhere in the Koran does it say that Music is the ‘devils incarnate’, and nowhere are there any evidence to suggest that all Prophets ending and up to Muhammad (PBUH) the Prophet of Islam, could have consciously overlooked the use of Music – for the rapid and phenomenal spread of religions, at times when Music was the only known, tested and workable method to pass on the Message from the Almighty – to Man.

If there was a rocket science then – it surely was Music. No Prophet of God could have ever been so naïve, to ignore an invention that manifested use of every faculty of the imagination and what better way than to ‘recite and sing correctly’ – note for note that great revelation The Koran – or simply translated from Arabic, The Recitation. ? What better time to surrender in sublimity, in silence, to the Creator than that mellifluous song – the Azaan?

However ‘Essence Man’, stripped off all worldly manifestations, whether that is society, kinship, peer pressures and/or the vexed and misunderstood notion of culture in all his frailty and frivolity is left to question and be questioned during his time on mother earth, ONLY about the ‘ultimate relationship’. By that is meant our tarry with the unseen, unspoken, sexless, formless entity, and whatever he wished to call ‘it’ and decided to give colorful names as the history of creation would attest -- for now we much rather stick to the very simple and un-hazardous English expression ‘God’! Amazed as we are: Mans annihilation of fellow man have been prompted only because it was necessary to promote the ‘superiority’ of our respective Gods?

Humans as a quixotically natural entity, devotes more time to the unseen than the ‘seen’ although he prefers to take principled positions against ‘blind belief’, yet in his psychological design displays pathetic lapses. He is driven by just one specific purpose – in his speech and thought – to speak (sing?) the glory of a God, who ‘lives’ for all practical because – Man lives.
If it weren’t for Man, apparently ‘the best of God’s creation’; one wonders if God would conceivably exist in the sphere of the rationale? If there is a God as most believe, the favours he allegedly did to Man was create him, and the favours he received in return from his ‘creation’ is – he was broken up, split into so many pieces that now, it is very hard to recognize ‘Him’ anymore! He has moved way too far from the soul of Man, to Mosque, Temples, Synagogues…..whatever.

Thus, what is extremely difficult to explain in mans tryst with Music in his destiny is when in the unending quest – which for most part is meant to satiate his ubiquity – we take stock of the complex yet correlative ‘spiritual soul’ – is also very possibly the juncture when religions intervened and derailed individual quests. Religions were invented for institutionalised invocation of deities, ritualized collaborative mass hysteria that could well be controlled or was, if we may a ‘controllable’ phenomenon – yet one only has to stop and reflect on the word ‘control’ alone, is when we begin asking ourselves – ‘who is it that is doing the controlling’ ? Music practitioners then as even today, have their ways to answer those hard questions and bridge conflicts of the spirit.

Some answers may lie in fact that somewhere doing the many unexplained equinox of Mans time on earth, somebody had to ‘play God’, and do it purposefully – somebody had to make that ‘one giant leap for mankind’, to trap him for ions to come ‘half innocently’ in the sphere of the macabre theatre, and permit that ‘wee bit’ of intolerance, turn a blind eye to blind faith, in murders and mayhems all associated again – in the names and debates on the forms of ‘God’. Music practitioners then as even today had ways to see through the glib façade and make every body else see, what the ‘unseen’ would not reveal!

The spirit in us Bengalis have to be rejuvenated by the sole message in these troubled times that Music is still the missile fired by the fastest and keenest, yet harmless weapon delivery system invented by Man, a common indicator of defiance, of resistance of equality and importantly LOVE.

Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 2

3. Now and Then: The Hard Job of Songster-ing

"O innocent victims of Cupid, remember this terse little verse: To let a fool kiss you is stupid; to let a kiss fool you is worse." American lyricist E. Y. Harburg (1896-1981)

Since time and space is the hypotheses to advance arguments in this essay – the digression above on poems/SMS was necessary as we have been criminal accomplices to a thought process that dilutes Music, as if it were a ‘stand alone’ entity in our culture. That Music is a hugely mind, imagination driven and an intense cultural component is seldom discussed, and rarely if ever acknowledged by pundits. ‘Writing songs’ has always been made out as the easiest thing possible and lyricists quite unfairly fit into domains of inarticulate and plain ‘dull headed people’ for a starter, condemned to remain the most underrated link in the entire process of ‘songster-ing’ to this day.

