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Kazi Nazrul Islam

The outrage over Rahman’s 'Karar oi louha kopat'

New rendition of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s patriotic song angers Bengalis on both sides

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya | Published 18.11.23, 05:53 AM
Kazi Nazrul Islam

Kazi Nazrul Islam

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A large population from the two Bengals has erupted in anger over A.R. Rahman’s rendition of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s rousing patriotic song, Karar oi louha kopat. They have accused Rahman of distorting the song by turning it into light entertainment and hurting Nazrul’s legacy.

Rahman’s composition for the film Pippa is under attack.


On X, Khilkhil Kazi, granddaughter of Nazrul and a resident of Bangladesh, had posted: “Expressing concern about the distortion of Kazi Nazrul islam song and literature cultural heritage. the recent adaptation by Zee music and AR Rahman have raised outrage in the Bengali Community as it deviates the essence of Nazrul’s original composition (sic).” She addressed a news conference in Calcutta on Thursday to express this concern again and also question how a film producing company got permission to use the song from another family member.

The protests have been ringing across the cultural register. In Dhaka again, comedian Hero Alam has parodied Rahman’s song Jai Ho by turning it into a tuneless, mirthless number and shouting ‘Joi ho’ frequently in a Bengali accent as if he is hurling a bomb. This is his violent revenge on Rahman on behalf of Bengalis. Nazrul is the national poet of Bangladesh.

In Calcutta, many from the music community have accused Rahman of tampering with the original tune and the protests are still coming in.

So at stake here is not only Nazrul’s legacy, but also the integrity of the song, as Nazrul is usually credited with the composition of the tune as well. But at stake here is also Bengali pride, which most often lies in its attachment to the past and is quite easily wounded.

Many, however, do not see Rahman as having done anything wrong. How could India’s most eminent music director of the moment be thoughtless enough to compose a song that would be an assault on a people’s sensibility? That is not what Rahman does; he creates and experiments with music, whether one likes it or not.

The problem, they say, is elsewhere. Some even feel that before attacking Rahman, his critics should pause and take a look at the history of the song, to consider the dire possibility that it may not even have been set to music by Nazrul himself. (Which suggestion has caused a minor outrage.)

Another debate started on Facebook when linguist and record collector Rajib Chakraborty asked: “Where is the evidence cast in stone that Kazi Saheb (Nazrul) had composed the music for the song that Girin Chakraborty had recorded in 1949?”

The Karar oi louha kopat tune that we are familiar with is from this Columbia record, which mentions Girin Chakraborty as the singer, Nazrul as the lyricist and Nitai Ghatak as the music director. But by then Nazrul had been suffering from a condition known as “Pick’s disease” for several years and had lost his memory. It is unlikely that in 1949, the same year Girin Chakraborty sang the song also for the film Chattagram Astragar Lunthan, Nazrul had composed or approved of a tune.

It is possible, though, that Nazrul had composed the tune originally and it had been passed down. “But no svaralipi (notation) exists from a previous time,” says Rajib Chakraborty. “What may have happened is the music director, Nitai Ghatak, composed the tune, but used Nazrul’s name for greater appeal.” The singer Girin Chakraborty’s daughter Chhanda Chattopadhyay has claimed that her father composed this version.

The lack of clarity about the original tune also springs from the fact that the song had been written much earlier, under very special circumstances, reminds Rajib Chakraborty, referring to Muzaffar Ahmed’s memoirs of Nazrul. The song was banned soon after it was written.

On December 10, 1921, prominent nationalist leader Chittaranjan Das was arrested and jailed. Following this, his wife, Basanti Debi, sent a request to the fiery young poet Nazrul, whose voice of protest was adding momentum to the freedom movement, to write a poem for Banglar Katha, a journal she was editing.

Nazrul wrote the poem, Karar oi louha kopat/ Bhenge phel, korre lopat… (Shatter the iron gates of prison, blow them away…) immediately and it was published as Bhangar gaan on January 20, 1922, in Banglar Katha.

