As I look back on my writing and my musical pursuits, I have mixed feelings. When I travel that memory lane, on one hand I feel satisfaction that I achieved what I could, what I was capable of doing. On the other hand, I feel dissatisfaction, uneasy in that I have not done more, that I have not done enough. Whatever little I had to contribute to this world, I hoped to do justice, to honor my creativity. This is my legacy.
My earliest memory of music is not a lullaby. Many mothers sing a lullaby to their child to fall asleep at night. I had no one to do that. My mother died thirty days after my birth. I was born in Kolkata but I was raised by my eldest Aunt in a village in the Dhaka district of East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh. I remember the beautiful sylvan, woodsy surroundings and the greenery of jute by the Padma River. Bhatiali, river songs, are a genre of Bengali folk music. There were paddy fields along the river stream. Across the way, boat men singing their hearts out while sailing their vessels. In Bhatiali, the singer pours forth his passion, love and longing. The songs of the river are to be sung to the beloved, one seeks to be reunited, far from home.
In my adolescent years, I felt inspired by the golden voice of Kanan Bala (later Kanan Devi). Her voice was mellow and sweet. I remember the singer Krishna Chandra Dey who was blind and a cousin of singer Manna Dey. Her voice was loud, robust, almost masculine. Modern Bengali songs from that era still resonate in my ears. Their songs were sonorous, serene and soulful. Ten bright stars from that musical era were: Sachin Dev Burman, Jaganmoy Mitra, Satya Chowdhury, Dhananhay Bhattacharyya, Hemanta Mukherjee, Manabendra Mukherjee, Sailen Mukherjee, Supriti Ghosh, Suprava Sarkar, Sandhya Mukherjee. Last but not least, the music of Dwijen Mukherjee, a popular Rabindra Sangeet singer, shines in my memories from that time in my life.
I would leave behind the pastoral countryside setting of my childhood and adolescent days in a rural paragana in East Bengal and migrate to the urban metropolis of Kolkata to pursue my education.
I attended the Mitra Institution in Kolkata, West Bengal. I graduated from the Prestigious Presidency College with honors in Economics. Post-graduate studies in Political Science followed at the University of Kolkata. Three dutiful years were spent at Saint Paul’s Cathedral Missionary College before I migrated to Delhi. In Delhi, I charted an unlikely path from educator to administrator after passing all my examinations.
During my student life, my dream was to be an excellent student and that is exactly what I was. For that to be true, I had to pull off a kind of tight rope walking, dividing my attention between academics and the profession of creative writing. Writing songs and poetry while mastering academic excellence was an extremely difficult balance. I was not a full-time lyricist when I was a student in Kolkata. I learned to navigate this delicate balance among many changes in my life.
Excellence in education remained a priority to me during my years in government. During my tenure in public service, I completed a post graduate program at Delhi Premier Indian Institute of Public Administration and a fellowship at the International Institute of Social Studies at The Hague, the Netherlands. Amidst a bureaucratic hierarchy, I rose to become the head of the department, the ministry of commerce, named the telecom secretary.
During these years, I started writing professional research papers in various Indian and foreign journals. Knowing the challenges and intricacies of civil service, I published ten books in English on the subject of public administration and management. Though a dedication to a higher civil service in government did not keep me from my creative and plentiful literary activities in Bengali.
The Sovereign Self, Writing poetry
I am first and foremost a poet. I have my own instincts and sensitivities. I make my own choices. My imagination is drawn to beauty, aesthetics and the principles of nature. A poet observes the synchronous. Sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, a poet’s sensibility is unlimited.
Writing songs is different than the way one writes poems. Poetry is a personal creation based on an individual endeavor whereas music is a much more collaborative practice.
Beginning in 1947 through 1957, I remember a decade that was easily the most creative and productive years of my life. I experienced all facets, all shades of the literary world. My poems were published to a wide and diverse circulation of readers. Poems appeared in Ananda Bazar, Weekly Desh, Jugantar, Basumati, including Buddhadev Bose’s exclusive Kabita and other leading literary journals and dailies of Kolkata.
In 1958, my first anthology of poems was published. It was entitled “Manogandha” which translates as fragrance of the mind. This collection of poems attracted critical recognition from literary connoisseurs, patrons of the arts and cultural enthusiasts. In the years following that first anthology, I would go on to publish 10 more volumes of original poetry.
At that time, live poetry gatherings were memorable events. An event where poetry was recited to an audience was a unique experience of culture, people and literature coming together. These events were hosted at various Bengali literary academies. I remember one such evening at Senate Hall at the University of Kolkata. I joined with two hundred other poets. We were emerging artists to be heard, read and celebrated before an audience of one thousand poetry lovers and fans.
Journalism & Periodicals
Along with the creative writing of poems, songs, stories, I have contributed informative academic essays and journal articles on citizens and society. Letters from the Capital is a journalistic compendium and summary of my experiences in Delhi. Another article I consider a journalistic endeavor, in which I explore my personal observations of culture and thought is entitled, Atmacharita, Memories of a Lifetime.
Music, Culture & Politics
Romance, love, union and separation captured the dominant mood of the modern Bengali song from the 1940s to the 1970s. Eight musicians who represented an artistic resistance to the mainstream mood were: Ajoy Bhattacharya, Pronob Roy, Sailen Roy, Subodh Purokayastha, Mohini Choudhury, Gouriprasanna Majumdar, Shyamal Gupta, Pulak Bandopadhya.
