Well-lived life

Print edition : January 28, 2011

Suchitra Mitra: When I sit down to sing, I can see the song in its entirety float before my eyes. - PTI

Suchitra Mitra (1924-2011), one of the greatest exponents of Rabindra Sangeet, was a living institution in the field of music.

WHEN Suchitra Mitra sang, everything seemed to cease to exist for both the singer and her listeners except the melody and lyrics borne magically on the wings of an enchanted voice. When she sang, it was as though the poet Rabindranath Tagore had composed his songs just for her to sing. She was one of the greatest ever exponents of Rabindra Sangeet (songs of Tagore), and her passing away on January 4 marks the end of an era in Bengali music. She always maintained that her only passion was Tagore's music and that, she said, is my only religion. It is poignant that in the year of the poet's 150th birth anniversary, the most celebrated singer of his songs should breathe her last at the age of 86.

President Pratibha Patil, in her condolence message, described Suchitra Mitra as a renowned exponent of Rabindra Sangeet, a great name in the field of performing arts, a creative genius and a versatile personality whose death will create a void in the world of culture and art. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in his message, said, For a long time now, she has kept the listeners of Rabindra Sangeet spellbound, not just among Bengalis but all over India and abroad. In her own inimitable style, she has personified the soul of Rabindra Sangeet. I have known her for a long time, and on many occasions she has given valuable suggestions in the cultural activities of the State.

However, it is neither in the words of political leaders and artistes nor in the tears of the thousands of admirers who paid their last respects that one can get an estimate of Suchitra's position in the cultural scene of Bengal. It is in her presence in the house of each and every educated Bengali family through records, cassettes and CDs that one can understand what an inextricable part of the collective cultural psyche of the Bengali-speaking people she was. It is this omnipresent aspect about her that makes her almost synonymous with Tagore's songs; when one thinks of Rabindra Sangeet in Bengal, one is bound to think of Suchitra Mitra.

The famous Rabindra Sangeet artiste Swagatalaxmi Dasgupta told Frontline: Suchitra Mitra is partly Rabindra Sangeet to me. She has shown me how Rabindra Sangeet should be sung. My own art stands on her art. If there were no Suchitra Mitra, there would have been no Swagatalaxmi.

Her extraordinary life began on September 19, 1924, in an extraordinary manner: she was born prematurely on a train in Gujhandi, Bihar, as her family was returning from a vacation. The fourth child of Sourindramohan Mukhopadhayay and his wife, Subarnalata, Suchitra grew up in an environment of culture and music. Her father, though a successful lawyer, was more interested in the pursuit of the arts. He was a writer, a poet and also a songwriter for certain record companies of those days. One of Suchitra's earliest memories was that of her mother playing the organ and singing as dusk descended on the city.

Like her elder siblings, Suchitra, too, immersed herself in creative pursuits, but it was music that she was most strongly drawn to, and the talent she displayed from an early age prompted the legendary singer Pankaj Kumar Mullick, a family friend, to encourage her and even give her some training.

Subsequently, she went to Bethune School for her education, and though she continued singing there under the tutelage of the eminent singer Amita Sen, it was not until 1941, when she won a scholarship to study at Sangeet Bhavan, the music wing of Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan, that her formal training began. It was there at Santiniketan that she learnt not only Rabindra Sangeet and classical music but also instruments, including the esraj and the tabla. Her teachers included legends such as Shantideb Ghosh and Shailaja Ranjan Majumdar.

However, one regret that remained with her until the end of her life was that she never got to meet Tagore as he had passed away on August 7, 1941, 20 days before she joined Sangeet Bhavan. While studying music at Santiniketan, she passed her school-leaving examination in private in 1943 and enrolled for undergraduate classes in Bengali literature at Scottish Church College in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

First album in 1945

In 1945, she cut her first album in the form of a 78 RPM record, with Hridayer ekul okul dukul bheshe jai on one side and Maranre tuhu mama shyam saman on the other. The popular reception to the release was unprecedented and marked the beginning of a glorious recording career that spanned over 50 years and covered not just Rabindra Sangeet but also songs by Dwijendralal Roy, Tagore's songs in his dance dramas, and modern songs.

But it was in Rabindra Sangeet that her genius found its truest expression. Her renditions revealed a deep understanding of the coming together of the lyrics, the melody and the philosophy that formed Tagore's songs. Being a purist, she never compromised with Tagore's vision of a song and never strayed from the notations, but it was her own understanding and appreciation of the song that enabled her to breathe life into it. If we view the notations of a song as just a statue with form and structure, Suchitra Mitra's singing would make that statue come to life, said Swagatalaxmi.

Incredible range

Suchitra had a rich and powerful voice with incredible range and an enchanting evocative quality. Her style of singing was uninhibited and bold. She could conjure up the grandeur and power of a Nor'wester, as in Oyi bujhi kalbaishakhi, and with equal ease convey the ethereal charm of a village girl standing alone in a paddy field, as in Krishnakali aami tare boli. Her rendition of Tagore's swadeshi gaan (patriotic songs), such as Mahatma Gandhi's favourite song Ekla chalo re or Swarthak janam aamar, often brought tears to the eyes of listeners.

When I sit down to sing, I can see the song in its entirety float before my eyes, Suchitra would say, and it was this ability to grasp the essence of a song that made listening to her a unique experience every time. Suchitradi believed that music was not just for the ears of the audience. It should touch the core of his being. That is why many people got goosebumps when they heard her sing, Swastika Mukhopadhyay, the principal of Sangeet Bhavan, told Frontline.

Upon completing her musical education in Visva-Bharati, Suchitra returned to Kolkata in 1946 and started her own school, Rabi Tirtha, with singer Dwijen Chowdhury. She was always leftist in her political leanings, and it was around this time that she became more involved with the People's Theatre Movement and the activities of the Indian People's Theatre Association, of which she was a member. She would take part in processions and rallies, and it would be her beautiful voice ringing out in the open air, unaided by microphones, leading other activists in song as they marched. In 1948, she married fellow-activist Dhrubo Mitra. In 1950, her son, Kunal, was born, and later she adopted a niece, Sudeshna, who had lost her mother when she was just a few days old.

Suchitra's was a multifaceted personality. Apart from being a living institution in the field of music, she was an activist, an actress both on stage and screen, a director of scores of dance dramas and musical programmes in India and abroad, a writer, a teacher, and a key figure in many cultural institutes and academies. She had an illustrious career as a teacher at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. Some of her more famous students include Purba Dam, Pramita Mullick, Roma Mandal, Agniva Banerjee and Sudeshna Ghosh, who continue to carry on her gayaki (tradition). She was also a very influential member on the Music Board of Visva-Bharati.

While training in Santiniketan, she had picked up batik-, pottery- and doll-making, the last of which was to remain a fond hobby right until the end of her life. It was a well-lived life, as she herself liked to put it, and a glittering one, considering the accolades and the innumerable awards she received, including the Padma Shree in 1973, the Sangeet Natak Academi Award in 1986, the HMV Golden Disc Award, and the Alauddin Puraskar from the West Bengal government. She was also conferred honorary DLitt degrees by Rabindra Bharati University, the University of Burdwan and Jadavpur University. In 2001, she served as the Sheriff of Kolkata.

Though she had stopped performing in public for some years on account of her failing health, she always had time for students and those who came to her with problems relating to music.

Whenever we had any problem relating to Rabindra Sangeet, we would go to her; she had all the answers because she understood Rabindranath's works so well. There is nobody else like that after her, and there will never be anybody like her again, said Swastika Mukhopadhyay.

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