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Shamsuddin: Lyricist of the first song on the Language Movement

  • Published at 12:01 am February 21st, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:59 pm February 21st, 2017

We know him as poet Shamsuddin, but he referred to himself as "Sheikh Shamsuddin." According to his book of lyrics published in 1953, his village was Fatehpur, post Bagerhat and district Khulna. He was born probably in 1915 (1321-22 in the Bengali calendar). It hasn't been long since his name surfaced in discussions as the lyricist of the first song on the Language Movement, though he is not yet acknowledged as such. It has been culled from various sources that in the evening of February 23, 1952, Shamsuddin sang this song titled “Rastra bhasha gaan” (The state language song) in solidarity with the Language Movement as well as mourning the martyrs at a programme in Bagerhat's Town Club. Poets from Bagerhat, especially Abu Bakar Siddique and Mohammad Rafique, historian-researcher Swarochish Sarker and activist Mansur Ahmed have written about him in essays, short stories and reminiscences. They have passed his stories on to the current generation. Siddique wrote about him in the weekly, Bichitra, and Ahmed in one of Bagerhat's little magazine, Chokh, in 1990. Rafique has written a story about him in his collection of short stories. Sarker mentions him in his book, Ekattare Bagerhat: Muktijuddher Ancalik Itihas (Bagerhat in 1971: A Local History of the Freedom Struggle of Bangladesh, 2nd Ed. Dhaka: Kathaprakash, 2015). One could still hear stories about him in informal gatherings from the elders of Bagerhat. During a visit to his ancestral home in Boitpur, Bagerhat, Rafique told this writer during a conversation, “Do you know I first heard the word ‘Bangali’ in Shamsuddin's song?” [caption id="attachment_48055" align="aligncenter" width="426"]Cover of the book of songs containing Sheikh Shamsuddin's groundbreaking lyrical prowess Dhaka Tribune Cover of the book of songs containing Sheikh Shamsuddin's groundbreaking lyrical prowess Dhaka Tribune[/caption] Late Goni Sardar, a self-styled singer in Bagerhat town, did the biggest service to Shamsuddin’s memory. Every year on February 21, at the stroke of midnight, placing himself on a rickshaw he sang this song on a loud speaker all night long till he died. “O Bangalis, you launched the state language movement you smeared the streets of Dhaka with blood.” Sardar toured through the alleys and streets of Bagerhat singing this song in an emotionally imbued voice, turning the whole town sad and heavy with mourning. That’s how we became familiar with the song and its writer, and that’s how Shamsuddin is still alive in the oral history of Bagerhat. Siddique in his Bichitra article has elaborately discussed the confusion that has been there about the life and works of Shamsuddin, the lyricist and composer of this song. This confusion resurfaced in 2009 when Banglalink used parts of the song in one of its advertisements. Is it true that a poor poet from a remote village in Bagerhat has composed this song which is actually the first song written on the language martyrs. Or was it someone else? Some articles were carried in newspapers back then about the debate, some of which accused Banglalink of distorting history while some others mentioned Shamsuddin as the lyricist and Altaf Mahmud as the composer of the song. On the other hand, in the works written by Siddique, Ahmed and Sarker it was clearly mentioned that Shamsuddin sang this song at a mourning rally in Bagerhat on February 23, 1952. All of these confusions have been dispelled now that Shamsuddin’s first collection of song lyrics has been retrieved. Now we can affirm that Shamsuddin was the lyricist and composer of the song. Later Altaf Mahmud changed the lyrics and tune a bit. The song which is available to us now is the slightly modified version of Mahmud’s. Recently a book of songs written by Shamsuddin and published in February 1953 by Khulna Eastern Press has been retrieved from a personal library in Bagerhat. Under the title, Pakistan Palligiti (Pakistan's Rural Song), the book has a collection of 14 songs. This is the only book by Shamsuddin that we have. None of his other written documents could be brought to light. We have learnt that to save his family from an impending attack by the Pakistan army he along with his eldest son Kokhon burnt all samples of his other writings. He was living with his family in Fatehpur during the nine-month long Liberation War. Despite being an employee of the Pakistan government as a boyati (a baul singer hired to raise awareness of social issues), he was critical of government policies in almost all of his songs. May be it explains why he destroyed all his manuscripts: To protect his family from pro-Pakistani collaborators who opposed Bangladesh’s independence struggle. Since then his songs have survived and been passed on from one generation to another through oral histories. Professor Mir Mosharraf Ali, principal of Bagerhat PC College, wrote an introduction to the book and at the end of it the date mentioned was February 11, 1953. The book also has a note of appreciation from famous poet Jasimuddin. Shamsuddin himself wrote a brief note at the beginning:
