Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Legacy of Azam Khan – Part I

Dear All,

New Age is serializing a slightly abridged version of my 4 part essay on Azam Khan beginning today - Saturday the 25th July until Tuesday the 28th July.

This is all about my impression of a man who charted the course of our history as well as Rock. I hope all of you will find it interesting and informative.



The Legacy of Azam Khan – Part I
Maqsoodul Haque – Mac

Baptism in Fire: From Guerrilla to Rock Hero

It was a rain drenched night in June, 1971. A three man squad of fierce Mukti Bahini guerrillas has been crawling head down for well over an hour. A well fortified Pakistan Army forward bunker in Saldah, Comilla, is their target. Earlier they had walked nonstop from their secret camp within liberated Bangladesh for 4 hours. Exhaustion, blood sucking leeches, mosquitoes, insects, and slimy mud covering their bodies, made progress slow and tortuous. Pain numbed their senses and snakes were everywhere.

Worse, the only homing element to target the enemy was beacons coming off several Petromax lamps (hejag batti in Bengalee) visible only as a blur in the distance. The orders from the Sector Commander were precise. Crawl till the enemy is sighted and in line of fire before executing the ambush. Optical illusions made figuring distances exacting. The element of surprise could not be betrayed. This was to be the young warrior's baptism in fire.

Yet it was the guerrillas who were in for a bigger surprise, almost to points of bewilderment. Before they could figure out and gather their bearings, they realized that they were less than half a meter away from target! From their vantage point, on the top of the bunker and about three meters below, they saw the dreaded enemy. Six burly Pakistani soldiers huddled together for dinner under a tarpaulin cover.

The rain was bearing down hard - and no, there wasn't any sentry on duty. The guerrilla's, heart thudding with excitement waited. They had to be doubly sure. Those were early days of the war, and weapons were few. The leader, a Section Commander of this special ops squad clutched a vintage World War II 9 mm Sten gun with an extra magazine of bullets. The others had a pistol and 4 grenades between them. In awe they eyed the enemy's assortment of weapons.

They soon realized this was no ordinary bunker. It was a heavy machine gun nest! They had to go for a precision kill, so the leader signaled his comrades to lie perfectly still until he opens fire. Rising stealthily from crawl to a crouch and then standing upright he readied his weapon. The enemy had only to look up and they would have seen him, but they were in midst of a happy pre-meal chit chat.

Wafting in the air was the aroma of beef, rice, lentils and generous amounts of salad and vegetables. The guerrillas felt a stomach cramp. They hadn't eaten proper food in months since the war began. They were hungry and it was distracting. With seconds to go, the leader was overcome by sense of remorse and pity. It was after all going to be the last meal for the Pakistani soldiers, so he let the enemy gulp a few morsels of food. The other members of the squad were getting anxious by the seconds because of the delay.

The leader steeled himself for the kill and with his great sense of wry humor, thought quickly; 'How about singing them a song, in a language the enemy understands before they die, a befitting goodbye'? He chose a 60's Hindi film song popular in East Pakistan and India.

And so it was with his shrill voice and the song - 'eisa mouka phir kaha mileyga' (when will I ever get a chance like this again) a staccato of rat,tat,tat,tat,tat …….Sten gun fire pierced the silence of the night. The first magazine was emptied. The enemy had no chance and as they lay moaning, the second magazine of 28 bullets was swiftly brush-fired in a final coup de grace.

The operation was over in less then five minutes. Before they retreated to base, the final count was six Pakistani soldiers shot dead, several weapons captured and the bunker blown up.

The 21 year old guerrilla leader and a Section Commander of Sector 2, on the secret mission was none other than Azam Khan a.k.a. Mahbubul Haque Khan who passed away in Dhaka on Sunday the 5th June 2011 aged 61.

Successive Governments post-1971 made a sordid mess of our history. Each new version had to be colored to accommodate requisite post-Independence political expediencies. Although Azam Khan participated in no less than 30 frontal fights and innumerable hit-and-run operations during the war, not much is known or documented about his valor and heroism during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation.

It is thought that his pre-war leftist orientation was the reason why he never received a gallantry award. After the war, barring a handful, he maintained a discreet distance from the rest of his former comrades. Whenever he spoke of the Liberation war his words were limited only to details of how he left home and his return. At most he would describe his training in Melaghar, Agartala. That was all.

