Music in My Life—Part 1 by Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee

Dear Friends,

20th October 2021 marks the eighty-fifth birthday of Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee, internationally acclaimed Paris-based author and researcher who was awarded with the prestigious ‘Padma Shri’ by the Government of India in 2020.

On the occasion of Dr. Mukherjee’s birthday, an article entitled Music in My Life—Part 1 has been published in the website of Overman Foundation.

With warm regards,

Anurag Banerjee


Overman Foundation.

Music in My Life — Part 1

1) Genesis

My mother Usharani had received a harmonium, among valuable gifts for her marriage. Usharani means “Queen of the Dawn”. The instrument she received  was a special one, manufactured by a special man, called Kunjalal Saha Ray : a childhood friend of JNM (Jatindranath Mukherjee, my grandfather), they together had followed the faring of the revolutionary Jugantar movement inspired by Sri Aurobindo; in the record-books of the Alipore Bomb Case, among other mentions, Kunjalal has been immortalized for visiting the Maniktala factory disguised in sari as Madam Chiropodist. Like the rest of his comrades, Kunjalal-dadu, too, cultivated a “secret garden” (as the French fondly define a hobby). He loved music and musical instruments. Shortly before  Usharani’s marriage, he had imported select reeds from Germany to fabricate this harmonium: it had an immediately soothing timbre. Fortunately my Pishima Ashalata’s cousin-in-law Hemanta Tarafdar (disciple of Bhupendrakumar Datta, recognized exponent of the Jugantar philosophy and practice) was available to give my mother necessary training in a mellifluous handling of the instrument. Like his other associates, Hemanta-da’s staple repertoire consisted of Rabindra-sangit.

Ashalata’s sister-in-law, Shobharani was a regular singer known to listeners of All India Radio station Calcutta: proud to count Usharani among her fans, Shobharani loved to teach her singing and welcomed her to discover great masters out of a rare collection of records thanks to a sophisticated gramophone – with the well-known HMV trademark – that she cherished with her husband Dr Nilotkumar Ray Chaudhuri.

Usharani herself was a piece of music. Glad, she hummed endless songs while looking after the daily chore; melodies of melancholy gushed out of her voice, when she was disturbed in her cheerful poise. Owing to obvious reasons, having spent long hours of the day in her company, I had inherited her way of reacting to life by ceaseless humming. Later in the  Ashram school, some class-mates – ever blasé – interpreted my mood as they liked.  In our Calcutta house, in the evening, often friends of my uncle Birendranath caught hold of the harmonium to pour out what their heart had to communicate. There was one Baby-kaku, eternally lamenting with shunya e buke (“Come back, O Bird, to this lonely heart”) in the raga Chhayanat. Even from a state of coma, I can infallibly identify that raga without hesitation. Our neighbor Anil Bhattacharya often requisitioned our drawing room for rehearsal of the Gambhira troupe led by Tarapada Lahiri. Tejendranath, my father, had friends like Sukhbilas Varma who had been furthering the investigation in popular art traditions. At times we received  two brothers – Ranen and Samaren, nephews of Sachin Deb Barman – singing the singular intimation, nishithe jayio na phulabane (“O Bumble Bee, avoid the bowers that  blossom by the night”). There was, of course, Dulu-mama – Abhaycharan Banerjee – an ardent admirer of Tarapada Chakrabarti ; he was to marry our Mashi. With Shakti-di and Mukti, my Pishima’s daughters, we frequented Tutu and Mimi, daughters of Meghendralal Ray, nephew of D.L. Roy; in addition to the latter’s compositions, there was ample room for any other genre of music in their house, except Rabindra-sangit. I do not quite remember the history of the folk song so often sung by Mimi, with a refrain: maadala jhumpu jhumpu baajila. Mimi’s stage-free performance along with that onomatopoeia describing the echoing drums amused us immensely.  One among our illustrious neighbours in Ballygunj Place was Ray Bahadur Khagendra Mitra : invited to his recitals of  devotional Kirtana at the house of Justice Ramaprasad Mookerjee, we enjoyed the austere  professor singing and dancing pastorale in praise of Radha and Krishna’s romance on the bank of the Yamuna.


2) Initiation

In those late 1940s at the Ashram in Pondicherry, an unofficial item of the four darshan days (when devotees had a glimpse of Sri Aurobindo seated beside the Mother) was the evening recital at the house of Dilipkumar Ray, son of D.L. Ray, adopted almost like a son by Sri Aurobindo. On seeing my first poem appear in a Bengali journal in its November 1949 issue, Naren Dasgupta – an erstwhile follower of JNM, my grandfather – proposed to show my poems to Sri Aurobindo. One day Nirodbaran, Sri Aurobindo’s literary secretary, confirmed it by seeming to remember having seen a bunch of my poems  on the Master’s desk, but he did not receive any reply to convey. Supervised by the Mother herself, in 1948, the rehearsal of a dance-drama  on the “Spiritual Evolution of India” was going on at Dilip-da’s place, under his direction. For the chorus, I was recruited by Nalinikanta Sarkar. This was the first occasion when I could share with musicians present the gushing overflow of Ravibala’s voice.

