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In Nixon’s America, a Bangla blast

New Delhi, Dec. 12: Akku Chowdhury was in the jungles of Bangladesh when he heard that Ravi Shankar and George Harrison were teaming up to raise awareness about his shackled nation’s struggle for independence.

Barely 18, the young freedom fighter didn’t know if he would survive the war. But he was “overwhelmed”.

“Holding a pro-Bangladesh concert in the heart of Richard Nixon-ruled USA, which was against the formation of my country, was a great thing to do for anyone. Panditji did it. He and the artistes that day stood for Bangladesh and the people of my country will remember him till our nation exists,” says Chowdhury, now the director of the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka.

In what is now seen as staged rock’s first mass act of philanthropy, Ravi Shankar along with Harrison, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger came together on Sunday, August 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden for an audience of 40,000 people.

The twin objectives of the Concert for Bangladesh were to raise international awareness and fund relief efforts for refugees from what was then East Pakistan following the 1970 cyclone Bhola and civil war-related atrocities.

Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud, who was then in New York and working for the US committee for Unicef, didn’t attend the show. Yet it remains her fondest memory of her “brother”.

“The concert was like entertainment and I couldn’t attend as a matter of principle as my brothers were at war. I saw the footage later, and I could see that he played with a lot of pain and the music came straight from his heart. The first cheque from the concert, a part of the money raised, he had handed over to me for Unicef,” recalls Moudud, daughter of the poet Jasimuddin and wife of Moudud Ahmed, a former Prime Minister and Vice-President.

“Every time he met me in New York, he would ask me about my father. He would tell me I was Bangladesh for him.”

At Madison Square Garden, the opening strains forever bound the people of Bangladesh to Ravi Shankar as he played Bangla Dhun, which for many was like a balm on the wounds of war.

The finale by Harrison as he sang Bangla Desh — hailed as “one of the most cogent social statements in music history” — described Ravi Shankar approaching his friend for help. Harrison introduced the song with a brief verse: “My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes, Told me that he wanted help before his country dies, Although I couldn’t feel the pain, I knew I had to try, Now I’m asking all of you to help us save some lives.

Jazz-rock fusion singer Maqsoodul Haque recalls his feelings. “I was less than 14 in 1971 and stranded in Karachi, Pakistan. In that difficult period being trapped in enemy territory, the news of the concert was overwhelming.”

The song Bangla Desh, Haque says, was a “final seal on the coffin” of the Pakistani oppressors. “Ravi Shankar will forever live on in my heart as also the millions who witnessed 1971.”

Singer Runa Laila, who heard the CD after independence, “couldn’t believe these huge stars” were performing for the people of Bangladesh. “I felt happy and proud.”

The concert raised $243,000 overnight. But it was not about the money he raised, says Chowdhury, the former freedom fighter. “He made us feel we were not alone, the whole of humanity was with us.”