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A few years ago on January 4 — I think five or six years ago — I remember I walked into my college office early in the morning, turned on the computer, and went on to browse my routine newspapers. There was a news: Suchitra Mitra passed away.
For those who do not know, Suchitra Mitra was a legendary singer in Kolkata (Calcutta), who specialized in the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. She had a golden voice. Her enunciation was deep, meaningful, and flawless. Her dexterity in Tagore music was exemplary. She taught hundreds of students, and inspired millions more. She epitomized Tagore and his mastery of words, and inculcated it in the minds of us the intellectually disadvantaged youth.
For those who do not know, Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, philosopher, songwriter, novelist, and educationist. He got the first Nobel Prize ever in Asia — in any subjects. Tagore is an institution in the two Bengals and India.
For the musically oriented Bengalis such as myself, I grew up listening to diverse varieties of Indian and Bengali music. Classical Indian and Bengali, pre-Tagore oldies, devotional songs — Baul, Kirtan, and other genres, post-Tagore modern and contemporary, and also trashy and fantastic movie songs alike. But Tagore songs have always remained very special to us. And some Tagore exponents have remained in our hearts as our gurus, mentors, and teachers. As if they brought to us the Tagore whom we did not have an opportunity to see.
Suchitra Mitra was one such singer. Even my father, who had a Hindu fundamentalist upbringing and never understood Tagore that much (and regretted it in his later years), enjoyed listening to Suchitra Mitra. But he only liked her Tagore singing, and not her progressive political affiliation.
Suchitra Mitra was a lifelong believer in socialism. In her early years, she was a political activist, and in her later years, acted in a couple of socially-conscious movies. Her acting was wonderful. She was also a writer and poet.
Even though I have been at a number of Suchitra Mitra’s live performances over my years in Kolkata, I had only one chance to meet and talk to her. Students of the music school Rabi Tirtha (the Tagore Pilgrimage) that she founded gave her a lifetime achievement award, and I had a precious opportunity to be present on the occasion. She was gracious to grant me an informal conversation.
At the end of the conversation, I touched the feet of the legend. I was talking to her, and saying to myself, “Look Partha, you’re talking to someone who went to Tagore’s university, and spent her whole life mastering Tagore’s music. You’re talking to a legend who had once stopped a Hindu-Muslim communal riot by singing Tagore’s music of peace — in front thousands of arms-wielding people, about to kill each other.”
Suchitra Mitra also graciously gave me an autograph on that day.
I said to myself, “Partha, you are truly blessed.”
Brooklyn, New York.