At this juncture, on one Sunday morning, I was enjoying my solitary sea-bath. Suddenly I heard a queer bubbling nearby. Prepared to discover a stray dolphin – if not a shark – I looked around, somewhat anxious. And I saw Dilip-da’s face looming, as he  rejoiced : “Well, well, you too are fond of the sea!” After a few such unscheduled meetings, one afternoon I turned up at his house with a handful of poems to show him. Far from vexed at this intrusion, he stepped forward with a warm “Welcome, Man!” and clasped me. That day onward, month after month, he received me joyfully and spent almost an hour retouching my new poems. “You do not have to worry about the metre; you have the gift of perfect rhythm. Our task will be to look for the mot juste.” He taught me how by replacing a word here and there the whole picture got transformed. In my juvenile mood of hero worship, I had dedicated a poem to Kazi Nazrul Islam, the homa agni (“mystic fire”). In a fond reminiscence, Dilip-da described me the man Nazrul that he had known: rather a “spiritual seeker” (sadhak), than homa agni.    

It was, indeed, a significant day when I had brought my “Hymn to Sri Aurobindo” – jaya sriaurobindo jaya/ jaya jay he jyotirmaya – shortly after the passing of the Master. With tearful eyes and a choked voice he had begged me leave him till the next day. Hence, the next day, as if on appointment, while I stepped upstairs I saw his silhouette, swinging, with his face turned westward (in the direction of the room where lived Sri Aurobindo): from behind, on approaching him, I could apprehend a few words that sounded familiar to me. Flushed in an unutterable light, Dilip-da looked back and flung me the question: “Look here!…Listen!… Can you recognize it ?”

Running fifteen, I remained overwhelmed by observing how words that I had written on the day before could assume such a dimension as revealed through the vibrant voice of Dilip-da. Happy with my reaction, he suggested: “What if I sang it before the Mother ?” Then, in a determined tone he added, “The style of the song will require a chorus. Do you have friends who can join us ?” In no time a dozen of my “friends” with adequate voice came forward. The result was so gratifying – judging from the Mother’s warm approval – that the members of the group decided to be trained regularly by Dilip-da. Polyglot and versatile genius as Dilip-da was, he sang for us in either of the languages that he loved : Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi, English, French, Italian, German and Russian, turn by turn. To have a more complete taste of a given song, he could translate, adopt, rewrite it quite leisurely, with an entire awareness for the native beauty of the language in question. For instance, while singing a line in Bengali, āmio cholechhi āj kéțé bhaba-bandhan (“I too, cutting asunder all worldly ties”) he sang it in Hindi, ham bhi bandhana toa chuké/kula jagasé mu moa chuke and, in the English version with alliteration added, I too fare far, far from the shore/Of bondage. The cravings can hold me no more.

Humour was Dilip-da’s constant companion. For enlivening the diaphragm, he taught us a  hilarious song in Bengali, Hindi and English, the last one was: The bird sings of the flower/ The flower sings of the bee/ The bee of honey’s sweetness/ And honey of ecstasy/ Man sings of his ego/ And vaunts : Behold I rule!/ And Destiny laughs loudly: O blind imperial Fool!” It ended up by a gasping yet jolly exercise : Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!Ha! Ha, maintaining the initial pattern of melody.  During intervals of our classes, Dilip-da used to entertain us with funny anecdotes and odd compositions in Indian languages inspired by the lilting melody of well-known foreign nursery rimes like Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot (“chānder bānśi bājlo ākāś chheye”) or Il était un petit navire (“ālo naba mukta āji re”); or from popular hit songs like the immortal Neapolitan romance O Sole Mio by Enrico Caruso (“tomāri pāne/akῡla țāne”, which was to be recorded by one of his famous students, M.S. Shubhalakshmi); or else from the lullaby Wiegenlied in C Majorby Karl Friedrich Curschmann (“ghum jāi mā… āj  ghum jāi mā”, he was to  record it as a duet with Manju Guptā); or even from the  more serious    classical  piece like Rauschender Strom bythe Austrian composer Franz Schubert (“bandhana nāśo mantra bare/nitya nirañjana jyotiśare”) reaching a point of spiritual urge. Inspired by the changing tonic – “modulation” in Dilip-da’s terminology – used by Beethoven in his famous Moonlight Sonata, he composed “sei sure āj kaņțha sādhā”, rich also in the changing of movements. A strong believer in cultural exchange and assimilation, he taught us also the respect for our own values. Once he invited the renowned Vedic scholar T.V. Kapali Shastri who, on admiring Dilip-da’s rendering of the former’s Sanskrit hymn to the Mother (sarva-svarga-bhpaterananta-bhāga- kalpanā) congratulated us for having a teacher of this exceptional caliber.