When it turned into a song that would continue to inspire the freedom movement and how exactly it fared in the following years, till it was recorded in 1949, is not well-documented, but it must have spread from voice to voice, platform to platform, and taken shape, till it was captured in a disc. But if there were others who contributed to the tune, then what happens to the outrage about Nazrul’s “original” composition? It is a sobering thought. “The response to Rahman’s song is rooted in emotion, not logic,” says Rajib Chakraborty.

Others do not agree that Nazrul did not compose the music, but do not hold Rahman guilty of any crime either.

Singer and scholar Devajit Bandyopadhyay, who specialises in Bengali theatre songs, insists that though it was banned, Karar oi louha kopat continued to be sung as a freedom song, growing more popular, and was set to tune by Nazrul, which was recorded in 1949. “The song was sung, in secret, or private, or wherever possible, and remained alive, even if its poet had lost his memory,” he says.

The life of a song, he feels, does not depend on documents available. He is sure that svaralipis of Karar oi louha kapat existed before 1949, and that Rahman’s version is disappointing.

“Because Rahman takes away the gravity of the song, introducing light folk elements and sweet, romantic sounds,” he says. “Nazrul’s original is a passionate cry for freedom. Rahman’s version falls flat. It kills the spirit of the song.”

Sarod player and music researcher Anindya Banerjee also feels that a reaction is natural if something that is an important part of our culture is changed suddenly and drastically.

But it is not Rahman’s fault, says Bandyopadhyay. He has written a volume on the many versions (more than hundred) of the song Vande Mataram and reminds that Rahman had revised that song, too. Rahman’s rendition is probably the most popular version of the song now, going at least by Independence Day celebrations. (Rahman’s song had irked eminent singer Manna Dey, who had said: “I fail to understand what did he mean by stretching ‘Vande’ too long; Vandeeeeeeeey makes no sense to me because that is not the way one would pay respect to one’s mother.” Some others feel the same.)

“But how is Rahman supposed to know so much about Nazrul’s song?” asks Bandyopadhyay. Rahman does not know Bengali and is from a different culture. “We have to ask who his interlocutors were. Who explained the song to him, or did not.”

The film production company has stated that it got the permission to use the song from Nazrul’s late daughter-in-law, Kalyani Kazi, with her son, Nazrul’s grandson, Anirban Kazi, as witness to the agreement. Anirban Kazi has now distanced himself from the Rahman song, criticising it as going against Nazrul’s spirit.

He did not respond to The Telegraph’s attempts to contact him.

Now members from other branches of Nazrul’s family are criticising him for giving these rights to the company without consulting them.

Nazrul becomes less accessible if his family squabbles over his estate. But that is a question of legalities and rights. If the Bengali is so outraged over a violation of Nazrul’s legacy, why is it that Nazrul remains forgotten till there is a violation, perceived or real? When is he remembered during other times in the year, in our daily life?

He meets with neglect all the year round, only to come into our focus when we feel that a part of our past is under attack, because the past is all we have. The number of eminent Nazrulgeeti singers has been declining steadily over the years. “Nazrul does not get much academic attention in Bengal,” says Rajib Chakraborty. Nazrul’s work remains substantial.

A Bangladeshi gentleman says on a social media video that Nazrul, despite being the national poet — the Bangladesh government had taken him there, where he spent his last years — is consistently neglected.

Interpretation of a cultural work to an outsider cannot be a spot job; it has to happen in a certain environment, which makes a poet’s works generally accessible. Otherwise, just protests about him look like a form of entitlement, if not appropriation.

Besides, as Ablu Chakraborty, veteran music arranger in Calcutta, says, Nazrul perhaps would not have minded any experimentation with his works. He was a person who gave everything away generously, including what he had created. His songs were also bound less by notations, compared to Tagore’s songs.

And as a 20-something RJ from Calcutta, known for her chutzpah, says: “If the fear is that those who have not heard the song before will only hear it now in a distorted version, I want to ask that in that case to reach the ‘original’ tune of the song to those who haven’t heard it, what were you and I doing?”

A good thing stays on. Shakespeare has, despite the (brilliant) rap version of Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann; Rabindrasangeet has, despite the silly sentimentality of much of contemporary singing. Hopefully Nazrul will too, Rahman or no Rahman.

Till then the Bengalis can sing another song from the south: “Why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di?”

Last updated on 18.11.23, 05:54 AM

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