Introducing… Hemanta Mukherjee

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.