The Mother called a Convention in 1951 – with delegates from all over the world – to inaugurate an international university centre dedicated to Sri Aurobindo. She appointed  Dilip-da to open it with the French national anthem La Marseillaise, since Pondicherry was as yet the capital of French India :  while teaching us the song with enthusiasm, suddenly one day, during a rehearsal, Dilip-da begged to be excused and disappeared, prompted by an idea; he returned with a conqueror’s gait, carrying carefully a 78’ vinyl; before he set it on his gramophone, he explained that we were going to hear the great Russian singer Fedor Chaliapin interpret the original French song. It was a blood-stirring experience. Only once again in 1979, during the bicentenary of the French Revolution, did I hear it: one of my fellow producers of Radio-France had caught hold of a copy of that interpretation of Chaliapin’s ardent accent for broadcasting purpose. Moved by something of that spirit and emotion, Dilip-da in a beautiful French diction not only presented the original song but, also added three more songs – in Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali – which he had molded in the same mode. Uneasy with the absence of an English song, Norman Dowsett from our group composed a new song which at once received Dilip-da’s full attention. Breathless, we heard echoing the movement of the original French, reproducing even the rhyme of Contre nous de la tyrannie, when Norman-da sang: “We Thy children surrender to Thee” !

A young devotee named Keshavdev Poddar from Bombay started visiting Dilip-da. On seeing him copying out on carbon papers the songs for the rehearsal, during one of his visits, Keshav brought as a gift for Dilip-da an up-to-date duplicator. Busy writing a marching song in Hindi ordered by General Cariappa, greatly relieved, Dilip-da asked Keshav if he had children. “Yes” was his reply: “A boy named Vijay and a little girl, Kiran.” The day after, when Keshav returned, Dilip-da gave him a copy of this well-known song that we were rehearsing; he discovered with tearful eyes one of its opening stanzas where Dilip-da mentioned:

बनेंगे जग में दीप हम,

सत्य मोती है तो सीप हम-

किरण  के हैं समीप हम-

अंधेरे मिट जाएंगे…

विजय  के गीत गाएंगे…

Later Keshav was to receive a new name from the Mother: Navajata.


Once Dilip-da chose to settle at his own Ashram at Pune, Sahana-di, in addition to her department of ladies’ garment, was absorbed preparing scores of Bande Mataram for individual instruments of our band orchestra, as recorded by Timir Baran. Our bandmaster, Mr Selvanadin, retired officer of French Army, was overwhelmed to see how accurate was Sahana-di’s intuitive sense of counterpoint. She looked after our chorus group  orphaned without Dilip-dâ and continued further lessons leading to creativity in form of representations before the Mother.   She taught us in the beginning  two Bengali hymns written  by her elder sister Aruna-di and set to music by Sahana-di: (a) “To the Mother” (Dévi Mira, jagajanayitri); (b) “Sriaurobindo” (udilé bharaté dhyanagariyân). I can never forget the counterpoint she had invented for the phrase Ma tumi jéman chao témani hok na (“Mother, let it be as you wish”). Then  she wanted Norman-da to write a new song inspired by the Latin text of “I salute Thee, Mary” which accompanies the Ave Maria invented by Charles Gounod on the basis of  arpeggios found in Prelude 1 of the Book 1 of Well-tempered Clavier  by Johann-Sebastian Bach ; along with  two other hymns carrying the same title – Ave Maria – by Franz Schubert and Offenbach,  this Bach-Gounod, too,  had been adopted for  ritual use among Christian devotees.  Norman-da thrilled us when he sang out his new version to our soul’s delight. I quote from memory:

The white wings feel the breath of morning/ And soar to His light//

A rose-bud in a garden sleeping/ Awakes from the night.//

 A heart-beat on the edge of dreaming/ Awaits to be born//

A new soul golden body gleaming/ Comes on wings of Dawn.//


3) Taste of Western Music

To celebrate the anniversary of the Ashram School, the Mother had chosen a two-days programme : on  the 1st December, every year, there were cultural items such as recitals of music, dance, recitation of poems etc. On the 2nd December, various aspects of physical education were scheduled. To accompany items like gymnastics and drills, the Mother invited the military band attached to the French Army. Earlier, for the performance of 1st December 1948, the experienced bandmaster Selvanadan examined with the Mother the pieces of music to be played. While the individual or group participants were practicing with the band, I intently explored  a new world of dreams with Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss: this music with its varied tempo, rhythm, pitch prompted in me various verses in Bengali.  Another waltz, Over the Waves by Ivanovici had a deep reverberation on my sensibility. The presence of a little side flute fluttering its melody above all the instruments of the orchestra drew my attention: it was known as Piccolo for its Italian origin, whereas the French call it Petite flute. I was told that Napoleon liked its lilting air. I discovered the first tangible proof of a Piccolo – this magic object in ebony – at the boutique of curiosity owned by Mademoiselle Pierre in the white town of Pondicherry. I purchased it immediately. As yet I ignored that for years to come, at a stretch, I was doomed to play it in our Ashram band.

