When Hemanta first appeared on the Bengali music scene, it was not only difficult, but almost impossible for a new artiste to make a name for himself. Pankaj Kumar Mullick had already brought Rabindrasangeet from the closets of the musically educated right into the common Bengali household through his rich voice. A streak of Rabindrasangeet singers influenced the intellect of Bengalis for quite a few years. Sahana Devi's records played in every house and Sati Devi, Kanak Das, Malati Ghoshal, Shantideb Ghosh and a host of other new and established singers kept the flow of Rabindrasangeet undeterred. Basic songs were also quite enriched around that time. Ajay Bhattacharyya, Sailen Roy, Pranab Roy, and Banikumar were some lyricists of those times who penned rich and poetic lyrics. And their songs were sung by stalwarts such as K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Pahari Sanyal, Shaila Devi, etc. Nazrulgeeti singers also had carved out a separate niche for themselves.
When the firmament of Bengali music was lighted by these bright stars, at that time - towards the end of 1937 - Hemanta cut his first disc from the Columbia Record Company. 'Janite jadi go tumi' on one side and 'Balo go balo more' on the flip side. Hemanta was barely sixteen at that time, having passed the matriculation examination and enrolled in the Engineering college of Jadavpur Polytechnic - a four year diploma course. Hemanta's first recording was quite good. A sweet resounding voice and clear pronunciation. But some people amusingly quipped, "Pankaj Mullick's parody".
Hemanta's road to the recording studio was not laden with flowers. Even before this record got released from Columbia, Hemanta had taken the initiative to approach the Senola and Megaphone recording companies. But he was refused a recording session by both of these companies. Megaphone's selectors even refused to listen to his voice. Hemanta was extremely discouraged at this outset of events and refrained from approaching any recording company on his own.
In the meantime, Hemanta's voice had begun to become liked among relatives and acquaintances. In friend circles or when visitors came to their home, Hemanta would be requested to perform a song or two. It was on such an occasion that Hemanta's father's colleague took him to Columbia record company's music supervisor Sailesh Duttagupta. Sailesh Duttagupta took a liking for Hemanta at first sight. He heard his voice immediately, recommended him to the selectors and within fifteen days Hemanta's first disc was released. His next disc was released in another few months - 'Tomaare chaahiyaa priya' and 'Tumi je sudur chand kuasha chhaoa'.
Although Hemanta was making ground as a singer, he had never intended to become one in the first place. He cherished to become a writer. Hemanta used to attend writer's communions at the local library and was also the editor of the communion. A story written by him even got published in the prestigious 'Desh' magazine in 1937. But Hemanta's friends did not want the Hemanta the writer, they were more fond of Hemanta the singer. With a mild annoyance Hemanta gradually distanced himself from the literary world. Nevertheless he maintained deep ties with literary personalities throughout his life.
Columbia's trainer Sailesh Duttagupta first initiated Hemanta to Rabindrasangeet. In the beginning Saileshbabu used to stay near Hemanta's house in Bhabanipur, but later he shifted to Ballygunge. One day he scolded Hemanta, "What's up with you? Earlier you used to be on time, but since I have moved you seem to be consistently late." Hemanta hesitated a bit and replied in a mild voice, "Earlier you used to stay near my place. I have to walk all the way now, so sometimes I get late." Saileshbabu was taken aback, "You walk all the way? Why on earth?" Hemanta stood silently with a melancholic face, but Saileshbabu understood. He affectionately told Hemanta, "I will give you an anna daily to cover your travel expenses."
Sailesh Duttagupta was Hemanta's only music tutor. He went to an ustad to train in classical music for a few days but could not concentrate. (Hemanta Mukherjee mentions in his autobiography that he had started to learn Hindustani classical music under the tutelage of Ustad Faiyaz Khan, but his learning was cut short by the Ustad's untimely death.) Hemanta's lack of classical training proved to be a blessing in disguise. His god gifted voice was as fluent as the undeterred winds. Grammatical rules of classical music might have restricted the flowering of his sweet voice. The fluency with which Hemanta sings 'Amar bhanga pather ranga dhulaaye' or 'Dekonaa amare Dekonaa' might not have been observed in classical oriented songs such as 'Tabu mone rekho' or 'Era par ke apan kore'. Hemanta did not possess a harmonium for quite a few days after submerging himself in the ocean of music. He had to go to other people's homes to practice. After a couple of records Hemanta had enough to purchase his first harmonium. After his third record Hemanta decided to quit studies and direct all his efforts to music. His father was not happy with this, but Hemanta's mother supported her son's wish. She knew what was best for him.
