Tareque, Moushumi and the old oak tree
Tareque had opened for me the possibility of having a new country; a country of the mind. What connected me to him was the fact that both of us were engaged in a kind of cartography, mapping our fragmented land of Bengal with songs and stories, crossing boundaries, making mental journeys to distant geographies, playing with a complex of times. We would share our listening, although the sharing wasn’t always equal; Tareque gave to me far more than I had to give. Tareque Masud (6 December 1955 – 13 August 2011)–filmmaker, songwriter, leader, also my friend and nurturer of nearly two decades, whose sudden and absurd death has permanently transformed the map of this country of my mind.
It was during one of my first meetings with Tareque in 1994 in his apartment in Kalabagan, Dhaka, that the seeds of this sharing were planted. Not that I was aware of its significance at the time, but looking back now I can see a kind of beginning in that encounter. I had met two musicians in Tareque’s house that day—Santosh Sarkar and his companion whose name I cannot recall. Tareque had brought them over from Faridpur—I think they lived in a village next to his own Nurpur—to sing at the screening of Grohonkal, a documentary about increase in the pronouncement of fatwas in Bangladesh at the time, and the people’s resistance to acts of religious extremism. The film would be shown at the German Cultural Centre, followed by discussions and music. Santoshda and his companion were carpenters by caste and trade, but they also sang songs, mostly kirtan of Bhakti devotion and Bijoy Sarkar’s bichchhed, his songs of separation and longing; having them in the programme was Tareque’s own act of resistance.
I know from my long association with Tareque that for him this was not tokenism. It was his way of asserting the importance of the plurality of Bengal; not just Bangladesh but a Bengal of the past and the present, both contiguous and disjointed, with a continuous history of sharing and animosity between its broken parts. Tareque believed in this plurality but he was also sufficiently realistic to know that this plurality was fast disappearing, for many complex and unalterable factors. Despite this knowledge, he was not cynical or resigned to some kind of fate; he worked all his life sustaining, recreating and returning to this plurality; in the least, remembering it and drawing lessons from history. He was concerned not merely with a plural of religions and languages, but his life was about encounters of so-called high and low art, of the local and global, of margin and centre. It is perhaps for this reason that Tareque had asked me to be part of the Grohonkal screening programme, to sing my own compositions, which had no direct connection with the subject of the film; just a young woman who lived in Calcutta and had written some songs about her own life and time and lives of people around her. Yet Tareque could make a connection between my story of the painter (Chitrakar), living between home left behind and new home, and Grohonkal and Santoshda’s Bijoy bichchhed.
Seventeen years later, during a conversation for television between Tareque and me, recorded in March 2011 and shown only after his death in August 2011, we found ourselves talking about Santoshda. You remember the song he sang that day? Tareque asked me. ‘Dada amar passport hoilo na’. Ei passport er kathata, ei biroher byaparta Bijoy Sarkar je kon marg e niye gechhen! Tareque was deeply moved by this use of the metaphor of the passport by Norail’s mystic poet, signifying the key to physical and metaphysical crossings. Santoshda liked that song of mine, Shankhyaloghu, remember? I reminded Tareque. A song about living in fear and the search for home. Santoshda died, you know, before he could cross the border, Tareque told me. That day we had talked about actual borders, about actual dates, actual crossings—1947, 1971, Benapole, Bongaon; also about the passage through life and the validation of the ‘passport’ that one needs in order to reach the other shore; passport as truth and self-knowledge.
Some time after our first encounter, I was walking down a noisy street in Garia in south Calcutta when I stopped on hearing a song coming out of a rattling ‘sound box’ placed at a street corner, in front of one of the numerous Shoni mandirs that have proliferated in the city. I went over to the organizers of the puja and requested to see the cover of the audio tape (strange that they actually had the cover). It was a cassette of Bijoy Sarkar’s songs, sung by Bani Chakraborty O Sampraday, recorded by HMV. Then by sheer luck I found a copy of this tape in a small music store—more like a kiosk—near my house. On the inlay card, there was a short write-up about the composer, by the North American specialist on baul poetry, Carol Solomon; something quite unusual for an HMV release. (I did not know anything about Carol Salomon’s work in Kushtia at the time and what strikes me now as I write this piece is a strange coincidence: Carol Salomon died in a road accident in 2009). Parobashi hoiya rabo aar katokaal porer jwala shoiya re—this is the song I had first heard; a song about life lived in exile/separation and the longing for return/union. Home, exile, journeys and crossings have been themes of my songs and my search for songs for many years now.