My father Tejendranath was known in the Ashram as Borda (“Eldest brother”) whilst Pranabkumar Bhattacharya was simply known as Dada (“Elder Brother”). Dada had received from the Mother the mandate of helping me in my global development. As such, out of affinity, I started devoting my spare hours to the up keeping of his library, rich with books on physical education. Serving him as assistant, along with a girl of my age, I learnt typewriting with Hiru-kaku (Hiren Ganguli), a disciple of the Mother.  The Mother had given Dada a clarinet for playing given pieces such as the part representing the cat in Peter and the Wolf by Serguei Prokofief. Side by side, he learnt North Indian  classical music with Ardhendu-da, the maestro. Seeing my interest in music, Dada gave me one of his wooden flutes that was to accompany me across the continents.  Presently we shall hear more about it. Thanks to Dada, with my Esraj I took lessons in Hindustani system of music from Ardhendu-da who encouraged me to get familiar with the great classics by Bhatkhande on Hindustani music.

Having noticed the importance the Mother granted to a musical accompaniment with items like marching, gymnastics and other kinds of physical demonstration, my father consulted Dada before materializing his idea of raising a band orchestra for the Ashram with offerings from his friends.   On approval from the Mother, he ordered a consignment of bagpipes, bugles, brass flutes, bass and kettle drums from Messrs Rana & Co from Calcutta. Over all, there came Naren Pal, a Bengali bandmaster for training future musicians. Not quite happy with Pal’s repertory from the colonial English army, the Mother decided to get instruments for a full-fledged band orchestra from Fernand Andrieu of Paris: varied  in size, we received a few Bb and Eb saxophones, clarinets, Bb trumpets, trombone, bugles, Db piccolo, kettle drums, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, all equipped with individual scores from classical composers like Lully, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, and jolly good marching songs in French. I was happy to play  counter melodies an octave higher than the average pitch of the orchestra, such as those replacing the whistling air that had been composed by Mitch Miller in Colonel Bogey (better known as the River Kwai medley).

4) Approaching Karnatic Music

On the Darshan days, there were vendors of all sorts of flowers and garlands who came flocking in the four streets surrounding the main building of the Ashram. In the morning, as soon as the Mother appeared on her first floor balcony, a procession of devotees playing nādasvaram and mridangam approached her; on reaching below the balcony, the instruments stopped while the ardent voice of Vidwan Ramamurthy hailed the Mother with a hymn. I  gathered from his friend Rajangam, an old inmate of the Ashram, that Ramamurthy had been  initiated to Karnatic music by Parupalli Ramkrishnayah Pantulu, belonging to the direct lineage of  Thyagaraja’s disciples; as such Ramamurthy was a fellow (gurubhai)of the great Bala Muralikrishna. Already familiar with the six volumes of South Indian Music by Professor P. Sambamurthy, as well as his valuable Dictionary of South Indian Music in three volumes, with the Mother’s approval, I took private lessons of singing with Vidwan Ramamurthy. Instead of unaltered intervals of a major scale, in the South it is usual to begin the first lessons on the scale known as Māyā-mālava-gaula in the Karnatic and Bhairava in Hindustani, having two altered  intervals: the diminished 2nd (Db), and the diminished 6th (Ab). The Gregorian system classifies it as Phrygian mode: ½tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – ½tone – Tone – Tone.  Right from the beginning, Ramamurthy in his pedagogy worked mainly on the topmost register (tār saptaka), which was rather discouraging for  average idle voices. Later, at the French Centre of Scientific Research, while exploring in Paris during more than twenty years the taxonomy existing between Modes (Thāț/Mélakartā) <-> Scales (rāgas) of the North and the South Indian musical systems from a cognitive point of view,  my lecture-demonstration  on the subject at the Madras Music Academy interested  its legendary director, T.S.  Parthasarathy who presented me to Vidwan B.M. Sundaram to satisfy my wish for further investigation. The latter informed me about his orchestration of Rabindra-Sangīt in collaboration with Bala Muralikrishna.

5) Western: Vocal

If a voice  can claim to have reached the quality of crystal, Milly Vanez was born in Switzerland with such a precious gift. In friends’ circle she was called  Marie Amélie. Having basked in the limelight for over sixty spring times, she was drifted to Pondicherry by surges of a disturbing question : “Where  lies  fulfilment in life ?” Having heard about the Mother’s love for music, she offered to create a full-fledged Western chorus, roughly divided into four groups: low-toned male voices joined the fourth group (bass); highest normal male voices went to the third group (tenor); lowest female voices occupied the space of the second group (contralto); highest kind of female voice went to the first group (soprano). We received four printed scores of the same song and learnt them separately, before dovetailing them during the final rehearsals; there was another step before it: individual singers’ perfect diction. In spite of a lapse of sixty years, I still remember two of her favourite exercises.

The first one was a simple French sentence: Ma mère m’a mis mon missel dans ma malle (“My mother has kept my prayer book inside my trunk”).  She taught us to pronounce the pure consonant /m/ without nasalization, by avoiding the breath to pass through the nose; it stood out distinctly in contrast with the two nasalized syllables, /mon/ and /dans/.

