Seventeen Years Later: A new beginning not to be
In 1992, Azam Khan summoned me for a fight.
It was to be the reunion after 17 years of the five Khalifahs, the post-Liberation Rock-Pop legends. Ferdous Waheed, Feroze Shai, Fakir Alamgir, Pilu Mumtaz and of course Azam Khan. The timing couldn't be worse as my mother was stricken with paralysis and in death bed. The organizers had no prior experience but they made that up with their enthusiasm. The show was a week later and Azam Khan wanted me to guarantee that I would take charge of everything from Management of venue (Engineers Institute) stage, light and sound.
17 Years Later Circa 1992: LTR: Ferdous Waheed, Late Pilu Mumtaz (d.2011), Fakir Alamgir, Late Azam Khan (d.2011) and Late Feroze Shai (d.1995)
When I met him, he was dead serious and spoke in crisp guerilla leader style diction. 'This is not a request; it is an order so give it all the fight you have got. There should be no let ups, no slips and the show must be a grand success. We have got to re-live those glorious moments 17 years ago when we stood like a rock and rocked'. Then he rose from his chair and dismissed me 'tui geli'(shoo). 'Yes Boss' and it was the only time in my life I stood erect and saluted him in parting. 'Good, very good'- he replied in English.
The organizers of the 1992 concert branded the show 'Shotero Bochor Por' or 'Seventeen years later'. It was meant to re-showcase the post liberation pop-rock legends on one platform for a new generation of fans who hadn't seen them LIVE due to their absence of seventeen years.
By the end of the 80's, rock in Bangladesh made a robust re-entry into our culture. The Bangladesh Musical Bands Association (BAMBA) held the Nations first ever Open Air Concert at the Dhaka University Campus on 16th December in 1990, a milestone that would give rock a much needed shot in the arm.
Bands like Souls, Chime, Obscure, FeedBack and Renaissance filled in the cultural space left vacant in the turmoil's between 1975 -1985. By 1991 MILES had launched its first Bengalee album. Bengalee Rock was back with a bang and audience size had grown manifold, with professionalism of the highest order in display. State of art sound and lighting equipments replaced the entire paradigm of showbiz and the new resurgence gave rock a degree of respect and credibility that continues to this day.
The organizers of the 'Seventeen Years later' Concert seized the opportunity of the changed times and sincerely wished the event to catapult the legends of post-liberation pop-rock to the national stage and sink the petty differences on legacy issues that was ailing the aging rockers.
To that end Ashikuzzaman Tulu the band leader of Chime (and later Ark) was given the responsibility of sourcing the best session musicians in town to have a common line-up for all five of the legends. Rehearsals began in earnest and with less than ten days to show time – it was frenetic. The excitement and fever peaked three days before the show after a press conference and all 1200 tickets for the concert at Engineers Institute were sold out in less than 24 hours!
Azam Khan never showed up for the rehearsals and no one could figure out why? Tulu called to request me so that I should go and find out directly from him what the problem was. When I met up with Azam Khan, he was cheerfully ebullient and looking forward to the show. However he will perform in the Concert with his own line-up, the band Uccharon and not with the professionals the organizers wanted him to.
It became quite clear that he did not want to let down the very young, inexperienced and unheard of musicians in what was going to be a once in a lifetime show for them too. I respected his sentiments and informed the organizers. Azam Khan always had his way with things and this time around, there was to be no exception. He wanted to end the show and everybody readily agreed to slot him as the last act.
The show was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. I reached the venue at 4 p.m. with the audience queuing up outside, the doors were still closed. Once inside, I was in for a huge surprise. There was just one solitary figure in the green room; it was Azam Khan and he had reached the venue by 2:30 p.m. ahead of everybody else!
A huge bear hug to me followed and he said that he had a good look all around the stage as well as from the wings as also checked the equipments– 'nothing can go wrong tonight'. Later from his pocket he pulled out a paper bag of jhaal moori and commanded me – 'now be seated and eat this. After that, have a cold drink and cigarette with me before you get busy again'.
That was his simplistic way of thanking me for my untiring efforts of over 10 days.
Obsession with death
Between sips of Cola, we made uncharacteristically small talks, but he was merely trying to read my mind. My mother was in death bed, suffering from paralysis and an operation did not make things any better. She could die any moment I told him. I was depressed and disturbed. He shocked me back to my senses.
