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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 43, October 18, 2014

Preeti Banerjee: The Melodious Voice that first sang ‘Sare Jahanse Achchha’

Monday 20 October 2014, by Sankar Ray


Preeti Banerjee (nee Sarkar) bade adieu to the mundane world on August 25 at 91. She was perhaps the last living member of the central squad of the Indian People’s Theatre Assocation (IPTA), the mass front of culture of the Communist Party of India. Her golden voice and the famous song Sare Jahanse Achchha, a household song in the late 1940s, were one as Pandit Ravi Shankar set the lyric of the famous poem of Mohammad Iqbal (written in 1904) into a song at the instance of the legendary Puran Chand Joshi, the General Secretary of the CPI, who was instrumental in converting the CPI from a disorderly scattered entity to a centralised political party.

Panditji, then living at Malad in Mumbai, was thick into the IPTA as its music director. He played the tune in his Sitar while singing it and Preetidi (then Preeti Sarkar) set it into her melodious voice. And then other members of the squad, living at the Andheri commune of the IPTA, picked it up for making the great song into a chorus. The newly composed song was first sung by Preetidi and she helped other members of the commune learn and sing it. That was sometime in 1945.

Preetidi was impressed with my feature, published in The Hindu in December 2012 after the demise of Ravi Shankar, and readily agreed to speak to me when the young journalist Chandra Shekhar Bhattacharjee made the suggestion. We—Chandra Shekhar, lensman Bappaditya Bhattacharyya (once a hardcore underground Maoist) and I—turned up one fine morning at the apartment of her elder son, Partha, a Professor of Physics, near the Ruby General Hospital, at Kolkata’s Eastern Metro-politan Bypass. It was my first (and sadly enough, the last too) encounter with Preetidi.

 Preetidi began reminiscing the nostalgic IPTA days of the late 1940s. It was economically a tough life for all at the Andheri commune but everyone was aflame with the dream of a free India, free from social, economic and cultural exploitation. Suddenly, one of my companions requested her childishly. I was unnerved as she was on the doorstep of the tenth decade of her life. ”Can you sing a few lines from one of your favourite songs of those days?” Stupefying us, she sang out:

Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai/Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qaatil mein hai/aye watan karta nahin kyun doosra kuch baat-cheet/Dekhta hun main jise woh chup teri mehfil mein hai/Aye shaheed-e-mulk-o-millat main tere oopar nisaar/Ab teri himmat ka charcha ghair ki mehfil mein hai/Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai (The desire for revolution is in our hearts/Let us see what strength there is in the arms of our executioner/Why do you remain silent thus?/however I see, is gathered quiet so.../O martyr of country, of nation, I submit myself to thee/For yet even the enemy speaks of thy courage/The desire for struggle is in our hearts). The melodious grain in the vocal quality at that age was spell-binding.

Preetidi was born into the famous Sarkar family of Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh). Her grandfather, Kumudnath, was the eldest of seven brothers. One of Kumudnath’s brothers was the famous historian, Sir Jadunath Sarkar. Another was Akhilnath Sarkar, Head of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the Patna Medical College. Both of Akhilnath’s sons, Jagannath and Debashis, joined the CPI. Jagannath Sarkar was the Secretary, Bihar State Committee, during whose stewardship the party became the most powerful Leftist party in the State. Later he became a member of CPI’s Central Secretariat.

Preetidi was inspired by Jagannath Sarkar— her Jagannathkaka—to become a Communist. The latter himself had disappeared from his ancestral house to join the CPI when it was banned. She narrates how she got indoctri-nated quietly into communism, “I myself started slowly working with the Communists. In our large family (her grandfather was one of the seven brothers), Jagannathkaka and his younger brother, Debukaka, and I were Communist workers. I had to struggle with my family to be allowed to do my party work and, in that, Jagannath Kaka helped me.” In Rajshahi, Preetidi was inducted into the CPI by a local leader, Subhrangshu Maitra. She was then well known at the Rajshahi town as a vocalist, commonly known as Khuku Sarkar. She first joined the All India Students Federation, the students’ front of the CPI when she was an undergraduate student. After her father’s untimely demise she moved to Bombay along with her widowed mother. There she joined the IPTA of which her cousin elder brother, Benoy Roy, was a central leader—he was famous for the heart-rending song, Phiraiya de, de, de, moder Kayyur bandhure de re (Give us back our Kayyur comrades), in memory of four CPI activists of the Punnapra-Viayalar struggle in Malabar who were hanged to death.

Ravi Shankar used to go to the Andheri commune regularly with his first wife, Anna-purna, and son, Subhendra Shankar. Said Preetidi: “We used to call him Robuda. We used to stay at the Andheri commune and he used to come regularly to groom and train us. That was a great experience.” We three, Partha and his historian wife, Nilanjana, were silently listening to her.

In an interview to the CPI Bengali morninger, Kalantar, Preetidi recollected: “Robuda was: the music director of a ballet by the IPTA—India Immortal. The opening lines of a lyric were Namoh Namoh Himadri/Namoh Giriraj Namoh (Salute to you the Himalayas, salute to the king of mountains). It had many ragas intertwined in it and that created a marvellous melody which moved us all. We never felt fatigued. At times, he taught us for the whole day and whole night.”

Preetidi joined the IPTA as a wholetimer. That was the golden period of the IPTA with which were associated Timir Baran, Uday Shankar, Prithviraj Kapur, Santi Bardhan, Balraj Sahni and many stalwarts. Their magnetic attraction was Puran Chand Joshi under whose General Secretaryship the CPI became a mass party.

Ravi Shankar was the music director of the IPTA’s first film venture, Dharti Ke Lal (1946), directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. It won an international award at the Cannes Film Festival. Preetidi was one of the main singers in it. Among other films of the IPTA with Ravi Shankar as the music director, in which she sang was Neechanagar (1946), directed by Chetan Anand.. But Joshi folded up the central squad. “We were dumbfounded. Narendra Sharma wept profusely requesting Joshi to reconsider the decision. But he politely declined with his arguments. We had to accept it but many of us were not convinced.” While revealing this, Preetidi showered fulsome praise on PCJ, “the like of whom was never seen”.

Preetidi came to Calcutta and plunged into party life. She fell in love with Ramen Banerjee after she came to settle down in Calcutta and married him. He was a member of the editorial board of the CPI’s Bengali morninger Swadhinata when Somnath Lahiri was its editor. She kept her career as a vocalist and sang for Nagarik (1953) and Komal Gandhar (1960), directed by Ritwik Ghatak with Jyotirindra Maitra as the music director. After Ravi Shankar had left the IPTA, the one who left a deep impression on her as a music director was Jyotirindra Maitra (her Batukmama).

Our meeting with the great vocalist and comrade was like a fragrant zephyr. Although she dropped out of the CPI, she remained a strong fellow-traveller unto her last. She was critical of the ‘canine subservience” of a few CPI leaders to the CPI-M. “You have to have an independent political line which should not come in the way of greater bond with the CPI-M and other Communist Parties,” she often used to say. I promised to meet her again. But I could not keep my word. And having missed jewels from her reminiscences, the agony pains me.

The author is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.

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