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Today is Runa Laila’s birthday. This renowned artiste of Bangladesh, popular throughout the subcontinent, has been singing for over the past five decades and has songs recorded in 18 different languages. This time there are no celebrations for her birthday, though a new song of her music composition , ‘Ei dekha shesh dekha’, is being released today. She chats with Prothom Alo about the song and an array of different topics.

She says that very naturally she won’t be celebrating her birthday this year given the dark days through which the world is going. Coronavirus transmission is increasing steadily, people are suffering, so there is no question of celebrating the day. “I just ask for everyone’s prayers so I may stay well,” said the singer, “So that I may continue to sing. That will be the biggest gift for me on my birthday.”

Runa Laila said that no one would have imagined that the world would go through such times, but this would eventually end. “Perhaps things won’t return to as they were before, by maybe there is a different beautiful future waiting for us. We just have to be very careful, for ourselves and for others.”

She emphasised the need to wash hands, wear masks and sanitise. “It is our responsibility to ensure that no one is affected because of us. It is our responsibility to protect the life of others. If we all carry out this responsibility, the virus will come to an end.”

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How does she feel about her birthday?

“Suddenly I realise I am growing older, but actually I am just the same as always. I never let myself grow old mentally. Strength of mind is most important.”

Four new songs with the music composed by Runa Laila are being released on the occasion of her birthday. The first is ‘Ei dekha shesh dekha’ written by Gazi Mazharul Anwar and sung by Luipa. Then in the next three weeks three more songs will be released, sung by Akhi Alamgir, Tani Laila and Haimanti. “They are all like children to me,” said Runa, “ I wish them all the very best. My advice to them is to be committed and to practice and to always try to improve.”

The production house Dhruba Music has given Runa Laila a free hand as a composer. The owner of the company, Dhruba Guha told her to go ahead as she wished. She said that she was making sure there were rehearsals for the songs, just like before. The lyricist, composer, music director and artistes were sitting together to produce each song. “Everyone is enjoying this endeavour,” she said, “and all the artistes are really working hard. This will be apparent once the songs are released.”

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“I have more plans, but don’t want to reveal those now,” she continued. “Let these songs be released and things return to normal. Then I’ll take up a new venture. I have proceeded quite a bit with this new initiative.”

She works with the young artistes now. Does she remember the days when she was a newcomer and worked with the big names in music?

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“I always remember them,” came the reply. “I began singing in Pakistan and worked in the television and the cinema there till 1974. I worked with many great artistes at the time. I am really lucky to have been so close to them. Our actress Shabnam was there too at the time. And there were the famous singers, Mehdi Hasan, Ahmed Rushdi, Mala Begum. I was very young then and learnt so much from them. They were very loving. I want to share those experiences with the young generation artistes of today. I will do anything I can to help them on their way forward, in whatever little way that I can.”

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She went on to talk about those who had an impact on her life down the years. “My mother and father have the biggest contribution to my career. My elder sister was a huge inspiration. My brother helped me a lot too. I am very lucky that I never had to struggle in my career. I learnt classical music from Ustad Habib Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Quader. Then there was Manzur Hossain who gave me my break in playback singing. They all built me up as an artiste.

She goes down memory lane. “I was around 13 or 14 and had been singing for a couple of years by then. I received a letter from a boy who said, ‘My father died recently and I was extremely upset. I would listen to a song of yours repeatedly and that song gave me strength and courage. It helped me to an extent to overcome the sadness of my father’s death.’ That was really a huge deal. That is what music is all about. It can touch a person’s heart and make life beautiful.”

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“There are innumerable artistes in our country who touch people’s lives with their songs. I am very hopeful that the singers of this generation too will have extraordinary songs. I appeal to them to love the country and sing for the people.”

But there is a general observation that many songs are being produced, but nothing that special or popular to stand the test of time. Are the days for such songs over?

Runa Laila responds, “Not at all. Perhaps there is a decrease in such songs, but I have high hopes in Bangladesh’s new generation artistes. Sponsors must come forward. I will certainly promote genuinely talented artistes. The songs I create are a bit different, but companies are readily recording and releasing these. If 10 more companies came forward like this, the music scene would change.”

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Runa Laila is revered by artistes and music lovers not only in Bangladesh, but in India and Pakistan too. How does she see Bangladesh’s music in comparison to the rest of the world?

“We only sing in Bangla,” she points out, “and so we are more known among the Bangla speakers. I began with Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Sindhi songs. I can song in 18 different languages. Perhaps that is why I was accepted so widely. When I go to India I can sing in Hindi, in Pakistan I can sing in Urdu. Actually, language can be a barrier to others. Not everyone in the world understands Bangla and that is why many of our artistes don’t get that much recognition. We have, and still have, many good singers in the country. Ferdausi apa also sang in several languages. So did Farida Yasmin and Sabina Yasmin. They are all known outside of the country. We are not behind, but it would be good if we could master other languages.”

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She adds, “When I go to Mumbai, Delhi and Pakistan, I always sing in Bangla as well as in their languages. I always begin with a patriotic song.”

When talking about the talent of today’s singers, Runa Laila says, “Our singers are very talented, they just need a chance. I believe they will do well if given the chance. They must work heard, but someone has to give them a break too. I do the best I can to take them ahead. I hope others come forward too.”

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When the issue arose of a recent skirmish regarding the copyright of a song, Runa Laila said, everyone has the right to sing, the problem arises when the song is used for commercial purposes. Before remaking an old song, the permission of the artiste, lyricist and composer must be taken. Many of the young singers come to me and say, ‘Ma’am I want to sing your song.’ I tell them it is fine, but they must take the permission of the lyricist and composer. If a company gets someone new to sing a song and makes money out of it, that can’t be allowed. There is the matter of the artiste, the lyricist and the composer. Using the song without permission creates conflict.”

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How does she feel about her contemporary Sabina Yasmin, another star in the music world, also launching herself as a composer and music director?

“That is very good,” responds Runa, “I see many new singers are composing along with singing. Sabina has so much experience in music so she certainly can take this up. The more she does, the better.”

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Any chance of Runa and Sabina performing together in the future?

“I can’t predict the future now.”

Say if Runa Laila was not a singer, what would she be?

“I was born to sing so that question doesn’t arise. I can do nothing but sing. I am nothing but a singer.”

Is Runa a cricket fan? She was seen on the grounds.

“I watch the game on television. I had been to the grounds a couple times as a child with my father. This time I was in London during the World Cup, that too during the Bangladesh-Pakistan match. I was determined to watch the game, no matter how much the ticket cost. But I was lucky to have met the cricket board chairman Papon bhai and he arranged for me, my daughter and son-in-law to watch the fame and that too at the Lords!”

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Finally it came about to her marriage. She is such a renowned artiste on one hand, and her husband is such a popular movie star. How do they manage so much fame at home?

“The secret is that we do not interfere in each other’s independence. We discuss our work together. But most important of all is our mutual respect and trust. That keeps any relationship beautiful. Whenever we have time, we sit and chat together, watch movies. We are both very family oriented and have a good understanding. And we always respect each other.”

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* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Ayesha Kabir for the English edition

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