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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

‘George’ Biswas: Power and Passion of Song

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Hiren Mukerjee

Early in the morning on August 18, there passed away in Calcutta a pre-eminent exponent of Rabindra Sangeet, truly a people’s artiste whose vast repertoire was always ungrudgingly at the service of the stricken society around him, his death marking almost the end of an era, the era that saw the bursting into the scene of the Indian People’s Theatre (IPTA) movement in the early forties, the new wave, the new dimension, the new categories of comprehension, as it were, which then suffused our consciousness.

Debabrata Biswas, for some forgotten reason known fondly as ‘George’ to his countless friends and admirers, had in the last decade of his life something of a cross to bear on account of certain paladins of purism laying down the Talmud (which ‘George’ would defy) for Rabindra Sangeet, but to the end George enjoyed, almost without a peer, an authority over his countless listeners which came out of the power, the perception and yes, the passion of his song.

Mention of IPTA evokes, perhaps pardonably a certain nostalgia, for one recalls many memories, happy and sad, of Anna Bhau Sathe, Shanti Bardhan and Amar Sheikh, of Benoy Roy, Jyotirindra Maitra, Bijan Bhattacharyya, among others, torn away before their time, of such as that prodigal prodigy, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, whose astonishing versatility and verve lies shipwrecked somewhere about Bombay’s incredible filmdom, of unforgettable performances where People’s Theatre did not fail in its boast of starring the People! There is no lack these days, of course, of talent in our country and aesthetic pursuits find from the State and other sources sustenance which, howsoever dubious, was indispensable yet difficult to secure in former conditions, but often, as one listens, say, to a much-boosted “choir” of today, one feels the difference, one misses, almost with physical pain, the unforced ardour of communion between performers and the audience which used to be IPTA’s special quality.

‘George’ had the advantage of having been able to train his inborn talent for song under such sensitive but virile exponents of Rabindranath Tagore’s music as Dinendranath and Indira Devi Chaudhurani. More perhaps than any other, he could often render Tagore songs uniquely, with a strength perceived at depth and purveyed with power as much as grace. In the endless treasury of Tagore songs there is no lack of those that can soar to the skies, onomatopoetic in the best meaning of the term, the sound appearing also to convey the sense, of storm and serenity, the gamut of the emotions touched in the process. These were the songs preferred by ‘George’ and in his rendering he added his own sensibility and strength. If he defined directives from those who presumed to be ‘trustees’ of Rabindra Sangeet, he did because no artist of his calibre could constrain himself to the beaten path which might have recommended itself to purists with a frog-in-the-well mentality.

He was a great deal more, however, than a consummate vocalist, for he felt, as the poet Keats did in his time, that “the misery of the world was misery and will not let them rest”. It was easy for him to earn reputation and money, and also to live a ding-dong life of respectable indifference to the problems and struggles of the people around him. An insurance employee, he was not content with just paying his union subscription but he looked deeply around him, imbided Marxist ideas floating in the early forties, participated in progressive cultural activities and truly befriended the people’s struggles in whatever way he could. Thus, in 1940 the Youth Cultural Institute set up by some University students with help from their elders, found in ‘George’ the automatic leader of ‘community-singing’—a genre in which he alone, with the magic of a voice that could be strident and yet infinitely sweet, could demonstrate how in vocal music quantity can change into quality. When in late June 1941, the Friends of the Soviet Union was set up, it was ‘George’ along with Benoy and Jyotirindra and Bijan, who would electrify audiences.

It was typical of ‘George’ not to hesitate for a moment when he was asked to come to Bombay in 1943 for the first Congress of the Communist Party of India and the inauguration of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). I remember travelling in the same train from Calcutta, a third-class compartment all to ourselves, the platform in big stations like Allahabad thronged with people listening to rousing patriotic and revolutionary songs, George’s great voice lending a character and quality that made us all happy and proud of the ‘community’ that is our long-suffering India.

Later, in the terribly trying days of famine, of war, of communal conflicts, and again during the flaming months of 1945-46 when our people were astir as hardly ever before, George was indefatigably in the fray, always with the toiling people, his voice, like Paul Robeson’s, inspiring thousands. He was never aloof, for though in his personal life often lonely, he had the fundamental gaiety of the artist and he could not keep away from sharing the agony and the ecstasy of our people during the troubled eve of our country’s independence.

When in early 1948 there was a ban clamped on the Communist Party, he did not hesitate, along with Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and Suchitra Mitra, to sing at a meeting in the YMCA hall in Calcutta, the money collected going, as I remember distinctly to have intimated, towards work to be conducted by the outlawed movement. Every time the Communist Party called for special fund drives, whether for its newspapers or for general purposes, George always helped generously. Behind an often grumpy air there was a big heart that now is stilled.

For some two decades he suffered from asthama and allied ailments, but his devotion to music, that was his life, never flagged and his concern also for his pupils, boys and girls to whom he tried to impart his own gifts with the affection overflowing within him. Not very long ago he wrote something like an ‘apologia provita sua’, answering especially the furtive criticisms of his style that came from the vested ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ interests, but it was clear he was too big a man and too sensitive also to give any very special importance to such adversaries.
Nearest to him perhaps, in most ways, was Jyotirindra Maitra who never woke up in Howrah station at journey’s end from Hyderabad. ‘George’ died in his bed, unable to ward off a persistent infirmity. To the very end, however, he lived the life of a People’s Artist. He knew that music at its sublimest is a bridge between the finite and the infinite but also a social power in diverse forms. In happier conditions he could have worked in the direction of such as Bartok and Kodaly in Hungary, but in his time and place Debabrata Biswas was unique and will be terribly missed.

(Annual 1980)

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