Yet in all fairness the responsibility of a lyricist far outstrips those of a Poet, Composer or even the singer. Other than a solid knack for poesy, he has also to be an accomplished mathematician, understanding well the complexity of bars, rhythm, meters, quantize etc, as much as a complete control and mastery of rhymes within lines, to an acute sense of tackling bizarre phenomenon’s that differentiate sound-patterns of a word reflecting its inherent meaning (onomatopoeia) and how they eventually correlate in its completed meaning – and that is not all.

Way before Music could be preserved in what we call ‘recorded’ formats today; the lyricist had to add a ‘signature line’ – stamped as a seal of intellectual proprietorship, the only known way copyrights could be protected. The lyricist had also to handle matters that would best suit musicologists: pre-Chorus, Chorus, Verse, and Bridges – and much, much more before a song could be …well called a song. That is if we are talking only about songs and not music.

Indeed the lyricist/poet/bard took it on himself to imbed in his compositions ‘sound signatures’ (different from signature lines) – which were basically written words that gave directions to what the background scores would be or could be. Who wouldn’t work this hard to protect work – meant he also had the most rudimentary knowledge of intellectual property right laws?

Then there is the very hard job of taking stock of ‘written scores’ for Music. For reasons best know to our beloved ancestors, this was an area that we have remained the weakest, and while International Staff Notations (ISN) and the hand pumped poor mans keyboard – the ‘pseudo-religious’ Harmonium -- were still centuries away, what we have been left with is a legacy of reams upon reams of ancient text, basically lyrics and poems, with absolutely no clue what the tunes were like, and worse if there was at all any music to go with it, that we can recapture for benefit of a millennium audience.

4. The Gaan Wala – Of Music Makers Extraordinary

"There is nothing which tends to develop a higher degree of coordination between mind and body, nothing which demands more accurate thinking, nothing that develops the memory to a larger capacity and a higher degree of responsiveness, nothing that accelerates the mental processes to a greater speed; nothing that imparts a finer sense of form and balance than does Music." - Anonymous.

Music Makers from our tradition were essentially creating history in ways more than one. Music being the vessel that traditionally encapsulated and fired Mans ideas and inspirations at the shortest possible time to move the farthest at speeds that could never be determined, controlled or manipulated – meant Music and its Makers were viewed with understandable awe and reverence. What a ‘gaan wala’ could accomplish in minutes – in only a few lines – authors, poets, playwrights, journalists i.e., the entire gamut of ‘wordsmiths’ could never ever contemplate in thousand and thousands of words, and a lifetime would go by without even being noticed.

He was an acknowledged authority on how the complete idea of a Novel or Novelette could be interpreted in less that 10 lines, or maybe less than 50 words, of how a ‘cold poem’ written on colder paper, or a magnum opus play, tucked in an ignored corner of some ‘rich archive’ of useless paraphernalia’s (with or without dry rose petals!) could be literally lapped, wrapped, gift packed and power-delivered to please the auditory senses of fellow Man.

There was also the reinterpretation of ancient words that happily addresses our recent problems whether they be in our spiritual, private or public realms, to the more rudimentary and basic needs in difficult times – an old story that stood tests of times and answers our diabolical distresses, a battle cry here, a rallying point there, a song that unifies in seconds despite all our frailties, surprising even the politicians who have pathologically divided us in the decades gone by.

Importantly Music lays bare the critical synergy that beguiles us between the ‘spirit’ as in spiritual – as opposed to ‘religious’ as in religion. Music is hope, because it takes grueling hard work bordering on ‘divinity’ and is the end results of very many in the creative process: lyricists, composers, singers, musicians – and the audience or listener who then accepts or rejects the final outcome.

