Soumya Chakravarti account of recording folk singer Anantabala Baishnabi in 1968.
Soumya Chakravarti, physicist by profession and folk music collector by passion, has studied and later worked with renowned folksingers and folk music collectors of West Bengal and Jharkhand, such as Khaled Chowdhury, Ranajit Sinha and Ramdayal Munda. He plays several musical instruments, and has collected a fair amount of Baul-Fakiri and Adivasi music. Now officially retired from his position as professor of physics in the US, Soumya is assembling a digital archive of his music collection, samples of which can be heard on http://www.lokgeet.org. He divides his time between India and the USA. Here he describes a recording session in 1968 when he went with members of the Folk Music and Folklore Research Institute of Calcutta to the house of Anantabala Baishnabi to record this once famous singer who had by then almost faded into oblivion.
Recording Anantabala Baishnabi
In high school I started training informally as a ball-boy for the Folk Music & Folklore Research Institute started by Khaled Choudhury, Hemango Biswas, Nihar Barua and others. At that time I had not heard of Anantabala Baishnabi. I started learning to play the dotara, listening to the tape recordings the Institute had started acquiring, helping to transcribe them, and so on. Anantabala was then a non-entity to me and, now I realise, to a very large number of Bengali speakers my age.
In my third year in Presidency College, Khaled Choudhury and Ranajit Sinha first mentioned Anantabala to me. That she was a rural singer from East Bengal who made it big time in the Calcutta recording world in the 30’s and 40’s, published scores of 78 rpm records, became hugely popular, and was subsequently forgotten. Ranajit Sinha had heard from someone that Anantabala was alive, that she lived in anonymity and in hardship near Krishnanagar, Nadia, West Bengal.
So during the summer, Khaled Choudhury, Ranajit Sinha and his wife Esha, and I, armed with a small tape recorder, went on a “trace Ananta Bala mission” to Krishna Nagar. 4 decades later I don’t have a clear recollection of the exact steps we went through but we asked around a lot, eventually learnt the name of a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Krishna Nagar, and took cycle-rickshaws to get there. It was what Bengalis would call a “refugee colony” in the countryside. Lots of betel-nut trees, narrow unpaved roads, houses with tin roofs and mud walls.
After being told which house it was, we walked up and found an elderly woman in white borderless sari hanging up clothes in the yard. We asked whether Anantabala lived there and she said yes, and would we please wait in the front porch. Then she disappeared inside the house, reappearing after a few minutes, having rearranged her sari a bit. So this was Anantabala herself! We were astonished. She was in her early seventies at that time.
She was lean and dark, the end of her sari covering her head at all times, taciturn, and soft-spoken when she spoke. A very ordinary looking village woman. She was shortly joined by a male member of the family to help maintain the conversation.
We introduced ourselves, explained the purpose of our visit, and sought permission to interview her and record it. Permission was granted but with a bit of discomfort. A fairly long interview followed, watched on by a cluster of children standing a short distance away. One moment I remember distinctly was when Anantabala was asked who wrote one of her early recorded songs. She replied that it was the Deputy Magistrate’s driver. The song was very well known to the senior members of our group, so they were a bit incredulous and wanted to confirm it. She then clarified that she “composed” the song but the driver “wrote it down”. This revelation of her functional illiteracy struck me quite strongly.
I also remember her stating in quite a matter-of-fact way that the recording company which showed such enthusiasm and showered her with so much attention fairly soon turned its back on her, and then stopped paying royalty altogether. There was no bitterness in her voice while she discussed this.
At some point I think she was asked to sing and a harmonium was produced, probably along with a player, to accompany her. As soon as she started I could feel her strong earthy presence through her open voice, her east Bengal inflection, and her complete ease with her medium. Here was someone with a great deal of experience in dealing with a city audience–hence the ease. How did she manage to retain this through all these years of neglect, I wondered.
At the end, we posed for a photograph with her, and then took leave, promising to keep in touch and to return. Indeed within a few months she arrived to sing at a music session of the Folk Music & Folklore Research Institute at 10 Hindusthan Park in Calcutta. She had an audience filling a large hall — people genuinely interested in listening to folk music performed by Anantabala Baishnabi — and they were enthralled. Later, I had the privilege of listening to her songs recorded from that performance over and over again, from the Ferrograph taperecorder, as I helped transcribe them. And even afterwards, I did not stop playing the tape every now and then until I had picked up most of the tunes and memorised the words.
After that performance though, I never saw her again, much like the way the music lovers of Calcutta lost her after India’s independence.
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