My Wife Said, “Let’s Have Some Indian Music.”

Ravi ShankarIs that a good title for today’s blog? Well, I believe it is. I’ll tell you why.

So, yesterday, Park Slope Food Coop — a member-run not-for-profit specializing on healthy foods — put her in charge of preparing meals for some of the longtime staff at the coop. Obviously, because of her new reputation with Mukti’s Kitchen, they asked her to cook Indian dishes.

She found a number of volunteers to sous-chef, and I volunteered as one too (!).

It’s a two-day process. The first day, yesterday, five or six coop members helped her to cut vegetables, boil and peel eggs, grind spices, and then cook some of the dishes. The second day, today, they are going to finish it all — to cap with a sumptuous lunch. They’re all looking forward to it.

So, a half hour into the preparation early in the morning, Mukti said, “Why don’t we play some Indian music?” I said to myself, “Why couldn’t I think of it first? It’s natural today.”

On my iPhone, I began playing a Ravi Shankar sitar. He is a legend I spoke and wrote about many times. Here’s a CNN story after his passing. Moni Basu quoted me in it.

Ravi Shankar’s sitar was the first thing that came to my mind. Salute to the great maestro, who along with Ali Akbar Khan had thought about bringing Indian music to America long time ago, back in the sixties, when the Beatles became his fans, and George Harrison took sitar lessons after the phenomenal concert in California.

Then, Nicholas took over. He was one of the sous-chefs.

Nicholas turned on the coop kitchen computer, and put on an incredible sitar off YouTube. I don’t know who the artist was: could be Ravi Shankar, Vilayet Khan, or Budhaditya Mukherjee — one of the new maestros. I am not exactly sure.

But it was absolutely beautiful. I could use other terms to describe it: magical, spiritual, divine. But I would leave it up to you to decide. Meditative and relaxing, for sure. The entire environment in the kitchen lit up. He left the music on for the entire day — it played from 8 A.M. to 1.30 P.M., when we adjourned.

Today, August 14, is the day when I left my beloved India, Bengal and Calcutta — out of emotional and political desperation — to come to USA. It was extremely difficult.

Looking back, I am deeply sad that I could not stay back in a place that I care for so much. Its people, its love, its poetry. Looking back, I am extremely happy that along with my wife, I built a life from zero in an alien land, and gained knowledge, critical thinking, and reputation. (Oh yes, I couldn’t speak a full sentence in English before; now I can — a little bit.)

Both countries have given me so much. I owe so much to both places. In our small ways, we are giving back to both of them.

My wife is giving back through teaching Indian cooking secrets to her American students — literally hundreds of them. I am giving back through teaching my labor union worker students — literally thousands of them. Writing and translating 24/7 about our culture.

Ravi Shankar did it in his magnanimous way. He brought the treasures of the Indian civilization to America. And Americans — like Nicholas — are still in love with it.

We are doing it in our little ways.

I’m glad she was the one who thought of playing Indian music in the kitchen, and we all loved to help her cook Indian food, for the enlightened and embracing American friends.

Today, August 14, is a good day for us — to celebrate.

Sincerely, in love and gratitude,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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MK foods
Courtesy: Mukti’s Kitchen, Brooklyn, New York.

Manna Dey’s Magic

ImageManna Dey, 1919-2013.

I promised to write one more article on Manna Dey, Bengali-Indian musician, who passed away just a week ago.

If you have time, you can read the two previous articles I posted in the last few days. Here is the link.

I’m not sure how many of my global readers actually have the desire to read a third article on an artist they don’t know anything about. In this so-called globalized society, where people from various parts of the world should know more about other countries, other cultures, other religions and various aspects of life, only a particular brand of news is getting across — via corporate media — and news not conforming to that corporate model are falling through the cracks. Nobody knows what languages South Indians or Central Africans speak. Nobody knows what is the staple food in Mongolia or Mali. Nobody knows what is the November weather like in Sumatra, Suriname or Slovania.

Worse, nobody even cares to know, unless it’s got something to do with their own lives. Knowing the unknown does not matter.

Yet, I can’t help but talk about my own language, my own music, my own culture and my own traditions, beliefs and likes and dislikes. And going against the grain, I even try to analyze why I like and dislike. My hope is that some people would read what I have to say, and find some type of a common thread across their likes and dislikes with mine.

One of the rarely received Bollywood awards.
One of the rare Bollywood awards.

That is the bridge building I’m trying to achieve. It does not matter if I live in New York or Calcutta, and you live in Paris or London, Prague or Lima, Lisbon or Perth.

My hope is that even with your different language, lifestyle and cultural experience, you’ll be able to understand mine. You’ll understand the examples I’m using below to illustrate Manna Dey’s magic.

