If Lata Mangeshkar is the nightingale of India, then ‘Geetashri’ Sandhya Mukherjee is the golden voice of Bengali music. She has always kept a low profile through her life and her career in music. That does not exclude that she remains one of the most prolific and mellifluous voices that will remain archived in the annals of music forever.
Born on October 4, 1931, in Dhakuria, Kolkata, Sandhya never had the chance of visiting her village home in Jeerat within Balagarh district. Dhakuria in those days was far from the glittery space filled with shopping malls and multi-storied building and even the over bridge did not exist at the time. Nor were there the dirt and the slush one encounters today. The sky was open and blue. The earth was filled with trees, flowers, fruits and birds. The chugging sound of a passing train would often drill holes of sound into the silent and dark evenings. A little girl would eagerly stare at the trains passing away through the square of an open window. In the evenings, she would go to the terrace of her Dhakuria (it was then a village) home and sing Krishna bhajans with the immediate family as her only audience. This simple incident laid the seeds of one of the greatest singers Bengal has ever produced.
Why the bhajans of Krishna? Krishna was the reigning deity at the Mukherjee home. Narendranath Mukherjee, her father, worked in the railways and was a great lover of music. Her mother Hemaprabha was a very good vocalist. Bhajans invoking the Lord Krishna were sung every evening during the pooja. Her academic career began at Dhakuria Balika Vidyalaya. She later shifted to Binodini High School. Hers was the voice the most in demand at every school function. When she was 13 years old, Sandhya put in a stage appearance too, not as the heroine but as a maid! That was the time when HMV (His Masters Voice) released her first gramophone record. The song she sang for the record was Tumi Phiraye Diyechho Jaarey (the one you have turned back), a brilliant debut for a girl so young.
As her heart lay in music and not in academics so after her matriculation examinations, she stopped formal education and began to pursue her only love – music. Before she completed her schooling, her eldest brother placed her under the tutelage of Santosh Basu Mullick to study classical raga-based music. She then trained under Jamini Nath Gangopadhyay, Gyan Prakash Ghosh, Chinmoy Lahiri, Dhruvtara Joshi, AT Kannan and Pandit Ganpat Rao. But it was Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan who tied the naada around her slender wrist to drill her in the complex and fine intricacies of Hindustani classical music. Though he is no more, Sandhya’s ties with his son sustains till this day. For her first sitting with All India Radio, Sandhya sang – Jodi Ba Phuralo Gaan, Jhorilo Duarey Lata, Noyone Acchey Go Jawl. Roughly translated, the lyrics mean – “Even if the song is over, if the creeper at my door has wilted, my eyes are wet with tears.” Ironically, the lyrics would have suited a singer who was singing his/her last song and not a young girl embarking on a long career in music.
No Bengali who loves music will ever be able to get over the spell of this golden voice singer of Bengal. Her recorded repertoire reaches beyond 3000 songs comprising a versatile range – bhajan, thumri, khayal, Tagore, modern Bengali song, and playback in Hindi and Bengali films. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb once said, “Sandhya is comparable with Sandhya alone.” RC Boral, the music director of New Theaters gave her the song Ha Ha Ha Hans Ke Jiye Ja in a film called Anjangarh (1948) when she was just 17 years old. She later sang Ashkon Me Chhipi Mohabbat Ki Kahani in Pehla Aadmi (1950), which gave her immense popularity in Calcutta. She then moved to Bombay where she earned fame with a duet with Hemant Kumar, Gupchup Gupchup Pyar Karen, in Sazaa (1951). Later, she sang for Anil Biswas in Tarana (1951). It was a duet with Lata, Bol Papiha Bol Re that became an instant hit. She got films like Ratnadeep (1952), Husn Ka Chor (1953), Fareb (1953) etc, but her stay in the Mumbai film industry was short-lived because her training in classical music, according to the demand in the playback market, was not suitable for film music. When asked whether she was marginalized and ignored due to the monopoly of some dominating singers, she resists from commenting by saying, “I am not anyone’s rival in the world of music because I sing only for myself and singing is my aarti, my pooja.”
Her most celebrated collaboration has been with the Hemanta Mukherjee with whom she sang numerous duets, primarily as playback for Bengali films produced from Kolkata. Hemanta and Sandhya became known as the voices behind the pairings of the Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar and his numerous heroines.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War, she joined the mass movement among Indian Bengali artistes to raise money for the millions of refugees who had poured into Kolkata and West Bengal to escape the fighting, and to raise global awareness for the cause of Bangladesh. She assisted Bangladeshi musician Samar Das when he founded the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro, the clandestine radio station broadcasting to Bangladesh and recorded several patriotic songs for him. On the occasion of the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the imprisoned leader of the new country of Bangladesh, she released a famous song Bangabandhu Tumi Phirey Ele. She later became one of the first foreign artistes to visit Dhaka, performing at an open-air concert in Paltan Maidan in Dhaka to celebrate the first Ekushey February after Bangladeshi independence in 1971. She also recorded several songs for Samar Das’s film Dhirey Bohey Meghna and Salil Choudhury’s Raktakta Bangla.
Her voice is like liquid honey and well-trained. At one time, she remained at the top of the playback singing ladder among female singers in Bengali films, specially during the Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar golden phase of romanticism. Over the years, she and Suchitra Sen became the close friends and the relationship lasted till Sen withdrew in her self-imposed shell of seclusion. Suchitra Sen also requested her to come along and meet her Gurudev at the Ramkrisha Paramahamsa’s birthplace which is now a pilgrimage site. Though she turned her music into a paying vocation but the commercial link did not mar her purity and her honest dedication to her music which she considers her god, her worship and her pilgrimage. Modest to a fault, she often says, “Maybe I could not sing with the quality I ought to have sung. I have not been able to reach the heights of excellence I should have by now.” She religiously sticks to her daily routine of riyaaz which is her way of paying obeisance to her sangeet gurus of different styles at different times. She has won the National Award twice; once for Nishi Padma and once for Joy Joyonti. Her living room is choc-a-bloc with trophies and awards including some awards for lifetime achievement and contribution to music from august organizations. But she maintains that there is still much to be learnt because music is an ocean of infinity.
Sandhya Mukherjee sang numerous popular songs for other composers but very few for Salil Choudhury. One of her most memorable Salil songs Shrabon Ajhore Jharey in the film Kinu Goalar Goli is spell-binding. Other Salil Choudhury compositions she sang were Ujjal Ek Jhaank Payra and Shyamal Boroni Ogo Kanya in the early Fifties. Another beautiful song of Sandhya, which was never released commercially was recorded for All India Radio, Calcutta. Few people have heard this beautiful song Godhulir Shanto Chhayay.
On the personal side, the story of Sandhya Mukherjee’s wedding to lyricist Shyamal Gupta reads like a film script. On May 10, 1966, the Left Front called for a state-wide bandh against the backdrop of the food revolution. The family of both bride and groom were in shock because Sandhya was to be married on that day. Curfew was declared in the evening. The groom lived in Lake Gardens while the bride lived in Dhakuria. Shyamal’s close friend Amarnath Laha had a brainwave. He pasted a sticker with WEDDING written on it on the car’s dashboard and reached Dhakuria with the bridegroom. The baraat, originally numbering 70, dwindled to this one man, Laha. Since the curfew continued for two more days, the reception from the groom’s side, called the bou-bhaat was celebrated at Dhakuria in the bride’s home, contrary to custom. Perhaps it was destiny that conspired to keep the wedding a quiet and small affair, in keeping with the quiet, low-profile life the bride had patterned for herself.