My tribute to singer, Sandhya Mukherjee, published in Indian Express.
Sandhya Mukherjee came to my listening universe inconspicuously. Growing up as a probashi Bengali in Delhi in the pre-digital age, I didn’t have Mukherjee as part of my early listening experience in the way Lata Mangeshkar or Geeta Dutt had been. I was two years away from hitting my teens when Mukherjee’s voice — unmistakable for its lilt and lalitya, Sanskrit/Bengali for sweetness or charm — entered my world as we moved to Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi. No Durga Puja went by without listening to songs by two legendary Mukherjees — Sandhya and Hemanta — being blared on loudspeakers. The pandals of the late 1980s were venues for the screening of black-and-white Bengali films on giant projectors. This was also when I found Sandhya Mukherjee’s voice merging with the screen persona of Suchitra Sen, even as Hemanta Mukherjee’s did with Uttam Kumar’s who often played her romantic interest. As I spent the past few days listening to the breathtakingly wide range of songs Mukherjee sang in her long and illustrious career, I found that the ability to adapt — to artistic idiosyncrasies, situational peculiarities and the basic demands of a piece of composition — was what made her such a versatile and gifted artist.
Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.
Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.