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“No nightingale did ever chant,More welcome note to weary bands,Of travellers in some shady haunt Among Arabian sands…”
These lines from Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper aptly defines the brilliance of Kanika Banerjee, hailed as the Nightingale of Rabindrasangeet. Her unmistakable voice, mellifluous as strains of a flute, sweeter than honey and soul stirring like a cuckoo’s call, are powerful enough to rouse your emotions and move you to tears.
Kanika Banerjee had the privilege of learning music under the tutelage of Rabindranath Tagore himself. In the course of her long innings as a singer, she shone like luminous star on the firmament of Indian vocal music. She successfully dabbled in other musical genres as well.
She was born as Anima Mukherjee on 12th October 1924 at Sonamukhi in the Bankura district of West Bengal. Her nickname was Mohor (gold coin). During her infancy, who would have imagined that this Mohor would dazzle the arena of Indian vocal music with its lustre ?
Theirs was an average family with many children.
Her father was employed with the Vishva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. Hence the family resided within the sprawling, verdant campus itself. Thus Anima grew up in an ambience of pristine beauty blended with aesthetic and cultural cross currents. She was the quintessential ashram kanya (maiden of the Ashram).
There is a famous anecdote about Anima’s first encounter with Tagore in Shantiniketan.
On a hot summer day in the month of Baisakh (April –May) when she was eight or nine years old, Anima was loitering in the amra kunj (mango grove) picking raw mangoes which had been blown down by gusts of wind, when she accosted a bearded, saintly looking man (Tagore). Tagore struck up an endearing friendship with the little girl, which lasted the rest of their lives.
Right from her childhood she was groomed in both Hindustani classical and Rabindrasangeet at the university’s music department (Sangit Bhavan). In fact Tagore who had recognized her latent musical abilities decided to coach her himself.
How many of you know that Tagore had rechristened her Kanika? (literally a miniscule particle).
Kanika’s talent was nurtured and honed by several other maestros namely, Sailajaranjan Majumdar, Indira Devi Chaudhurani and Santidev Ghosh. She actively participated in dance-dramas penned and subsequently directed by Rabindranath.
While still a novice, Kanika Banerjee travelled all over India as part of Tagore’s cultural troupe. She also sang innumerable Bhajans, Nazrulgeeti (songs by Kazi Nazrul Islam) and lyrics penned by another renowned poet Atul Prasad Sen. Interestingly, Kanika’s first recorded song was neither a Tagore song nor a Nazrul Geeti, but a Bengali Adhunik (modern/ contemporary) song composed by Niharbindu Sen.
Beginning with the year 1943, Kanika Banerjee became a regular singer operating out of the Calcutta station of All India Radio. She gave national level programmes arranged by other stations. It was indeed a sign of honour for Kanika that she cut several gramophone records and received the blessings of her mentor before Tagore passed away in 1941.
Gradually her talent and versatility began to spread beyond the country’s frontiers. She travelled extensively in Europe and the USA, regaling the Indian (read Bengali) diaspora with her haunting melodies.
A few years down the line Kanika Banerjee joined Sangit Bhavana as a music teacher, heading the Department of Rabindrasangeet years later, and finally becoming its Principal. She rounded up her career as a Professor Emeritus of Vishva-Bharati.
“Shantiniketan had many great artistes as tutors who had been the direct disciples of Tagore, such as Arati Basu, Subinoy Ray, Nimai Chand Boral, Nilima Sen, Alok Chattopadhyay, and of course Kanika Bandyopadhyay. The guru-shishya parampara of teaching was followed exactly as they were taught by Tagore himself,” recalls Rezwana Choudhury (a.k.a Bonnya) while paying tribute to her beloved teacher.
In 1945, aged 21, Kanika married Birendra Chandra Bandopadhyay, who had worked as a deputy librarian of Viswa Bharati University beside being a renowned poet. Their conjugal life was by and large blissful. The couple had no issues. However eventually Kanika adopted the son of one of her siblings, whom she called Tanaji.
Judging by the accounts, opinions and memoirs of her colleagues, associates and students, Kanika Banerjee comes across as a soft-spoken, modest, yet affable individual. Lily Islam one of Kanika’s former pupils vividly recalls, “We often used to have classes at her house. As she sat on a chair, we would gather all around her on the ground. She always started by explaining the background of the song, and even in her simple dialogue one could sense how passionately she felt about music. Lily continues. “Even when we failed to sing the proper notes, she had always a word of praise for us. She would say, that our voice was similar to the sarangi notes and that we should try to be more accurate,”
Kanika’s world revolved around music; she ate, drank, slept and dreamt music. It was the pivot point of her existence. Lily Islam reminisces, “We would watch in awe as she entered the campus. Her personality, her bearing all bore an unmistakable regality. On the other hand, she was modest to a fault. When we requested her to teach us a particular song, she would unhesitatingly suggest Bachchu di (Nilima Sen) who in her words sang the song ‘better’!”
Kanika Bandopadhyay has more than 300 gramophone records to her credit. During her career spanning several decades she authored three books on her favourite genre of music. Besides musical programmes on All India Radio (Akashvaani) she also gave live performances on DoorDarshan. Some outstanding (Rabindra Sangeet ) numbers sung by her include Ananda Dhara Bohichhe Bhubane ( Wave of joy sweeps the universe) Tobu Monay Rekho (Pray Love, Remember) Bhara Badara Maaha Bhadara ( The gloomy monsoon) among many. As all Tagore Aficionados are aware she infuses her characteristic sweetness and grace into each song which make each of them masterpiece.
She was closely associated with the Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies an NGO and social service organization located in Birbhum district of West Bengal. At various points of time her life became the subject of documentary films made by reputed directors.
In appreciation of her outstanding contribution to Rabindra Sangeet she was awarded the Gold Disc of the Gramophone Company of India in 1980. She received the best Bengali playback singer award from the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association in 1973. Kanika bagged the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for the year of 1979. Her Alma Mater (also home turf) Vishva-Bharati University, bestowed upon her Desikottama, its highest award in 1997.
On a warm spring day, 5th April 2000 Kanika Bandopadhyay died in a Kolkata hospital following prolonged illness that included lung and cardiac ailments. The incumbent Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid glowing tributes to her saying, she “was among the best exponents of Rabindra Sangeet. Generations of music lovers were charmed by her golden voice.”
Kanika Banerjee left behind a bevy of highly talented singers-this is interesting- the bulk of them Bangladeshi nationals, who zealously uphold her gayaki and have won global acclaim. Rezwana Choudhury (Bonnya), Lily Islam, and Papiya Sarowar figure on the list. In addition, her brother’s daughter Ranjini Mukherjee and nephew-turned- adopted son Priyom are accomplished singers in their own right.
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