The other exercise was a more complex extract from an Italian opera, with an obvious appeal from musical and poetic point of view:

Semplicetta tortorella,
che non vede il suo periglio,
per fugir dal crudo artiglio
vola in grembo al cacciator,
per fugir dal crudo artiglio,
vola in grembo al cacciator

(The innocent turtledove

that does not see the danger it is in

will fly from predators’ harsh claws

straight into the hunter’s lap.)

The stock of songs Marie Amélie knew was difficult to count. She had a soft corner for the traditional songs in Basque, popular in Euskara (North-Western region in Spain) and in Aquitaine  (South-Western province of France). Basque is a language which does not have much in common with Indo-European group of languages. Specialists have detected therein some link with Finnish and Hungarian. Other  than fervent hymns dedicated to Virgin Mary, we were fascinated by a number of folk songs, out of which there was one with warm life-energy, which I can never forget : 

Binbili bonbolo zein da lo,
akerra Frantzian balego,
akerrak kanta, idiak dantza,
ahuntzak danbolina jo

Having spent holidays in the region of Bayonne near the Spanish border, I met experts who had remarkable collections of their traditional songs; they  attached much importance to this riddle or lullaby  in doggerel which means

“Is Binbili bonbolo asleep ?

Had  the goat been to France

The goat would be singing

The bullock would be dancing

And the she-goat would be playing the tambourine.”

There is no objection in hunting for some allegoric influence of a political movement struggling down generations for the existence of a distinct Basque State enclosing the fore-mentioned fragments of Northern Spain and South-Western France.


Shortly after Marie Amélie left Pondicherry, Olga and Lewis Allen came from South Africa with two little boys. Engineer by profession, when Lewis sang, he reminded me of Paul Robson. Olga was pianist. We rushed to seek  the Mother’s permission to learn to play piano with Olga. At the same time, I joined the classes she took on the theory of Western music. While  she introduced me  to the method of Smallwood – series of Major Scales, each followed by its Minor Scale and some compositions to illustrate them –   she was furious with me on seeing that in no time I could play them from memory : “Look here, Prithwin, you are not going to be a concert virtuoso! Stop learning by heart !” It did not stop me from stocking more than one hundred pieces in my memory. At times, pleased with my facility to learn, however she would invite me to play with her, for instance, the four-hand version of Menuet in G by Beethoven: turn by turn allotting me the treble and the bass parts of the score, indirectly  she encouraged my memorization.

Having sensed my wish to compose pieces exploring the raga intervals supported by Western laws of harmony, utilizing both homophony (series of chords) and polyphony (superposing melody-lines), Dada (Pranabkumar Bhattacharya, the Director of Physical Education) arranged with two lending  libraries in Madras run by   the British Council and the United States Information Service : every week I received four books, went through them by handling them carefully, keeping profuse notes, and returned them punctually. Thanks to the theories as explained by Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith and Leopold Stokowski, I had an adequate idea of the way I wanted to follow.

As wished by Dada, in addition to my classes in the Department of Languages and Literature at the Ashram School, I accompanied on piano children’s exercises and drills; acquainted with at least twenty French nursery rimes, I shared them with my students, too.    A special Pleyel with loudspeaker for the purpose was brought inside  the Store Room, opposite the  window. In leisurely moments I composed songs for children where Tarunvishnu Choudhuri, Nupur and Linda Mitra were regularly present. At  times I organized also a   chamber-music group and played my pieces with guests like Arunkant Patel with his piano-accordeon, Kanak Ganguli with his electrified Hawaiian guitar, Tehmi Marzpan with her Spanish guitar, Ashok Ganguli with his violin, Behram Solena with his saxo tenor, Dinesh Mitra with his improvised box-base,  Gangaram beating rhythm with a bucket half filled with water. Outside the window, usually there was quite a small gathering of listeners.

One day I saw Dada making me signs from outside the window. On coming out, I found the Mother listening to our experiments. Beaming with a smile she told me : “It reminds me of the music of the Volga boatmen !” For the Mother’s pleasure, I organized the first orchestra only with harmonicas: among the participants there were several known and unknown musicians like Arup Tagore and Parna Kumar. The Mother encouraged me as warmly as when I enacted in Bengali my play The Magician, inspired by one of her talks : the Mother liked particularly the stage-free acting of Varun Tagore, Subhas (Nirode-da’s nephew), Jivananda and Giten Ray.

6) Awakening

15 August 1957: a date in golden letters engraved in my memory. Having chosen the scale Ramakali of Hindustani system, I composed for our band orchestra a piece for about five minutes entitled Awakening, mainly with some basic chords and counterpoints. Hardly did the music come to a stop when the Mother made me a sign to approach her. She took my right hand in both her hands to exclaim: “Magnifique !” Then she added in French that she had long waited  for something of this sort, urging me to continue. The next day when Sumantra-da, our brilliant trumpeter, had gone upstairs to see  the Mother, she shared with him her joy of having heard my music. For two or three days that followed, she expressed to different persons her full satisfaction of that experiment.