I won’t say much. I’m putting together a VERY short list of songs the just-passed artiste recorded throughout his long life. This is only a few out of his 3,500 recorded songs in scores of languages. I invite you to listen to them by clicking on the link, and see for yourself if the melody, or the fun, or the theatrics, or the voice modulation, or the romance touches you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFeoINyGpVM (Bengali film song, starring Soumitra Chatterjee of Apu Trilogy fame and Tanuja)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw46YMgFmBY (Hindi film song, one that made Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna a household name)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU0a7GiOSl0 (Bengali non-film song sung in his early years)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IVxIRjHsr4 (simple, romance song sung in his early years)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUuxvHDD9as (Hindi film song, tuned after a famous Nazrul Islam)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KIcWTV3MME (Bollywood song that literally made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar in the 70s — ignore the typical idiosyncrasy in the movie sequence)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLMq-7NjVnQ (fun song from a 70s Bengali movie)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdngJcVmYuQ (Bengali “rap” — theatrical, extempo duel between country bards — from film on poet Anthony)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAonRE251pU (Manna Dey sings a rare, Bengali boatmen’s song, tuned by another genius Salil Chowdhury)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuEXFl2pPYg (one of my favorite Bengali non-film hits)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuWHnxoQHok (a famous D. L. Roy song)

Thank you.

If you like even a couple of these Bengali or Hindi songs, even without understanding the meaning, it would mean a lot to me. It would mean that music does not need a language, and it transcends the human mind — across the globe.

I’ve always believed in the universality of art, literature, music and culture.

Thank you for listening.

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Manna Dey: Inspiration, Magic, and…Fun

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Courtesy: Ei Samay, Bengali daily, Calcutta. October 25, 2013. Artist: Arindam Majumdar.


I could write so much about Manna Dey. I feel like I could write a book.

Last week, he left us. He was old and his health quit. But his music is never going to be old. His songs are never going to quit us.

In fact, if someone says, can you describe what his music was like — in one word?

I would say, well…really…I can’t. If you gave me a few words, then I would say, inspirational, pure magic, and a lot of fun.

Nobody, and I carefully use the word — nobody — was so versatile, so extremely skilled, and so full of life, when it comes to my somewhat okay knowledge of modern Indian music. His voice control, his modulations, his pronunciation and accent, his drama, his ability to understand the mood and melody of the song — every single song he recorded — were phenomenal.

Let’s visit history quickly. In India, we’ve never had any lack of very highly skilled musicians — vocal or instrumental.

We’ve had illustrious classical musicians such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar, Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayet Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Begum Akhtar, Malabika Kanan, Annapurna, Girija Devi, Bismillah Khan, V. G. Jog. This is just a short list of Hindustani genre artistes.

I wrote about some of them recently.

Stellar voice. Magical rendition.
Stellar voice. Magical rendition.

We’ve had famous Bombay film playback singers such as Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Geeta Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosale, Talat Mahmud, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar. Again, this is only a short list of Hindi playback singers. I’m sure there is a whole host of famous singers in movies made in Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu or Assam.

In Bengal, where we’ve also had thousands of non-film songs coming out on every festive occasion, we’ve seen glorious voices such as Hemanta Mukherjee, Pratima Banerjee, Sandhya Mukherjee, Shyamal Mitra, Mrinal Chakraborty, Arati Mukherjee, Manabendra Mukherjee, Nirmala Mishra, or Anup Ghosal. I’ve missed at least a dozen equally illustrious artists.

I could go on and on.

Each singer, each artist had their own style. Hemanta Mukherjee had his signature romantic style when he sang Hindi or Bengali film songs. He had his inimitable, sombre mood performing Tagore. Kishore Kumar was pure joy with his strong, masculine, overpowering style and one-of-a-kind yodeling. Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi were known for their own brand of romantic songs that ruled Bollywood in the fifties and sixties.

Likewise, famous female singers such as Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosale made their indelible marks in the modern Indian music world. Geeta Dutt, before her untimely death, swept India — both Bombay and Bengal — by storm with her wonderfully charming voice. There was a time when no romantic film song would be sung without borrowing Geeta Dutt and Hemant Kumar or Mohammad Rafi’s voice.

Manna Dey, for some strange reason, never got the same top ranking. For some reason I never understood, he was always ranked the second best by the media and the moguls. For those sixty-plus years he nearly 4,000 songs in ten-plus languages, he never enjoyed the status Mohammad Rafi, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar or Lata Mangeshkar did. Even Lata Mageshkar admitted it in an interview last week.

With Kishore Kumar, another musical genius.
With Kishore Kumar, another musical genius.

Yet, looking back, I can’t think of one single performer who had talents so versatile that nobody else could ever match!

Going back to the question I had before, yes, I have one word for Manna Dey: FUN.

I shall talk more about his fun. Like I said, I could write a book on him. At least I feel like doing it.

