Azam Khan: our king of pop is dead, long live the king

by Priyo Australia | June 5, 2011 9:58 pm

Azam Khan is dead bringing an end to a life that symbolised his generation more than anything else. He was a cultural legend in his lifetime who achieved such a status more quickly than any other Bangladeshi. He sang of frustration and anger, in the earlier days of the ‘70s but mellowed as time went by reflecting his own life and its struggles. He had battled cancer for sometime and in the last phase, he fought it almost half-heartedly, not like the warrior he was in 1971. Perhaps his longing to sleep and rest was becoming overwhelming.

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Azam Khan was one of the most obvious descendants of 1971. A freedom fighter, going to war was part of a family culture with at least another brother who was a fellow traveller. The Khans came from the middle-class families of Dhaka who probably dreamt of a Bengali state of their own more than any other class. A Bangladesh free of Pakistan was a practical and spiritual aspiration for him and them.

He survived the war but returned to a world where his dreams and that of many others crumbled rather quickly. In that somewhat desolate landscape, his songs were born fuelled by the smoke of frustration and the gentle narcotic effect of ganja — both part of his time’s strength and weakness. He didn’t just smoke dope hoping it was a cloudy tunnel to peace but an entire generation did so hoping that a path lay in those drifting moments that led to better days.

Stupid yes, but real.

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Azam Khan represented the post-1971 Bangladesh youth. Standing at the TSC auditorium of Dhaka University, he could sing to a thousand young people as if he was having a personal conversation with each one of them. It was a time when the TV channel invasion hadn’t begun and his band ‘Uccharon’ was performing in every auditorium. Azam Khan was first and foremost a live sensation. He was not a product of media or Dhaka’s ubiquitous talent contests; he was a star who could be touched every time he sang. It gave him an urgency few of any star ever had in this culture.

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He was raw, almost inarticulate, a voice that could be more musical, lyrics that could be more polished and his clothes better looking but his was a presence that needed none of those. A man tall for average Bengali, dressed without artifice, not looking entirely coordinated he could turn on the magic with a simple song like “jala sudhu mone re, jala jala jala sudhu prane re —frustration” into an anthem of not just a generation but of that time and place itself.

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Once it became obvious that independence of the country didn’t equate prosperity and just because the Pakistanis had left didn’t mean a new bunch won’t come and take their place — there was frustration. It was this mood that Azam Khan reflected. Because he had fought in the war, the stake in its future was high and personal for him.

The post-1971 chaos had a very direct impact and without so many words he wrote what were in essence political songs. He didn’t like many gono sangeet bands that speak of revolution and all but connected with the people and their lives like few gono sangeet singers did. He was not the one to deny that there was jala and to many the dope at High Court mazar, the shrine which also served as Dhaka’s informal drugs gateway was full of real and fakes. “High Courter majare koto fakir ghore, koyjona ashol fakir”. Like his people, he realised that no one could be believed and even the heroes could actually be fakes.

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By the time Bangladeshis got used to the idea that things wouldn’t get better, Azam Khan had also mellowed and begun to sing of other things. Over time he became much more main-stream and to some a little tame but it wasn’t him but his time itself. There was no more expectation from Bangladesh and it was each person for themselves, a hugely cynical time where even frustration had a price.

There was also a greater interest in ‘spiritual’ matters, of shrines and gods of the peasant gods crawling into the half constructed urban life. Other individuals and bands entered such as Firoze Shai, Fakir Alamgir, etc. and pushed it to greater distance. Soon such music was a fashion, it was wholly a matter of getting entertained. Azam Khan survived but he didn’t do too well.

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Not that he was replaced or could be. He was a pop singer, the common title who sang songs that appealed to the young, was more relevant socially and could connect to a crowd. It was not proper but more immediate. His had many hits over the years. Some were personal but many were social as well.

His hugely popular song, “Alal o dulal, Alal o dulal, tader baba Haji chand, Chankharpool e paddle merey pouchey bari”, about a man with two delinquent sons was a incredible sell with all of Dhaka singing. And there was actually one Haji Chand Miah as mentioned in the song who lived in the Changkharpool area, who had two rowdy sons called Aalal and Dulal who sued him. His songs were nothing if not real. His language and style were also close to the people and the streets, not the airy-fairy stuff of traditional Bengali music.

Few could sing with the sweet irony of broken dreams when he sang “Sono sono dadima bolechiley ekdin, chaadey ek buri boshey shuto katey rat din.” And the song ends with the declaration that astronauts have been to the moon and all the bedtime stories were fake. It was a strange song, an elegy to fantasies, a narration of debunking. On TV, Azam Khan sang the song and cheerfully whistled in the refrains, almost enjoying the demise of dreams.

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Azam Khan lived doing a variety of things but most significant was his sports life. He was a swimming teacher, a physical education instructor and ultimately a cricket coach of sort. He even played some cricket in the league and doing so at an advanced age showed his grit, showmanship like all stars have and perhaps a spunk that had many years ago had led him to the battlefield. At an age when most just watch cricket on TV, he played the game to his best and did what he thought he should. It was absolute star power.

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Cancer felled him in the end. Though he had been treated at Singapore, as his sick cells spread to other parts of his body, his attitude was strangely cavalier. Doctors said he had become a little careless, not really listening to them and ultimately the unforgiving foe won.

It could have been more for him as it is for all lives but whatever he had was incomparable. Few are lucky enough or significant enough to represent a generation let alone a time and Azam Khan did that. He battled in his life the same way he had in the battlefield and his survival was his victory.

All things including life must end and it matters little how it did. He went away awash in love of his many admirers and unbowed by all the tiny pricks that “flesh is heir” to that belittle and diminish men but didn’t touch him. As he once sang, “ashi ashi korey tumi ar eley na, shey din thekey jiboner sathey… sadhona”. It was a soulful lament for his life, love, and for his land for which he sang with such poignant beauty.

The king never dies, he becomes immortal. Farewell and salutes, Azam Khan, the king shall live forever.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. | Original Source[1]

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