Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


‘I can smell the music, the song – as though it’s been a part of me’

Thirty-seven years ago, during the horrendous moments of the war, like others, a family was forced to leave home and take refuge in the small village. As the father put his four children’s clothes inside a small bag and asked them to leave in the cart, he looked at his seventeen-year old daughter and handed her the harmonium that she had played with since the age of three. For everyone else, it seemed insignificant- at a time when staying alive was a question, a harmonium was just meaningless.

Thirty-seven years later, as I sit before the celebrated nazrul geeti singer and the daughter who has kept the harmonium intact till date, Fatema Tuzzohra tells me, that is one moment that bonded her strongly with music. ‘At that moment, in the middle of loss and helplessness, it did not make sense as to why my father would actually want me to take that harmonium. But the only thing that made sense was that I knew what my father saw within me and I knew I was tied with music forever.’

This month, as we celebrate the legend Nazrul Islam’s Death Anniversary, Fatema tells the tale of passion and struggle; of sheer determination and how music could be not just a part of life, but life itself.

Fatema’s nazrul and modern songs have been admired by many. Tepantorer Maathe, Kare bolbo ami moner kotha, tumi besh bodle gecho, Chiro Din Kaharo Shoman Nahi jai and Ke go amar shaaj kobore are just a few songs that have earned her immense popularity.

Born in Jaipurhaat, Fatema grew up in family that valued music. ‘My father was passionate about music and he wanted me to take it very seriously,’ she remembers. ‘So music for me initially, was like studying- taking it very seriously and practicing it every day. If I did not practice one day, I just knew I would be beaten up by my father!’

Although Fatema learnt singing at the age of three, she was not allowed to participate in singing competitions. ‘My father and my guru Habibur Rahman always wanted me learn music and value it before getting into any kind of competition.’ But what perhaps built a great part of her confidence was the competition she participated in Bogra Art Council Music Competition at the age of eleven. ‘My father and I had no idea that the competition did not have any categories, so I had to compete against people as old thirty!’ she says laughing. ‘I was so nervous, but my father looked at me and asked me to sing a nazrul sangeet because that is what he felt I was best at- and at the end I won.’

It was then that she found her niche. ‘In the years ahead I practiced Nazrul Sangeet more and more. I discovered the beauty of Nazrul’s creativity. It is so versatile and ever green,’ she says. There is an unmistaken spark in her eyes when she speaks of music. It is evident that her life has been strongly associated with music.

During the war in 1971, Fatema found herself constantly struggling to keep herself connected to music. ‘For those gruesome months that we were in hiding, I would just stare blankly at the harmonium because singing was out of the question. We would be scared to even speak aloud.’

It was there that Fatema saw some of the untold tales of the war- the moments of helplessness, hunger and loss. ‘Often when we speak of the war, we speak of the bloodsheds, the fight and the bigger things. Rarely do we speak of the interior villages and the gruesome state of living. During those months, I observed each of those little things about the war,’ she says ruefully. And those little details turned into a book of her own. ‘I want to write more about the untold tales,’ she says softly.

After the war, Fatema got back to college and started her masters in Economics. ‘Music became a stronger medium of expression for me. I constantly found myself struggling to keep myself connected with music. At the Rajshahi University hall, I had to fight against the students to be able to practice. Often they would complain that my songs disturbed them.’

It was then that her professor Mumtaz and her husband offered her to practice in their house. ‘It was as though they knew what it meant to me,’ she says.

In 1975, Fatema faced yet another challenge. Her inspiration, her father was taken to jail. ‘My family was shattered at that time. My brothers were struggling to continue with their education. Ultimately, I had to give up my studies,’ she remembers. ‘We did not even know why he was arrested and during those months I missed his encouragement the most,’ she says silently. It is evident that her father played a significant role in her association with music. ‘Had it not been for him, I would not perhaps have discovered this art and passion.’ Ten years has passed since he passed away and he left a huge responsibility to Fatema, she says. ‘His dream was to see me sing…. perhaps all the time.’

Her father and the musical instruments are things she can still smell and feel. ‘It is as though it is still fresh. The old harmonium, the sitar, my father- everything that made me who I am.’

Later in 1978, after her marriage Fatema moved to Dhaka, where she joined Bangladesh Television. ‘It was during this time that I met Firoza Begum who actually recognized my talent during a rehearsal and that association with her inspired me a lot,’ she remembers affectionately. ‘My first song Jochona Korechi Ari that was actually shown on television was selected by Mostofa Monowar. I will be forever grateful to him for that support that he offered me at that time.’

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