How Nirmalendu Chowdhury Popularized Bengali Folk Songs
GB celebrates the man and his music and brings the nostalgia of lost rhythms. Although many Bengali groups have made folk songs their forte in recent times, no one can forget the contribution of Nirmalendu Chowdhury and how for the first time he made Bangla Folk popular across the world. In this final installment of the two-part series, we bring that nostalgia back.
NOTIrmalendu’s outlook on life changed dramatically after 1942. The fall of Burma and Singapore in 1942 brought Bengal closer to the war front. Anticipating a Japanese invasion of British India via the eastern border of Bengal, the British Army launched a two-pronged preventive scorched earth initiative (military strategy aimed at destroying food stocks and agricultural areas) in the east and the Bengal coast. Its objective was to deny the expected invaders access to food, transport and other resources. Rice exports from these countries have been interrupted. The authorities stockpiled food to feed the defending troops and they exported considerable quantities to British forces in the Middle East. They also confiscated boats, carts and elephants in Chittagong, where the invasion was expected. Millions of people have been impoverished as the crisis overwhelms large segments of the economy and catastrophically disrupts the social fabric. Human-made famine shook the very foundation of faith and Nirmalendu the rebel realized his purpose in life – music would be his weapon to counter fascism and repression and songs would be his voice of protest. He clung firmly to this belief and stuck to his guns for the rest of his life.
As the Japanese aggression intensified, apprehensions ran high that the Japanese were targeting Sylhet. Meanwhile, Nirmalendu met Khaled Chowdhury in Sylhet and the two hit it off instantly. Soon after, he was introduced to Hemango Biswas, his “Lalu-Da”, also from Sylhet. Biswas was used to address Nirmalendu as ‘Nabani’. Biswas was then a well-known lyricist, composer and singer. They were both political allies and worked for the Communist Party. Nirmalendu sang many compositions by Biswas at public gatherings and meetings. As a member of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), he participated extensively in music programs and propaganda dramas. He acted in plays like ‘Shaheeder Daak’ and also worked with fellow actor and well-known comedian Utpal Dutt in Aungar, Pherari Phauj and Titas Ekti Nodir Naam.
He recorded over a hundred songs. He was also a renowned composer. His songbook was released as “Epar Bangla Opar Banglar Gaan”. He was instrumental in introducing and popularizing the rich and glorious heritage of folk songs to urban audiences and the outside world. He established Lok Bharati, a folk music school in Kolkata. He was associated with Pragati Lekhak Sangha (Progressive Writers Association) and Bharatiya Gana Natya Sangha.
Debabrata Biswas, Nirmalendu Chowdhury, Ramesh Shil, Salil Chowdhury, Subhash Mukherjee, Tulsi Lahiri, Shambhu Mitra, Arun Mitra, Sukanta Bhattacharya, Nibaran Pandit were notable names at the forefront of progressive cultural activists in Bengal. They were all members of the Communist Party’s culture squad because the IPTA was not yet conceived at the time. Khaled Chowdhury was fascinated by Nirmalendu’s songs. He sometimes accompanied Hemango and Nirmalendu on stage, singing with them.
In 1944, the Communist Party had organized an anti-fascist rally in Shraddhanand Park. Hemango Biswas Biswas introduced to the general public Nirmalendu Chowdhury, the son of “Srihatta”. His breathtaking rendition of folk music stirred the souls of his audience. With his very first show in Calcutta, he captured the hearts of music lovers. He emigrated from Sylhet after independence and took a small rented one-room apartment at Mahendra Goswami Lane in North Kolkata. The wounds of the score left a deep and permanent gash in his soul. He engaged in the recording and preservation of many lesser known Sylhet folk songs. In 1953, Hemango asked him to attend the All-India Conference of IPTA. Ritwik Ghatak was one of the conference attendees and he directed his play, “Daleel”. Salil Chowdhury formed the Bombay Youth Choir, the very first lay choir in India. Nirmalendu along with other singers from IPTA wholeheartedly supported him. He met Shobha Sen and Utpal Dutt in Bombay and starred in ‘Angaar’, both as an actor and singer. The play was directed by Dutt.
In 1953, Anil Kumar Chanda, then Deputy Minister of External Affairs, invited Nirmalendu and his brother Nirmalendu Chowdhury to join an Indian cultural delegation to Eastern European countries as part of a preparatory program for the visit of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru in the Soviet Union and other countries. Dancer Sitara Devi, singer Lalita S Ubhayakar, artist Rabidra Sangeet Dwijen Mukherjee, percussionist Pandit Shanta Prasad were part of the delegation.
In 1954, Nirmalendu lent his voice for the playback of the song “Maajhi re chal naiya, raam karega paar” in the Hindi film Biraj Bahu, whose music was composed by Salil Chowdhury. In 1955, he performed in the great Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in the presence of the former Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, and later won a gold medal in singing at the International Folk Song Competition in Warsaw. He has been part of several important cultural missions abroad. His performances in Warsaw, Sofia, Prague, Belgrade and Moscow were received with high praise, making Indian folk songs popular abroad. He visited many countries, including the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Australia, New Zealand, China, United Kingdom, France , Germany, Holland, Finland, the United States, Canada and Japan.
In 1955, his performance at the Banga Sanskrit Sammelan (Bengal Cultural Conference), Kolkata was a huge success. His popularity skyrocketed with his foray into Bengali films. He sang in Rajen Tarafdar’s cult film, “Ganga”. Salil Chowdhury composed the music for the film. The folk song “Arre O Sundoira Naore Majhi” and “Ganga Gangar tarangey” (lyrics by Salil Chowdhury) were super-duper hits. A series of hits followed and Nirmalendu was a highly sought after artist and composers vied to work with him. He has also acted in a number of Bengali films including Ganga, Kanchanmala, Notun Phasal and Dakater Hatey Bulu.
Nirmalendu met Khaled Chowdhury in Sylhet and the two hit it off instantly. Soon after, he was introduced to Hemango Biswas, his “Lalu-Da”, also from Sylhet. Biswas was used to address Nirmalendu as ‘Nabani’. Biswas was then a well-known lyricist, composer and singer. They were both political allies and worked for the Communist Party. Nirmalendu sang many compositions by Biswas at public gatherings and meetings. As a member of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), he participated extensively in music programs and propaganda dramas.
He recorded over a hundred songs. He was also a renowned composer. His songbook was released as “Epar Bangla Opar Banglar Gaan”. He was instrumental in introducing and popularizing the rich and glorious heritage of folk songs to urban audiences and the outside world. He established Lok Bharati, a folk music school in Kolkata. He was associated with Pragati Lekhak Sangha (Progressive Writers Association) and Bharatiya Gana Natya Sangha. He also worked briefly as a reader in the music department of Rabindra Bharati University. He received the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to folk music.
Nirmalendu had devoted his soul to music and had lived and breathed music all his life. Her collection of folk songs scribbled in notebooks, her favorite “Dotara” (a musical instrument) are all carefully kept in her deceased son’s apartment in Salt Lake. He wanted to build a house in Santiniketan but his dream hinted at him. Nirmalendu Chowdhury died in his rented apartment at 126 Linton Street in Park Circus on 28 April 1981. His death marked the end of an era. Nirmalendu was born on July 27, 1922 and it is his centenary year but Bengalis seem to have forgotten about this gifted singer/songwriter and his immense contribution in establishing folk music as a distinct and independent genre and legacy that has been passed down to us as part of the mainstream. music.
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