By Saswat Pattanayak
News of Sikandar Alam’s death is an exaggeration. Through his immortal songs, he continues to live.
Alam spent an eventful life, engrossed in serving Oriya music. As one of the greatest singers from Orissa, Alam began early – at 18. In fact, the very first Oriya song which was released on HMV was rendered by him. And yet, his successes never overwhelmed his struggles. Alam constantly recalled his own phases of arduous endeavors to carve a niche in the landscape of Oriya music. He was always of the view that there was a need for artists to reflect upon their own path of glory so as to enable them to support others that follow.
In a candid conversation with me several years ago, Sikandar Alam shared his own story. He narrated how his father never wanted a singer in their family and had strictly enforced regulations that would prevent such a possibility. And yet, the first day he heard young Sikandar sing on All India Radio, he asked him to abandon studies at school and take up singing as a profession.
Those days, singing as a profession was not only unconventional, it used to be equated with other bohemian tendencies such as poetry, fine art, and writing. The creative fields were all marvelous when performed, but were far from desired as tools of survival. If the career of a singer was uncertain, even more alarming was the career of an Oriya singer. Be it the genre of playback singing, or spirituals, there were only a handful of ‘giants’. New artists were supposed to only emulate the greats and continue their traditions.
Alam did not do injustice to such a requirement. He was a rebel at heart, which is why he chose the profession of singing. And yet, he was a rebel with a noble cause, which is why he never denigrated the rich heritage of Oriya music. He made the most from his inspirations and further enriched a tradition that emerged highly instructive, classical and unsurmountable.
It is true that skepticisms were high about potentials of creative talents during 1970’s. But, Alam said to me, in our modern days, creativity has been sold in the quest of money. An artist requires money for survival, but more than that he/she needs a congenial artistic audience for excellence. Alam chose to create an environment that would further the need to institutionalize honor and dignity for aspiring singers. He promoted Bhakta Salabega’s compositions, stressed on classical training for singers of all genres, and demanded that Odissi music be recognized so that not just dancers, but also Odissi singers bring global fame to our land.
Alam never minced a word when it came to endorsing the cause of Oriya music. He was acutely aware of the need for artists to take a stand and express solidarity with each other. He understood early on that the state government was not genuinely concerned about the future of music in Orissa. He was so vocally critical of the government that he even rejected the idea of a National Award for artists. “Instead of awarding national singers Rs 5,000 cash which means peanuts to them, why not encourage budding talents in our very own state?” he told me in an interview for Hindustan Times. (Please click here to read the complete interview.) .
“Mumbai singers with wrong Oriya pronunciation are being given offers whereas, our own singers with correct pronunciation are not even given half a chance. And this politicization is affecting the film industry,” Alam said. One of the reasons behind such dissociation between Oriya people and their film industry is a growing culture that worships money, not talent. And secondly, he pointed out, it was because Oriya films in modern times have been reduced to nothing but cheap imitations of Bollywood varieties. As a result, central themes of our movies no more demand lyricism. With action-oriented cinemas solely being produced, it is no wonder that there appears to be a disconnect between filmmakers and music directors. Composers without classical background are creating the sorts of music that can only ironically enable singers like Sonu Nigam to win best Oriya playback awards.
Not only was Alam passionately observant of the trends that demanded redressing, he was also deeply aware of the ways to resolve the imminent crisis. “I suggest, there be a screening test done before the proposed songs are released in order to find if any songs cannot be sung by Oriya singers. Then only you look out for Bollywood.” And then with a mischievous grin he almost whispered to me, “And you will see, this task is made easier since the present day music directors do not come out with anything extraordinary that cannot be picked up by our local singers…!”
Such were his profound love for his motherland Orissa, his genuine concern for sincere Oriya composers and endless hope for Oriya singers. His love for our motherland should inspire the politicians and their followers to recognize and promote our artists. His concern for Odissi music should encourage our composers to recreate the magic of the 70’s by not deviating from our unique art form. And Alam’s hopes for our singers should see the future give birth to young talents that shall hold aloft his legacies for all times to come.