Once I had gone with Tareque and Catherine to a film festival in Kathmandu. We were with friends and I had probably sung a song or two when Tareque said, Ekta Bijoy Sarkar er gaan koro. I think he said Posha pakhi gao, or maybe it was Sundaro prithibi chhere chole jete hobe. And I said, Ami to jani na gaanta. That song was not part of my landscape, unlike Tareque’s. Something that is a given in one part of our country of unbridged islands has to be sought out in another, but before that you must know what to seek. Tareque’s association with the songs of Bioy Sarkar went back a long way. We never really talked in detail about this, but I can guess that this music would have naturally come to him in the place from where he came, for even now such songs fill the air of Joshor, Norail, Faridpur, also the rest of Bangladesh. That is one thing. The other would be Tareque’s direct connection with Norail through the person of one of his earliest protagonists, S. M. Sultan, the painter, who lived there, as Kobiyaal Bijoy Sarkar also did. I am trying to remember now exactly what Tareque had told me about going once with Sultan to meet Bijoy Sarkar, or is it something I am imagining? I have seen a photograph of Bijoy Sarkar with Sultan in Mohsin Hussain’s book , Kobiyaal Bijoy Sarkarer Jiban O Sangit. I almost dial Tareque’s number, type out a mail to ask, Tareque, tumi jeno ki bolechhile? You heard him sing once, did you? Did you record him? I almost ask, and then I remember and my fingers stop. My dates are getting mixed up. Bijoy Sarkar died in 1985. Tareque was shooting Adom Surat in 1989. But it could well have been earlier, the time when he began to interact with Sultan, perhaps it was then, perhaps not. Catherine will know.*
When I began work on my research into biroho in the folk music of Bengal, in 2003, and was planning my first field trip in Bangladesh in 2004, Tareque had sent Boyatibhai to Norail to recce for me. Shah Alom Boyati; Boyatibhai to Tareque and Catherine and thus to all of us. He was charting out routes for me, marking names of places to go to and people to meet, taking me by the hand to my first destinations. Monitoring all our movements was of course Tareque, constantly on the phone; the patriarch, our common obhibhabok, as we joked. Have you boarded the train? What is the hotel like? Eirakam jaygay keno Moushumike niye gechhen Boyatibhai? Anyway, aar deri koro na tomra. Are you on the right road? Have you met the tea gardens artists? Panchtay train Srimangal e, 3tay tomra bar hoba kintu. Or you will be late. Rastaghat kintu bhalo na.
Rastaghat kintu bhalo na, Tareque. The roads are not safe.
Boyatibhai was an important pointer on Tareque’s roadmap too, whose shongo or informed company taught him many a thing about the art and craft of his kind of songwriting: Songs of A. T. Masud. In March this year, during our last face to face conversation, he said: It is all given idiom you know, I can hardly call the songs my own; I just try to fit the long texts into my scenes, so I have to do some rewriting. That’s why I say the songs are authored by A.T. Masud, short for Abu Tareque Masud, which is my full name. I kind of shy from taking more credit. But he did do much more than edit the songs of course; the songs he wrote were born of his own ideas. He chose the right moment in the story for the song, and the form of song—palla gaan, dehotattwo, kirtan, kahini or whatever—that would fit his story. It is in this choice that the song first got made. The rest followed. For example, A. T. Masud, Shah Alom Boyati and Moushumi Bhowmik—all three of us had something to do with the making of Ali-Fatemar Gaan for Matir Moyna. There was a song Tareque had heard on location during the shoot of the film, from a fokir passing by. Boyatibhai and him wrote down the text, Tareque shortened and brushed it up, then I did some further edit work and gave back to him and he and Boyatibhai did some more and finally I worked with Ibrahim Boyati in the studio, because he had to sing the song in sync with the scene in the film in which he himself plays the part of the singer on the ferry. Being blind, he could only play by ear.
