Suchitra Mitra (1924-2011), often hailed as a preeminent artist of Rabindrasangeet – Rabindranath Tagore’s songs – left an indelible mark on the world of Bengali music through her exceptional ability to immortalise the genre, transcending both geographical and generational confines. Her musical journey commenced in the early 1940s when she sought training at Sangeet Bhavana in the precincts of Visva Bharati. Under the tutelage of Indira Devi Chaudhurani, Santidev Ghosh and Sailajaranjan Majumdar, distinguished pedagogues of Rabindrasangeet, Suchitra (in accordance with the South Asian literary tradition of addressing individuals by their first names, I have maintained this custom) honed her artistic prowess.
The conventional narratives that often adorn Suchitra’s biography merely skim the surface of her multifaceted life. Hence, it is imperative to venture beyond the accolades and explore a facet of her life that often escapes critical engagement – where her identities as artist and activist converged. This convergence found its most potent expression in her commitment to crafting Tagore’s compositions into a crucible of leftist cultural aesthetics during the Marxist Cultural Movement of the 1940s.
As we get ready to celebrate Suchitra Mitra’s 100th birthday, it becomes incumbent upon us to peel back the layers of conformist homilies and shine a critical spotlight on the political activist aspect of her life, which has not received the depth of attention it rightfully merits. In doing so, we pay homage to a luminous personality who not only ascended to the zenith as a Rabindrasangeet icon in performance and training, but also contributed significantly to the alignment of the genre with leftist cultural ideals – an accomplishment that sets her apart from many others within the Marxist Cultural movement.
Crafting a leftist revolution
Suchitra’s return to Calcutta from Santiniketan marked her active involvement with the Gananatya Sangha or the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), a radical organisation founded in 1943. In their pursuit of forging new traditions of songwriting, music, theatre, and dance dramas aimed at cultivating new audiences, the IPTA assumed responsibility for overseeing all cultural initiatives within the movement. It was during the devastating famine of 1942-’43, a crisis exacerbated by colonial biopolitics, that the IPTA’s dynamic artistic projects gained significant momentum. Artists hailing from diverse backgrounds came together to compose songs and craft revolutionary plays.
Despite facing formidable resource constraints, they embarked on arduous journeys to remote rural communities and other regions across India. This collective commitment to both artistic expression and social responsibility showcased the impact of cultural activism in times of dire need. The IPTA embarked on a deliberate mission to position itself as an organisation that harnessed culture as an effective tool in the realm of mass politics.
Within the organisation, Suchitra collaborated with other Rabindrasangeet exponents such as Debabrata Biswas, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Kalim Sharafi, Jyotirindra Moitra and the doyen of Ganasangeet or people’s music, Salil Chowdhury. Her memoirs recount vibrant experiences within the IPTA, involving song rehearsals and intellectually stimulating discussions with her colleagues, particularly at Debabrata’s residence.
The iconic performance of one of Rabindranath’s songs by Suchitra during a heightened moment of social unrest during the 1946 communal riots holds a significant place within the movement’s collective memory. Chinmohan Sehanobish, the communist luminary, reminisced:
Upon reaching a roundabout, thousands of panic-stricken people encircled the vehicles the artists were travelling in. Perched upon a truck, Suchitra started singing Sarthak Janam Amar Jonmechi Ei Deshe (A Serendipitous Birth in this Land). Those fortunate enough to have experienced her rendition of this particular song are acutely aware of its profound impact on the audience. However, on that specific day, amidst Calcutta’s tumultuous and adversarial streets, Suchitra displayed unparalleled emotional investment in her performance, surpassing any other interpretation. Her rendition transcended mere musicality; it became a profound and poignant testament to the turbulent times.
In her autobiographical accounts, Suchitra introspects on her role as a cultural activist, delving into how her unwavering dedication to a particular political ideology catalysed her active involvement in protests against societal injustices. Remarkably, her commitment endured even in the face of daunting adversities, such as the deployment of tear gas and confrontations with police wielding lathi, and later, a ban on her performances on the radio. Suchitra espoused a commitment to proactive engagement in addressing various forms of injustice, advocating for practical street-level initiatives as opposed to “idle discussions on the nation’s development or the protection of its citizens over tea, coffee and whiskey in the genteel drawing rooms of the bhadralok.”
Yet, she adopts a characteristically modest position, refraining from self-identifying as a politically engaged activist. Pertaining to her musical contributions within the context of the IPTA, she posits that her performances therein, conducted during meetings, gatherings, and events, overwhelmingly featured Rabindrasangeet. Suchitra, in retrospect, reminisces about the shared experience of performing during the precarious political juncture marked by perilous circumstances and exigent conditions:
I have performed Sarthak Janam Amar during multiple gatherings and observed its profound impact on people’s hearts. Countless people amassed at the maidan and silently listened to it.
