‘Even before I could speak, I was humming’

March 5, 2009

Celebrated singer and thespian Shimul Yousuff turned fifty this week. In a moving interview with Tahmina Shafique, she talks about her childhood and a death that will haunt her forever

photo by Al-Emrun Garjon

This week Shimul Yousuff, the stage performer, is celebrating her fiftieth birthday and a career that has spanned forty-five years. She is renowned for her versatility as an actress and singer, and is famed for her appearances in plays such as Binodini, Moner Kalindi, and Shukhoni and for her screen performances in Ekatturer Jishu, Agami and Ghuddi. However, despite her numerous successes and awards, she tells me that it was the death of her brother-in-law, the music composer Altaf Mahmood in the Liberation War, that stands out as the most abiding and powerful memory of her life.

Shimul was nine when Altaf married her sister, and he immediately became more like a father to her, as well as a guru and a close friend. She was present when he was caught and tortured by the Pakistani army in 1971 and the incident has shaped the rest of her life. Although she has been left with permanent scarring of the soul, it also gave her the impetus to move on and become what she is today.

‘I still remember the look in his eyes – he had so much to tell me,’ says Shimul, fighting back the tears. ‘I was standing there in front of him when they started punching him and slashing up his skin; he was covered in blood.

He looked straight at me – the look seemed to last forever – and his eyes commanded me to promise him so many things – to make the most of my talents, to look after the family, especially his daughter, and to be strong and resolute in whatever I chose to do. I felt numb and didn’t move because, somehow, I think I knew that it was the last time I would see him, and that I had to come to terms with it’. Her voice trails off and she remains silent for a while.

Perhaps this is what gave her the determination to get so much out of her own life, achieving enormous popularity for her singing, composing and acting. In fact, it would appear, as I sit down in a cosy corner of her Dhaka apartment, that the entire nation were paying tribute to her cultural contributions; the sprawling drawing room is filled with bouquets of flowers and cards.

The sunlight is streaming through the window making her eyes look even more exotic than usual. Her face seems to exude more and more confidence with age, and she is beautiful in the way strong women are. She talks to me, excitedly, of her childhood and of her versatile career that started at the age of five.

‘I have been told that I was a natural born singer. Even before I could speak I used to hum nonsense,’ she laughs. She was born into a family where music was a part of everything. ‘My father had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning.’ She and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood but when her father died, when Shimul was just four years old, everything changed.

The family suffered from severe financial problems. ‘I have known what it is like to be poor and I know the pains and struggles of growing up without a father,’ she says. There was no alternative but for two of her brothers to give up their education in order to work and support the family. ‘There were days when we could not even afford two meals, yet my mother’s determination that I continue my education and singing held firm, and she insisted that we keep my music teacher!’

In 1962, when Shimul was five, the radio programme Kochi Kachar Mela took notice of her recitals. ‘I was not formally involved, I was just one of the kids who were occasionally given the chance to sing at the end of the programme,’ she laughs. After a few recitals, Sufia Kamal encouraged her to participate in a live radio programme for children. ‘I couldn’t even read then so Sufia khala taught me, and I managed to do my job well.’

The following year, she was signed up as a singer with the radio programme and a year after that, she started singing on PTV. ‘I began to work harder and to contribute my income to my family,’ she recalls. ‘Although I was still only five, I understood the problems. As I was very close to my mother, I understood her pain and that probably made me grow up faster, and made me more understanding.’ However, it was a stressful job for a child of that age. ‘The worst bit was having to wake up when it

was my turn to sing or recite when all I

wanted to do was sleep,’ she smiles ruefully.

But her precocious talent gained her immense popularity and in 1965, she was awarded as the Best Child Singer in erstwhile combined Pakistan.

But everything leading up to her fourteenth birthday loses all significance in light of what happened on the night of August 30, 1971. The family was devastated when Altaf was killed. Remembered chiefly for composing the immortal song – Amar bhaier roktey rangano ekushey February, ami ki bhulite pari as well as his overall contribution to the war of independence, he will always be held warmly in the hearts of Bangladeshis, but none more so than his wife’s younger sister, Shimul.

‘My five brothers had also been captured but they were released when Altaf told the army that no-one in his family had been involved in anything that he had done. But my brothers had seen him before he died on the balcony of the factory in which he was imprisoned. He was tied up and his hands and legs had been broken into pieces. They had slashed his entire body; not a part was left untouched. When the soldiers walked past him, they would stub out their cigarettes on his skin.’ It is almost as if reiterating – reliving – the gruesome details stops her from forgetting the brutality with which he was killed. ‘I have not spoken to a Pakistani since, or been associated with them in any way – and I never will.’

In the years that followed Shimul admits that she suffered a crisis of faith. ‘I couldn’t trust anyone and had it not been for the Dhaka theatre, I would never have carried on in this career. It was the only place where I felt understood. I found that everyone there had a tale like mine, and I suddenly realised that I belonged,’ she says. Although life at the theatre was a struggle, Shimul has fond memories of her time there. ‘We didn’t have the money to travel, so the whole group would go everywhere on foot and get by without eating. I remember, when the bhaiyas used to bring us food, we would devour it in seconds.’

It was also there that Shimul first met Nasir Uddin Yusuf, the now acclaimed film and theatre director and who, after she completed her sociology degree from Dhaka University, would become her husband. ‘Like everything else, I knew I was sure about him – I could not have married anyone else because he is probably the only person who really understands me.’

The couple have two daughters – Shaon and Esha. When I meet her, Shaon tells me that Esha, who is studying Film and Television at MediaCom in Thailand, had come all the way back to Dhaka to surprise their mother on her birthday. It is not until much later that Shaon tells me that she is, in fact, Altaf’s daughter. ‘I promised him I would take care of her,’ says Shimul softly.

As more and more visitors pour in to wish her happy birthday, our interview comes to an end. That evening Shimul is appearing in the show Binodini. ‘What better way to celebrate my fiftieth?’ she laughs.

Her stage presence is mesmerising and flawless and she seems to have even more energy and passion than ever. ‘Of course I want to continue my work; I still have so much to learn, and the fact that audiences today seem to prefer talent over mere celebrity is encouraging,’ she adds.



  1. […] ‘Even before I could speak, I was humming’ « Life As it is […]

  2. […] Read more here: ‘Even before I could speak, I was humming’ […]

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