Son of Snigdha  and Sushil Mitra, Sri Aurobindo’s disciples, Bhaskar-da was accomplished in both Hindustani and Western music; he had a regular column in the prestigious weekly Desh with his pen name “Ananda Vardhan”. Bhaskar-da launched a new journal in musicology, Ramya-vīņā, with a focus on my article on a possible future synthesis in world-music. On going through it, Sunil-da, in addition to congratulating me, added a couple of suggestions to improve my argument. The monthly Prabasi, on completing its sixty years of loyal service to its readers, invited essays in a nation-wide contest. My proposal in the essay, “Vishva-taner Milan pathe” developing my dream of a synthesis won the first prize. On perusing the essay, enthusiast, Swami Pajnanananda advised me to expand it in a book form, sending me an anticipated foreword of appreciation. The famous musician Birendrakishore Raychaudhuri on visit to the Ashram expressed his full sympathy for the project and described me the pleasant surprise that he had had during an overwhelming recital where a Spanish composer named Casanova executed such a composition with orchestra.

Since the mid-1950s, Anuben Purani, in charge of our department of dance, often sent me a word for accompanying her rehearsals with my bamboo flutes, prior to official performances with different groups  formed on the basis of accomplishment. These flutes were manufactured in Chittagong – East Pakistan of the epoch – out of a special variety of bamboo, seasoned and imported by a lover of music. The very   timbre vibrated with a nostalgic overtone or undertone, whatever be the pitch of the instrument.

Suzanne Karpeles – known as Bharati-di in the Ashram – hailed from a family very intimate with the Tagores’; whereas her sister Andree had learnt painting with Abanindranath, Suzanne – founder of the French Association of the “Friends of India” – had served Rabindranath as secretary during all his visits in France. She had the merit of organizing with us, her students, a training course at Pondicherry for teachers of French. As such, to celebrate the centenary of Rabindranath’s birth in 1961, she arranged a number of recitals of his compositions in various cultural centres : she chose me to accompany Tinkari Banerjee’s  songs with my long side flute made in France, with keys.

In 1963, during my first meeting with Pandit Ravi Shankar after a concert at the Sapru House, I did not fail to notice his smile on hearing my name : “Vishva-taner Milan pathe” ? He reserved for me this spirit of complicity till the last days of his life. He crowned my cognitive research at the French Scientific Research Centre with a foreword qualifying it “a monumental work.” An English translation of the book came out from Indira Gandhi Centre. More than once  has he invited me sincerely to join his Centre at New Delhi as a teacher.  Early in December 1912, as usual, when I received his phone call from California, I asked him whether he was planning a trip to India, he replied with a laughter: “হয় দেশে যাব, নয়তো টেঁশে যাব” (“Either I’ll go home, or else I shall kick the bucket !” He passed away on the 11th December.

7) Music in France

It took me quite some time to get settled in my objectives, after reaching Paris in 1966 with a French Government scholarship. Other than renewing contact with Pandit Ravi Shankar, listening to important concerts, I made friends with Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta, Leopold Stokowski, Zubin Mehta, Karl Richter, Ray Charles, Jean-Pierrre Rampal, Rostropovitch, Henri Dutilleux among many others. Following active courses for teachers of French abroad at the Sorbonne, choosing a theme for a thesis to obtain Doctorat d’Université, joining the Tour de Feu (“Tower of Fire”) members and writing for their journal. At the same time, looking for a suitable opportunity to continue my research on pre-Gandhian freedom movement in India required a good deal of energy and Time. In 1972, thanks to my series of round-table tributes on Radio-France to celebrate the centenary of birth of  Sri Aurobindo, I drew the attention of Arthur Conte, President of the ORTF:  he  advised me to join the channel France-Culture as a part-time Producer. At the same time, I started working for Charles Duvelle, Director of the OCORA series of LPs, attached to Radio-France. We were busy promoting various forms of extra-European traditional music.

One fine evening, after  listening to the private concert of Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma organized by Shri Mahesh (who was running a Yoga centre in Paris), I approached the artists for a possible session of recording both of them. Jealous as he was, Shri Mahesh dissuaded us to go further in our speculation. Fortunately, Shiv-ji remembered the address of the cottage where they both were living. He whispered it to my ear.

The next morning, it was drizzling. I turned up at the given address. The artists were unable to hear me calling them from the garden. After about an hour of patience in the rain, I gathered a few small pebbles and threw them on their window. Both  spotted me out. They did not yet have their breakfast. I took them to the nearby tea house for having some pastries. Also they were happy when I informed them that on following  Saturday afternoon, if they were free, we could arrange for a recording. I had received the green signal from Duvelle, who was ready to pay cash 750 francs each for this  recording. It was to be done at Duvelle’s country house at Esbly, about fifty kilometers drive East-ward from Paris. Accordingly, it was for me  to book and pay a taxi.