For me this was the beginning of my independent relationship with Ibrahim Boyati, which has evolved over the years, so much so that he has come to occupy a central place in The Travelling Archive, which is my music research and recording project with my partner, sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar. I had seen Ibrahimbhai for the first time some years before Matir Moyna, during the shoot of Muktir Kotha, but we did not have a chance to talk. In fact, I also remember catching a glimpse of the tall and lean Mishuk Munier with his thick moustache during this shoot, we might have said hello. I wish I had had the chance to properly know him. He surely knew my work as I knew his, for we were part of the same project and also had our common friends in Tareque, Habib and Miti. However, unlike Matir Moyna, where many of us who were part of the film also got personally close such as I did with Sudheer and also with the whole young group of Nahid, Purba, Shaheen, Partho, Lenin and others, my participation in Muktir Kotha was from a removed location. Tareque wanted a song made from Ginsberg’s poem September on Jessore Road, I knew I had to make a song of my own or it would not work for me. I was deeply affected by a sense of dislocation while writing this song. It became a song about not just one September in Ekattor, but something timeless–endless battles, endless uprooting, endless walks in search of the safety of home. I sent my song to Tareque and Catherine and they beautifully placed it in their film. The rest is history. It became a song that gave me a place in a country officially not my own. But it was a place to which I could have belonged any way, could have had a valid passport, could have travelled without visa, had history been different. Of course, had history been different, there would be no need for Joshor Road, the song. Mishuk’s younger brother Asif once wrote an article in a newspaper about the pain of knowing, the fear of forgetting and the importance of remembering the truths of history. Their father, a writer and teacher, had been picked up by the nearly-defeated Pakistani Army two days before the Liberation of Bangladesh and he never came home again. Asif was only four then, Mishuk was 12, their eldest brother of 20 had gone to war. Asif would not talk about that time. Then once his niece came to visit from abroad and he played her my song, Joshor Road. I have saved this article as a precious gift, and for it I am not only grateful to Asif Munier but also to Tareque and Catherine. Today as I am glancing through the article, I halt upon these words: ‘It just felt not fair why I don’t have a father. But it never is a fair world is it?’ Life had again treated Asif and his family and the nation unfairly. ‘But it never is a fair world, is it?’ I suppose what matters is what we do in spite of the world not being a fair place.
If Joshor Road bound me forever to the history of the war for liberation of a country not my own, then Matir Moyna opened for me entirely new worlds of songs and stories and showed me the way to new ways of listening. Before Matir Moyna, I hardly knew any story from Islamic mythology, including Ibrahim Boyati’s story of Ali and Fatema. I only had a general idea about the tragic tale of Karbala, but did not know any of its sub-plots. I had never before heard such a kahini being sung, nor was I familiar with the kind of punthipath that Boyatibhai performed in the Qurbani episode. I had also never heard a milad recitation before Tareque sent me the live sound of some of the scenes of the film, to help with my composition. When I look back now I am struck by the anomaly in this situation, for not only had I been regularly going to Bangladesh since 1994, but I was also married at that time to someone who came from a Bengali Muslim family of West Bengal, and we had been married for over fifteen years. Yet I had never encountered any of these songs or stories at births, deaths, weddings or any religious festival. In fact, our only association with any such occasion was one of food, but again it was food with no ritualistic significance. It was not the kind of food, for example, that Sara Suleri writes about in Meatless Days. It was only at the fag end of this marriage, during kulkhani for my sister-in-law, that I found myself in a room full of women, heads covered, counting black beads spread on the floor and muttering the name of Allah. I heard then the same low hum I had heard on the soundtrack of Matir Moyna, after the death of Asma.
I have subsequently tried to understand this lack, and reasoned that modernity is often built on a rejection of rituals which we consider regressive. (Again, Tareque and I were talking about this question during our last conversation). While there might be some truth in this argumentation, it is also true that in our modern, urban, secular spaces, we have lost our storytellers, for which our lives are sadly impoverished. Even in my own middle class Hindu home, especially growing up in the Anglicised hill-town of Shillong in north-eastern India, the only regular ritual that I was exposed to was my mother’s reading of Lakshmir (Lokkhir) panchali every Thursday and I certainly did not appreciate it then. It is only now when I hear strains of the panchali in Boyatibhai’s punthipath, that it satisfies me intellectually to make the connection. Then I think, what is it I am asking for? That the Boyatibhais read on their story of the Sacrifice, his audience go on listening with untroubled faith while I stand at a distance from both the teller of the tale and the listener and watch as the eternal outsider? But I am also realistic enough to know, like Tareque in some ways, that you can only archive moments in history, you cannot make them last. There is no reason for Boyatibhai or his audience to not change, and why shouldn’t they anyway?
