Alaka Das: A Pioneer Artist of Classical Music in Bangladesh
Legend has it that in the middle of the 16th century, classical musician Ramtanu Pare (Mia Tansen) and Baiju Bawra matched their voices at a recital in Agra. Tansen had opened with Todi and spent some minutes into the raga when a herd of deer came running in the musician’s direction and stood transfixed by his voice. Since then, the raga has been represented in visual art, especially in Rajasthani miniature paintings, as a woman in a forest, holding a sitar, surrounded by deer.
In 1980, at a concert held in Cumilla- a city of Bangladesh, the strains of the raaga Vrindabani sarang were heard too. As the performance began, Alaka Das subtly oscillated the rishabh (re) during the ascent and cajoled the pancham (pa) in the descent. Suddenly, a light rain started to fall. A murmur rippled through the audience, but Alaka kept up with her taans, oblivious to this unexpected visitor.
At the end of the raag, she opened her eyes and smiled as she felt that it was raining. “Greetings", she mumbled. The two anecdotes, centuries apart, seem to signal a belief in the continuity of Indian classical music. It was God’s intimation.
Alaka Das is singing an Indian Classical Raag Prabhaat
Moments of Joy
At present she is near 74. She represents one of the last of a golden generation of classical vocalists in Bangladesh.
During her early years, Alaka's riyaz lasted 10 hours a day, now she sings for three hours. But her voice has defied age, and she is as capable of reaching the heights of swara as she was three decades ago.
The number of participation in concerts is reduced now, even though now her repertoire consists of more bhajans and shorter performances than hours of delineating a khayal. How she reaches the notes is as important as the notes themselves. And with her gharana’s sufi and kirtankaar influence (the lyrics are inspired by a variety of Sufi and Hindu poets), when she enunciates a swara, the feeling is that of being in a temple. Her music has a heightened level of devotion and took a listener into a different world, one where God exists.
Alaka Das was born into an esteemed musical family of Cumilla, Bangladesh, in 1945. Her father, Pundit Surendra Narayan Das, was a renowned artist of classical music. He was a disciple of great Ustaad Alauddin Khan, Dr. Jamini Nath Ganguly, Pundit Giriza Shankar Chakroborty and Sree Maharaja Brazendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury.
Alaka was blessed to be born in this family. From childhood, she started learning classical music from her father. When she was 11, she began accompanying her father Pundit Surendra Narayan Das in various concerts near Cumilla city. Beside learning classical music, she also learnt various genres of music like traditional, folk, modern etc.
At the age of 18, she was accepted as a music artiste in state owned Dhaka Radio (former Radio Pakistan). It was 1963. For a classical musician, there could have been no better place than Dhaka during the 1960s. In 1968, she enlisted herself in state owned TV channel Bangladesh Television as a classical music artiste.
During that time, concerts were held not only just in various places at Dhaka but also in Chittagong- a port city of Bangladesh. As she was residing in Cumilla, so for participating in various concerts and in the media program, she had to travel outside cumilla in every week.
Slowly and steadily, the portals to this select circle were opening for Alaka. At the time, the gharana system in Indian classical music was quite distinct. But Alaka, who had been greatly influenced by Pundit Surendra Narayan Das, who was a disciple of Pundit Giriza Shankar Chakroborty of the Bishnupur gharana, Bishnupur, India, began incorporating elements from other gharanas into her music. She was taking what was great in every gharana and mixing it up. It sounded great to the audience. Her popularity as a musician owes a lot to her friendliness with the audience.
Since 1986, Alaka is acting as Principal in the renowned music school Sangeet Shikhharthee Sammilan. This school was established by her father Pundit Surendra Narayan Das during 1942 at Cumilla.
Fine Arts Academy Award, 2014
In the year 2015, she published a book on classical music named Raag Monjori in the Bengali language. It took around two years to complete this book.
It was a resourceful literature work containing 65 known and unknown raags along with various theoretical concepts (definition of music, raag, taals, time theory of raagas etc.) of classical music. The book was widely accepted by the classical music lovers in Bangladesh.
Awards and Achievements
Alaka Das in her musical tenure was awarded many times by various organizations and media groups.
Some precious achievements are:
- Honored by Cumilla District Counselor in 1987.
- Viewer's choice Pacific Award for the best classical music artist of Bangladesh in 1993.
- Parimal Dutta Memorial Award in 2002.
- Chittagong Regional Conference Award in 2008.
- Jatri Organization Award in 2010.
- Nazrul Sangeet Artist Conference Award in 2011.
- Binoy Literature Award in 2013.
- District Fine Arts Academy Award in 2014.
- Lakshyapar Parampara Lifetime Achievement 2019.
- Nazrul Sammanona 2022 by Chittagong University Student's Club, Cumilla
Alaka Das is singing an Indian Classical Raag Vaijayanti
For music lovers in Bangladesh today, Alaka Das is a reminder of the gold standard of musical performance over the last five decades, attained through years of rigorous riyaz (practice). She is a prolific artist of Indian classical music who sings her heart out during performances and compels the listeners to submit to the magnificent charm of Indian classical music.
When the history of Indian classical music in Bangladesh will be uttered, Alaka Das will be remembered as the pioneer artist after her father Pundit Surendra Narayan Das, who added different styles to the khayal, giving it more flexibility and making it more audience-friendly.