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Friday, September 06, 2013

Abdur Rahman Boyati and the legacy of the body clocks last seconds

Pix credit Hasib Zakaria © 

by Mac Haque

Throw some food our way, not flowers at our corpse.’ Kuddus Boyati

When the legendary Abdur Rahman Boyati made his transition on August 19, 2013 the loss to the nation was not of a ‘star’ but a galaxy disappearing from the heaven above.  Paralysed with a cerebral stroke on September 17, 2003 and unable to sing, for nearly ten years the legend survived on contributions from all sections of our society. Yet when it was time to bid our final adieu to the man who represented Bangladesh in many an international event, gaining admiration and respect for his raw and pristine artistry, the picture that was repetitive and revolting was his apparent state of economic hardship. Revolting, for the media and social networks more than focusing on his music or his art or the man that was Rahman Boyati, went on an overdrive of shallow and hypocritical crocodile tears.

Images of musical icons living and dying for what they believe in and the art they practice scrupulously at great sacrifices to their societal or even familial needs and wants – is neither new nor surprising. However, what does merit open discussion is the word dustho shilpi which popularly may mean ‘destitute artist’ – yet in colloquial Bangla, also means a performer who is a pauper! In both cases the term is abusive, strips off dignity and is an insult to someone who has contributed enormously to culture by sticking true to our roots – our origin.

While music as an institution has traditionally received wide appreciation and fondness among people, and is a business of unimaginable magnitude, yet when it comes to state’s recognition, the government’s apathy is numbing. That the death of Rahman Boyati is no less the death of a heritage dignitary, a Bangladesh Ambassador of our majority rural citizenry was selectively expunged from public memory. Economically disadvantaged singers and musicians have time and again been meted with the same treatment before or after their deaths. Nothing can be more shameful.

We have a ministry of cultural affairs  that apparently has a fund for ‘destitute artist’, meaning the mindset has taken it for granted that a musical artist is destined to die pauper and such funds can, or will be used to make the government look like a tokenistic do-gooder! However, is fund and cash doles the only available option to ensure music and musicians will survive?  Sadly it is not, for more than money, it is our abject insensitivity at not creating enough space for musicians is ultimately where death knell for the arts rings loud.

Musicians more than money are denied the opportunity they deserve whether that is in the media or LIVE performances. Corporate exploitation and overkills of the arts chooses merely to tag and piggyback upon an artist’s ‘image’ and ‘popularity’ profiles to sell its product. When Rahman Boyati died, the hushed shock that enveloped everyone was ‘he never received any state honour’. But what state honour are we talking about here?

The biggest ‘honour’ that anyone involved with the arts can hope for is the Ekushey Padak. However, it is just not given to a recipient solely based on his or her merits and talents, but more so with how ‘otherwise talented’ they are in building political and media ‘connections’, and in their social networking amongst culture vultures and touts closest to the administration.

For someone as simple and naïve as Rahman Boyati, it was unthinkable to stoop so low, and it is a sheer tragedy that very few heritage artists have so far received the award. In the case of Rahman Boyati as is being speculated, a belated award may only serve the purpose of a nation’s afterthought to ‘honour’ a legend. But when it comes to taking stock of how Rahman Boyati ‘honoured’ Bangladesh all his life without asking for anything in return; a mere award that hangs in his home desolate in his absence and a few lakh takas paid to his beneficiaries can only be considered tokenistic bordering on depravity – no different than the ‘pauper’ tag we as a nation seem ready to mouth at any given opportunity.

If we at all have to honour likes of Rahman Boyati and other heritage icons and luminaries, we need to have a thorough and undiluted understanding of our rural traditions.

Boyatis musically and philosophically are in the same genre as Bauls. Whereas in the case of the latter it evolved in the erstwhile Nadiya district of pre-partition Bengal now comprising Kustia, Meherpur, Jhenidah, Chuadanga etc the Boyatis were predominantly concentrated in and around Dhaka district extending further until Faridpur and Manikganj.  However the geographical locale of the Boyati tradition is today expansive. Indeed wherever there are Bengali speakers, Boyatis are inevitably present offering not only a cultural, but importantly a spiritual service. Other than the length and breadth of Bangladesh, Boyatis reaffirm the tradition all the way from West Bengal to London!

The advent of the Boyatis can be traced back to the earliest Sufis who arrived in Dhaka some 700 years ago. Concentrated in the Azimpur locality the relics of the Dayera Sharif still in existence stands as a testament and silent reminder of the Sufi influence in our culture, with the Boyatis among others, the earliest exponents of the music, philosophy and legacy of Saints buried in its premise.

The word Boyati on the other hand etymologically means someone who has taken ‘bayat’ or ‘diksha’ (initiation) imparted on them by their Guru/Murshid. It is a lifelong oath and a pledge of secrecy for committed dedication to serve toiling humanity. Boyatis like Bauls believe in the primacy of a Guru/Murshid and remain for a considerable period of time under such a person’s tutelage. They are usually followers of the Chistia and Qadriya tarikat of Sufi orders.