The act of engaging in performing Rabindrasangeet within the socio-politically charged context of public arenas, such as the maidan, which have traditionally functioned as focal points for collective gatherings, emerges as a seminal gesture in the endeavour to politicise the genre and deploy it to awaken the consciousness of the masses. In the account of Priti Bandopadhyay, a prominent figure within the ambit of the Marxist Cultural Movement, it becomes evident that Suchitra’s artistic repertoire predominantly gravitated toward Rabindrasangeet:
During the processions and gatherings of the movement, we collectively performed original songs that were the fruits of the IPTA. However, Suchitra performed solo renditions of Rabindrasangeet. During that time, she would often perform patriotic songs such as Ek Sutre Bandhiyachi and Ekhon Ar Deri Noy (There is No Time).
This dynamic underscores the paramountcy of Rabindrasangeet within Suchitra’s musical repertoire, even amid a vibrant cultural and political milieu marked by the creation and performance of original compositions by the IPTA. Furthermore, it signifies her singular commitment to the musical legacy and its resonance in the context of a political movement.
The second renaissance
During the latter part of 1947, West Bengal found itself the focus of attention as Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, representing the Congress party, embarked on a visit to address the multifaceted challenges that beset the state. These challenges encompassed a complex tapestry, including the formidable task of accommodating and addressing the needs of an influx of approximately three million Hindu refugees displaced from East Pakistan in the wake of the traumatic Partition.
Simultaneously, the political landscape witnessed the emergence of protests against the central government’s contentious ordinance which sanctioned the arrest of dissenting individuals without recourse to a trial, essentially directed towards the leftists. In response to this, Suchitra chose to perform Rabindranath’s nationalist composition, Oder Bnadhon Jotoi Shokto Hobey Totoi Bnadhon Tutbe Moder (The More Stringent the Constraints Imposed, the More Swiftly our Obligations will be Unshackled), at a public gathering that resonated with the verve of the times. However, this act of musical expression did not pass without consequences. In a peculiar turn, the authorities responded to Suchitra’s performance by prohibiting her from appearing on All India Radio (AIR). This decision prompted reflections from her comrade Kalim Sharafi:
Prohibiting Suchitra from performing on the radio prompted inquiries within the parliament. The reasons behind the implementation of this ban remain inadequately addressed. … Locating any song composed by Rabindranath that potentially satirises Jawaharlal Nehru proves to be a formidable task. However, government officials may resort to various measures to assert their power and appease their chieftain.
This injunction, however, proved ineffective in deterring Suchitra. In February 1948, during an unofficial cultural event that emerged during the South East Asia Youth Conference held in Calcutta, young activists were subjected to gunfire by anti-communists. While rescuing their international guests, two individuals, Bhabamadhav Ghosh and Susheel Sen, who were actively involved in cultural activism, lost their lives. Consequently, during a demonstration organised by students from South Calcutta, Suchitra stood atop a table in an open field and performed the song Sarthok Jonom Amar, fully aware of the imminent possibility of another hostile assault.
The vitality that permeated this movement played a pivotal role in characterising this period as the “dwitiya ujjiban” or the “second renaissance.” Marxist theorists ascribe the cultural and literary resurgence of this era particularly to the infusion of Marxist ideology into the broader cultural consciousness, thus reinvigorating Bengal’s creative landscape across various artistic mediums, including music, poetry, theatre, dance, cinema, and numerous other cultural expressions. This prompts us to contemplate the integration of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs into this Marxist milieu. Amidst the formidable challenges posed by famine, epidemic outbreaks, communal conflicts, the Partition, and the ensuing refugee crisis, the musical performances by cultural activists emanated a resolute spirit and unwavering determination that embodied a form of political integrity transcending specific ideological boundaries. This is where Rabindrasangeet found its place, serving as a conduit that bridged diverse elements within this dynamic cultural and political landscape.
Consider how brilliantly resolute their voices were! The songs of Rabindranath and Gananatya (IPTA) resonated continuously, akin to an unyielding surge of musical waves. Suchitra, known for her steadfast dedication, would readily perform songs upon request, regardless of location, emanating an indescribable grace. Possibly, it was the year 1948, the end of February, on the final day of the South-East Asia Youth Conference, an event was being held at Maidan in the evening. Suchitra assumed the role of performing the inaugural song, and due to an unforeseen technical malfunction, the microphones ceased to function. However, the persistent and resolute Suchitra continued to sing Amar Shonar Bangla Ami Tomaye Bhalobashi (My golden Bengal, I adore you) as we stood still and mesmerised.
