In Bangladesh, music makes waves in river conservation

The Third Pole meets an award-winning singer from Bangladesh whose songs seek to inspire the young to save the country’s rivers
<p>Sharmin Sultana Sumi, lead vocalist of Bangladeshi rock band Chirkutt (Image: Nodi Rocks)</p>

Sharmin Sultana Sumi, lead vocalist of Bangladeshi rock band Chirkutt (Image: Nodi Rocks)

Sharmin Sultana Sumi is the lead vocalist of Bangladesh’s rock band Chirkutt. She is also the driving force behind the award-winning musical initiative Nodi Rocks. “Nodi” is the Bangla word for river, and “rocks” refers to the seven bands that have come together to spread the word about the country’s endangered waterways.

Rivers are intrinsic to Bangladesh’s culture and economy, but they are increasingly under threat. After passing a judgment giving legal protection to the country’s rivers, Ashraful Kamal, a Supreme Court judge, noted: “Once upon a time, Bangladesh was home to over 1,300 rivers, but currently, it has only 405 rivers listed officially.”

With its music, Nodi Rocks is seeking to highlight the urgent need to reverse this decline. It builds on a long tradition of songs about the magnificence and beauty of Bangladesh’s rivers, the many stories that they carry and the philosophical significance of the flowing water.

This bringing together of music and environmental issues also introduces a new approach to reviving rivers that goes beyond engineering solutions, diplomatic efforts and protests.

To learn more about the inspiration behind the initiative and how music can act as a powerful tool for raising awareness, The Third Pole met the award-winning composer and songwriter at her studio in Dhaka.

(Video: Rifat Shuvo / The Third Pole)

Rivers are the “most significant feature of the Bangladesh landscape”. As the climate crisis deepens, raising temperatures, these river ecosystems are being affected. They are also suffering from more direct human intervention through encroachments on riverfronts, and the amount of pollution being dumped into them.

Through Nodi Rocks, Sumi wants every river in Bangladesh to eventually have its own song. This is not only to underline the importance of each river and promote a love for their individual characters. It is also a way to make sure that future generations will remember the names of rivers that may have been lost. For Sumi, it’s a way to keep their souls alive.

In the first phase of the project, the collective has covered seven rivers – the Padma, Kushiara, Sangu, Chitra, Pashur, Buriganga and Dahuk – with each of the seven bands that make up Nodi Rocks writing a unique song dedicated to one river. The bands are some of Bangladesh’s most famous, and include Cryptic Fate, Arbovirus, Smooches, Bangla Five, F Minor, Ashes and Sumi’s own band Chirkutt. Sumi tells The Third Pole that this is the first time Bangladeshi bands have joined hands to sing for the wellbeing of the rivers.

Rivers are not only the world’s most important ecosystems but also the drivers of social relationships
Sharmin Sultana Sumi, lead vocalist of Chirkutt

“We must encourage people, especially the young who are the successors of our planet, to learn more about our rivers, as they are not only the world’s most important ecosystems but also the drivers of social relationships,” says Sumi. This last may be more true of Bangladesh than other countries, as the riverine country has a cultural tradition that is deeply rooted in water.

This drive to promote an understanding of the issues is echoed in the collective’s slogan: “To save the climate, let’s go to the rivers.”

Beyond this, Sumi wants the music of Nodi Rocks to make an emotional connection. “The younger generation must realise the pain and pleasures [that come from] rivers and how their lives are strongly rooted in these beautiful rivers,” she says.

(Video: Rifat Shuvo / The Third Pole)

Treasured childhood memories

Sumi tells The Third Pole she believes that the nature of music and rivers is linked. Just as a river flows, no matter where it originates, music also flows, and that flow cannot be stopped.

Born in a village called Pach Pakhiya in Shailkupa Upazila of Jhenaidah district, Sumi grew up in a small town called Khalispur, in Khulna district. As a child, she remembers fondly how her father used to hire a big boat for family excursions on the Rupsha River in southwest Bangladesh as a way to mark the end of the school year.

“Very silently, I used to observe the surroundings of the river. It was full of life and festivity, like women taking baths, fish leaping out of the river, boys herding cattle through the water at twilight, young kids jumping from the branches of trees, local people busy buying and selling at the local market beside the river, people gathering for a cremation and so on. The whole environment was very magical, like a fairy tale,” Sumi recalls.

(Video: Rifat Shuvo / The Third Pole)

Today, Sumi can only describe the state of the same river as “terrifying”.

“Rivers have turned into dirty canals, and their polluted water has a terrible odour,” she tells The Third Pole. With encroachment through land reclamation and the illegal construction of various types of infrastructure, she feels that Bangladesh’s rivers are being strangled.

This is why, instead of writing songs about the beauty of the rivers as her forefathers did, Sumi says “we are now singing to save the rivers, to save the climate, to save our planet”.

The power of music

The power of music to bring about change has historic importance in Bangladesh. Sumi says that rock music especially played a key role during and after the 1971 war that led to the country’s independence, igniting flames of patriotism at a time when Bangladesh was fighting for its identity.

“Musicians inspired the freedom fighters during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. That year, a group of musicians created Muktir Gaan [Songs of Independence], and they used to perform in front of the freedom fighters before major [military] operations. The young freedom fighters were greatly influenced by their music,” she says.

Following in the footsteps of these 1970s musicians, Sumi’s initiative is also aimed at the younger generation.

Although they may not know the history of rock music in Bangladesh, the young people of today still love and are influenced by it. Nodi Rocks wants to use this to spread the word about the importance of rivers not just to the environment, but also to livelihoods and culture.

This is the core message of the Nodi Rocks theme song: Come, Let’s Go to the Rivers.

(Video: Rifat Shuvo / The Third Pole)

Spend time with the rivers

Sumi believes that today’s young people are living through confusing times and are often disconnected from the natural world. “To remove their extreme pain and suffering, they must go back to the rivers and sit silently to rediscover their roots by witnessing their beauty, their colour. I am sure the rivers will not let them return empty-handed,” she tells The Third Pole.  

Nodi Rocks has so far received funding from the Embassy of Switzerland in Bangladesh, the Manusher Jonno Foundation, a local NGO, and the advertising agency Salt Creative. Sumi says the initiative has also received full cooperation from government ministries and the Dhaka mayor. In addition, organisations such as the UN Development Programme, Square Group and Friendship have expressed their solidarity with Sumi’s mission.

(Video: Rifat Shuvo / The Third Pole)