Perhaps our political positions are always ambiguous, and in taking one stand, we inevitably reject other possibilities. Where did Tareque stand in his closeness to and distance from rituals and scriptures? Where had he pinned his faith? I think of our last conversation about kirtan. I might not have known the milad and kahini before Matir Moyna, but despite my inability to rest my faith on any particular belief system, the kirtan has spread its roots inside me from when I was a child. I am not sure how this happened; perhaps through the nineteenth-twentieth century art songs of Rabindranath, D. L. Roy and Atulprasad Sen that I had learned to sing, some of which were in turn impacted by the kirtan. Later the kirtan has appeared as form and reference in many of my own songs. Tareque used to particularly like Daya Karo; on this last day when we met in the Desh TV studio, he asked me to sing that song a capella. There is something about the kirtan that seems to have come from another life, Tareque said, it is so intrinsic to the Bengali. Bangalir modhyei jeno kirtan achhe. Ager janma thakuk aar na thakuk, ei sur ta shunle mone hoy jeno ager janmo theke ei sur amra shune eshechhi.
Catherine said that Tareque used to prefer the finality of cremation to burials. ‘Not Christian, or Jew or Muslim; not Hindu/ Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion/ or cultural system…’ Tareque used to love this poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, Catherine said. ‘Not’ is no negation; rather, ‘not’ is ‘not just’. I think that in the context of Tareque’s life, ‘not’ suggests an inclusion, a preservation of the essence of things, also something elemental.
Catherine began Tareque’s memorial service with the milad, and the sadness of that tune filled our grieving hearts. By a strange coincidence I had composed a new song only a month ago based on the tune of the milad. It was a song I wrote after coming home from the cremation of a friend; another untimely death. We were in the smashan, the purohits and middlemen asked about rituals, they were told that there would be none. Let the body be consumed by fire. Rabindranath comes to our rescue with his songs at these moments; he gives us our new rituals. So we sing Aguner parashmoni. It does not seem enough though. The woman who was breathing and struggling to live only a few hours ago has been reduced to a tray of hot ashes. And we do not know what to do next. The river flows past the crematorium, the ashes should ritualistically be carried to it. What do we do? Believers, non-believers, agnostics, questioners—how to deal with this actual change of shape and state of a being from living to dead to a tray of ashes—what are ashes, are they living or dead? We go to the river and float the urn in it. Then I come home and write a song about this passage and our friendships, to the tune of the milad.
Ekhon to jana hoye gechhe
Kara thake, kara achhe kachhe
Dolbol shonghoboddho din
Shei shob paar kore eshe
Ekshathe du’charjon shudhu
Hente nami, shinri diye neme
Dinante jol-e phele ashi
Amaderi karo dehochhai.
Esho esho esho esho tobe
Tumi tumi tumi bole daki
Ekshathe gaaye gaaye boshe
Gaan gai, gaan golpo shuni.
Catherine will plant a tree in the garden on Tareque’s grave in Nurpur. It will grow to give shade. Tareque will become a tree. I need a storyteller to sing me this tale. I was so shaded by Tareque. Suddenly the streets of Dhaka seem shadowless.
There is a roadmap I would inevitably follow. I would go to the travel agent with my passport to get visa to go to Bangladesh and the address I would write from memory on the form was Tareque’s: Siza Court, Flat B-2, 152 Monihar Road, Monipuri Para, Dhaka-1215. Whether or not I was going to Dhaka, this was always my address; whether Tareque and Catherine were in the country or abroad. Down Joshor Road to Bongaon, cross the border, ferry across the river, some more miles and into the capital, take the road that goes to Farm Gate, turn right at Partex Furniture before reaching Farm Gate, walk through the gate of the Siza Court apartments on the left, walk up the staircase to the second floor of the first building, press the doorbell, someone familiar will open the door . . . dots on my map. Walk in, and on the sofa Tareque will be sitting. Or on a chair in the balcony, looking across towards Catherine, with Nishaad sleeping on her lap.
A dot on my map has been erased. What are maps without people?
18 September 2011, Kolkata
*I had sent this piece to Catherine and this is what she wrote back about Sultan and Bijoy Sarkar: Sultan did in fact meet Bijoy Sarkar during their filming, probably in 1982 or 83 at the beginning of the project. 1989 was merely the year of the film’s completion; it dragged on for 7 years. Unfortunately, although Tareque and Mishuk were both present at the Bijoy Sarkar meeting, Sultan had convinced them before going that they didn’t need to take their equipment, without specifying where he was taking them. Eigulo bad dao, said Sultan, very typically. Once there, in the presence of Sarkar, they could only kick themselves for having left behind their gear.—M.B. 29 October 2011