In 1948, the CPI advocated for armed resistance against the newly independent India. The new Indian government’s political agenda was characterised as bourgeois and, similar to the Bolshevik revolution, the CPI called for its termination, initiated by the hard-liner and sectarian BT Ranadive. In the same year, the government banned the CPI, a ban that was revoked only before the first general elections in 1950. The cultural dynamics of the era were significantly influenced by the International Peace Movement or the Anti-War Movement, which emerged in response to the profound impact of the hydrogen bomb.
Amid these turbulent times, collaborative performances featuring Suchitra and the revered Ganasangeet maestro, Salil Chowdhury, became a recurrent fixture. Within these enthralling performances, Suchitra lent her mellifluous voice to Rabindranath Tagore’s composition Krishnakoli Ami Tarei Boli (I Call her by the Name, Krishnakoli), while Salil followed suit with his original composition inspired by the same theme, titled Sei Meye Hoyto Take Dekheni Keu (That girl, No one has probably seen her).
Rabindranath’s lyrical portrayal of a doe-eyed young woman situated on the outskirts of a rustic village in Moynapara embodies the quintessential essence of a rural woman deeply entrenched within the collective psyche of Bengal. In stark contrast, Salil’s rendition of the girl transcends the idyllic rural setting, placing her squarely within a contemporary urban context, with reference to Rabindranath’s composition in the text. Dressed in a tattered saree, she wanders, her gaunt figure a stark reminder of starvation, her plaintive pleas for sustenance echoing through the streets. Her outstretched, emaciated arms beseech the opulent mansions she passes for a mere trickle of rice water, evoking poignant memories of the Bengal famine that remains seared into the collective consciousness of Bengal.
This enduring memory of deprivation and suffering finds its eternal expression through the evocative famine sketches crafted by the renowned painter and activist Zainul Abedin (1914-1976). Abedin’s masterful use of swift and resolute brushstrokes breathes life into a compelling narrative of the famine’s relentless grip on the land, laying bare the intrinsic connections between starvation and imperial aggression. The intriguing juxtaposition of the two songs effectively deviated from prevailing Rabindrik (Tagoresque) musical aesthetics in presentation. They invited wrath from the adherents of the Rabindrik, who admonished the song as a “branded communist’s parody.”
Rabindrasangeet for the masses
In 1951, Suchitra participated in the World Festival of Youths and Students in Berlin. Due to the prohibition on the CPI, numerous student leaders were still incarcerated or fugitives. She attended the event with the purpose of advocating for the marginalised group of young revolutionaries whom the government has oppressed, and she delivered a performance of songs composed by Rabindranath. Her performance elicited a profound emotional response from the audience, which resulted in the assertion that no artiste before her could disseminate Rabindranath’s songs to the socialist domain with such unparalleled excellence.
Suchitra’s testimonies underscore her determination to expand the reach of Rabindrasangeet beyond exclusive circles into the domain of the masses. Through her endeavours, she emerged as a performer both of and for the people within the context of the movement. Her renditions of the genre were infused with the “sweat and grief of daily routine,” resonating with the everyday struggles of common people. In contrast, her illustrious contemporaries like Rajeswari Dutta and Kanika Bandopadhyay were confined to performing exclusively in bhadralok settings.
While Suchitra’s efforts to democratise Rabindrasangeet may not have been as extensive as those of Debarata, she recognised the contemporary relevance and significance of Rabindrasangeet in its entirety. She confidently asserted, “Let all individuals partake in performing Rabindrasangeet, for the assessment of their quality and appropriateness shall be subject to future scrutiny”. Her unorthodox gayaki, akin to Debabrata’s, allowed her to adapt to various settings, whether it be in a factory or on a stage with precarious scaffolding. Such performativities are scarce among today’s Rabindrasangeet performers and are, to some extent, considered inconceivable. The reverential renditions of the repertoire in sanctified spaces often obscure the fact that these songs were once intimately connected to political activism and served as a form of people’s music in the not-so-distant past.
Suchitra’s departures from the prevailing performance practices of Rabindrasangeet extended beyond the confines of a particular political movement. Her deconstruction of the conventional image associated with a Rabindrasangeet artist also constitutes a revolutionary act within the discourse of performative identities. At a time when the visual aesthetics of a performer held paramount significance within the Rabindrasangeet milieu (it persists), Suchitra’s departure from established norms subverts the very foundations upon which these are constructed.
This subversion is elucidated through the lens of the Bengali feminist author Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s piece “Goju-Di”. Nabaneeta’s narrative unfolds as a series of emotive oscillations, commencing with her initial dismay at the transformation in Suchitra’s appearance, especially her adoption of a short haircut “reminiscent of Indira Gandhi.”
