Suchitra Mitra, the legendary singer of Tagore songs, died in January. In this homage, Kabir Suman, the pioneer of Bengali modern songs, recalls a little-known aspect of her genius.
It is difficult to put a musician like Suchitra Mitra in proper focus. She belongs to a class of musicians that is not easy to judge...you need a longer time lapse for an appraisal.
Everyone knows Mitra as the singer of Rabindrasangeet. But she started her career differently. She was close to the Communist Party of India, undivided in those pre-Independence days. She was with IPTA, which was the cultural wing of the Communist Party, and she recorded Salil Choudhury's “Sei Meye”. She was only in her late teens then. This is very important. Most Bengalis today don’t even know this.
I think we could start here.
“Sei Meye” is Choudhury looking at Rabindranath Tagore’s Krishnakoli. Tagore sees Krisnakoli on the fields near Mayna Para, amid impending monsoon and dark skies. And there she stands, an epitome of beauty. It’s a love song that celebrates not just love or Krishnakoli but also nature. There’s not an iota of doubt that this Krishnakoli could ever face a crisis.
Then comes the Bengal Famine and Choudhury recreates Krishnakoli. “That girl from Moyna para is begging on the road today; maybe you’ve seen her, maybe you’ve not. Tagore’s Krishnakoli had to leave home, but if you should come across her, tell her there’s news for her from Moyna Para.” Brilliant song, idea wise.
This Mitra is the one I remember.
She was well known to my family; my father, Sudhindranath Chottopadhyay, was a singer senior to Mitra, but very close to her. She knew me too, but I don’t want to make much of that. What I want to do is talk about the little boy who is listening to the radio and the voice of Mitra comes out — he does not know her yet. “Sei Meye”.
The song, its texture and structure, several rhythm patterns... roopak with seven beats, four-four — eight beats, and the rhythm of kirtan, also four beats, but in a different way. I am taking care to give a structural analysis of “Sei Meye” because the ease with which the voice is rendering it and its fluency are remarkable. What I found equally remarkable at that age was that I could get the message that there was something gravely amiss — that someone was starving. But the voice telling me the story was not howling, weeping aloud, not sloganeering... it was a statement.
In an interview with Acharya Gyan Prakash Ghosh in 1961, the centenary year of Tagore, Sahana Debi, the doyenne of Tagore’s songs, had said, “Swaralipi is nothing; it is merely the scaffolding of the sur. There is a sur inside this sur and the true artist is one who catches it.” In Tagore’s songs, if you look for such artistes then among women there is Malati Ghoshal, the daughter of Tagore’s friend, but there exist only one or two songs by her. I have heard Kanak Biswas, and even taken lessons from her when I was very young — open-hearted, though homely.
And Kanika Banerjee — high-pitched singing. In Rabindrasangeet, we find a little low pitch, especially in women’s voices. But not so Kanika Banerjee: C was her key note. Mitra, on the other hand, remained at B flat, A flat... Banerjee emoted far more, tending towards reflection. If you ask me to place Banerjee and Mitra, then I would say the former is my lost youth. The moment society comes in, then I have to think of Mitra — the strength in her voice, straight like a stick.
The difference Mitra made originated probably from her IPTA days, where she had to sing in chorus along with other mighty voices like Debabrata Biswas and Kalim Sharafi. It was a training period, so to say. Later on, this gave her a big dividend, as I perceive it.
(As told to Gargi Gupta)