The notes of sweetness, lightness of Sandhya Mukherjee

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Sandhya Mukherjee came discreetly into my listening universe. Growing up as a Bengali probashi in Delhi in the pre-digital era, I didn’t have Mukherjee as part of my early listening experiences like Lata Mangeshkar or Geeta Dutt had. I was two years away from hitting my teenage years when Mukherjee’s voice – unmistakable for its rhythm and latya, Sanskrit/Bengali for sweetness or charm – entered my world as we moved to Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi. No Durga Puja passed without listening to the songs of two legendary Mukherjees – Sandhya and Hemanta – played through loudspeakers. The pandals of the late 1980s were places where black and white Bengali films were shown on giant projectors. This is also when I found Sandhya Mukherjee’s voice merging with Suchitra Sen’s on-screen persona, as did Hemanta Mukherjee’s with Uttam Kumar’s who often played his romantic interest . As I spent the past few days listening to the mind-boggling array of songs Mukherjee has sung over his long and illustrious career, I have discovered that the ability to adapt – to artistic idiosyncrasies, to the idiosyncrasies of the situation and to the basic requirements of a composition piece – was what made her a versatile and gifted performer.

Recently I came across some almost forgotten gems – a whole stack of Hindi songs in her voice. Between 1950 and 1951, when she traveled to Bombay to answer the call of composer SD Burman, Mukherjee sang in no less than 17 Hindi films before returning to Calcutta and becoming a household name. One of the biggest draws of Mukherjee’s singing is how easily she glides through different musical genres. She has sung some of the most memorable romantic songs, to which she injects sensual reverie or playful dynamism, depending on the mood the words intend to convey. In songs like “Ke tumi amare daako” and “Ei je kachhe daaka,” Mukherjee imbues the notes with an almost mysterious air while maintaining remarkable control. She is equally at home singing “Ghiri ghiri aayi”, a thumri based on the raag in the film Antony Firingee, or in Kamallata, rendering Ham ekakini, tahe abhagini in kirtan style. In his ease in crossing this multitude of musical landscapes – film songs, Nazrulgeeti, classical and semi-classical compositions, Rabindrasangeet, folk music – Mukherjee has overcome each style and made it his own. Each of her songs in Antony Firingee, a film in which she sang alongside Manna Dey, known for her classical mastery, remains a testament to her ability to combine skill and emotional persuasion. Whether it’s “Tuhun mama mono prano hey” or “Champa chameli, golaperi baagey” or “Ami je jalsaghare”, every song that Mukherjee has sung under the direction of composer Anil Bagchi bears the mark of this fluidity.

Mukherjee belonged to a time when the fraternity of artists often came together to lend their support to social and political causes. In 1971, when refugees from the former East Pakistan flooded Calcutta, Mukherjee played a leading role in fundraising and global awareness. She sang “Bongobondhu phire ele”, written and composed to celebrate the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from prison in Pakistan in 1972. The song was broadcast on All India Radio in January of the same year. After the premiere of Bangladeshin in February 1972, Mukherjee was invited as the main guest at the celebrations in Dhaka.

Every autumn, just before the Bengali community goes into the frenzy of Durga puja comes Mahalaya, the inaugural day of the festival. Bengalis around the world are waking up to the notes of Mahishasuramddini, a musical that plays at dawn on the radio (and now on digital devices). From the stellar lineup of vocalists rises the voice of Sandhya Mukherjee, singing “Bimaney bimaney alokero gaane jaagilo dhoni” (“Riding air chariots, notes of light take flight in song”). Despite his passing, Mukherjee’s aloker gaan – bright notes – will continue to soar.

This column first appeared in the paper edition of February 22, 2022 under the title ‘Notes of sweetness and light’. Ghosh is a writer and translator, and author of Victory Colony, 1950.

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