In the centuries gone by ‘Making Music’ in Bengal was never a profession, nor restricted to any particular class or community, neither were they commissioned works. More often they flowed from inspirations dictated by time. They were thoughts and aspirations of men and women of great wisdom and intellect, whose talent lay in fact that they best knew the fastest way to communicate, a skill which is inherent in Man’s nature. Music attracted our ancestors as it had the innate ability to capture the speed of Time – at any time, and Music Makers were always a time driven and restless lot, who wanted to ‘move furthest’ in the mental realms, when all too often, it was not possible to do so physically

Why we sing when we can very well talk, write and hear is unknown, but social-scientists find Music’s dominant acceptability in all cultures and societies because it has valuable therapeutic qualities. Other than creating a rush of adrenalin and the whole retinue of merry-making, dancing, festivities that it triggers, it also played a significant part in calming the human race: chants and incantations were possibly initial music forms which invoked deeper contemplations and meditation all too often leading to tears, as much as on the flip side, rapturous serotonin ‘spiritual highs’ representing the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ dance ensembles of the 13th Century Sufi orders in the Ottoman Empire.

Quintessentially, it is also in Music that we have the ‘all in one’ geniuses to contend with – men and women who are lyricists, poets, composer and performers. From Man’s earliest time this breed has carved its niche and its individual schools of thoughts. Ironic that it is possibly because of the accomplishments of these ‘one-man citadels’ that Music as indicated earlier has been confused a ‘stand alone’ entity. Ruefully – it may not be inappropriate to make a note at this point: Music like many other demanding fields of performing arts, is not Democratic – but feudal and autocratic in character, and explains why at the dawn of civilisation, as and when Music came to be noticed, it was the landed gentry, and aristocrats who turned its biggest patrons and promoters. They well understood the phenomenal possibilities at exploitation simply by being associated with the fine arts and in a round about way helped retained some of the oldest forms in it originality, by infusion of wealth.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Proposing a "Durwanization" of Bangladesh

Is a citizen's revolt looming in the horizon? On can never say, but the facts on the ground indicate that this time around, the obvious are more than obvious. With one bomb attack, assassinations, gun and drug smuggling and organised mayhem after the other going undetected, unresolved and importantly unchallenged, the question in everybody's mind is - who is doing this? The purpose of this article is in no way to subscribe or lend credence to the many conspiracy theories making its predictably delectable rounds, but to focus specifically on what may be done, assuming that enough is enough, and citizen's will indeed revolt sooner than not.

Proposing a "Durwanization" of Bangladesh

The typical knee jerk reaction to recent bomb-attacks is to call for 'foreign investigators', however post Habiganj long before the smell of cordite had evaporated or the Opposition demanded of any such thing, the Government surprised everybody by its preemption - suggesting tongue-in-cheek that its inherent 'weakness' led to such repeated carnage's going unresolved. If 'damage management' was its avowed intention, it may be given marks for going public in admission of its failure but they are certainly failures one too many - and will remain millstones in the days ahead of public jousting - the advantage being 'public memory is always too short', but one can never tell.

The Opposition Awami League and its well orchestrated media brigade joined in the chorus, taking advantage of the fact that they had much more than a bland, unintelligent and 'failed prophet' spokesperson in General Secretary Abdul Jalil this time around. It was the suave, dapper and eloquent yet distraught Dr. Reza Kibria (son of the assassinated Dr. S.A.M.S Kibria) leading the charge. The media outpouring of grief notwithstanding, what was obvious and appropriate under the circumstances is Dr. Reza Kibria preferred to speak at the outset, in English, and clearly his carefully drafted message of grief, condemnation and anguish was addressed, not so much to a domestic - but more an international audience.

Emboldened by the support, his family moved on to pass on their message across to various Internet Yahoo forums and a few website. BNP being a party that is largely suspicious of Bengalee expatriate English speakers (specially a professor of Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance in a US University) nor has any clue as to the importance of how things work in cyberspace, went public with denunciations of Dr. Kibria and his mother, terming them characteristically 'conspiratorial' (whatever that means).

Little does the BNP realise that such petitions are available in hundreds at and it is customary to send a draft letter to heads of Governments - a practice and exercise, indeed a fundamental human right of Netizens. If one visits any of the Bengalee expatriates run Yahoo forums there are probably thousands of such petitions available in their archives- which compare insignificantly to the mild, polite and non-abrasive tone of the Kibria family message.
The Kibria's being the aggrieved party - it is a sad commentary that such an innocuous move at seeking justice, should have received the kind of hell hath no fury Governmental hostility it did, and it is not therefore surprising that portions of Dr. Reza Kibria's statement by now have even been termed 'a threat' to the Law Minister.

