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Suchitra Mitra: A voice that marked time

January 31, 2011 15:01 IST

Suchitra MitraIt is the death of a singer. And also the passing of an era

I learned about Suchitra Mitra's death the way I learn about most news these days -- Facebook.

A friend's status talked about coming home to a house that was eerily quiet, desolate, in mourning for the famous Rabindrasangeet singer. It felt strange to think that the death of an 86-year-old singer could shroud a house in such melancholy these days.

Suchitra Mitra had had a long and rich career. She had not performed in several years. And many years before that, her bold, full-throated voice had started to fade. Sometimes it failed and cracked as she tried gamely to sing, the notes quavering, making you cringe when you heard her on television.

But still the silence that comes with a singer's death has a poignancy that is all its own. It is different from other deaths -- of actors, writers, dancers. I remember being a newly arrived college student in the Midwest when I heard that Hemanta Mukherjee aka Hemant Kumar had died. I remember walking down the corridor of my department absorbing the news.

I could imagine my mother hearing it in Kolkata. Perhaps she was at home getting ready to go to the market when she'd suddenly heard Hemanta Mukherjee pouring out of our neighbor's radio. Did her heart stop still wondering why they were playing his songs at such an odd hour? Did she turn on the television hoping against hope it was not true.

My mother had once been a dancer. She moved in artistic circles. She danced in Tagore dance dramas on stage while Hemanta Mukherjee and Suchitra Mitra sang. She called them Hemanta-da and Suchitra-di.

For her their deaths meant a chapter in her life also ended. She had not danced in many decades. But still in their passing she knew that she had lost another witness to a part of her life, that even we, her children were not privy to.

For me, growing up, it was thrilling to think that my mother knew these people we saw on television, on the covers of cassettes. Hemanta Mukherjee in his spotless white dhoti, with his white shirt, the sleeves rolled up, Suchitra Mitra with her graying hair, stylishly cut short -- they were real characters in our lives.

They were part of a soundtrack of our lives. In the days before the Internet, they were the parts of our growing up that we carried with us into small towns in the Midwest. They were portable. They came on cassettes, the plastic covers cracked by the weight of our journeys.

It's not that there is not a new generation of singers. Rabindrasangeet, especially, has not lacked for newer singers. Many are excellent. They come abroad to Bangla Sammelans and Bengalis flock to listen, even buy their CDs. And they don't have to worry about them singing those new-fangled songs from the latest Hindi films.

Rabindrasangeet is something Bengalis can close their eyes and summon up, no matter who is singing.  It is packaged nostalgia that can be reheated over and over again. But an iconic singer like Suchitra Mitra still makes her own mark.

"Nobody could sing aaaa with that kind of full-throated passion like Suchitra-di," my mother would say. At a time when much of Rabindrasangeet sounded as if it was being sung through pursed lips, Suchitra Mitra sounded vibrantly different. Praan khola was the phrase my mother used. Life wide open is how I'd translate that. When she sang Tagore's song about the dark-skinned Krishnakali, she was unforgettable.

The obituaries talk about her prowess as a singer, her many awards, how she always regretted having joined Santiniketan days after Tagore's death, her reputed rivalry with  other singers like Kanika Banerjee, even her stint as the sheriff of Kolkata.

What they don't talk about is that the sound of her voice marked time for generations.

For my mother, it transported her back to a time when she was young and the world was exciting and new and sparkling with possibility.

For me it reminded me of my grandmother's record player and how we carefully placed the needle on the shiny black records and then like a miracle these voices would tumble out of the spinning disc.

For someone else, it probably had an instant flashback to a dark night, up on the roof, in the middle of a power cut. And perhaps a young woman next door singing, humming, snatches of her song carried through the still night air, a broken stanza, tremulous with promise.

We are made of songs, even the most non-musical of us. They are embedded in us marking romance, death, loss and longing.  It is the way we transported ourselves home in little studio apartments in college towns while the dal bubbled on the stove.

Those tapes are still stacked in my basement. There are just no tape players to play them on anymore. My old beat up Honda had a tape deck that would heat up on hot days and make the tapes warbly and garbled. A month ago, that tape deck finally gave up the ghost, rendering shelves full of old tapes, including a four volume set of Suchitra Mitra's songs, homeless.

And now the singer is gone too.

The music remains on CDs and iPods and YouTube but it no longer marks time in the same way. That tie has snapped. The spell is broken. Even when she had long lost her singing voice, a legendary singer's presence preserves a certain comforting illusion of an unchanging homeland -- a place and a time that can be returned to.

As each of them dies, their voice remains but only as a reminder of something gone -- a tape un-spooling into the silent night, magnetic with memory. 

Sandip Roy hosts Up Front, a culture radio program on KALW 91.7 in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is associate editor with Pacific News Services and New California Media. He has won the Katha Prize for Indian American fiction.

Sandip Roy