MEET THE STUDENT – Shahnaz Sadullah

'Bengali Music (Rabindra Sangeet – Vocal) gained immense popularity in tandem with its creator, the learned Rabindranath Tagore. While the world mostly knows him as a poet, Tagore composed over 2,000 songs collectively known as Rabindra Sangeet, (‘Rabindra Music’ merging prose and poetry with lyricism. This contribution to Indian music has had a long-lasting influence in Bangladesh and Bengal, India, where it roots are. Heavily influenced by the North Indian light-classical Thumri style of song and focusing mainly on words set to melody, Tagore’s music emulates the tone of Indian classical ragas mixed with a poetic flair.’

Anvi chats with SHAHNAZ SADULLAH, who is an advanced student of Bengali Music at The Bhavan.
1.What inspired you to pursue Bengali Music?
Learning to sing Bengali songs has always been my childhood dream, a dream with which I have lived now for so many years of my life and I knew at some point I had to pick it up again. Being born to Bangladeshi parents, music was an integral part of our family life. Both my parents adored Tagore and Nazrul’s compositions as well as other genres in Bengali vocals. It was my mother’s ardent wish that I keep up with my music lessons and do well in this area. During my early years as a child I had some formal music lessons at home but due to increasing pressures of studies it was left incomplete. It was not until a few years ago that I was able to find an excellent and a committed teacher, Smt. Sajali Roy, at the Bengali Music Department of London Bhavan. As far as I can recall, my first meeting with her was short and informal during which time she assessed my basic understanding of notes and Bengali music in general. Her demeanour and personality struck me at once and it didn’t take me long to decide that I had come to the right place to chase my cherished dream.
2. Please tell us a little more about Bengali music
Bengal and music are almost synonymous terms in that it is incomprehensible to imagine a person of Bengali origin not to love music. For a Bengali, music is a way of life or in other words, it is the very essence of his or her being. Poets and composers of Bengal have touched upon almost every aspect of human life and emotions so much so that the culture of Bengal is almost interwoven with music. In Kobi Guru Rabindranath and Nazrul Islam, the other major theme that runs through all their poetry and songs is the beauty of nature and the seasons in all their splendor. Equally important are the compositions of D.L Roy, Atul Prasad and Rajini Kanta who have enriched Bengali music (along with Kobi Guru and Nazrul Islam) with their lyrics and Raga based tunes. Through generations some of the of the patriotic and devotional songs of the five composers or “Poncho Kobi” have remained inspirational for all Bengalis. Here one must not forget the role played by the Bauls/Mystic minstrels of Bangladesh and West Bengal and their influence on Bengali music. Many of Tagore’s songs are based on such themes as inner fulfillment or peace of mind and they are set to Kirtan tunes and style.
3. Why did you choose to learn at the Bhavan and how has been your experience so far?
I heard from friends that the Bhavan was an established musical institution and as such felt it would have high teaching standards. Also, since I had a long gap in my learning, I felt that the Bhavan would be able to provide me with a more structured curriculum which would be a good guide for me. So far, all my expectations have been fulfilled as first and foremost, I have been blessed with a dedicated teacher like Sajali Roy who is not only passionate about music but is also caring, sincere and highly knowledgeable in her subject. Her positive attitude and high expectations of all her students have greatly encouraged me to continue with my singing lessons for a number of years at the Bhavan and complete my Diploma and PD in Bengali Music. Student involvement in concerts, departmental and cultural functions form another huge area in Bhavan which I feel I enjoy immensely and where our teacher always encourages us to participate as it enriches our learning, confidence level and takes us further.
4. What is the scope of this form of music In London/England? Are there many practitioners and performers? How do you think we could increase its reach among the people here?
To my knowledge, Bengali Vocals are very popular all over the world and more so, in London as there is a big Bengali community from both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. People from this background are keen for their children to keep in touch with their culture through music of Bengal and its composers’ creations. The Bhavan at London is definitely the ideal institution where one could turn to for either learning, continuing with their passion for Bangla music or educating their children in the rich heritage of Bengali culture. There are other schools where Rabindra Shongeet (Tagore’s songs) and Nazrul Geeti (Poet Nazrul Islam’s songs) are being taught in London but I have my reservations about what and how these compositions are being taught at these places. To be fair, I couldn’t speak for them but one thing I am confident about is that my respected teacher and Guru at Bhavan definitely delivers quality lessons based on the original notations and spares no effort to stretch each individual student to their full potential.
5. Are there any challenges that you have faced and overcome as a student of Bengali Music?
Yes, there have been challenges and by no means it was an easy journey in my endeavor to pick up music and continue with it after a break for several years. Often in the midst of a busy schedule, it meant keeping one weekend aside for the classes and a bit of time during the week for practice. It also meant strong determination and a commitment to complete the courses which seemed an uphill task when you have completed your education and not used to taking exams anymore. The two people who have been a constant source of inspiration and support in my effort to achieve my goal were my revered teacher, Sajali Roy and my late mother. I will always remain indebted to them.
6. Share some of your achievements and proud moments with us.
In retrospect, all the hard work was surely not without its moments of pride and joy. One such moment was when my Post Diploma results sent me in raptures; it was too overwhelming and an extraordinary moment for me. On a different note, it was a thrilling moment for me when I heard that the BBC invited the Bengali music department students to feature in a program about Bengali culture which would be shown later on ITV. This was a totally a new and an exciting experience.
7. How do you see yourself growing and exploring as a singer in the future? Do you want to teach or perform more?
Rich and varied music of Bengal takes a lifetime of learning. On a continuum of learning it is equivalent to a drop in the ocean, I guess. In that respect, learning is a high priority with me and of course, to add dimension and experience to my learning, I would also like to perform from time to time. In terms of teaching music, I haven’t given much thought to it yet. But that can be a possibility if and when I am ready for it.
8. As an advanced student, what would be your advice to a beginner who is thinking of starting Bengali music training?
I would say to all learners of Bengali music, learn with sincerity rather than be influenced by those who believe in overnight success. Make every effort to learn it well because music is a very important part of Bengali culture and identity. It takes you closer to your roots of which you should be proud of. All the different elements that make a music rich, is there in the creations of well-known composers of Bengal. So enjoy the rhythms, melody, taal varieties and so much more.