Bengali Music: Of Changing Times and our Robust Aspirations - 1
“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
It is usually at the dawning of a new age that we ponder on times gone by and the new millennium as sheer luck would place us in - is one such. It is all the more important that we start penciling in issues more than events over the centuries, on where we might have gone wrong and adjusting our priorities is the right way forward, and perhaps the only known mechanism for something as intangible as ‘cultural enquiries’ to commence.
At the outset it is pertinent to point out exactly what this essay is not about. It is not a discussion on individual songs or the major players or trends and styles: this is a deconstruction derby, a pointed reminder that we Bengalis have never looked at Music beyond spheres of the curious, tokenistic or worse a cliché driven necessity to ‘earn’ social acceptability bordering on an ever hard to attain elitism. We have remained by choice ‘music illiterate’ and the sorry state we are in today – speaks all the louder about our ingrained ignorance, which tragically has become our racial trait.
This essay is all about the character and composition of what constituted Music over centuries, and how they shaped our Bengali lives, what they meant to us then, and how do we mean them today. Importantly this is an attempted cultural commentary coming at a time when Bangladesh is supposedly beset and gripped with very many forces of strife. For the moment we believe, or are being led to believe that an emerging neo-theocracy championed by mullahs hawking hate have gained strategic advantage, and are apparently all set to derail, outclass, outwit and make redundant all our accumulated cultural gains of centuries.
This ‘belief’ being a wake-up call at best, is also a clearly indicator that the gongs for many rounds of cultural punch-ups have been ominously sounded, and the bout has all but begun. It is not the first time that this has happened; neither will it be the last, but the fight and our struggle for cultural emancipation can be more focused and in perspective, if we can look back at our acquired strength – and nurture a hope – a big HOPE at that, that nothing is lost. Our gains over centuries indicate many things about our culture not all of which may make us extremely happy – but what it does not is fragility – so let’s start with a happy note here. But at what point can we can nail things down and say ‘here is where our woes began’?
In all probabilities it was when we started mixing one too many social stimuli in our life, which ought not to have been the case at all. For instance, Politics driven by Culture usually produced high degree of Civility – whilst nothing can be plainly more horrific than Culture driven by Politics, which is acquiescing to macabre theatres of those that we call ‘uncultured’. Bangladesh thoughtlessly has allowed itself a front spectator seat to unreal shadow boxing of friends, fiends and foe, willing victims (collaborators?) of our historical follies – the question here is what convinces us so emphatically that this is only the beginning of the last fight? Let us not even talk about Politics dominating Religion or vice versa!!
It is thus, not surprising that millennium Cultural debates in Bangladesh have all been about how we intend to position our culture in face of challenges of a new world with the infectious dynamics of ‘time’ and to take stock on available variables that convinces us -- things are ‘just alright’? Do we have undetected ill health regimes or more sinister, have ‘they’ already overtaken our otherwise robust aspirations? For now there is no answer.
2. ‘Time Critical’ in Critical Times:
"Time will take your money, but money won't buy time." American country singer James Taylor
Cultures definition being as skewered and complex as Economics; one is left only with the faculty of non-condescending minds to fall back and record nuggets that ‘time’ has an uncanny ability to throw up to our faces and change the way we have been thinking or acting. Time moves way too fast these days, displace, and ‘makes history’ what we thought were ‘new ideas and newer philosophies’ – if we had stumbled into them only about 48 hours too late? Everything evolves, revolves and dissolves around the new cult expression ‘Time Critical’ -- Culture and its many components and composites being no exception to the rule.
If the expression ‘time is money’ was bane in our good old ‘Marxist progressive days’ when we indulged in that stimulating ‘high art of adda’ to make our presence felt – today to survive similar millennium variations in ‘cool joints’ – if one is less than a few minutes ‘behind times’ to the latest jargon, the newest body language – well, too bad -- you are OUT of the IN crowd. Even before you had time to settle down on your ‘laid back’ back - be prepared for a 14-year old out there to blow to smithereens your fossilized 40-something ‘convictions’ – for strong as you thought they have made you over the years – they do not unfortunately represent TIME as current as last week, worse even the last hour.
Culture is all about the central nervous system – however never before in Mans history has critical interaction time dwindled down from seconds, millisecond to the now -- ‘nanoseconds’ – the dawdle clock certainly looks like doodling its way out!
With changing times, it is not unusual that critiques and alternative opinions overtly come into foreplay. Culture have more ‘acculturative elements’ than we may appreciate, that have remained at perpetual loggerheads and challenged the parameters of what we had previously ‘deified’ and thought were unchangeably ‘stagnant’. The dynamics of Time now compels us to juxtapose realties we see on a day-to-day basis and turn those into deeper introspections on newer trends with the forever ‘happening millennium devices’ that have more or less overtaken our lives and made us its willing captives.
Gone are the days when we put ‘pen into paper’ to write out whatever it was egging our creative faculties. Today we tap fingers on keyboards (sometimes held painfully pleasurably in our palms) that electronically conjure our thoughts into ‘screens’— that we manipulate till it turns ‘pretty-pretty cyberically’ --- walla for the world to see, or is it that the world has instead turned right around and made a precision landing on our fingers by a quirk of fortune!
Gone are the incurably romantic times when we wrote poems ‘burning precious midnight oil’ – and ‘offerings to our beloved’ were papers masked by fresh petals aroma of ‘martyr’ rose -- where we faultlessly inked in our revered, secret and sacred thoughts to that ONE person on earth who mattered and all else could well --- ‘go to hell’!
Today we receive cold SMS text (love) messages from total strangers that have a tendency to jump right into your cell phones with unabashed alacrity especially at times when one is least prepared. Critically it could well be in a language we still haven’t mastered: Sample - ‘Ilu’ for ‘I love you’ or ‘Atbb’ – ‘ami tomai bhalobashi’ among so many other ‘gr8’ ‘great’ stuff – ‘newayz’!
If that isn’t hard enough to swallow, it had to be the maverick Nirmalendu Goon who is probably the only poet on face of planet earth to have written an entire book of poems by SMS text in 2004. “Muthofoner Kabyo” -- ‘Grip’ Phone Poems — is an almost unheard of cultural icon which confirms decisively that Bangladesh’s literati have caught up with changing times and embraced the new millennium without thinking of batting an eyelid twice. Notice the munificence in choice of the Bengali word ‘muthofone’ which implies, not the cell phone, but the ‘grip’ with which we hold those precious devices in our palms or is it vice versa? Bengalis as a race will continue to thrive on its faithful representation of the ironic.