'What if she dies tonight, or within the next hour? Will you leave all of us when we are in the midst of a fight?' I was stunned. Shaking my head I said no. Come what may, I will see the fight, the show right until the end. He was compassionate to my plight, but made me focus on the larger objective of the night.
He tolerated no weakness in spirit and pointed to the shirt he was wearing. His favorite guerilla green fatigue, the one he wore during the entire duration of the war.
'Mentally prepare for the worst' he admonished me, 'even for your mother's death, and make it a habit at all times. You will only come out stronger. No bonding, bindings in life is forever. Fight your weaknesses first before you can even think of fighting the enemy.'
Here was a soldier talking to me, not a rock legend or even an elder brother.
Referring to many of the song in which the subject matter was death, including his first hit 'Hey Allah Rey', as well as 'Hariye gechey khujey pabona', 'Jiboney moron keno ashey', 'Ei gaan e shesh gaan', etc the end emphasis has always been ; birth is an accident but death a reality. Impermanence is the only truth.
He found it below his dignity to use death as a means of gaining sympathy or making a huge issue. 'In 1971 we buried our dearest comrades and just moved on, there was no time to waste as the next fight was not hours but sometime minutes away'.
Back to the show, it was suave and sophistication of the 90's at its peak. The music was re-arranged, light and sound par excellence, even the outfits for the performers were custom designed by the fashion house Catseye. VHS video footage of the night, if they have not been destroyed would be a treasure trove in the history of Bangladesh rock, nearly 20 years to date.
The crowd swelled and was probably around 3000 plus by the time it was Azam Khan's slot. There was commotion at the gates and no seats were available. Getting more people in would be a security and fire risk. Azam Khan summoned me with a request.
'Go and quickly tell the organizers that they have made enough money already. Open all the doors and let the audience in. I will ask them to behave. There is nothing to fear'.
Left with no choice the doors were all opened and the crowd flooded in. Not even an inch of space was left inside the venue. Nearly 500 people were sitting right on the stage itself, with enough circular space in the middle for Azam Khan and Uccharon to perform. All on a sudden Azam Khan jumped in…and electrified the screaming audience.
His bands sound was raw; the inexperienced musicians while getting the chords of the songs right, had badly tuned guitars. It didn't really matter. The sound was rock and took us all back to the 70's. That was more important and it didn't have to be sophisticated as long as Azam Khan was on vocals. Everything else miraculously fell into place. Cacophony notwithstanding, he was in his elements.
When the show ended his fans went wild in celebration. Several encores later I was witness to one of the greatest spectacle in my life. As Azam Khan ended, all the fans on stage gave him a memorable salute. Everybody prostrated in Sijda to the great man himself. There was no way of denying than Azam Khan was much larger than life.
Without anybody even realizing it, his spirituality had peaked to the supreme. For his fans he was no longer a rock-legend. For those who knew and understood the phenomenon, he was indeed, and beyond dispute an Avatar of our times. Time in the near future will speak for the times that Azam Khan walked on planet earth.
'Shotoro Bochor Por' was a massive success but bad vibes between the pop-rock legends of the 70s were totally unexpected and embarrassing. Weeks after the mega event, bickering in press by Fakir Alamgir over some very petty episodes during the show, marred all possibilities of future reunion concert of the greats.
On 16th December 1995 Feroze Shai passed away. Pilu Mumtaz and Azam Khan a month from each other, this year
New Controversies: Did Azam Khan die of poverty or Cancer?
Azam Khan in Singapore
Azam Khan was diagnosed with cancer below his tongue as early as April of 2010. The news at his insistence was kept secret, unfortunately by June of the same year it leaked out and got him embroiled in a most unwanted controversy. Enough has been written and said about the topic over the last year and since his death. Therefore in deference to his dignity and the man that he truly was, the points below are meant for clarity.
First of all, let this go loud and clear that Azam Khan was for all practical purpose middle class, with that is not meant that he rolled in money. Material wealth meant nothing to him and he was a giver, not a taker at any rate. 'Prem' or pure love as he called it was his offer to Bangladesh and millions of his fans. Yet what we have from apologists today is an effort to drive down his legacy, make it appear as if he was helpless and that everybody jumped in at the last moment to bail him out – both his financial miseries, as well as cancer. Nothing is further from the truth.