It therefore took me years of persuasion for him to come up with the first person account above. Sadly it's the only one he ever divulged to me and that too because of my insatiable curiosity. There were other reasons why he chose to maintain his stoic silence.

He explained to me in 1992: while the Mukti Bahini was a guerilla force it nonetheless fought under a formal and structured military chain of command divided into sectors, sub-sectors and sections. True, they were a rag-tag group of irregulars and volunteers; however the call of war meant the participants had to undertake an oath of secrecy. They were soldiers for the Nation. It was an oath he chose not to renege upon for as long as he could.

During my intense probing on the subject, there were times he would give me an anguished look and much to my frustration, slip back into deafening silence.

Since official war citations were rarely if ever recorded, he loathed the emerging hero worshipping cult of 'Bir Mukti Joddhas' (heroic freedom fighters). He found it shocking and reprehensible that some of his former comrades were game to megalomania. Many were going about dishing stories of their exploits in the War, with some exaggerating way out of proportions in breach of the oath of secrecy.

In 1992 in sheer despair he told me:

'When your mother and sisters are raped in front of your eyes, your father and brothers mercilessly tortured and killed; you do what you have to do. Fighting for the motherland is no obligation – it's a duty. In fighting the war, I did no 'favor' to my Nation – neither do I expect any favors for what I did in return'

Bangladesh – Post 1971: Emergence of the Rock Hero

To understand Azam Khan and his music one has got to look at the way the World was shaped in 1971 and the tumultuous events that followed in the years thereafter. It was nearing times for the Vietnam War of 21 bloody years to come to an eventual conclusion (1975). In the US, a new movement evolved to address the consciousness of the young. Disparagingly they were termed 'hippies' – in other words social outcasts, riff raffs, good for nothings.

War and senseless brutalities was no longer fashionable. When millions thronged The Woodstock Concert - 3 Days of Peace and Music in 1969 – all our rock heroes from Santana, Rolling Stones, Sly & The Family Stones, The Who, Crosby Still Nash & Young (CSNY), Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Jimi Hendrix, even Ravi Shankar participated. With screams of FREEDOM, the mass assembly was a peace missive fired by citizens of America, aimed at the Soul and Conscience of all Mankind. The White House turned a deaf ear to it all. Music meant nothing – or so it thought.

Never officially acknowledged by the Bangladesh Government were efforts by likes of Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan and George Harrison in 1971 to garner support for our Liberation War and the plight of millions of refugees then in India. On 1st of August 1971 over 40,000 people thronged Madison Square Garden in New York and George Harrison's epic rock rallying anthem 'Bangladesh' would instantly propel him to the center stage of world history. The triple album on the concert went gold in days after its release.

It was a 'worlds first'. A concert to raise awareness is tough call when the issue is political. Holding the concert in US soil with its Government opposed and hostile to the just cause of our people was an even more daunting challenge. In today's context it would be equal to rock musicians raising funds in a 'Concert for the Talibans in Afghanistan' – in Los Angeles!

Had there been no Concert for Bangladesh, the war mongers in Washington would surely have intervened to assist the Pakistan Army in days ahead of our liberation. Victory for us just didn't mean the surrender of the Pakistan Army in Dhaka on the 16th December 1971, a flag and a map. Largely erased from our history and public memory is the humiliating withdrawal of the US Navy's 7th Fleet armada stationed in the Bay of Bengal.

The Concert for Bangladesh changed music globally. World Music became what it is really meant to be – bullets hitting the Soul of conscious people and thereby forcing changes in lifestyle and attitude among the masses, as also policies of Governments.

Cultural Renaissance: A generations fight for freedom of expression

It was precisely the time for the US, Europe and rest of the West, to lap up Indian Classical Music which has gone on to establish its firm grip thereafter. Ravi Shankar, Ustad Alauddin Khan, and Allah Rakkha popularized the Sitar, Sarod and Tabla. Similarly, Indian Guru's and Sufi preachers were the rage and gave comfort and counseling to those in spiritual ill health in the troubled times.

Azam Khan had an earlier fascination for The Beatles and George Harrison in particular. It was only natural for him as a freedom fighter to acknowledge wholeheartedly his (Harrison's) huge contribution to our cause as also, his pure spirituality.

