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Ineffable echo from an effusive era
Photos courtesy: Sreyashi Dey

December 16, 2020

Letters from a Father to his Daughter by Jawaharlal Nehru from Allahabad to Indira Priyadarshini, aged 10, residing at Mussourie in the summer of 1928 numbered 30 and, culled in a book in 1930, has been a great favourite with global readers: an affectionate, erudite persona reaching out to a tender mind. This critic recalls a most touching, theatrical rendering of the same narrative by the noted thespian Vijaya Mehta at an intimate gathering at Ashoka Hotel in Delhi in the 1980s.


Almost half a century went by, when Batakrishna Dey, a renowned Bengali poet, lyricist and essayist, much published and honored during his literary career of over 70 years, penned his romantic poems in the 1950s, with images and metaphors of his time around nature and often reflecting - perhaps unwittingly - the nuanced sorrow and melancholy of an unrequited amour sung in Ghazals originally from Central Asia. To his talented daughter Sreyashi Dey, with her married abode in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this year of global upheaval seemed unlikely when she could bridge the enormous physical distance from her US abode to her father's niche in Kolkata.

Unable to travel home and adopting the digital medium, Sreyashi - groomed in Odissi and quite adept in creative style, running her own dance institution overseas for years -- felt moved to choreograph six of the vintage songs her father wrote in the 1950s, calling it A Daughter's Tribute to her Father, reversing the Nehruvian name! It was as moving an obeisance to her father's sprightly writings, as Vijaya Mehta's dramatic homage to Nehru has been in another time and clime! [Just a footnote here: The so-called Adhunik Gaan (Modern Song) genre of the 1950s' Bengal has long yielded to Jivanmukhi Gaan (Realistic Song), a kindred of the robust Western Pop Songs and hold popular imagination in Bengal in this millennium.]

Songs of Dusk recorded serially for six evenings in November, were fruits of Sreyashi's tribute. As she said nostalgically, "I always wanted to pay homage to my father's vast literary works, and to my departed mother, for instilling in me a deep love for the arts since early childhood. When performances moved to the digital medium this year, it was this impetus that finally made it happen. Songs of Dusk was a new series of classical Odissi dance choreographies set to some of the most well-known songs my father wrote in his youth."

Further, "Despite the physical distance, my father and I found great joy, meaning, excitement and artistic connection while working on this project. We also argued and disagreed on some aspects every now and then -- a healthy process of artistic creation! He told me -- in these long-distance discourses -- that our chats were taking him back many decades to his youth and his frame of mind at the time he wrote these songs. During the choreographic process, I discovered many nuances in the dance interpretation of these old songs that I grew up listening to, and for him, it was a bitter-sweet walk down memory lane!"

Finally, "My attempt to conceptualize and transcreate these songs into dance was a deeply gratifying process and a great learning experience as I delved deep into his words, thoughts and feelings when he wrote them. I tried to imagine a unique visual design for each of the songs to creatively convey the appropriate mood and feel."

There was a rich, pastoral history surrounding these compositions: the poet Dey penning his oeuvre during his college and university days; spending quality time with other poets and writers in Calcutta's famous Coffee House on College Street; interacting with legendary music composers such as Nachiketa Ghosh, Sailen Mukherjee, Sudhin Dasgupta and singers such as Geeta Dutt, Sandhya Mukherjee, Dwijen Mukherjee, Nirmala Misra, Manna Dey and many others; and having dialogues with music houses such as HMV. The songs were rendered by these icons.


Krishnachuda agun tumi

Krishnachuda agun tumi.., by far the most popular song sung by the inimitable Geeta Dutt, was the overture with which Sreyashi sets forth. Set in a shringara mood, the libretto is a virtual ode to the love god Cupid, where the fiery red blossoms of Krisnhnachuda in spring are serenaded by the poet: Krishnachuda, your flaming arrows have mesmerised me with ethereal melodies. Bereft of blooms in the parched-up winter, I was longingly beckoning you to share with me your dazzling riches...Odissi charis and bhramaris came through with captivating sway of the torso.
See video: youtu.be/7gYNA9fcLCc


