I heard about Uma Bose from my mother when I was a child. She spoke of her with unusual regard, and with sadness and wonder. Uma Bose was born to an eminent, well-to-do family in Calcutta on January 21, 1921, and she died on her 21st birthday of tuberculosis, in 1942. I was told her younger brother had already died of TB and that this had broken her heart.
The wonder and sadness in my mother’s references were mixed up with each other when she dwelled on the symmetry of the life and death, the cruelty that had cut off Uma Bose’s life as a singer and the abundance of fortune that had given her a singular timbre and astonishing mastery well before she died, when she was still half a child.
Uma Bose learned Hindustani classical music for a period from Vishmadev Chatterjee, but her métier became a new kind of modern song that was emerging in Bengal after Tagore, a rival to, and precursor of (in terms of musical and orchestral innovation), the revolution that would change film music in Bombay in the 1950s and ’60s.
To this kind of music she brought a classical proficiency, and a classicist sophistication and calm, whose character was absolutely modern, and I think unheard-of in the 1930s – prefiguring the contained virtuosity and the classicist poise that Lata Mangeshkar would bring to film-music singing in the 1950s.
Her reputation was built on being among the first interpreters of the songs of Himangshu Dutta, one of the great innovators of the popular song in the twentieth century (I’m not qualifying this with “in Bengal” or “in India” for good reason), and on her renditions of the songs in the demanding, eccentric repertoire created by the scholar-poet-singer-mystic Dilip Kumar Roy (1897-1980), son of the poet and songwriter Dwijendralal Ray (1863-1913).
The two songs I’ll first draw attention to here – their tunes are composed, and music arranged, by Himanshu Dutta – are Akasher Chaand (The moon in the sky) and Chaand Kahe Chameli Go (The Moon Says, O Chameli). The first is from 1940, when Uma Bose was 17 years old; the second from 1938, when she was just 17. These are part of a series of songs whose words Dutta got his lyricist friends to write, about the abortive love between the moon and the chameli flower.
Listen first to the curious but arresting mix of instruments – the electric slide guitar; a horn; the sitar; the mix of a three-note orchestral bass line and very light tabla in the 1940 song; the deliberate abstention from tabla in the 1938 arrangement, where rhythm is provided solely by bass lines on strings which don’t, however, interfere harmonically with the song’s ethos but add an unprecedented texture.
I can hear no Indian instrument in Chaand Kahe Chameli Go.
Notice the tunes themselves. Akaasher Chaand sounds like it’s based on a raga, but it’s a mix of three – Kamod, Kedar, and Gaud Malhar – that all approximate the major scale and all use both the ma and tivra ma; that is, the natural and sharp fourth. These two notes are revisited to extraordinary effect midway through the song by both Dutta’s composition and by Uma Bose. It’s the kind of subtle but revolutionary modulation on compositional thinking made possible by Tagore, which Dutta extends also to his arrangements.
There is nothing comparable to this testing of demarcations in the Western popular music of the time. In Aakasher Chaand, Bose uses her classical training to play with complex melodic phrases from 1.16 to 1.20 minutes, but brings to the song a deep tonal tranquility and fullness that she takes from her training in, and deep feeling for, the khayal: there is nothing “light” about her approach.
In Chaand Kahe Chameli Go, the melody, which has no counterpart in a raga (the closest is Chhaya Nat), is transformed into an Indian song by the singer and the composer through the use of meend, or North Indian classical music’s glides between notes. You wouldn’t notice that the tune isn’t an actual raga, given the interpretation – but if you sing the opening notes without the meends, you’ll see the melody is very like a Western marching tune or drinking song.
These compositions and renditions aren’t attempts to mix things up; they are a new way of thinking about music.
Uma Bose’s mentor was Dilip Kumar Roy, the son of a great poet and songwriter, a cosmopolitan who went to Cambridge to do his Tripos but turned more and more to music (he was a gifted and trained singer), experiments in musical composition, and mysticism. To understand figures like Roy – and others before him and contemporary to him – and their particular rebellion, you’d have to imagine what our present-day cultural landscape would be like if some our public intellectuals, social scientists, historians, and commentators began to compose songs, turned out to be deeply tuneful singers with classical training, artists attempting to create a secular vocabulary in poetry and music to express a kind of surrender.
One recalls Nietzsche’s loathing of Socrates for his habit of over-determined theorising, but his warming to the Athenian because the latter set aside philosophy as a condemned man and began to learn music shortly before his death. To understand the revolution that people like Roy (and before him his father Dwijendralal, and his father’s contemporary Tagore) undertook against the colonial self, which could be figured as a kind of Socrates, one must understand the release that the arts, especially modern music, constituted. This release made them extend themselves and their sphere in a way unknown to our intellectuals today. It’s in the midst of this revolution in the educated middle class that we should also place Uma Bose’s singing.
Here are two compositions of Dilip Kumar Roy’s, sung by Uma Bose, both combining devotional elements with Hindustani classical ones, their taans or complex melodic patterns containing echoes of operatic coloratura. They’re like idiosyncratic blueprints of projects that could only have been attempted by an inventor who had access to a multiplicity of cultural languages, techniques, and experiences. They are abstractions, really; it takes Uma Bose’s voice and abilities as an experimental singer, which is what she becomes in these songs, to breathe life into them.
This is Rupe Barne Chhande, loosely based on Khamaj, and Jibane Marane Esho, an invocation of a devotional mood in raga Asavari.
I’m adding a third song here Ke Tomare Jante Pare, Dilip Roy’s father Dwijendralal’s peculiar but compelling riff on the kirtan form.
Uma Bose was conferred with the well-intentioned sobriquet “Nightingale of Bengal” by Gandhi in 1937. She’s little listened to today, in Bengal or outside it. Partly this may have to do with the unclassifiable character of Dilip Kumar Roy’s songs, which are also too difficult to hum to yourself. But mainly it owes to the dominance of an anodyne and sentimental version of the Tagore song that ruled over Bengal from the 1960s, and to a form of tremulous singing that Bengalis began to hold close to their hearts. (If you compare the 1966 version of Chaand Kahe Ghameli Go by Hemanta Mukherjee to Uma Bose’s, you’ll have an idea of this pervasive tremulousness.)
Outside Bengal, our understanding of the history of the popular song in India has been both enriched and curtailed by Hindi film music. It provides a definition that’s full of excitement and variety; but it is, itself, by no means definitive. Uma Bose, like the experimenters whose work she was integral to, was a pioneer. Her emphasis on purity of tone, and a technical accomplishment that goes well beyond precociousness, presaged a new era for vocal music.
Amit Chaudhuri is a writer, a Hindustani classical vocalist, and a composer of crossover music. Listen to his music here.