The word also implies a direct relationship to Islamic history of the Ahl-al Bayt i.e the spiritual descendants ofProphet Muhammad (pbuh) who carried forward the mystically esoteric and exoteric messages encoded within the Quran. The Ahl-al Bayt or ‘people of the mantle’ encapsulates the Prophet himself, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, daughter Fatima, and grandsons Hasan and Hussain, ie the purported  pak panjtan (the exalted five) as in Sufi spirituality.

Boyatis therefore depend on shirzanama for their music and spiritual teaching and guidance. These are well recorded and agreed upon hagiographical flowcharts that tracks back the original message/s conveyed as ‘lip to ear wisdom’, via a chain of transmissions of innumerable Gurus/Murshids all the way to the fountainheads of the four known and popular tarikatsChistia, Qadriya, Mujadediya and Nakshabandiya – and even further to the secret teachings of the original Ahl-al Bayt.

Boyati is also someone who performs bayan or explanation of the Holy Scriptures, or a canvasser in today’s terminology, maybe even an evangelist. They are bards and minstrels, and as Islamic history records stayed true to tradition in face of Wahabi/Shariati demagogic bigotry that has all too often derailed the course of life and living in South Asia. Boyatis represents a resistance to orthodoxy and religious bigotry and like the Bauls/Fakirs and Sahajiya’s have likewise faced oppression and societal ostracisation.

Rahman Boyati was already a musical phenomenon even before the independence of Bangladesh. Around 1973-74 he had regular performances in the state owned Bangladesh Television (BTV) and his sonorous rendition of the perplexing song ‘Deho Ghori’  (The Body Clock) that covers everything from human anatomy, physiology, neurology, embryology, the central nervous system and sexuality, among others, made him a household name not only in the rural backwaters but also among the urban middle class and elite enthusiast.

When likes of mainstream performer Fakir Alamgir and the late Feroze Shai started covering the song with their respective bands from 1975, Rahman Boyati and the song together become a national spiritual icon.

There were good reasons for the song to have the impact in the broader spectrum as there were important parameters to be considered. Contrary to popular misconception, the lyrics were not penned by Rahman Boyati. In the initial rendition the ‘signature line’ was appended with his Guru/Murshid’s name ie Alauddin Boyati. No one knows for certain who the original song writer was and it may have well been conveyed to Alauddin by his immediate Guru/Murshid, their predecessors and so forth.

The beauty of the oral tradition that Rahman Boyati explained to me is the name of the ‘podo korta (poet/lyricist) is unimportant. It is to maintain continuity of the encrypted message/s that has to be kept alive and organic, is the foremost criteria. Therefore in ‘Deho Ghori’ Rahman Boyati  not only maintained continuity of what hisGuru/Murshid imparted upon him, but set forth a new trajectory for later day transmissions by enthusiasts, which in 1995 I had the supreme honour and privilege to carry forward.

It was Mustafizur Rahman then general manager of BTV, who commissioned my erstwhile band Feedback to create a fusion version of the song ‘Deho Ghori’ together with Rahman Boyati for an Eid day special show of the magazine program ‘Subhechha’. The famed debater Abdun Noor Tushar was to make his debut as a show host. Feroze Mahmud was the producer, and he organised Rahman Boyati to come over to BTV and handover a scratch of the song on a cassette recorder. Pearo Khan on behalf of the band went over, recorded the song and wrote down the lyrics, which was abridged from the original given allocated time slots issues in BTV for music airing.

What set into motion was a marathon 72 hours as FeedBack doggedly worked on the song, argued endlessly about tone and tonalities – and in the end were ready to bring in Rahman Boyati to Soundgarden studio to dub his voice. It was to be my first meeting with someone who was no less a ‘star’ than Michael Jackson in rural Bangladesh and I therefore spent a sleepless night in anticipation!

Rahman Bhai turned out to be larger than life and joined in spontaneously to sing. It did not matter to him that the song was set to a club beat and his impromptu dancing while recording had us energised. He smiled and laughed all the way through and even volunteered to source a Baul children’s choir to join in the sing-a-long portions.

Two days later, we all packed a bus and set out to Gazipur where a video was shot. On Eid day when the song and video (available at was televised, the outpouring of appreciation and adulation for both Rahman Boyati and FeedBack was awe inspiring. In three weeks time a one song album was launched (the first of its kind in the history of Bangladesh music) and sold over 30,000 audio cassette copies on the first day alone!

My association with Rahman Boyati and the Baul/Boyati tradition increased as days wore on.

If there was one overriding characteristic of Rahman Boyati it was his simplicity to a fault persona. Always appreciative of the work I was doing, one of the fondest moments I have with him was when he thanked me for creating a totally new breed of fans. ‘I feel so proud when young boys and girls wearing jeans, tee-shirts and caps worn backwards come and shake my hand. They wouldn’t have heard my music or known anything about me, if it wasn’t for FeedBack,’ he told me chewing his trademark paan (betel leaf) one afternoon.

The legacy of Rahman Boyati will live on for as long as we take some time to explore the earth we walk on, instead of the imaginary sky we float upon or the ‘stars’ we aspire to become. There are thousands of Boyatis around us, and unless we create the space for them to perform, give them the respect they truly deserve, the tradition and all that we hold precious will die out eventually. That in a roundabout way would be death to whatever has been precious and valuable for our very existence.

New Age Xtra, Friday, 6th September 2013

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