Post the Internet statement, it was a shock to see Asma Kibria widowed only a few days back, exhaustively defending her position, not even permitted the respite to overcome her grief and sorrow at her great loss. The silent protest organised the next day by the Kibria family, while very positive, gave a rare fillip but ostentatious 'eyeball-to-eyeball' view to the citizenry at large, the absence of the mainstream Opposition and many of its front line leaders? Obviously this was a citizen's initiative, which percolated down to one distinct observation - a rejection of the Government, which many of us fail to accept in our blinding partisanship; the Opposition is very much a part of.

Is a citizen's revolt looming in the horizon? On can never say, but the facts on the ground indicate that this time around, the obvious are more than obvious. With one bomb attack, assassinations, gun and drug smuggling and organised mayhem after the other going undetected, unresolved and importantly unchallenged, the question in everybody's mind is - who is doing this? The purpose of this article is in no way to subscribe or lend credence to the many conspiracy theories making its predictably delectable rounds, but to focus specifically on what may be done, assuming that enough is enough, and citizen's will indeed revolt sooner than not.

Which brings us squarely to the point of demanding that 'FBI, Interpol and Scotland Yard' investigators jump in to bail us out, 'finding the culprits' - but what empirical justification do we have that such moves will ever succeed?

The first time the FBI sent in a team to Bangladesh was after 2 bombs were found (although they never exploded) in an Awami League meeting in Kotalipara on the 20th July 2000 when the party was in the hot seat of power. Paradoxically the team left Dhaka without 'making any comments' - so the FBI knows one thing too many about that plot that we the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh do not?

Last year the Scotland Yard walked in, in full regalia to investigate the attack on the UK High Commissioner in Sylhet. It was a fair thing to do i.e. a British subject and no less than its 'man' in Dhaka attacked; we have heard nothing about their findings - neither has any well meaning Opposition party demanded that they be made public, either from the Government of the day or that of Her Majesties.

Last years brouhaha over the attack on the Opposition rally in Dhaka had a whole profusion of investigators from the Interpol and the FBI in town. Can anybody give us inkling as to what happened since? Specifically are we any more 'informed and aware' then we were prior to that incident?

Which brings us to the fundamental question - is there any constitutional or legal provisions for foreign investigators to be invited in at the drop of a hat? Have we all forgotten the word 'sovereignty' and do we really expect foreigner's to come in and clear the backyard garbage of our accumulated domestic intolerance, while we indulge in downright and shameless un-patriotism each time we demand or accede to 'external intervention', in matters that are completely internal and DO NOT interest, or ones that foreigners have NO time for?

It sets dangerous precedents that none of us are willing to take that extra step before we appropriate blame on each other whenever we face a calamity. We are reminded of the US Ambassador in New Delhi, writing directly to the Assam Chief Minister last year about sending in the FBI to investigate bomb attacks in the state, and one cannot help overlook the patriotism of the Indian media and public at large to denounce the move, almost making mincemeat of His Excellency!

Compare that to Bangladesh - and what we have is a sordid situation where it has become the 'grounded norm' even when a heavily 'inebriated' writer dies under 'mysterious circumstances' of all places in the world - Germany - to listen to demands for an 'international investigation' by the family, as long as the 'forensic results' are not revealed to the public? How much more infantile, idiosyncratic and callous can we be?

End of the day, it is no longer a debate of whether it is a 'failed state' or 'failed government'. It whittles down to where we want to position Bangladesh in the days ahead, and the responsibility is really up to the citizens, not any 'Government' - who are indeed an organized Mafia in predictable shades of Position and the Opposition, bent on squandering the TRUST of the citizen's in the routine roulette game called Governance.

More than expecting foreigners to come and bail us out, it is time that we took steps to mobilize the concept of Citizen's Intelligence and permit private detectives to operate. More that have uniformed and unarmed 'durwans' masquerading as private security forces to guard our palatial buildings, flats and condominiums - who do not have a clue to the word 'S' in security, and in character and practice no different than the ones sanctioned by the State to look after our welfare, the time is ripe to propose a complete 'durwanization' of Bangladesh.

For Dr.Reza Kibria a question - assuming that the FBI comes in and we hear nothing about its findings, where do you go from here?