This is about my aunt, and this is about Bengali music.
This aunt of mine was my mother’s littlest sister. Her age was exactly in the middle of Ma and me. That means, when Ma was twenty, my aunt was ten, and I was born. Result was that when I opened my eyes and began to know this world, aunt became the baby sitter. Ma and father were still young, and on the weekend, went out to watch a late-night Bengali movie in then-Calcutta’s sprawling, crowded cinema halls. They would return around midnight; half asleep, I could hear happy people chattering down our North Calcutta alley, walking back home.
So, for three or four hours, a five or six-year-old child, I was under my teenage aunt’s supervision. Her babysitting involved two things: one, our small, battery-run transistor radio, and two, her dexterity in singing Bangla songs. We played a game to spend time. The game was that at 9.30 P.M., All India Radio (AIR) Calcutta would begin their popular, half-hour show of recorded songs by renowned singers from that golden era of Bangla music: it was known as “Anurodher Asar” (meaning Musical Soiree Upon Request). People from various parts of Bengal and Calcutta would send letters of request to AIR, and the announcer (DJ was not a known word back then) would read the names of the requesting listeners, and then play the requested song. TV would not be in Calcutta for another ten or fifteen years.
Shyamal Mitra, Manabendra Mukherjee, Sanat Sinha — three of the many star singers
Our game was that as soon as the prelude to the song surfaced (Tagore songs on Friday, and Bengali “adhunik” or modern songs on Sunday — or something like it), one of us would identify the song by singing the first line before the singer did; whoever does it first wins, and gets to sing the full song later.
Perhaps in this day and age when a popular song is heard thousand times on the FM radio, and seen thousand times more on TV and online outlets, it’s not such a big deal to be able to identify it immediately after hearing the prelude. But back in those days, our radio access to music was limited to only a few hours every day, because most of the air wave time would be spent broadcasting boring news and boring speeches of Indira Gandhi or her father Nehru, as well as other boring, unimaginative programs. Or, at least, we the musically-inclined, thought so.
Plus, kids were not allowed to be close to the radio — the only form of non-newspaper media — away from their school work. But when I was five or six, unlike today, we were not so overburdened with school work. We had time to play, hear radio relays of football or cricket matches (and imagine the real thing happening on the field: actually to see a game was like winning a lottery), and we had time for music — soft, melodious, beautiful Bangla songs.
AIR Calcutta: the Akash Vani building adjacent to Eden Gardens cricket ground
I don’t remember how long this baby sitting went on, and how many songs my aunt and I sang together. But that was my first love affair. I fell in love with Bangla music, and I fell in love with a Bengali’s first love affair: Bangla.
Now, when I am in my 50’s and find myself forever away from those romantic, wonder years, those days with those songs and singers haunt me. They wave at me from a great, unbridgeable distance, and ask me to return. And I do return to them…in my dreams.
This aunt is my only aunt still alive: now crippled with health issues and lifelong tragedies. When I visit Calcutta, I make it a point to visit her, and we sometimes reminisce about those golden days.
So this is my love story, and I wanted to share it with you on this special day — Tagore’s birthday. Thank you for reading this very precious, very personal love letter.
Sincerely, from Brooklyn, New York,