Saturday was a sunny day. Inside Duvelle’s garden, in contact with Nature, we all set out for the recording. They seemed to be as yet ignorant of the virtue of a Nagra tape-recorder. Diffident about the quality of the output, possibly they did not so much care for a smart performance. But sincerely impressed, when we listened to the result with the drawing room HiFi, they proposed another take. On noticing that I was fond of Sohini, Shiv-ji picked up that raga with a broad smile.

One of the French friends of Duvelle had been to Benares in connection with OCORA plans and had taken lessons in cooking. She had prepared a dinner for our pleasure. Home-sick, Hari Babu, with the very first mouthful of ālu-gobi,  moved to tears, while he exclaimed: “This is typically a recipe from Benares !”  

Contract-bound with a French publishing house, I was busy writing my book on the philosophy of Sâmkhya. I found Shiv-ji immensely attracted by the subject. He quite agreed, too, with my line of investigating on the Sûfî origin of the santoor, his instrument of predilection. This Śatatantrī vīņā of the Vedic times was to become by successive transformations several instruments of Western music like the harpsichord and…the piano.

On seeing both of them a bit uncertain about the permission from HMV-India, I wrote to Shri Dubey (?) on their behalf, explaining the quality of this first result ever recorded outside India. The gentleman replied with a great sympathy that even he could welcome promoting these LPs for market in India.

Though Shiv-ji’s record came out in due honour, by the time Hari-Babu’s turn came, Duvelle had resigned from his post. When, several years later, invited  at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, for the 24 hours of raga, Hari-Babu met me, the very first words he uttered were:

“দাদা, শিবজী-র রেকর্ড বার করলেন, আমার রেকর্ডটার কী হলো ?” [“You have brought out Shiv-ji’s record; what about mine ?”]

This was the genesis of the very first venture of an internationally glorious career for these two stars. I wonder whether Shri Râmachandra ever remembered whatsoever the little squirrel did for his pleasure when the setubandhawas in the process !

Till August 2021, at the moment I am jotting these reminiscences, I have not yet received any reply from either artist, though I have a profound esteem for their honesty. I have enough documents in my archives to prove the facts I narrate. In recent years, even Duvelle in the presence of his family reminded me of our fond experience with Indian musicians.

8) Cognitive Science and Music

In 1974, the internationally respected historian Raymond Aron came to my rescue by accepting to supervise my PhD (doctorat d’Etat) thesis  registered by Université Paris-Sorbonne IV and by sending me with a Fulbright scholarship, in 1981, to explore American archives from coast to coast. Whereas I found the President Wilson Papers at Washington of an immense help, I was more directly concerned by the archives preserving documents on Indo-German collaboration during World War I at the universities of California, especially at Berkeley. The campus of Berkeley was to open a new horizon in my musicological quest. Bill Woodruff, a post-doctorate scholar in sociology often talked to me as a friend about the epoch-making theory of cognitive research, and gave me some literature on the subject as explained by Eleanor Rosch.

On examining the purport of this original orientation, I guessed it to be a straightforward demonstration of the way micro-intervals of  the ragas of Indian musical scales  come to exist out of their full octave “parent modes” (melakarta in the South or ThaT in the North) down more than two thousand years. The scales, as we know, can be obtained from the permutation of sets of 8, 7, 6 or 5 intervals while ascending and sets of 8, 7, 6 or 5 while descending.  Progressively, I sensed that cognitive musicology could be differentiated from the fields of music cognition and cognitive neuroscience of music by a distinct methodological emphasis. Cognitive musicology is likely to use computer modeling to study music-related knowledge representation and have roots in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. The use of computer models provides an exacting, interactive medium in which to formulate and test theories.

On returning to Paris in 1981 and admitted as a member of the gazetted team of ethnomusicology attached to the CNRS – meaning  National Centre for Scientific Research  (in human and social sciences) -, when I proposed to delve further and to elaborate this project, with the hope to receive a warm support. On the contrary, a cold shoulder was shown by Danièle Dubois, who seemed to own the sole agency of Cognitive research in France. Shocked by the very idea of indulging with ragas [of a poor country like India?] in a noble context as this [invented in California], she found it altogether abhorrent.  Protesting against my stupidity, for nearly twenty years not only did she create a group of hostile colleagues to oppose systematically to my stubborn solitary undertaking, she intervened also with the Administration to put an end to my professional career. Whereas four different Commissions of experts on examining my exposé, recommended me fit for the post of a Research Director, the Administration “regretted”, however, its impossibility of finding me a post vacant. Diffident about the viability of my project, too, Simha Arom – my hierarchical head – had a flair, nevertheless, of something justifiable in the matter that I continued to defend and, in 1991, became himself a founder member of European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM), elegantly omitting to share with me the precious information which could relieve me of a stress and humiliation, accumulated down so many years.

