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Article Bengali

When Tagore closed his eyes and Pankaj Mullick ran away

Mullick's only grandson Rajib Gupta speaks about his days of struggle and the turning points in his illustrious composing career of over 30 years.

Roushni Sarkar

Singer-composer Pankaj Mullick pioneered numerous trends in Indian cinema, including the use of live orchestras in silent films, the use of playback in the early talkies, and the incorporation of Western elements in traditional Indian music.

His achievements in popularizing Rabindra sangeet and composing the radio programme Mahishasurmardini, which has been airing for the past 87 years on the Mahalaya before Durga puja in West Bengal, has been widely discussed.

However, few are aware of Mullick's days of struggle and the turning points that marked his illustrious career of over 30 years since 1931.

Mullick's only grandson, Rajib Gupta, founder of the Pankaj Mullick Music and Art Foundation, spoke at length on the days when the great composer and singer was struggling to find work to manage the responsibility of his entire household.

Gupta also threw light on the moments that made Mullick discover his abilities as a composer and on a few socially significant works that he conducted through music.

Rajib Gupta, grandson of singer-composer Pankaj Mullick

Pankaj Mullick's father Manmohan Mullick had the mammoth responsibility of taking care of a joint family consisting of 50 members. While he was in charge of the construction of Calcutta's famed Victoria Memorial, he had a disagreement with his senior that led him to quit his job overnight and he almost turned into an ascetic.

“Therefore, the entire responsibility came on my grandfather and he had to drop out of Scottish Church college despite being a bright science student,” Gupta said.

Pankaj Mullick, who was then learning Hindustani classical music from Durgadas Bandopadhyay, could only think of earning a livelihood by teaching. “My great-grandfather, despite having a deep interest in Indian music, was against the idea of singing in public," Gupta said. "In that era, in the early 20th century, the majority would only sing devotional songs in public. However, Bandopadhyay finally convinced him to change his mind and Dadu could get on with teaching.”

Pankaj Mullick also happened to be taking lessons in singing Rabindranath Tagore’s songs from Dinendranath Tagore, great-nephew of the poet laureate, at the time. “One such afternoon, he came across a collection of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, Chayanika. Leafing through the pages, he got stuck on a few lines from 'Jokhon porbe na more payer chinho ei baate [When my footsteps fall on this road no more]' and he had no idea those lines had already been set to tune by Tagore.”

According to Gupta, at that moment Mullick felt an impulse and started setting his own tune to the lyrics. “In a few hours, he had composed the tune for a song for the first time in his life," he said.

Mullick immediately reached one of the cultural centres of Calcutta and started singing the song while playing the organ. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see someone tell him he was making a mistake on certain notes. "Dadu was baffled to find somebody pointing out mistakes in his composition," Gupta said. "Then the person told him about the original tune which was surprisingly similar to his.”

The revelation proved to be a turning point in Mullick's life and he became entirely devoted to Rabindranath Tagore's songs and his compositions.

Mullick also set Tagore's poem 'Diner Sheshe Ghumer Deshe' or 'The Land Of Slumber, At Day’s End' to tune and performed it at a college festival.

Pankaj Mullick

Soon he became quite popular and was summoned by the Tagore household. Extremely nervous, he went to Jorasanko. “As he began singing in the presence of Rabindranath, who was busy writing, all the other people started leaving the room," Gupta said. "With Tagore not paying attention, my grandfather’s anxiousness increased and at one opportune moment when Rabindranath closed his eyes, he ran away.

“Meanwhile, my grandfather was finding it hard to manage with his meagre salary and was depressed at being unable to do something fruitful. One day he happened to be humming Tagore’s ‘Amono Dine Tare Bola Jay’ while standing under a shelter in torrential rain when a Dr Ramaswamy Iyengar spotted him and asked him to sing the song for him.

"Impressed with his rendition, Dr Iyengar asked if he would like to sing on the radio. Within two months, Dadu got an opportunity to sing on the local radio. One of his two first songs was 'Amono Dine Tare Bola Jay' through which he paid tribute to Dr Iyengar,” said Gupta.

Much later in his career, when Mullick was acting in the Bengali version of the film Adhikar (1938), the entire episode was incorporated and with rain and thunder in the background, he remembered Dr Iyengar and the defining moment of his life with the same song.

In 1936, during the narration session of PC Barua’s Mukti, which eventually became Mullick's debut film as composer, he was drawing repeated references to a few lines from 'Diner Sheshe Ghumer Deshe'.

Gupta said, “Barua was intrigued by the song and hence prompted Dadu to seek permission from Tagore to use it in the film. He went to meet Tagore, this time with more confidence. To his surprise, Tagore asked why he ran away all those years ago.

"However, after listening to Mullick's tune for 'Diner Seshe Ghumer Deshe', Tagore hugged him and said that if he left any of his songs unfinished or without composition, Dadu would have to set them to tune.” All those lyrics of mine that I will not get the opportunity to set tune to during my lifetime, I leave to you to embellish with your music. These were the words of Tagore, according to Gupta.

“Thus, Dadu turned into the foremost figure instrumental in popularizing Rabindra sangeet beyond the elite class of Calcutta. He would also translate the songs into several languages, including Hindi and English,” Gupta said.

In 1935, Mullick was working with music composer RC Boral for Nitin Bose’s Bhagya Chakra. One day Bose thought he heard Mullick singing an English song called 'Pagan's Love Song'. Mullick told him he was merely humming a song that was being played on a gramophone nearby. Bose kept quiet.

Later, at the sets, in Boral's presence, Bose played the same song from a record and asked Pankaj Mullick to sing along with it. After a few minutes, Bose asked him to just move his lips with the song, without using his voice. “Thus the revolutionary idea of playback singing was conceived, that could sort out the problem of making singers act and non-musical actors sing,” said Gupta.

As Gupta pointed out, Mullick's Sangeet Sikhar Ashor, a radio programme in which he taught music and which was aired live for 47 years, made a huge contribution in encouraging women to nurture their singing talent in public. A precursor of modern-day reality shows, the programme helped to unearth many celebrated singers.

Gupta reminisced about another proud moment when Pankaj Mullick was requested by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to record the National Anthem so that it could be played around the country. Indians, with so many diverse languages, had no notion of a National Anthem then. “Dadu not only recorded 'Jana Gana Mana' so that the countrymen could imbibe the song, but also set its duration, composed the accompanying orchestra, and gave the Tagore composition the mood of a parade song,” he said.

An honorary adviser of the folk entertainment section of the government of West Bengal, appointed by the first chief minister of the state, Dr BC Roy, Mullick fought caste issues and spread awareness regarding irrigation and tuberculosis, a deadly disease in those days, through music.

Gupta recalled how his grandfather would instil discipline and courtesy in him even when he was just six years old. A devotee of the family deity Jagannath, Mullick was also a generous man and never hesitated to help the needy or arrange employment for the jobless, he said.