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A celebration of divine love

Chhabi Bandyopadhyay, the last of the great kirtan singers, died in Calcutta after a prolonged illness on May 23 at the age of 86. When she sang, the Radha-Krishna lore would come alive, her voice joyful at one moment and immersed in the sorrow of love, separation and parting at another.

She had been trained from childhood in classical and folk music, Rabindrasangeet and kirtan under Nabadwipchandra Brajabasi and Ratneswar Mukhopadhyay and she excelled in all these genres. Yet her emotionally-charged and mellifluous voice seemed best suited to the dramatic lyricism of padabali kirtan, to which she had devoted her life. In her youth she was known for her austere beauty.

Her father encouraged her to sing. Initially he was reluctant to allow her to perform in public. He had enjoined her never to seek payment for performances. After his death when she faced financial constraints, she was forced to take up the job of lecturer in Bengali music at Rabindra Bharati University.

Chhabi Bandyopadhyay was also an artist and sculptor. A deeply religious person who had turned her room into a shrine, she used to mould all the clay images she worshipped. She was withdrawn from public life and rarely allowed photographs to be taken. But she had sung at meetings in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath. She had cut innumerable discs and sung in 40 films, including Rai Kamal, Panditmashai, Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya, Mathur, Nilachale Mahaprabhu and Mahakabi Girishchandra.

Chhabi Bandyopadhyay recorded and broadcast not only kirtans but Ramprasadi, Dwijendralal, Atulprasadi, Rajanikanta and Shyamasangeet as well. Once she had recorded Rabindrasangeet under the guidance of Santideb Ghosh but it was never released as it did not meet with the approval of the Visva-Bharati Music Board.

She had won the Bengal Motion Pictures Award in 1955, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1986. She valued the title Geetashri most, conferred on her by Ustad Allauddin Khan and Ustad Dabir Khan, the last descendant of Tansen.

Chhabi Bandyopadhyay’s passing, an era when devotion was considered an integral part of artistic expression has come to an end.