Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Falguni Mitra

By PNV Ram

ITC-Sangeet Research Academy guru Falguni Mitra’s concert as part of dhrupad’s rarely heard Betia gharana in the city’s Gharana Festival, held last year at the beautiful open air theatre Spaces near the Besant Nagar beach, in south Chennai, was a journey to the past in more ways than one. Among other things, Mitra had been the architect of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s dream project, Meera of Mewar, back in 1985 at Kalakshetra.

Mitra was at the time working as a senior executive of a British multinational in distant Ambattur Industrial Estate, and taught music at his Adyar residence on Saturday mornings. He composed some lovely tunes for the Meera dance drama, and it was a special experience to watch the compositions unfold, and his new found south Indian sishyas grapple with the challenge of overcoming their strong Carnatic background to make Meerabai sound authentic.

Falguni Mitra, like his father and guru, Pandit Shib Mitra before him, held a day job, practising dhrupad only in his spare time. In fact, it was his father’s stint as an engineer in the motorcycle manufacturer Enfield India, that first brought young Falguni to Madras in the late 1950s. Studying at Vivekananda College and later Madras University where he studied philosophy at the postgraduate level, Falguni delighted in soaking in the Carnatic music of what he describes as its golden period. As he was already an All India Radio artist, he came into contact with the charismatic vocalist GN Balasubramaniam or GNB, then chief producer of AIR Madras. Drawing his attention to the similarities between dhrupad-dhamar and ragam-tanam-pallavi of Carnatic music, GNB told the young man, “Carry on the lofty tradition of dhrupad,” adding that as he grew older, he would gradually shed ornamentation and go deeper into the music.” How true, Mitra was to find out over the years.

A memorable experience for young Falguni was accompanying his father in a lecture demonstration at the Music Academy’s annual conference in 1958 or thereabouts. By 1960 when he was a postgraduate student he was regularly interacting with some of the great names of Carnatic music and bharatanatyam. Besant Gardens, Adyar, was home to Kalakshetra and the giants Rukmini Devi had surrounded herself with—such as the great composer Mysore Vasudevachar, scholar extraordinaire Sankara Menon, and the iconic vocalist MD Ramanathan. Guests at his father’s home included visiting maestros of Hindustani music like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan—who used to stay with bharatanatyam legend Balasaraswati. The neighbours in quiet Kasturbanagar were treated to top class Hindustani music during these celebrity visits.

“Rukmini Devi was the greatest personality I have ever met,” says Mitra. When Falguni Mitra went back to Madras in the 1980s to work there, she remembered him as the boy she had met decades earlier. “My brother has heard your father’s guru ustad Nasiruddin Khan in Indore. I have great respect for dhrupad with its vast raga development,’ she told him.
 
Listening to Falguni Mitra’s music, Rukmini Devi was impressed enough with his creativity to ask him to compose the music for a dance drama on Meera she was planning. The genre was something Rukmini Devi had made her own, with the Ramayana series at the Santi Niketan-like grounds of Kalakshetra, her singular contribution to India’s artistic wealth. Working with Meera bhajans setting a few of them to new tunes was a huge challenge that Mitra approached with some trepidation, especially as there was very little time to prepare for the event. “I’ll give you a number of Carnatic musicians. Show no mercy, reject them if they can’t master the diction,” Rukmini Devi told him, and indeed that was the one serious problem he faced. After much hard work, the premiere went off without a hitch, and full of praise for Mitra, Rukmini Devi spoke of an improved production in the coming years, but that was not to be, as she died next year.
 
In the audience were MS Subbulakshmi and husband T Sadasivam, and meeting them led to yet another interesting collaboration for Falguni Mitra. That is a story for another day.

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