Tale of a Bangla-loving American

John Thorp translates Bangla songs

You can often find him roaming the streets of Rajshahi city on a bicycle, softly humming the melodies of Tagore, Kazi Nazrul and Lalan. Meet John Thorp, all the way from Maine, in the US—the story of whose love for the people of Bangladesh is as enchanting and engrossing as the songs of the country. His love for the simple people of Bangladesh and for the songs and lyrics of Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Lalan Shah have inspired John Thorp and his wife Jane to live in the “beautiful and peaceful” city of Rajshahi. Thorp has plans to translate the main themes, lyrics, rhythm, harmony, fusion, tempo, sub-order and final order of the songs of the Bangalee bards. He has also published a book in English with the musical notations on the songs of Tagore.
On first introduction, one might be mistaken in considering him an amateur practitioner of Bangla songs. But when one finds out that he has established a school of music in Rajshahi, titled Barendra Musical Arts Centre, which offers learning and practices of Bangla songs, including those of Tagore, Nazrul and Lalan, one is soon disabused.
His wife has also established a school, where more than 50 slum children are taught, free of cost. Both the institutions are testimony to how much the couple loves this country in general and Rajshahi in particular.
John, now 62, completed his Master’s degree in Music from Maine University. He arrived in Bangladesh towards the end of the 1980s under a cultural exchange programme between the two countries.
During his work in this country, he learnt the Bangla language, and became enamoured of the songs of Tagore, Kazi Nazrul and Lalan. He started translating them into English. He can sing the songs in both Bangla and English. Shiskha Kalyan Trust of Gazipur has recently published his book, entitled ‘Anander e Sagar Thekey’ (‘From a Jubilant Sea’), which contains 102 songs of Rabindranath Tagore with musical notations. The producer of the book is the Barendra Musical Arts Centre.
As Thorp says, Bangladesh is not a country of poverty-stricken people, nor a country of famine. “This is a country of songs and poems. This country bears a bright cultural legacy,” he says.
Since establishing the Barendra Musical Arts Centre in January 1912, he has been giving classes to the students on vocal and musical instruments. The instruments include piano, keyboard, guitar, harmonium and tabla. Moreover, he imparts instruction on Western music history and teaches his students Bangla songs, mainly Tagore songs. The drawing room of his home at Padma residential area of the city is decorated with various gadgets and instruments related to music.
Imrul Kayes, a Professor of Rajshahi Arts College, who is also a student of Thorp, said: “Sir teaches us guitar through staff notation.”
He added that he has already finished two courses on music under Thorp and wish to proceed further. He and the other students have forgotten whether “he is an American or a Bangalee”. Samiul Huda Shibly, another student of Thorp, said there was no good institution in Rajshahi where music can be learned properly. “But, from John Sir, students are now able to learn music by using staff notations, which make them perfect singers.”
He has three children, all of whom live in the US. The eldest son is an artist, the second—a daughter—is a teacher, and the youngest an engineer.