Being a singer and having the legacy of your aunt, the Nazrul sangeet expert late Firoza Begum, could be a rather daunting matter. However Shusmita Anis, an acclaimed Nazrul Sangeet and modern song performer herself, credits her aunt not for casting such a formidable shadow, but for helping her find and understand the philosophy behind her music. This week, we sat down with this charming lady to talk about music and her passions.
How has your illustrious family connections influenced your music?
It is certainly my good fortune that I grew up in such an environment where music inseparably intertwined with life. The way my aunt Firoza Begum trained me from my childhood and the care she gave me contributed to my success. This is certainly a teacher dependent art, but I did my part too. I kept on practicing the Nazrul Geeti from an early age. I was a child artist in Bangladesh Television, and I stood first in the national competition Notun Kuri in Nazrul Sangeet in my 70s. From what song I should do to how I should perform it, what were my mistakes, where I could improve – my aunt influenced every detail until the time of her death. Her loss as a mentor is immeasurable.
I had gone abroad for higher education but I never really took a break from practicing even when I was away. Music is like oxygen to me. When I returned to Bangladesh in 2009, I had the privilege of intensive training from my a for six years. I also started training with my uncle, music composer, lyricist and artist Mohammad Asafuddowlah, and I continue to take lessons from him.
I think becoming an artist is an ever evolving process. My interaction with my aunt was such that I could not separate my music time with my personal time where she would teach me about life. We used to spend hours at a time together talking and truly I cannot segregate at what point she was my guru or my aunt.
Have you had any formal education in music?
I didn’t study music as an academic discipline in college or universities. I studied Graphic Design in the US. Actually, my aunt was such a great artist that I did not think about getting additional training. She taught me everything from the rudimentary training to the advanced level. She taught me subtle nuances and finer parts of musical renditions of songs and other songs like modern Bengali songs, geet, ghazals etc. Although my aunt focus primarily on Nazrul songs, she always exposed me to different types of music and wanted me to be a versatile singer.
She herself was taught by another big guru, legendary music director Kamal Das Gupta. Chittya Ranjon, who was the main associate of poet Nazrul, also trained my aunt. So the wealth of knowledge I received from her was already unbelievable and overwhelming. Certainly, formal training would be different. I would say though, the training I got, and still getting from my uncle is very special. I am very lucky to get this tradition passed on to me.
How much of being a musician is training, and how much just natural talent?
You certainly can train to have these skills. God does not give everyone the same strengths. A little bit however has to be God-gifted, but the way you enhance that is by rigorous training. It is true that training only takes you so far. Ultimately the vocal qualities in a singer's voice have to appeal to the listeners. However, I think the willingness to be good at what you do plays a big part. But the ultimate test is your listeners. My aunt is a good example of that. It was very tough for her amid so many great singers of her time, and particularly as a Muslim girl, to stand out. But she made a huge effort. Because of her enormous efforts she was able to create and present a voice that people accepted and loved.
Any discussion of Nazrul Sangeet is inevitably connected to Rabindra Sangeet. As two main manifestations of mainstream Bengali culture, the two are related. Do you think that Nazrul Sangeet is taken up by as many artists as Rabindra Sangeet?
Both of them were extremely talented poets. I would say that as our national poet, there is a lot of room for work on Nazrul. His songs have such an intensity and depth that attracted me greatly. It had attracted my aunt as well. I think we should be more inspired to sing Nazrul, especially the songs that are less explored. I think these two giant figures of our literature and music should co-exist with equal importance.
Does art have any borders?
It shouldn't. As an artist, if you look at the Earth from outside, does it have any borders? No, it doesn't. All of that is created by human beings. We are part of the human race, irrespective of cultures and religions. The cultures we have as Bengali speaking people tie all of us together. Nazrul is part of that, Rabindranath is part of that too. This is my philosophy and I want to keep it that way.
What is the definition of “modern music” to you?
I would say as an individual and a graphic designer, I am very progressive and experimental. I would say that modern songs give you an opportunity to push your boundaries, to see what works and what doesn't. You can play and mix and match and no one will mind. You can't do that in things that are fixed. You can unleash your creativity when it is outside of those certain rigid fields.
An artist is a holistic person, she isn't locked in a confined space. Your creativity is a 360 degree compass. I think about music the same way I think about graphic design. Here, I am customising and modulating my voice by interpreting a story to create an auditory experience. While graphic design is a static form of art, music is a translation of the auditory sound. The question is, am I able to touch the people thought this auditory form of art that can only be felt in the heart? Everybody is tested on this same ground. Only time will tell how receptive the audiences are to artists.
Do you like the new trend of fusing Nazrul or Rabindra Shangeet with modern music?
In my training I, too, am a puritan. My guru was so particular that she would spot and correct minute alterations. I wasn't allowed to deviate from the original tune. There is room for variation in Nazrul songs within the 'raag'. There is the scope of variation in some. But in general, one should not distort the tunes of Nazrul songs.
One may introduce modern musical arrangements depending on the nature of the song. What does the song demand? If it is a prayer, then you have to present it that way. Why do you have to play around with these songs? For me personally, I think I don't have that right, but there can be fusion in the musical part only in my opinion.
Could you tell us a fond memory with Firoza Begum?
There are so many! I had a very deep connection with her, because my relationship with her developed through many years. I could understand just by looking at her face when I sang a part wrong. When practicing the song 'bolechile tumi tirthey ashibey', she spent a long time on just the word 'bolechile', to perfect the throwing. I would try to perfect it and after a while when I would try to sing it in front of her, I would be very careful to do it right and before anything happened, she would understand what I was trying to do and we would both laugh at the same time.
The countless hours we spent together training all went into that non-verbal communication. Also because she was my aunt, I spent even more time with her as my family member.
You won the Natun Kuri prize in 1976. Do you think it is possible to maintain standards with so many programmes on TV now?
I look at this positively. I still recall though, at that time everyone knew every programme on TV, the timing, the contents, everything, because there was just one channel. But you have to adapt as time moves on. However, I do think that with so many channels, it is a little diluted. But we have to figure out how we make things work. With many programms the audiences are divided too. This is a new environment.
I think there is a lacking of initiative here. If you sing a great song, that doesn’t guarantee that you will get a platform to perform again. This is unfortunate. The artist is not a marketer. I have seen this many times. Someone has a great voice and singing skill. But they don't know where they should go. Where is the platform? If there was a system, say a fantastic singer from Rajshahi who became first in an audition, he can then get called to a program in one channel every three months or so. This is what should happen. Our platform is divided and there is so much politics in it that an artist like that would get lost. Sometimes talents like that can also get exploited.
Tell us about the modern song that got two million views.
It's “Keu jaanuk ar nai januk” which is a beautiful love song, composed by Adit and the video was made by Angshu. This is the first time I sang a modern song formally. Because I got such a great response I am following that up with a release for Eid. The story in that song was unfinished and we are going to finish that story in the upcoming release. I am busy working on my new song. At the same time, I am scheduled to perform in Kolkata and Churulia for Nazrul's birthday.