Chapter 41

My journey into Bangladesh is part of my journey into the world as such and into insights of the beauties and the injustices of this world.

This particular journey has, so far, marked my life for twenty-six years. Why did I not choose another direction, or no journey at all? 

I am writing this based in a village in the uttor anchol of Bangladesh. In some days´ time, I will meet again with some of the marfati women who, surprised and generous, invited me, the unknown guest, into their life-stories and into their own kind of singing, on a Brahmaputro char, a sand island, in 1998. 

My commitment, modest and patient, to keeping alive and to strengthen the folk song-traditions of this land has been going on for twenty years. Lert the children learn, let the old folk-musicians play. Let people of Muslim and of Hindu upbringing sing and celebrate together.

The children of Mayer Tori, now registered as a NGO in Dhaka, are learning with unstoppable enthusiasm. Some parents say no. Let the children do their schoolwork! Yes, of course. But happily singing children do their schoolwork with strength.  

Few old singers take part in our efforts now. The bairagi and fakir people I used to know twenty years ago, have stopped singing and playing. They have died. They are not with us any more. Madhu Sudan is an exception. He dates his birth back to 1937. It may be true. He and I are citizens of the same country of song. I smile writing this. Our (your!) dear Home Minister – two weeks back –suggested I become a citizen of this country. YES, let it be, is what my heart says. With gratitude. But I cannot not be a Norwegian citizen. Let me be both. 

One organisation for vanishing folk-song was co-founded by me in 2008. It died from me, before my eyes, in 2016. Houses had been built and restored to serve young people and their learning. A well-equipped sound-studio had been opened and it was used for recording. It was fully paid by some fellow-Norwegians and by me. Instruments had been given. I slowly got to understand that we were being cheated by the Director, so I left. I want the instruments back to where the children are. The children are not in the big person´s big house. The singing children now gather at small places prepared by musicians who are building a new boat: Mayer Tori

Mayer Tori will not die from this land, not from the committed adult musicians, the children and me. I see no seed of confusion in this tori, that is: Boat. We share joy and immense efforts. 

Muslim and Hindu children rarely sing together in the villages of northern Bangladesh in 2024. Twenty years ago, some of them did, with no obstruction. There is a global trend of being me, and me only. Identity politics, more or less conscious, are strong. «I am this. I am not that, etc.» «You have to be exactly what I am – in order not to be looked down upon and maybe even killed» 

«I can rightfully kill you as a stranger to this land, or even: as a stranger to this earth.» 

This mindset is poisonous and radically dangerous.

Mayer Tori is being strengthened by the commitment of musicians and young ones, by the respect of local people and by the open-minded respect of the present political and administrative powers of the country. It could have been different. We are allowed to sing freely now – in spite of some dogmatically powerful people. 

One wall is still omnipresent. Few Muslim fathers want their young ones to sing. The reason may be emotional, it may be dogmatic, and maybe due to an misunderstanding: “Children who sing, do not do their school-work well.” In fact, our singing children are good students.

I do not know whether taking drugs is being called by the name of haram. Unwanted. Forbidden. I know that music is being named that way by some. Modern fathers and mothers may also argue that singing takes the child nowhere. No fruit! This is not true. Singing takes the child into his and her own sense of being powerful, joyful and worthy of respect. Academic school-work may take some young people into abstract knowledge. It does not draw the child into joy and most often there is no decent work to be found – without immense sums of money given as ghus (bribes) – after studies have been finished. 

Some of our children – after years of deep musical learning – are now in their twenties. They sing and play on stages in  the district. Oh, how we would have wanted to invent a beautiful work-structure for them once they have finished college.

I have just visited two very recently established gurugriho. That is: a place, indoors or outdoors, where children and young ones gather in order to sing. One such visit takes many hours of committed attention. I try to learn all the names of the children by heart. Last Saturday, that was not possible. Sixty-two children were present, in a fishermen´s village near Kurigram. The children had not yet been initiated into our discipline and simple rules. They had not seen a person like me before. They were excited and «unmanageable». I seldom give up. I almost gave up among the beautiful crowd of wild children. At the end, two sisters convinced me not to give up on our fishermen´s children. Come again, and again, and again, they said.

Yesterday, we travelled to a new gurugriho in a small city. The children had city manners. Half of the parents were not poor. Half of the children had learned singing by a (paid) music teacher before joining Mayer Tori. The honorarium given to the teacher by Mayer Tori is very modest. The song-guru could have earned more with much less effort. 

Due to the children´s city manners, and our wish to teach poor children, there was a point during that day when I almost decided not to keep this gurugriho. All of a sudden, a girl, about twelve years old, all in white, with hijab, sang a lalan-song (a song by Fakir Lalan Sain). Her mother told me the girl´s father had forbidden her to sing. The mother, not obeying her husband, had bought a harmonium to the girl. The girl said that she wanted to learn, she wanted it so much. 

Slowly I understood that this urban place may become a place where children from Hindu and Muslim families may learn to (want to) sing together. Half of the children would have been excluded from singing had Mayer Tori not taught them without money. 

I close my eyes and see this girl in a white hijab and her mother with no hijab, with a certain knowledge of Lalan songs, and there is joy.