Hey mahaprithibi

Hey mahaprithibi.., another hit song sung by Dwijen Mukherjee, spoke about the whole creation set to provide the poet's pain and anguish: O the great world, I've bedecked your temple of pathos all my melancholy life, but what have you offered me in lieu?...In an imaginatively set stage, the dancer, squatting on the floor emotes with karuna rasa with great intensity, delineating the journey of life, often full of agony and pain, where hopes and dreams are written as if in letters etched on water and forthwith washed away. Yet, the sojourn must be on, overcoming struggles and storms.
See video: youtu.be/DZUIBcyy6dI


Path aar koto dur

Path aar koto dur... was composed and sung by Nachiketa Ghosh in an intimate folksy style and the dancer, again using a stage with a most tasteful decor, executed nimble-footed charis. She embodied the yearning soul of a weary traveler trudging the lonely furrow: How far away is the road and skirting which distant seas? Is it where the sky kisses the waters - in the all-pervading blue? How distant is still my goal?
See video: youtu.be/9m2mD1CSVO8


Dhusor godhuli

Dhusor godhuli.... is a melancholy song set in a remote village at the dusk fall, with women lighting their worshipping lamps at the altars. It was beautifully sung by Nirmala Misra, a singing celebrity and is soulfully danced by Sreyashi in a venerable mood. The brass lamp sheds its glow on the dancer bedecked in red and white for the evening prayer. The refrain of the libretto catches the day-end mood: When dusk descends with lengthening misty shadows, and the darkness of nightfall approaches, birds fly back to their nests. The village maidens light the ritual lamps on the sacred tulsi altar. A solitary flautist plays his soulful tunes exuding the pathos of his passion for the faraway soulmate...
See video: youtu.be/czCqe5mI8wI


Shudhu jale likhe naam

Shudhu jale likhe naam...was the penultimate lyric danced by Sreyashi with great aplomb in a most picturesque setting on the bank of a quiet stream - enlivened by the lonely ducks -- atop a riverside plank and taking the gloomy forest walkway to leave, in her gloom at the end. Coaxed to convey his sentiments, the demure poet recapitulated, "This song conveys a mood of deep anguish at unreciprocated love, though I gave it my all. It was as though I wrote my name in a watery bubble which was neither visible nor lasting. I burnt myself at the altar in the flame I lit to worship my deity of affection, in the temple of my heart. The play-house I built in my cherished dream was washed away by the waves of the sea, leaving no trace on the shore. Was my love then like the wind, without any address, blowing over and vanishing into the horizon beyond?"
See video: youtu.be/8rOOqEXCFOo


Swati tara dube gelo

Swati tara dube gelo... was the finale composed and sung in a heart wrenching voice by Sailen Mukherjee in a varying tempo and danced with a sedate soulfulness - reminiscent of Persian houries traipsing with Omar Khayyam's Rubaiis (lyrics) seen in the 10th century miniatures of that enchanting land - beside an exquisitely crafted fireplace kept burning by the dancer with leaves shed in the lingering dawn. Persuaded again to interpret the song himself, the poet came forth gently, "It's a scene late at night, when I lay awake, deep in reflection, humming a song of separation from my mon amour. The night and the world around were peacefully resting in the lap of sleep. So was the sky above. Swati, the amber colored star, had stopped twinkling, about to set. The flowers in the garden, the birds on the tree branches had all gone to rest long ago. But not me, not a wink of sleep in my eyes! Fondly longing for my love, I called out: my voice echoed and rebounded in the silence of darkness and hopelessness. Yet, my story was not over yet!"
See video: youtu.be/hnSKelHOoZI

Let the last words be again from the poet, making a statement on his oeuvre, "The songs germinated during my years at Presidency College and Calcutta University. Those were the heydays of my literary efflorescence, to get acquainted with flowers and birds in the lap of Nature, getting to know the literatti and cognoscenti of the metropolis and the interminable process of falling in and out of love! I was especially infatuated with a beautiful classmate of mine and part of my life was spent daydreaming about her. The romantic affairs had, as I said, their ups and downs, with mostly downs! The agony and the anguish would outlast the initial angst of rejection and my outpourings would convey bleak, dreary darkness and lonesome nights, hence my daughter's titling the program Songs of Dusk. Nonetheless, I would usually bounce back, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the faint glimmers of early dawn waiting to break out..."



Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.


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