This Bangladeshi song, originally sung by Nilufa Yasmin (1948-2003) for a film in 1975, was performed in Harrow, London 2018 whilst accompanied on tabla by Keval Joshi.
The song describes the distress of a woman who is involuntarily leaving her village. She describes a fire which continues to burn with no one here to help. Metaphorically, she is referring to the burning sensation of emotional pain which she is expressing in a term called ‘somatisation’. Interestingly, in British South Asian women, there tends to be high rate of somatisation, namely a physical description of pain located in the body. South Asian women often describe a burning in their chest or in their liver which psychologists believe to be a culturally normalised way of experiencing and expressing anxiety and stress.
She goes on to describing how despite building a home by enduring a lifetime of sorrows, this home is now burnt to ashes. The final part of the song describes a possible attachment figure who she has lost or leaving behind. She describes this individual as one who bears a mountain of pain but remains smiling, she resembles him to a flower which bears the pain of its thorns but continues to radiate a fragrance. She asks where she can now search to find such a person.
A simple rural Bangladeshi song from an era long gone but by no means forgotten.
We all experience losses and grieve in some way throughout our lives. Grief is a process that allows us to come to terms with the loss and helps us to move on with our lives. However, there is a kind of grief that is hidden, a grief which is not acknowledged or even socially accepted in some cases. This ‘disenfranchised grief’ is a more complex process, which can lead to a ‘stuckness’ in the process of moving on. It can be more intense and more prolonged than the usual process of grieving.
When I watched this video to Shonai hai hai reh, I was immediately drawn to the idea of disenfranchised grief in the Bangladeshi community. In this song, a young deceased woman is shown in the context of her family. She is covered fully in a white cloth (in line with Muslim tradition), and carried by men in her family and community to be buried. This song grieves for a young woman who is no longer here, a woman who was married off by her father and buried by her father-in-law. The video shows women in the family crying from behind a door, whilst men carry out the funeral rites. Amidst this, a young man is shown grieving alone after the burial has finished and mourners have left.
This young man could be her lover, he could be her relative, it could be a sibling, it could be her husband. It is unclear who he is, but his grief is real and genuine. One of the questions people often ask each other in a funeral is ‘how did you know the deceased?’ and we try to establish a grief hierarchy. We assume that the family members will be most affected and deserve the most sympathy and support. In this video, this young man is not mentioned amidst the men in the deceased’s life. There is no mention of who he is and his relationship with her. His grief is lonely, his sadness is felt in the song ‘Shonai hai hai reh’ which expresses regret, remorse and an attachment with the deceased.
This simple, Bangladeshi song makes me wonder how many untold stories there are around the world of disenfranchised grief. Although I engage in many types of music, this song with the image of a woman’s dead body being carried away for burial, will haunt me for a long time.
Introduction to Bangladeshi Song Writers
Bangladesh has produced some of the finest poets, song-writers and artists who have contributed enormously to our sense of culture and heritage. The prominent ones who have received international recognition include Noble Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, the latter being renowned for his political activism during British colonisation of India.
Spiritual Music from the District of Sylhet, Bangladesh
In addition to the above, Bangladesh is known to be home to some intriguing songwriters and spiritualists, mainly originating from the Sylhet district. Such songs with a spiritual undertone are referred to as Baul songs.
- Lalon Shah (1772-1890), a spiritualist whose identity was very vague was considered the icon of religious tolerance. He wrote about the divisions created by organised religions (Tin Pagoleh holo mela) and critiqued the concept of caste and ideas at the time about male superiority over women.
- Hason Raja (1854-1922), a landowner from the village of Rampasha, Bishwanath was known for his indulgant lifestyle and later religious conversion. Hason Raja wrote hundreds of songs about the soul (Mathiro pinjirar majeh bondi hoiyya), its connection with the body and about the futility of a materialistic life (Lokeh boleh boleh reh).
- Radha Ramon Dutta (1833-1915), born in the rural village of Keshoppur, Jagannathpaur was amongst those who wrote extensively about one’s relationship with God (sham kalia shona bondu reh).
- Finally, more recently, Shah Abdul Karim (1916-2009) also wrote very simple but philosophical songs about existential issues (Mathiro pinjirai sonar moyna reh) including the attachment between the body and soul.
Bangladeshi Baul Music in the UK
Given the simplicity of their lyrics, Baul songs have gained popularity both in rural parts of Bangladesh and here in the UK amongst the British Bangladeshi community (including second generations). Baul programmes are frequently aired on the many community TV channels and sung at various cultural festivals.
The following clip is an example of a Bangladeshi- born British singer who has carried the essence of spirituality into his music. Alaur Rahman is a well respected vocalist who has contributed significantly to Bangladeshi music in UK. Born in the district of Jagannathpur, Sylhet, Mr. Rahman spent his early education in an Islamic school. Although he later found himself drawn to music, Mr. Rahman has continued his interest in islamic spirituality through his singing of songs which are often existential in nature.
The song he is singing in the clip below describes the remorse of a person is who is regretful of how they spent their life in pursuit of irrelevant goals and false attachments. The song describes the time wasted without adequate remembrance of God. Although the music here is creating a joyful mood, this song is in fact addressing issues such as emerging mortality, lack of time in later life and the inability for us to go back and rectify our mistakes.
I hope you enjoy this song by a talented singer who has been very successful and popular in his music career in the UK.
Today, on Mother’s Day, I am compelled to post a song that has both baffled and intrigued me for a while.
This song was written by Lalon Shah (at a later stage, I will post more about his biography) from the perspective of a child. I believe this child to be none other than Krishna, the Hindu God. In this song, Krishna is holding his mother’s feet and begging her not to beat him anymore. (‘Boli ma tor choron dhoreh…Ar amareh marish na ma!’). He promises never to steal and eat curd again without her knowing. The narrative of Krishna being mischievous is well documented. Hindu texts describe him as stealing curd, teasing girls and being tied up as punishment by his mother.
Lalon Shah wrote from the perspective of a child about the cruelty of a mother beating her child, a practice that at the time (and continues in some contexts) to be an accepted form of disciplining. The child in this song however says (‘poreh mareh porer cheleh’) that a child may be beaten by others (metaphorically meaning that the child will experience cruelty from the outside world) but who will understand the child’s pain if the mother herself is heartless and unapproachable? (‘Ma jononi nishtoor holeh ke bhojibo shishur bedona?’)
This heartbreaking song highlights the capacity for the mother to be punishing (‘Just for some curd, you tied me up and beat me Mother’). However, I am unclear about the context and experiences which led Lalon Shah to write about this theme.
- Did Lalon frequently witness child abuse?
- How was his own experience of being parented?
- Was he referring generally to the cycle of violence in families?
I would be interested to know more about the context in which Lalon wrote this and whether it means something different to others. Please feel free to post your thoughts.