Kanian Chatterjee sent me a rendition of Robindro Songeet.
I listened to it, and my mind went back…to my college days. I was a student of English (Honours) and Philosophy, for my bachelor’s degree, at Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College. Bengalis being very artistic, we also had a lot of cultural events, and one of them was “bAyishE srAbON”, which is the death anniversary of that giant of Indian literature, Rabindranath Tagore (or to pronounce it the correct Bengali way, Robindronath Thakur.)
We would grind rice paste the previous day, and make “Alpona” (rangoli) on the stage and around it. Bengali girls are incredibly talented at this…and the designs are always exquisite. The white designs were rimmed around with “lAl maati” (red earth), and it proved a lovely counterpoint to the sarees of the college girls…more about that later.
The favourite flower for this occasion was always “rojoni gondhA” (tuberose)…long stalks of these flowers were arranged in tall mud or brass vases on both sides of the stage. They cast their heavy, heady fragrance across the whole hall for days…the name means, literally, “aroma of the night”. These are white, night-blooming flowers.
For the music, we had several people singing, several on the harmonium, and a sArangi player and a tabolchi (tabla player) were men brought in for the evening.
Our college was probably the only one in Kolkata which enforced a uniform; young women always had to wear white sarees with red borders (“sAda shAdi lAl pAt”) always made of cotton (there were hardly any sarees of artificial fibres…it was always more comfortable to wear cotton!)
(There were, of course, many girls who were averse to being regimented like this, and especially for newly-married young women, white sarees were a cultural no-no. I led a strike in the college in my third year, and got the uniform rule rescinded to “only on cultural occasions”. The professors were shocked to find Deepa Viswanath, their star student, who never cut a class, suddenly turning into a “biplobi” or rebel!)
Like a flight of white birds, the graceful young women would settle on the stage. They would tune their voices to the harmonium, and the sweet-voiced singing would begin. I must say, however, that I felt then, and I feel now, that though the lyrics are always amazing, the music of Robindro Songeet is, far too often, dirge-like and very mournful, and used to put me off quite a bit!
As a Tamizh girl, my college was very proud of the fact that I could read and write Bengali, and sing Robindro Songeet. I was always given solo billing for two songs…”kOn AlO” from Chitrangada, and “choroNo dhorithE”.(On other occasions, an AdhUnik (modern song), “kOn sE AlOr sopno niyE”, was a must for me to sing). It was a great point that my Bengali pronunciation was very good, and they took as much pride in it as if they had taught me the language themselves, instead my learning it in my childhood, from my neighbours, our maids, and others around me!
The event over, we would adjourn to the college canteen for some of the traditional snacks….jhAlmUdi, alUr chop, ghUghni, lUchi/AlUr dom, and, of course, jolkhAbAr (bengali sweets, YUMMMMM!). Since I was a star, I could always ask a couple of classmates, and their mothers or grandmother, having merely heard about my singing Bengali songs, would send “peethe”, which was only a home-made sweet in those days.( I was not averse to roso molAi from one of the sweet shops, either!) I can say that my nickname of “baby elephant” when I got married was due to a large part to my love for Bengali sweets. My friends had a project to convert me into a non-vegetarian, and brought chicken and fish in various recipes to tempt me…but to this day, I have not found something tasty enough to convert me into a non-vegetarian. The food was served from large aluminum dishes; we ate them out of stitched leaf-plates. I honestly don’t remember much plastic (except for buckets and mugs and things like that) from my childhood or youth. JhAlmUdi was given in “tOngA”s…beautifully made paper packets. How I love, still, my puchkA and my jhAlmudi, all these years later!
Of course, the food was washed down with “chA”. It was made and served from huge kettles, and drunk out of “bhANd”, the unstable mud cups that could be thrown away after use. The cups imparted such a unique taste to the chA!
Many of the newly-married girls did wear AltA, red dye made from shoe flowers, on their feet; and dancers were allowed to wear it, too. The conversation, always in Bengali, with very little English, would ebb and flow around the hall, with the monsoon often wreaking its thunder and lightning outside, resulting, sometimes, in power cuts. The songs would then cut through the humid heat, and the spiralling smoke from the mud lamps and the agarbathies (incense sticks) would permeate the hall.
Life in college was full of music, dance and culture…I was too young for my years (I started my undergraduate degree in 1970 when I was 16)…. and was often teased unmercifully, but theSe are some happy memories from those years.