Her early childhood in Karachi, Pakistan, was emotionally traumatic for 66-year-old Bulbul Mahalanobish. The passing taunts by locals, “Woh Bengali jaa rahi hain” were scary.

Her family later shifted to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and she found herself in the thick of a raging civil war against the then West Pakistan, struggling to retain its control over the Bengali-dominated East.

Her husband Sarit Kumar Lala served as a Sub-Sector Commander of the Liberation War led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

She joined the cultural wing of the Liberation War working for ‘Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra’. In an interview to DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY, Bulbul recalled the role of the Indian Army in Bangladesh’s war for freedom. She also spoke about Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti and how the two countries have gained from each other’s deep-rooted literary and cultural traditions. Excerpts:

Q: You came to New Delhi recently to take part in an event to mark the death anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. How was the experience?

A: I came at the invitation of Bengal Association, New Delhi, to perform in the death anniversary function of Rabindranath Thakur. I could not sing as I was unwell, but I talked in detail about Bangladesh’s Mukti Juddho (Liberation War), Rabindranath and his association with Bangladesh. Rabindranath and our Liberation War are intricately connected. His songs were a great source of inspiration to millions of people, including me, who were determined to get freedom from West Pakistan, today’s Pakistan.

Q: Tell us about your experience of the Liberation War as a student leader?

A: Ahead of the final assault by Mukti Bahini, in 1969 the student movement had begun. I was a student leader then. The students’ movement later turned into a mass movement against Pakistan. It was a movement against economic, social, political and cultural atrocities of the Pakistan government committed against the people of East Pakistan. The Bhasha Andolan or movement against the suppression of Bengali language was a manifestation of public outrage against Pakistan’s policy of cultural annihilation and all-round atrocities against the people of East Pakistan. Jute exports from East Pakistan accounted for 80 per cent of Pakistan’s revenue. But the development work was confined to West Pakistan while East Pakistan suffered deprivation and backwardness. All these factors sowed the seeds of the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

Q: You along with other students’ leaders took to the streets after the 25 March 1971 massacre perpetrated by the government of Pakistan.

A: On the midnight of 25 March the massacre took place. After Mujibur Rahman’s speech on 7 March we used to stay put till night at Shahid Minar and sing Tagore and Nazrul’s songs. We organised street theatre and used culture as a weapon to fight against Pakistan.

Q: How did an independent radio come into being in the middle of the war?

A: Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was an important element of the war. It started on 26 March. We were not prepared for the 25 March massacre. On 26 March since late evening we heard clippings of Bangabandhu’s speech, patriotic songs over radio. We had no idea about the whereabouts of the radio centre. Mujibur had already told us to be ready for the final war of Independence. On 25 March when he was officially arrested, he had declared independence of Bangladesh. He had told us not to stop this war till the last of Pakistan’s men were evicted from Bangladesh. A cyclostyled copy of Mujibur’s statement was distributed across East Pakistan.

Q:You have seen and experienced the bloody theatre of war. Can you narrate some of it to us?

A: We left Dhaka on 30 March. Bombings by Pakistani forces had already started. I saw people dying right in front of my eyes. It was a dangerous situation. We went on walking and crossed the border at Agartala. From Agartala I went to my uncle’s place at Bahrampur and then to Calcutta. Though we did not have to stay at refugee camps, we had gone there to see for ourselves how refugees lived there.

Q: What do you have to say about the role of Indian armed forces in Bangladesh’s war of liberation?

A: I specially wish to talk about the people of India and express my gratitude to them. We have never forgotten the way they so cordially embraced us wholeheartedly and joined in our war for liberation. Freedom was possible because they rallied behind us to fight the forces of evil. I want to give 80 per cent credit to India for the success of our Liberation War.

Q: Can you recall any incident where you had a chance to interact with Indian forces engaged in combat operations alongside Mukti Bahini?

A: I did not see any Indian soldier directly engaged in combating Pakistani forces as we never visited the theatre of war. I saw Indian military tanks rushing through the streets of Bangladesh and soldiers marching on. In the course of our cultural movement we saw Indian forces camping in the border areas of Malda, Krishnanagar. We interacted with them twice. They used to take part in music programmes and give us standing ovations and salute us telling us how much our music inspired them.

Q: Do you think there is a need for revival of cultural ties in Bangladesh and India to further cement our bilateral ties?

A: A nation is known by its deeprooted cultural traditions and heritage. Bengali culture in India dates back 1500 years. We find Bengali script dating even further back when it was a spoken language. Rabindranath Tagore’s influence arches over the world community not just Bengalis of India and Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see the contribution of Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bangladesh’s freedom movement and otherwise?

A: Kazi Nazrul Islam was an ardent follower of Rabindranath Tagore. He began his career by singing Tagore’s songs. When he went to Karachi for the first time and came back, he had with him a book of Tagore’s songs with notations. He had not written many of the songs barring a few. In later years we were fortunate to have witnessed his transformation into a profound poet and musician.

Q: Kazi has time and again talked about Hindu and Muslims as two flowers of the same tree, underlining the bonding between the two communities. What do you have to say about this?

A: Kazi Nazrul we see as a symbol of anti-communalism. It was reflected in his writings and the way he led his life till the end. Sometimes we see negativity seeking to superimpose on positivity as Tagore wrote: ‘Hingshayee Unmotto Prithhi, Nitya Nithur Dondo (A world engrossed in violence, In a state of perpetual dilemma).’ But in the final reckoning the victory of positive forces is inevitable. Kazi Nazrul’s works, life and his philosophy are a manifestation of that.

Q: How did the people of the then East Pakistan react when they first got to know that a Tagore song ‘Aamar Shonar Bangla’ would be the national anthem of Bangladesh?

A: Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman knew for sure that one day an independent Bangladesh would come into being. Rabindranath Tagore is an indispensible part of our life in Bangladesh and here in India. He is the author of national anthems of both the countries. We have got Rabindranath after a great battle. There was a time when he was banned in East Pakistan. But we cared two hoots about that ban. Rabindranath is being discussed and much talked about today in Bangladesh. I doubt if the same is the case in India.