Upholding Musical Traditions of Tagore & Their Legendary Aunt

BY RUCHIRA GHOSH

Priyam Mukherji and Ritapa Bhattacharya have been buddies since primary school. Added to this is the fact that they are family-friends-cum-neighbours. Together they live in the (still fairly) pristine surroundings of Vishwa Bharati  (aka Santiniketan) the brainchild of Tagore and now a conspicuous Central University within the state of West Bengal, India. They share a common lifelong passion for Rabindra sangeet (Tagore’s lyrics). To crown it all, they are still deeply in love with one another! All the more interesting when you realize that their life’s mission is to uphold the glorious lifetime achievements of their aunt Kanika Bandopadhyay the legendary exponent of Tagore’s music. The latter was familiar as Mohor (lit: gold coin, like a guinea), the name picked by none other than Tagore himself.

Your aunt was your first mentor. How did she teach you? I ask. Priyam resumes, “Music was part of our everyday life. For Boromashi teaching music was a serious business; her method was intensive. She would make me focus on every word, lyrics nuances of the tune over and over again, understand them in depth until I was able to imbibe them in my heart and mind. She taught me all her iconic songs viz  Ananda dhara bohiche bhubane, OR duray kothaye duray…  etc. I recall how during my university days when I met her after classes, she   would often select a lyric and ask me to practice it with the tanpura. We never played the harmonium. She gave me valuable tips from time to time’  he pauses ‘ She would say, you must pour your feelings and  emotions into each and every word you utter while you sing; mere lip service will ruin the spirit of the song.”We had other gurus as well namely Gora Sarbadhikari, and Soma Roy b0th outstanding disciples of my aunt.”

How efficient is the couple in Hindustani Classical the backbone of India music?   “For sure says Priyam ‘we were both grounded in classical music. We were coached by stalwarts like Mohan Singh Khangura, Monojit Mallik, Basabi Rath and Dilip Karmakar.

How was Kanika Bandopadhyay or Mohordi as a person? Priyam reminisces, “My aunt was one of the gentlest  souls that ever lived. She was graceful, modest, comely, and soft-spoken and was never heard raising her voice. There was an air of simplicity and childlike innocence all about her persona. She was moody but overall, had an affectionate disposition. She clung to the ideal of “simple living and high thinking” lifelong. She had no craving for material riches. Do you know for many decades mashi gave free performances in public? It was during the 1980’s when the Artists’ Association convinced her — if a celebrity singer like her performed gratis, junior artists wouldn’t be hired —that she began accepting remunerations.”

Priyam  continues, “On the other hand, she was a strict disciplinarian and an efficient administrator: Be it as the Principal of Sangeet Bhawan, Professor Emirius or the Director of Elmhurst Institute of Community Studies which she had co-founded with my father Nabakumar Mukherji. When  it  came to singing, boromashi was a completely transformed being. She would sit on the dais, her eyes closed, oblivious of the teeming audience; with the first utterance she would slowly submerge herself in the overflowing melody, while her mind soared to an ethereal world. Her renditions the spontaneous outpouring of her heartwere oblations offered to the Divine! For  Kanika Bandopadhyay musicwas sadhana/ dedication and pooja/worship, to be performed in utmost solitude and isolation. The finale was the total surrender or submission of the devotee to the Supreme Being.” he concludes

It is pretty obvious, for Priyam and Ritapa life has been full of uncanny coincidences and similarities. They studied in the same grade through Patha Bhavan ( high school) Uttar Siksha sadan (college) and University. Both hold graduate, and post-graduate, degrees in history. They also completed M.A and M Phil in music from    Sangeet Bhawan. Incidentally Priyam’s dissertation topic was life and musical career of Kanika Banerji. Ritapa has an additional B.Ed degree in her kitty.

Their lives and circumstances largely overlap, their bonhomie sprouted in childhood, and she still uses his nickname Pom. How aunt Kanika detested it, she reminisces. Since childhood through the succeeding decades, they have performed together on innumerable occasions. In the process, they got perfectly tuned to one other. Their existing friendship was further intensified by the subtle, invisible bonds fostered by music. They had no inkling when love blossomed. Ultimately walking down the aisle was nothing out of the ordinary for them. And contrary to popular belief that marriages of couples in the same profession largely prove disastrous, they have been married for 18 years!

And now their teenage son Rajanya is gearing up to don the mantle of his musically accomplished parents. He has, as Ritapa says, music in his DNA. As a toddler he was coached by his grannie /Priyam’s mother Bithika Mukherji followed by his parents and lately by Soma Roy (who taught his parents also!)) He is learning to play the Esraj a stringed instrument — virtually a  sine qua non for the bulk of Tagore’songs — guided by Buddhadev Das.

What is your brainchild Mohor Bithika Angan all about?  I enquire. Ritapa elaborates,“ It was about three years ago, just before the advent of Covid that our brainchild was conceived. We felt that Anandadhara — the residence of Kanika and her poet-author husband Birendra Bandopadhyay— and its premises ought to be transformed into a vast, wide open space/arena for staging / hosting multiple-disciplinary arts e.g vocal & instrumental music, dance, drama, elocution and more. During  mashi’s lifetime and still, later many luminaries have trodden upon this hallowed ground. The list includes Lata Mangeshkar, Satyajit Ray, Suchitra Mitra ,Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Dwijen Mukherji, to name a few. During the pandemic, things were in limbo and we managed to conduct a few online recitals. Now that things are normalizing we are bouncing back with great gusto. As part of mashi’s birth centenary celebrations during 2023-2024 her home has been refurbished  and turned into a Cultural Heritage cum Archive Centre, for   housing her invaluable works, artefacts, memorabilia et al.  Of late eminent personalities like Sujoy Prasad Chatterji and the noted film director Goutam Ghose have been closely associated with the activities organized at Mohor Bithika Angan.

About their lives’ achievements Priyam says “It was my (read our) good fortune to be born into the culturally enriched milieu of Santiniketan teeming with virtuosos and maestros in divergent spheres of performing arts. Those great souls were humble and idealistic. I am glad that their influences have helped me to become a good human being. In addition, we are wholeheartedly devoted to community service. Through our foundation, Elmhurst Institute of Community Studies we reach out to people at the grassroots level for promoting their all round welfare and development. We also endeavour to inculcate the essence of Tagore’s philosophy and ideology in their hearts and minds. Tagore has been the core of our existence the summum bonum  of our lives and we shall strive to enrich the lives of others in a similar manner”.

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