These musicians would play with words sweet and soft. It was impressive and touching. Their music was full of pathos. A subtle combination of classical imagery and simple expressions. Their edges were never too masculine, rendering an affecting and melodious sound. A universal sound made of many layers. Layers that were distinct and juxtaposing. In their music, a variety of interests and influences were unearthed, revealing an important musical movement.
Historically, these artists and musicians were referred to as progressive. In reality, they were driven by left leaning politics. Salil Choudhury was a chief protagonist of this movement. The singer-songwriter Choudhury traveled with the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and performed songs of protests in the 1950s. Followers of Salil Choudhury such as Abhijit Bandopadhyay, Prabir Majumdar, Amal Chattopadhyay sought to expose oppression through music. When Salil Choudhury migrated to Bombay, the sheer velocity of the movement slowed down.
Notable to mention are some of the trailblazing songs of Salil Choudhury and Hemanta Mukherjee such as “Kono ek gayer Bondhu” with lyrics by Satyen Dutta or the 1951 all-time favorite song, Runner. They were innovative and daring in their music. Salil Choudhury went on to compose music for over 100 films in 13 languages.
Musicians & lyrics
Who knew that one day I would write lyrics for the top artists of Bengal and Bombay. It was my privilege to write for legendary musicians in Bombay such as: Gita Dutt, Manna Dey, Anup Jalota, Santanu Moitra, and others.
It was my honor to write for many legendary musicians in Kolkata, only to name a few since a full catalog will be too long: Dwijen Mukherjee, Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Manabendra Mukherjee, Sailen Mukherjee, Sandhya Mukherjee, Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta, Nirmala Misra, Banasree Sengupta, Anup Ghosal, Pintoo Bhattacharya, Amal Mukherjee, Shakti Thakur, Indraneel Sen, Samarjit Roy.
Collaboration in Music
Writing songs for the creation of music is different from writing a poem in solitude. A song is very much a collaborative effort. It is meant to be harmonious and a blending of three creative minds – the writer or the lyricist, the music composer or the tuner and the singer. In essence, music is a crafted mixture of words, tune and tone. It is necessary in the interest of the melody to respect the division of labor and specialization, that is for each artist to offer their particular gift to the creative aim.
Always I found it to be that the composer wants the lyricist to sit close by him when he begins the tune. Nachiketa Ghosh, a renowned composer, was one who always insisted on this very thing. I had to be in his music room when he composed my songs. On several occasions, even the famous singer Dwijen Mukherjee would come over to my house to fine-tune his music. Such a meeting of the minds was not always easy or possible. It often required the coordination of time and circumstances.
I have much gratitude for Dwijen Mukherjee and Sailen Mukherjee. As when I was collaborating with them, I was able to do this through our long-distance experiments. We successfully wrote songs in Delhi that were then recorded in Kolkata.
Such was the case for the evergreen song “Krishnachura Agun Tumi” when I was collaborated with Geeta Dutt who was in Bombay while myself and Sudhin Dasgupta were in Kolkata. Similarly, in working with Manna Dey and Anup Jalota, both of whom resided in Bombay, while I was working from Delhi and Kolkata at the time of our collaborations.
Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali poet, writer, composer, philosopher and painter. He was the first Indian to receive the Novel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of poems, Gitanjali. Tagore was an outstanding lyricist as well as a superlative composer of music. Tagore was a rare talent and considered a real confluence of creativity. His music brings to mind the Triveni Sangam, a meeting place of the three rivers: the Saraswati, Yamuna, and Ganga rivers. Tagore could be described as the coming together of all three streams flowing in one person.
As a teenager, I was a bit of a movie buff. I watched one movie almost every week or 10 days. I found myself coming out of the auditorium with tears in my eyes. My heart heavy and tugged by the emotional story lines. I had a strange habit of rewriting the songs I heard in the films. In the privacy of my school notebook pages, I revised the songs in my own language of Bengali. I thought this would fit the story better. It was meaningful to me transform the songs. Through these experiments and expressions, I was beginning to mature as lyricist.
Poet Vs. Lyricist
However, I have never written songs at someone else’s bidding. I consider myself a poet first in my own right. For this reason, I have never composed lyrics on the structure of a tune that was already composed by someone else. This is a common practice in the music industry at that time. Many professional lyricists have written songs for music composers, whereby they wrote entire songs to fit tunes that were pre-composed. However, it is not how I have worked and it is not my style. The songs that I have written have been according to my own creative taste, in sync with my imagination, ideas of beauty and aesthetics, sense and sensibilities, and in keeping with my own demands for integrity in method and technique.
Musician Samarjit Roy of Bangladesh is a talented young artist whose training in Indian classical music is a great advantage and strength. He is known for his appealing and dazzling compositions. He composed many of his songs while in Chattogram and Bangladesh. He spent time in Bombay to rehearse and perform with Musician Anup Jalota. Their album was formally released in Bangladesh to great acclaim. We correspond often about new music. He travels all the way to Kolkata to collaborate on lyrics for his new compositions.
Last year, in appreciation and recognition of my lifetime achievements, I received an award by the Manna Dey Foundation. Manna Dey was an internationally acclaimed Indian playback singer, music director, musician and Indian classical vocalist, best known for songs such as Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dwaare. This award was magnificent and delightful for me since I wrote lyrics for several songs by Manna Dey during his musical career. At the request of the foundation, I have recently written a number of new songs in his honor. As well, I continue to be a frequent contributor of poems, stories and letters to the leading periodicals of Bengal. As a lyricist and poet, I am happy to say I am still very active after all these years.