Appreciating him more than ever before,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Mourning Manna Dey and His Magical Music

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[Remembering this legend on his first death anniversary. I wrote this article just one year ago, the day he passed.]

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A legend passes. His creations stay on. If you have time, visit some of his songs here. 

Today, I am mourning Manna Dey, legendary Bengali and Indian singer. He passed away this morning in Bangalore. He was 94.

I grew up with Manna Dey’s music. He was a Bengali and his formal name was Probodh Chandra Dey. Under the tutelage of his proverbial singer-uncle Krishna Chandra Dey, who was blind and thus nicknamed “Kana Keshto” (the blind Krishna), Manna Dey began taking voice lessons when he was only a kid. Very soon, he became well known for his melodious singing style and dexterity in Indian classical ragas. After recording a few Bengali albums, he left for Bombay to record Hindi songs for the Bombay film industry, now known as Bollywood.

It was a time when Bombay films were soft and subtle, unlike today’s glamour and glitz. Indian film talked about a peaceful, loving life. Film music brought in loving, affectionate voices: Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Hemanta Mukherjee (also known as Hemant Kumar), Geeta Dutt. Manna Dey fit right in. His masterful voice that effortlessly transcended three octaves as well as his mastery on Bengali, Hindi and Urdu languages quickly made him a musical sensation. Legendary directors such as Raj Kapoor and composers such as Salil Chowdhury and S. D. Burman helped him flourish. Then, Manna Dey returned the favor to the industry, and brought in Mukesh and Mohammad Rafi to record Bengali songs.

And of course, we the Calcutta youngsters always vied on the superiority of Hemanta Mukherjee over Manna Dey, and vice versa. In fact, we were two invisible fan clubs.

For six decades, starting from 1940’s, Manna Dey held his own, prestigious place in Indian and Bengali music. He was a household name in all corners of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I do not know of any South Asian family — North or South Indian living either in the subcontinent or across the world — that does not play Manna Dey’s songs.

Manna Dey recorded 3,500 songs -- primarily in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu.
Manna Dey recorded 3,500 songs — primarily in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu.

There will be many obituaries on Manna Dey, some written by noted artists, singers and film personalities. I do not mean to add to that flood of statements.

I only remember Manna Dey whom I knew through that little transistor radio we had in our home in Calcutta. I remember how his Bengali modern songs, as well as a few Tagore songs he sang occasionally, stayed with me through my adolescent years. I remember how we would be glued to his songs played out of old-fashioned gramophone discs at our neighborhood Kali Pujas.

My best friend Subroto who killed himself in 1999 was a special admirer of Manna Dey’s jodi kagoje lekho naam…(if you write a name on a piece of paper)…he was in the midst of a broken affair at that time.

I remember hearing a much older Manna Dey once here in New York City. He was already well into his 80’s, yet he was so wonderful and smart and crisp. His voice faltered once in a while, but his memory and sense of humor — in both Bengali and English — did not. He never looked at notes. He sang from his memory. He played his harmonium with style. I believe he was 84 years old at that time. He in fact recorded a few albums past that age, one being a phenomenal disc of Tagore songs. Here’s one of those golden songs.

I remember attending a Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts-organized open-air soiree at Queens’ Athens Park in New York. A group of Bengali Hindu and Muslim youngsters was singing a group Kirtana, directed by noted teacher Ms. Selima Asraf. Suddenly, a familiar-looking, old man in his familiar glasses and Nepali-style felt hat showed up and sat in a simple chair right next to the young singers. I saw this man closing his eyes in appreciation for the devotional music, and the environment where Hindu and Muslim young boys and girls were performing a Hindu musical ritual together. Suddenly, I realized it was none else than the legendary Manna Dey. It was like, WOW!!

Off YouTube.
Off YouTube.

We presented an honorary award to him at the end of the soiree. I even had a chance to say a few words of tribute for him. I remember I said, “in Bengali, we have a saying called Ashitipar Briddha (octogenarian old man), but here we see an Ashitipar Jubak (octogenarian youth). We are blessed that he is still with us. We are blessed that he is here with us.” Then, we put a flower garland around his neck. He smiled and said a few words too, in praise of the youngsters and their teachers.

Happy memories to remember.

Last year, on October 23, our beloved poet Sunil Ganguly passed. One year later, another man who got all our love and respect passes.

It is not easy to deal with such great losses. There is no other way but to be philosophical about it.

Their creations will stay with us though. The man has just left, but his genius has not.

Still, I shall be missing Manna Dey, a lot.

Paying a very heartfelt tribute,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Not just a great singer. A great, intelligent, kind, affectionate person with incredible music knowledge and dexterity.
Not just a great singer. A great, intelligent, kind, affectionate person with incredible music knowledge and dexterity.