Rock until the late sixties was unheard of in our part of the world in its native language. 1971 is significant. We had entered a truly happening global cross-cultural exchange phase in the history of the world. The fall-out in Bangladesh was marked in the persona of Azam Khan. Guitar, drums and keyboards made its bold entry into our cultural domain.

Accusations of cultural revisionism were in the air. Our elders and the teeming middle class in general, not familiar with the emerging new soundscape gave it a sinister label 'Oposhongskriti' or counter-culture. The parochial and stagnant notion of mainstream Bengalee culture from our grandparent's times was set to be literally brutalized into much needed reforms. This was going to be no win-win situation for rockers, therefore politicized and abusive culture vultures were deployed by the establishment to confront the disquiet.

However the shape, definition and course of culture would change for the better in the years to come, and something our puritanical patronizing cultural cognisanti could ever imagine - not even in their wildest dreams. Never in history did Bengal ever have a renaissance of such a magnitude.

It is therefore absurd to even suggest that anybody other than Azam Khan could have risen up to the occasion and taken on Rock's mantle on his lean shoulders for yet - another fight. He bore all insults and ignominy heaped on him with fortitude, resilience and humor. He was the penultimate hero. Neither his credibility as a front line freedom fighter nor his patriotism could ever be questioned. The simplistic yet powerful messages emerging from his songs could not be rubbished. The son of the Muses in Bengal had arrived and he was destined to change our attitude and importantly the music scene of our country forever.

Nothing in the world stood between him and his mission. This was to be no guerrilla theater; it was far more arduous and hazardous than bargained for. The Government of the day as much as our parents was uneasy with this errant yet mercurial former freedom fighter.

What unfolded would change the course of our cultural history forever.

The Jhanki Philosophy : Azam Khan's meteoric rise

People without a basic education in Western Music or culture term Azam Khan's music as pop. Some have gone further than that, and have branded him either a 'Pop Guru' or 'Pop Shamrat' (Emperor). Nothing could be more ridiculous and for records, he despised both terms.

Pop as a word may mean 'popular' yet as a genre it has an altogether different and negative connotation; 'crass' - as in 'unrefined as to be lacking in discrimination and sensibility'. To explain it further, Pop music is wall paper music. It is neither painting nor sculptor i.e. it has no permanence. Shelf life or public memory for pop does not go beyond 3 to 5 years. In today's Bangladesh it is not unsurprising that pop music attracts huge public following. A 'one-time-use product', media overkill and corporate packaging guarantee skyrocketing sale and that too for a very limited time frame. Pop projects and propels less than mediocre idiots to 'superstardom'!

Azam Khan's music is all about what pop is NOT. It has lasted for over 38 years and it will last for centuries. Yes Azam Khan was 'popular' – but so were Nazrul and Tagore but can anyone dare use the term pop before their musical genre? Also do we ever hear about our 'pop Prime Minister'!

Rock on the contrary, is just not a Western musical genre. It is a comprehensive philosophy and lifestyle statement, which at its finest rejects status quo, establishment i.e. any form of exploitation or subjugation of fellow man. It is a derivative of the words 'Rock and Roll' or to shake and rattle listeners to act, free their spirit, wake up and rise up in revolt against all scum's of the earth.

On the flipside it is also a self-destruct philosophy and it isn't as if Azam Khan was unaware of it. He had volunteered for several hazardous near-death encounters during the Liberation War and survived. Our Liberation, as far as he was concerned, meant just the culmination of many skirmishes – the final battles were never fought, the war as such never ended? Independence means freeing the Nation ensnared in mental slavery and as in War and so in peace; he chose to take sides with the toiling masses. His weapon would be Music.

It is only appropriate that Azam Khan gave the philosophy an amusing Bengalee coinage – 'Jhanki o Dola' – later settling for just 'Jhanki' or Rock. His favorite quip whenever he saw me was – 'jhanki ditey hoibo' (we gottta rock it)! How more 'Western' can you get to describe Rock in Bengalee than just that one punch word – 'Jhanki'?

In retrospect I think it was simply brilliant! \m/

To be continued..........

New Age OP-ED

25th June 2011



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