Difference redefined and resilience echoed
The voice that was Azam Khan
The pop icon Mahbubul Haq Khan, a k a Azam Khan, in the vein of the characters depicted in the strain above, lifted from one of his legendary songs, made his silent plunge into death on June 5, aged 61, as if to prove that it is uncertainty that human existence is always redolent of. What is left is the nomenclature which is affiliated to a body of songs representing the characteristic deadpan dialogic manner of delivery of the guru, an epithet he earned from his numerous protégés.
The hi-pitched, yet sincere vocal style that shot him to fame in the years of the 1970s, now makes us aware that the freedom fighter in him was always trying to get out – often colouring the words with an immediacy very rare in the urban cultural climate where the hi-brow sets the standard. It has never been emphasized before his final departure that Azam Khan had honed his craft at the war front. His meteoric rise to stardom occurred at a time when Bangladeshi pop culture was reinventing itself in lieu of the swiftly changing social-cultural environment following the country's independence in 1971.
Though he was not alone in generating the current that peaked in the rising tide of a sub-culture that hit the country with the force of a sudden collective adrenaline rush in the early years of 1970s, Azam Khan's creative manoeuvring, for its off-hand poeticity, can now be defined as an urban re-invention of the 'vernacular', and thus encapsulating an attitude towards life and art that defies the confines of the conventional modernist doxa.
His death has only reinforced the fact that as a vocal stylist with a penchant for speaking to his community in its own vocabulary, Khan touched on some core issues of poverty, nationhood, loneliness as well as unrequited love – all of which together now stand to assure him posterity. His legacy makes us revisit the sites of cultural regeneration/re-encryption and the historical moments they gave rise to.
The two songs that first grabbed the attention of the public consciousness, 'Eto shundar duniaye kichhui robe na' (Nothing will remain of this beautiful universe) and 'Char kolema shakhhi dibe hajroter ummat' (The four Kalimas will testify to your followership to Muhammad), was received with caution, if not trepidation, by the Dhaka cognoscenti, inclined as they have always been to a brand of nationalism eternally based on the secular/religious distinction.
On the heel of such short circuiting of the dominant strand of nationalist narrative, not intending to create its diametric opposites, but to touch on the fact that nationalism itself has been a multilinear construction, came the most potent symbolism of the post-liberation period: 'Ogo raj-puttur! shukno ruteete tar bhore naako pet' (O! dear prince – never is he satisfied with a dried out roti).
Hirsute Azam Khan in the 1970s.The contributions that Khan made to the changing trajectory of pop culture by redefining melodies and re-organizing the language of expression urbanites were habituated to lend ears to, expressly brought to light the new social condition that even escaped the notice of some mainstream darlings – consisting of both poets and writers.
By the early 1980s, his benediction by the middle class put him on the course of stardom. Even his most syrupy love songs never failed to cut a wide swath across class, 'cause he never failed to breach the borders of the hierarchy of taste'. As Maqsoodul Haque, another popular singer who emerged in the 1980s, in an homage to the late singer, in the New Age, June 25, wrote: 'our elders and the teeming middle class in general, not familiar with the emerging new soundscape, gave it a sinister label, Oposhonskrity' (lit decadent culture). The Puritanism that exists today in the creative circle was equally strong in the immediate post-war years. The rampart of Good Taste was penetrated by popular songs – hi-pitched clarion calls directed to the youth fashioned after the cultural resistance of 1960s counter culture generation of the West; especially fueled by ex-Beatle George Harrison's efforts, one who, at the time of urgency, called the attention of the world to the genocide committed by the Pakistan army by pairing up with Ravi Sankar to organize the milestone-of-a music event of their era – The Concert for Bangladesh.
In Khan's vocabulary, national trauma found its expression in the simplest of all manners as he aptly expressed the particularity of situations or predicament with a certain emotive force. The song 'Rel liner oi bostite jonme chhilo ekti chhele' (In the slum besides the railway siding, a boy was born) epitomizes such hi-keyed messages wherein the post-independent political reality is inscribed, when the masses were pushed further to the periphery.
Born in 1950, at Azimpur, Dhaka, Khan emerged as a singer at the battle fields after he joined the Muktibahini (read, guerrillas). He was one of the section commanders of Sector 2 and later, due to his leftist orientation, he never received a gallantry award, as is pointed out by Maqsoodul Haque, in the New Age article. Haque, in the same piece where he joins up anecdotes with the unique personality of the pop icon, depicts how he, with one of his co-freedom fighters, dealt a devastating blow to the forward bunker put up by the Pakistan army, at Saldah, Comilla.
Azam Khan was shaped by his time. If in his homeland subsequent governments only succeeded in derailing the ethos that formed the very apex of the resistance that finally culminated into the War of Independence. On the international arena the imperial ambitions of the US began to face vehement resistance; in Vietnam, the war was being lost to the rising power of the people of the South; in the major US cities, the voices of dissent was getting stronger. This was the backdrop against which Azam Khan employed the service of poeticity to the emotional achievements, thereby effecting a change in the cultural landscape for good.