The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ditties from a soulful land

The people of east bengal are generally very robust, down-to-earth and nature-oriented. I noticed these characteristics in my father, Sachin Mukherjee, who was born and brought up in Dhaka. He left Dhaka in the 1920s to go to England where he became a chartered accountant. As there was opposition to his going abroad, he took the help of some of his friends and teachers to get away without being detected.

The watery landscape of East Bengal had left an indelible imprint on his mind. The presence of so many rivers and the haunting bhatiyali songs of the roving fishermen travelling huge distances had enriched my father’s mental landscape. He often sang ditties which he must have heard from the Muslim peasants, proving his closeness to the soil. He also amused us with a barrage of slokas in Sanskrit. If he ever saw a bullock-cart, laden with straw somewhere outside Calcutta, he would explain to me where the straw came from and where it could be headed for. Father did not want me to be purely an urban animal divorced from the benedictions of nature. I also remember how excited he felt when he heard the ‘kokil’ announcing its arrival at the crack of dawn perched on a mango tree in our garden. Deep within him lay the echoes of another world. Once in a while he used to go off to Belur Math early in the morning, just to sit near the river quietly by himself. This was his way of escaping from the hurly burly of daily existence.

As one of the leading lights of Martin Burn Ltd. he was known for his solicitude for the clerks. One such clerk had his son’s education paid for by my father. Another employee from one of the electric supply companies that Martin Burn owned was afflicted with tuberculosis and father became responsible for his treatment.

Martin Burn Officers’ Club was established by him where seniors could meet and talk to juniors without the hierarchical barriers coming in the way. This gesture was greatly appreciated by the officers. He also made it a point to invite officers to the Calcutta Club for lunch, where a first-rate meal was served with hors d’oeuvres often on the menu. He was always anxious to promote social intercourse amongst officers to preserve internal harmony and cohesiveness.

Whenever labour disputes cropped up, father sat at the negotiating table with the union leaders. There was no anger, there were no harsh threats. Relying on gentle and firm persuasion, my father could defuse a crisis to the satisfaction of all concerned. The clerks trusted him implicitly. After his death in 1957, union problems often got out of hand and there were rowdy demonstrations.

I remember how he took us round the Continent a few times and how the trips went off without any contretemps. He used to plan our travels meticulously and made foolproof arrangements with the help of his friend, Anil Sen, who ran Trade Wings. On our visit to Paris in 1948 he took us to the Folies Bergere and Bal Tabarin although such a move might have been considered risque by any other father. He wanted us to be exposed to the outside world even if it meant watching beautiful women flaunting their anatomy and performing capricious acts. He was one of the most protective fathers one could ever have and even 46 years after his death, my memories of him remain as vivid and vibrant as ever.

When I’m immersed in recollections of the past, a very vital and dynamic person appears before me in all his glory. This is Raibahadur Keshab Chandra Banerjee — one of the zamindars of Murapara in East Bengal and my father’s uncle. My father and his brothers were brought up in Murapara House, presided over by Keshabbabu. He was a very talented musician and played the tabla with great eclat all his life. He took his initial training from Prasanna Banik, a redoubtable musician. Later, he was instructed by the famous Nathu Khan. Keshabbabu’s eldest son, Nirmal, was apprenticed to Ustad Maseed Khan and became a competent tabla player.

In 1939 when Dhaka Radio began to air programmes, Nirmal participated in several ‘tabla lahara’ sessions. Once the Dhaka Radio Station got into its stride, the town was inundated by musicians of different hues, and quite a lot of them came and stayed at Keshabbabu’s opulent mansion. I can remember the names of Allauddin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Enayat Hussain Khan, Bhismadeb Chatterjee and Sachin Deb Burman. Murapara House became an exciting centre for the propagation of Indian classical music with a receptive audiences crowding the courtyard.

Keshabbabu accompanied the leading instrumentalists of his day on the tabla. He organised a number of musical soirees at different public halls in Dhaka. In 1936-37, Dhaka was flooded with rich classical music and in various well-to-do and culture-oriented households, musical gatherings were held at regular intervals. Keshabbabu was at the centre of this musical effervescence and his cordial relationship with all the great musicians made his position positively enviable. He could also play the piano and encouraged his eldest daughter to take up the esraj. When he started residing in Calcutta after the Partition in the early Fifties, he participated in numerous music conferences and was honoured with the Bhuwalka award in 1980.

During his long tenure in Calcutta, musicians like Sachin Das Motilal, Tarapada Chakravarty and Chinmoy Lahiri were regular visitors and their proximity couldn’t have been more productive. Quite often, historical and mythological plays were staged in the house in Dhaka. Members of the family and close friends were the main performers. In this world of colour and bustle, life retained its sparkle, creating an ambience of joy and wonder where the children felt privileged.

The concept of public service ignited his sensibilities. He was vice-chairman of the Dhaka District Board, chairman of the Dhaka Municipality and a member of the Legislative Council. These were not ornamental positions he held as he put in a tremendous amount of hard work for the uplift of Dhaka. He was also associated with various universities and I can imagine him taking an interest in raising the educational standards — and making the universities themselves centres of excellence. He was also an enthusiastic shikari, concentrating on tigers and crocodiles. He was the very embodiment of old world gentility and monumental simplicity. Always easily approachable, he knew how to keep children entertained and amused. One also remembers the number of appendages residing in his opulent house, nourished by his hospitality.

Partition brought with it traumas and travails but Keshabbabu bore his sense of loss with an inner grace that few are blessed with. Wherever he went, the plangent beat of the tabla accompanied him. He deserves much greater recognition from the connoisseurs in this age of forgetfulness.

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