When cancer was diagnosed, he had enough money to pay for the initial treatment, but when outsiders got to know about it, the first mistakes were made. One group that knew the inside story of his financial hardship (not poverty) was keen on his treatment at the Singapore General Hospital which has a record of treating Ministers, very rich businessmen and politicians even the late husband of our Prime Minister.
The costs were affordable and being no spent-thrift, Azam Khan had enough saved over the years to handle his own affairs without anybody's assistance. The 25% extra cost required could be sourced from his family, who were affluent and would certainly help. Trouble began when a duo of musician and a TV compere insisted on Mount Elizabeth Hospital, among the 5 most expensive hospitals in the world, and one he could ill afford.
However the second group had their way in convincing Azam Khan that it was only Mount Elizabeth that could save his life. His self confidence shattered, in time, he too spoke of treatment in no other hospital. It is for the first time he capitulated to others opinion.
Enough money was raised through private appeals and in less that 48 hours was remitted to Singapore. His operation of nearly 10 hours was a complete success. He was advised 30 temotherapy (modern radiotherapy) courses but his health suffered after 21 and he returned back home.
What followed later was a shift in his priorities. When visiting Doctors from Mount Elizabeth Hospital saw him in Dhaka, they were pleased to see that there were no further cancerous growth and he had healed much better than expectation. They however insisted on his pending chemotherapy course in Singapore and/or Dhaka if money was his concern. The simple man he was, he misread the warning and went around informing everybody that the Doctors have given him a clean bill of health!
His second trip to Singapore with none other than his only son Hridoi for company would prove traumatic. The first of four recommended aggressive chemotherapy caused immense sufferings to him and his body could no longer take any more. He literally fled from hospital and upon his return home, insisted that neither money nor treatments could save him. He had resigned himself to fate
By January of this year pain in his body grew intense. A local check-up revealed two sores, one on his right shoulder and the other near his backbone. The cancer had metastasized and spread to his bones. There was to be no answers, and time was no longer on his side.
The rapidity of the cancer spreading further debilitated him and by the time he was admitted to Square Hospital on 22nd May, he had suffered a cardiac arrest. In no time he was on life support and the cancer reached his lung. Given the very frail condition of his health, his cancer could no longer be treated. Everything moved in quick succession and after being shifted to the Combined Military Hospital, the end came on Sunday the 5th June 2011.
Honor to the Honorary: His death and the last FIGHT
When I reached the graveyard for Intellectuals and Freedom Fighters in Mirpur on Monday the 6th June, the huge crowd and screams did not make it look like a burial but the boisterous concerts that Azam Khan was legendary for. I could not immediately understand the issue at hand and the slogan 'Azam Khan VIP' rang the air.
It turned out, while the Government had given him a Police Guard of Honor for a national hero earlier at his Kamlapur residence and assigned his internment in Mirpur, his grave was allocated for those with common people, where new graves would follow on top of his in three months. There would be no permanent tombstone of the legendary freedom fighter and rock legend!
He was not to be buried next to the rest of his comrades and other valiant freedom fighters over a technicality. Azam Khan had officially never received a gallantry award for his participation in the Liberation War. He could therefore not be buried next to Bir Shrestha's and Bir Uttam's?
Defiance by his fans over the injustice grew louder by the minute and all hell was breaking loose. Police on duty were powerless. In shock, I put my head down in shame. The only thought and words in my ears were Azam Khan's – FIGHT, FIGHT!
In about 90 minutes words came from the Mukti Jodda Command Council. Capitulating to wishes of the masses, the Government has assigned him a place with the rest of his comrades. Cheers went up. Azam Khan has won his last FIGHT.
As I conclude, it is with deep respect I remember my hero, with a life spent fighting for the oppressed and the many tragedies that he endured, with just a few of which I have penned. His fight was for the right to free expression and that heralded great changes in the socio-political cultural landscape of Bangladesh.
If there is any befitting honor we as a nation can pay Azam Khan is to guarantee that his immortal works are preserved as national treasure and that his children are not denied, what has been pilfered from him in life even as he lay dying? Money alone cannot ensure the continuation of his legacy. It is only when his due is guaranteed and steps taken to right all wrongs will the soul of Azam Khan ever be at peace.
Bangladesh is still a long way away from achieving emancipation for its have not's. The lessons learnt from Azam Khan must be passed on. The FIGHT must go on.
That is his enduring legacy.
New Age Op-Ed
28th June 2011