Music is a huge, defining, thing in my life. I’m an average singer and terrible pianist, but I know the words to an absurd amount of pop and rock songs. Lyrics run through my veins like blood. I tap my toes to the radio, dance to my iPod and sing along to the jukebox. When I was a maudlin teenager, I listened to Richard Marx and Roxette on repeat, wearing out my cassette tapes. As an adult, I know Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” or Britney Spears’ “Circus,” will put me in a fabulous mood for work.
But if I really take a look at where my passion originated, it’s not from American pop, it’s from Bengal. Growing up in the ’80s, most Bengali American kids in my community learned about “the homeland” by being taught to sing or play traditional songs, and to recite Bengali poetry. The lessons were often learned against our will — no kid, at that age, appreciates being forced to stand on a stage and parrot words they don’t really understand — but I certainly appreciate it now!
I remember being five or six and playing Radha in “Bhanu Singher Padaboli,” a musical dance drama about Lord Krishna, by Rabindranath Tagore. I learned many more songs by Tagore, and by another famed Bengali poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, as I grew. My mom had cassette tapes of Firoza Begum, a popular artist from the 1960s, singing Nazrul songs like “Dur Dipo Bashini” and “Sukhno Patar Nupur Paye.” I learned to play “Phule Phule” by Tagore on the harmonium. Don’t ask me to try playing it now, but I still know all those tunes, and find myself singing bits and snatches of them at odd moments.
However, it wasn’t just about performing these songs in public in order to keep my parents’ culture thriving. I adored “Tumi Jeh Amar” by Geeta Dutt, from the movie Harano Sur. I learned to appreciate modern folk music by artists like Swapan Basu and the classic music-laced comedy of Bhanu Bandhopadhyay. (Just thinking about some of Bhanu’s routines makes me laugh like a maniac.) Music chased the nightmares away, and planted the seed for dreams, as well. My mother used to sing me to sleep with a song called “Akash Golpo Bole” and a few lines of K.L. Saigal‘s Hindi ballad “So Ja Rajkumari.” “Go to sleep, princess,” she’d croon, stroking my hair. She couldn’t really carry a tune, but that didn’t matter… because she handed me the key to a truly valuable treasure.
Whether it’s Rabindra-sangeet or Nazrul-geeti, classic Bollywood playback singers, or Aerosmith and Lady Gaga… I always have a song in my heart.