After a long time, I present my simple-minded, famine-stricken, ever-ignored village people with the flowers of a few songs. Their number is small but a lot of these sorrow-laden buds, being my lone company in times of joy as well as grief, are slumbering in the garden of my poetry. Realising the crises that Pakistan and its people are in, I humbly present these to the people of the country. I had never thought I’d publish a book but after being urged by some friends and well-wishers I decided to bring out this book. Writer advocate Abdul Jalil and Abdul Jabbar, Chairman Syed Mostagawsul Haque and eminent social activist Sheikh Abdul Aziz and Atahar Ali, and my friend Ferdous, helped me actualize my dream. Poets Mojaharul Islam and Hobibur Rahman fine-tuned some errors and my dear friend Mir Mosharraf Ali kindly wrote the introduction to my book. I shall remain forever grateful to these people. If my simple songs sway any of my readers, I’d be much obliged. Sincerely, Sheikh Shamsuddin
In his introduction, professor Mir Mosharraf Ali wrote:
The publication of this book by poet and singer Shamsuddin is very meaningful. Days of composing songs about cheap love stories are over. Real literature is like a mirror of the society. At present the country is riven with shortage of food and clothes, and issues of education, health and the state language have come to the fore. Thousands of poor people are spending days in utter misery and frustration. A lot of people are dying for lack of a meal. However, when Pakistan was born, people were full of hopes about a free country where there would be no hunger. That dream of theirs has shattered due to malevolent policies of some conspirators. Shamsuddin’s songs reflect the pain stemming from that shattered dream. When the poet sang many of these songs at different rallies, I remember people crying. That’s why his rural songs are not only successful but also a step in the right direction for the literature of East Bengal. I cannot help uttering one more thing. The mood and language of these songs are as simple as mass people. The educated society might find quite a few elements for criticism in them but I believe they will find a place in the hearts of simple-minded village people.  Mir Mosharraf Ali Professor Bagerhat Prafullo Chandra College 11.02. 1953
Later Professor Ali was dismissed from PC College due to his involvement in the Language Movement. [caption id="attachment_48058" align="aligncenter" width="352"]The first song written about the martyrs of February 21 penned by Sheikh Shamsuddin Dhaka Tribune The first song written about the martyrs of February 21 penned by Sheikh Shamsuddin Dhaka Tribune[/caption] In his note of appreciation, Jasimuddin has written:
It was a pleasure reading some of Sheikh Shamsuddin’s songs and verses. He is singing like a cuckoo in some unknown corner of a village. He doesn’t seem to bother about whether people regard them good or bad. Pure joy gets him to write and sing. I’d always pray and hope his joy remains alive forever.
 One could easily infer that Jasimuddin was familiar with the works of Shamsuddin way before the book was published. The book was dedicated to the language martyrs of 1952, and Bagerhat’s renowned musician Shuklal Chakraborty and legendary song-lyricist Abbasuddin Ahmed. The book contains a total of 14 songs and DL Roy was mentioned as the composer of two songs. Interestingly enough, it also has a note of appreciation for his book, Dui Koborer Majhe (Between two graves), which was a narrative poem about the life of the rural people. This note was written by Sardar A Khaleque and the date mentioned was Febraury 12, 1953. The book also has an announcement for another collection of his song-lyrics, Kobita Kanon: Prothom Path (The garden of poems: First reading). Sadly though, we don't have any information about the books, whether they were published later or not. We don't have any photograph of the poet. Some say he once had a grocery shop while some others say he used to hang out at a grocery shop at Doratana Kheyaghat, Bagerhat. He died in 1974. Shamsuddin had the gift of writing songs instantly and his songs and poems reflected the social inequities and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. He wrote numerous songs and poems but most of them got lost. Perhaps some have survived in the memories of his friends and fellow singers but no one can tell for sure how many songs he'd actually written.

Asheque Ibrahim writes poetry in Bangla, edits a little magazine called Shankha, and is involved in publishing.