Fortunately letters of strong and admiring support from specialists like Dr Richard Widdes  (Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of London-SOAS) in his letter dated 22 September 1992, or Philip V. Bohlman (Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Chicago) in his letter dated 19 November 2000 helped me keep the stone rolling. In 1997, at last I managed to present a paper at the   XVIe International Congress of Linguists held at the Palais des Congrès in Paris, 20-25 July 1997. The following text was published in the   Abstracts (p.201) to announce my lecture-demonstration.

(To be continued)

About the Author: Dr Prithwindra Mukherjee (b. 20th October 1936) is the grandson of the famous revolutionary Jatindranath Mukherjee alias Bagha Jatin. He came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1948, studied and taught at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. He was mentioned by the Sahitya Akademi manuals and anthologies as a poet before he attained the age of twenty. He has translated the works of French authors like Albert Camus, Saint-John Perse and René Char for Bengali readers, and eminent Bengali authors into French. He shifted to Paris with a French Government Scholarship in 1966. After defending a first thesis Doctorat d’Université on Sri Aurobindo at Sorbonne, he served as a lecturer in two Paris faculties, a producer on Indian culture and music for Radio France and was also a freelance journalist for the Indian and French press. His next thesis for PhD (Doctorat d’Etat) studied the pre-Gandhian phase of India’s struggle for freedom; it was supervised by Raymond Aron in Paris University IV. In 1977 he was invited by the National Archives of India as a guest of the Historical Records Commission. He presented a paper on ‘Jatin Mukherjee and the Indo-German Conspiracy’ and his contribution on this area has been recognized by eminent educationists. A number of his papers on this subject have been translated into major Indian languages. He went to the United States of America as a Fullbright scholar and discovered scores of files covering the Indian revolutionaries in the Wilson Papers. In 1981 he joined the department of ethnomusicology attached to the CNRS-Paris (French National Centre of Scientific Research) with the project of a cognitive study of the scales of Indian music. He was also a founder-member of the French Literary Translators’ Association. In 2003 he retired as a researcher in Human and Social Sciences Department of the CNRS. A recipient of ‘Sri Aurobindo Puraskar’, in the same year he was invited by Sir Simon Rattle who was to conduct Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the world premiere of Correspondances, opus for voice (with the divine participation of Dawn Upshaw) and orchestra, where the veteran composer Henri Dutilleux had set to music Prithwindra’s French poem “Danse cosmique” on Shiva Nataraja, followed by texts by Solzhenitsyn, Rilke and Van Gogh. In 2009 he was appointed to the rank of chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of France. Six years later the Minister of Culture appointed him Knight, too. In 2014, the French Academy recognized Prithwindra’s entire contribution by its Hirayama Award. He has penned more than seventy books in English, Bengali and French and some of his published works include Samasamayiker Chokhe Sri Aurobindo, Pondicherryer Dinguli, Bagha Jatin, Sadhak-Biplobi Jatindranath, Undying Courage, Vishwer Chokhe Rabindranath, Thât/Mélakartâ : The Fundamental Scales in Indian Music of the North and the South (foreword by Pandit Ravi Shankar), Poèmes du Bangladesh (welcomed by the literary critic of Le Figaro as the work of the “delicious Franco-Bengali poet”), Serpent de flammes, Le sâmkhya, Les écrits bengalis de Sri Aurobindo, Chants bâuls, les Fous de l’Absolu, Anthologie de la poésie bengalie. Invited by the famous French publishers Desclée de Brouwer, his biography Sri Aurobindo was launched with due tribute by Kapil Sibal, India’s ambassador in France. His PhD thesis, Les racines intellectuelles du movement d’independence de l’Inde (1893-1918) was foreworded by Jacques Attali: it ended up with Sri Aurobindo, “the last of the Prophets”. While launching Prithwindra’s biography Bagha Jatin published by National Book Trust, H. E. Pranab Mukherjee admitted: “It is an epitome of the history of our armed struggle for freedom.” To celebrate the centenary of Tagore’s Nobel award, in 2013, Prithwindra brought out a trilingual (Bengali-French-English) anthology of 108 poems by Tagore, A Shade Sharp, a Shade flat, it was launched by the President of the illustrious Sociéte des Gens de Lettres founded by Balzac.  In 2020, he was honoured with the prestigious ‘Padma Shri’ by the Government of India.

3 Replies to “Music in My Life—Part 1 by Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee

  1. Great memoirs of an era before my birth in the Ashram School and your family of the greatest singers and composers from Dilipda Sahanadi Ardhenduda and your experiments with musical instruments played by the students of that era….!

  2. Beautiful memories expressed so marvelously by the legendary Prithwindra Mukherjee ji!
    Wishing Prithwindra ji a blessed birthday and a great life!
    Thanks a lot Anurag Banerjee ji and Overman Foundation for sharing this wonderful write-up.

    Giti Tyagi
    Editor, Creative Artist, International Author & Poetess, Book Reviewer, Translator

  3. Dear Prithwin-da,
    Bonne Fete in retrospect! Next time I will wish you on time.
    It was lovely reading your article. Please give us more of your writings.

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