This transformation engenders a sense of loss, symbolised by the absence of the customary floral adornments that had hitherto defined the Rabindrik performative aesthetic. Within this narrative, it becomes apparent that Suchitra’s act of self-presentation challenges the normative constraints imposed upon a Rabindrasangeet performance. The image projected by Suchitra is no longer confined within the prescribed boundaries of convention, invoking an interrogation of these boundaries themselves. Yet, as the narrative unfolds, Nabaneeta’s perspective experiences a metamorphosis. The process of mourning transitions into an acceptance of the evolving times. Suchitra’s divergence from the traditional sartorial and coiffure expectations within Rabindrasangeet, as once perceived through Nabaneeta’s eyes, crystallises into a departure from entrenched norms that dictate the Rabindrik artist’s appearance. This transformation, within the context of the performative, unveils the inherent instability and fluidity of identity constructions.
Suchitra’s courageous divergence from the conventional image does not merely rupture the surface but penetrates deeper, decentring the very foundations of established norms, and opens up spaces for contemporary artists of the genre. Artists now confidently embrace Western outfits and androgynous hairstyles while rendering the genre with dedication and precision, driven by genuine affection and reverence for Rabindrasangeet. This narrative is a reminder that performative identities, like the text itself, are inherently deconstructive. They resist fixity, inviting an incessant play of difference and deferral. In the interplay of the performative, the image, and the text, Rabindrasangeet unfolds as an ever-evolving signifier, liberated from the cultural constraints of appearance and open to reinterpretation, primarily highlighted by Suchitra.
Suchitra gradually removed herself from the party when CPI became preoccupied with electoral politics in 1952, and the inner and outer faces of the party started to be at loggerheads, but she never explicitly discussed her reasons for quitting. However, she never really resigned from the ideologies of the cultural left and its musical manifestations. Suchitra was amongst the foremost cultural activists who marched and collectively sang Rabindranath’s Ek Sutre Bandhiyachi Saharati Mon in the front row of the Shanti Micchil (Peace March), organised against the sudden communal riot that erupted in Calcutta in 1964.
Her uniquely resolute and tellurian gayaki of the genre resulted from her political ideology, its inevitable contact with the masses, and the personal tragedies she dealt with all her life. She played a crucial role, along with her comrades in the IPTA, to raise funds through several performances and gramophone recordings for the beleaguered citizens of East Pakistan and the refugees who fled the brutal crackdown by the Pakistani Army during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. A frail Suchitra, who was supposed to sing a couple of Rabindranath’s compositions, stunned the audience and performed ten songs in a concert arranged to gather funds for the Nicaraguan Revolution in the late 1970s. Her commitment to the cultural left was unshaken till the very end of her performative life.
Suchitra Mitra remains a forceful presence in the world of Rabindrasangeet and its vernacular discourse. Her voice has been an abiding force in the era of decolonisation and nation-building, and Bonnie G Smith posits Suchitra alongside Umm Kulthum of Egypt, unquestionably the most famous songstress in Arab music history. Their voices were contralto, the lowest for a female, and had enormous power. While discussing women and their contributions in reviving and perpetuating cultural canons of the post-colonial newly independent nations, Smith maintains, “Suchitra Mitra, for instance, used her musical talent to spread the songs of Rabindranath Tagore as well as to popularise a range of Indian musical culture”
After the Egyptian revolution of 1952, a story goes that Umm Kulthum’s songs were briefly taken off the air “because she had sung for the leaders of the old regime”, just as Suchitra’s were. Kulthum, through her musical style and political views, extended full support to the socialist policies and “reminded Egyptians of their national heritage”. Kulthum’s legendary stature persists, including her music’s impact on Western popular culture, as evidenced by appreciative accolades from notable musicians such as Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin front-man Robert Plant.
A year away from Suchitra Mitra’s 100th birth anniversary, it is imperative to reevaluate the discourse surrounding her position as a cultural activist and recognise the lacuna in this discourse. While her indomitable presence in the realm of Rabindrasangeet and its formalist vernacular discourse cannot be denied, it is essential to revisit and refocus on her relentless involvement in the convergence of music and politics in Bengal. In the realm of musical dissent, the prevailing focus on Debabrata and Salil underscores the urgency of reclaiming and celebrating Suchitra’s pivotal role as a cultural activist, emphasising her profound impact on the intricate interplay between Rabindrasangeet and politics within the Marxist Cultural Movement – a narrative too long neglected.
Sahana Bajpaie is a contemporary Rabindrasangeet vocalist.