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Dhaka Tribune

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Memories of music in August 1971

Remembering the Concert for Bangladesh, and how music played a vital role in Bangladesh’s creation

Update : 04 Aug 2022, 11:27 PM

August 1 was the anniversary of Ravi Shankar’s and George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” -- two performances which took place at Madison Square Garden in 1971. This was probably the first concert to raise money for “good causes” and there have been many others since then. 

Although those two concerts themselves raised only about $ 250,000, it was estimated in 1985 that together with profits from the sales of records and tapes and CDs, an estimated $12mhad been raised till then. George Harrison died in 2001 and his wife, Olivia Harrison, set up the George Harrison Fund for Unicef in 2005 with the encouragement of the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan. 

Olivia Harrison traveled to Bangladesh in 2011 to see the impact of the Fund’s support for children there. “I really feel I have a strong connection to this country,” she said at that time. In another interview in 2020, Olivia explained: “We wanted to expand and to help children all over the world, if we could.” 

Over the years, this fund has benefitted children in Angola, Brazil, Haiti, India, Mozambique, and Romania, and in 2020, funds were sent to relieve the suffering caused by a severe fire which broke out in four Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. And so the 1971 concert is still able to assist Bangladesh and other countries in times of need. This is, indeed, quite a remarkable story.

In August 1971, those of us working with the refugees in the refugee camps all around the border areas of Bangladesh were becoming somewhat demoralized. The world’s political actors, dominated at that time by the US and the Soviet Union, had made no progress in assisting the UN to resolve the fight between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). 

After the scourge of cholera, many of the refugee camps which were already over-crowded were now flooded. The late Narayan Desai from the Gandhi Peace Foundation, and an awardee of the Bangladesh “Friends of Liberation War Honour,” visited those refugee camps, which were supported by Oxfam, and described the over-crowding of the camps most aptly. He wrote: 

“Twenty-three persons living in a tent measuring 12 feet by 9 feet. Sixteen living on a raised 8 feet square platform of bamboo chips, avoiding direct contact with knee-deep water. This is the rule, rather than the exception.”

Teams of volunteers, to cover the non-medical needs of the refugees in the Oxfam supported camps, were sent out on a regular basis by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in Orissa as well as from a number of Gandhian organizations in Gujarat. Teams of students came from as far away as Vidya Bhavan in Udaipur, Rajasthan. 

These volunteers injected life into the camps, setting up informal schools, organizing weekly cultural programs (specially singing), and organizing regular cleaning and feeding activities. 

Particular mention should be made about musical programs. In August, soon after the first news of the Concert for Bangladesh had seeped through to us in Calcutta, one of the professors accompanying the medical students from one of the Bombay medical colleges, told me that depression was becoming a major problem in the camps, and wondered if we could provide harmoniums and tablas. 

Immediately, we were able to organize the purchase of about 100 sets of these musical instruments and we accounted for them in the medical budget line. I got into serious trouble with the Oxfam Finance Department for this, but I was able to receive letters from the professor of medicine with evidence that the expenditure on medicines had reduced, and that music was, indeed, a wonderful medicine.

It was at that time that I learnt of the Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha, a troupe which moved around encouraging both the refugees in the camps, but more importantly, the freedom fighters in Bangladesh. 

I remember that their singing in the refugee camps changed the mood of the refugees in a very positive way. Later on, when I visited a camp near Calcutta at a place called Gobardanga, an old man who had come as a refugee from Munshiganj said that when the music was played for the first time with the harmonium and tablas supplied by Oxfam, he had closed his eyes and had remembered the smell of cooking from his wife’s kitchen and had heard the noise made by his goats and chickens. 

The melodies and the songs encouraged him, he said, that he and his family would soon go home.

And so, the anniversary of the “Concert for Bangladesh” opened up all these personal memories of music in the refugee camps of 1971 and to know that income from the sales and royalties of the music of the concert continue to support children in need.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.’

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