Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010
Chances are you won’t have heard of the late Dr Hemanta Mukherjee, but I’m in good company in insisting on rescuing this singer-songwriter-composer from obscurity; Salman Rushdie, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Amartya Sen have all mourned the disappearance of Hemant from popular consciousness, even in the Indian subcontinent, where once he reigned like an all-singing, all-dancing musical hydra combining the gifts of what can only be compared to Frank Sinatra, Daniel Barenboim, Irving Berlin and Ennio Morricone all rolled in one. He was: a singer whose wholesomely orotund voice no subcontinental could mistake, India’s foremost interpreter of the musical canon, a legendary lyricist whose songs inimitably captured the newly-freed country’s imagination, and a composer of the most acclaimed Indian film scores in cinematic history, from Saptapadi’s tragic Bengali ballads to the Hindi hit Nagin, whose chart-toppers won him a Filmfare (an Asian Oscar) in 1956. OverIndia the distinction between “high-brow” poetry and “low-brow” popular song has traditionally had no hold, and Hemant’s verses reached millions through the popular platform of theCalcutta andBombay film industries, beaming his voice – as often imbued with heart-rending pathos as with heart-warming whimsy – to the masses. Palpably a product of revolutionary Calcuttan cosmopolitanism, his idiom was multicultural and sophisticated but its meaning never beyond comprehension (a talent honed as a founder-member of the 1940s Indian People’s Theatre Association). You need no linguistic acquaintance to appreciate the sonorous savour of his voice and the old-world charm of his music, whose acoustic crackle now carries you away to a long-gone age of the transistor radio and an orient of magic carpets and petticoated princesses. Hearing Hemant is a lesson in history, music and literature. Unlike most lessons, it’s fun.