Three Minutes on Music from Bangladesh

July 14, 2019 – 05:50 am

Kabir SumanPhoto by Somak Sarkar. West Bengali singer-songwriter-politician Kabir Suman.

Go look up “Bangladesh” in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Hmm. There is an entry for “Bengali music, ” but not one specifically for Bangladesh. Try the Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. There at least you will find an entry titled “Bangladesh and West Bengal (India).” Despite something of a classificatory discrepancy here—what other nation in the world is refused its own entry?—these scholarly choices seem reasonable. Why separate something that is inseparable? But West Bengal and East Bengal were indeed separated, first in 1905, then again in 1947.

No wonder that the doyen of Bengali music and literature, Rabindranath Tagore, is the composer both of the song that became the national anthem of India in 1950 (“Jana gana mana”) and the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh in 1972 (“Amar shonar bangla”). Claimed as a native son by both motherlands, Tagore’s extensive compositional output remains very much in favor today, his songs being performed by all kinds of musicians working in all kinds of styles. Lesser known outside of South Asia is Kazi Nazrul Islam, thirty-eight years Tagore’s junior—deeply influenced by him yet with a distinctive poetic and musical voice, a Bengali Beethoven to Tagore’s Mozart. His songs are also performed widely today, and he is particularly revered in Bangladesh.

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