Unlike the other stalwarts of those times, Hemanta wasn't born into an affluent family. Sachin Dev Burman was the prince of Tripura, Pahari Sanyal's ancestors were called the uncrowned nawabs of Lucknow, Pankaj Mullick had worked with the Indian Railways to sustain himself before he got established and K. L. Saigal also held a regular job before he came into music. How then did Hemanta dare to forego the security of a job and plunge himself into the darkness of an uncertain future?
Hemanta was one of those rare artistes who savours unearthly pleasure by keeping himself busy within the domain of his work. Affluence and luxury used to create the same emotions within him, as did melancholy and poverty. I have seen the same untainted humble countenance on a young struggling Hemanta, as I have seen years later on Hemanta sitting at the pinnacle of success surrounded with plenitude. Wealth, awards, trophies did not bring about a change in his simple attire. Clad in a dhoti and a shirt with sleeves rolled up, the same mundaneness in conversation, it was the same Hemanta always. Success never blinded him and so he stayed ever so close to our hearts.
Hemanta's struggle along the road to success started from the very first day. He worked tirelessly night and day, from music tuitions, to the radio office, to the Tollygunge studios looking for a break in film playback. But success seemed to elude him and he had to make his living from the meagre remuneration of the music tuitions and the odd song that he recorded. Then one day suddenly he got his much awaited break in a film called 'Nimai Sanyas' as the playback for the leading star Chhabi Biswas. A kirtan style devotional song 'Kotha krishna, kotha krishna, prabhu dekha dao dekha dao'. Two years after this Hemanta cut his first Rabindrasangeet disc 'Amar aar habenaa deri' and 'Keno pantha e chanchalata'. A rich voice with a clear throw of words. This time nobody taunted him as Pankaj's parody. The record won critical acclaim not only from the common masses but also from the educated elite. Thus began the saga of a new exponent of Rabindrasangeet, who brought Rabindrasangeet from the phonographs of the affluent to the lips of the common masses. Rabindrasangeets which were undoubtedly popular at that time, also became 'hits' in this golden voice.
Hemanta composed the entire score for Hemen Gupta's film 'Abhijatri' in 1944. It was this Hemen Gupta, who gave Hemanta's rising career a shot in the arm with the Hindi film 'Anandmath' in 1951. Hemanta migrated to Bombay and joined S. Mukherjee's Filmistan Studios at a monthly salary of Rs. 1500. But that was just the beginning of another long strain of struggle to carve a niche for himself in the competitive Hindi film music scenario. The leading composer duo of those times Shankar Jaikishen even offered Hemanta a chance for playback in their movies on the condition that he would not compose music in films; Hemanta modestly declined the offer. But true talent never goes unrecognized and it was in a matter of a few years that Hemanta became a foremost singer as well as music director in Bombay. Rabindrasangeet and Bengali modern songs had made Hemanta the darling of the Bengalis, Bombay gave him nationwide recognition. Hemanta's days of struggle and worries, were finally coming to an end. Success, fame, wealth, awards continued to radiate throughout his life.
I remember an incident from the early years of Hemanta's life. After his first record was released, Hemanta and I were returning after purchasing a few copies of it from a record shop adjoining the Purna cinema hall. A strain of a Pankaj Mullick song being played in a house entered our ears. Suddenly Hemanta asked, "Will my songs ever play like this in people's homes?" I don't remember what I had replied then. But later, much later, Hemanta got that answer himself - not only did his songs play in people's homes in Bengal, it played all over the country. It played not only on gramophone discs, but it played in people's hearts, its strains returned on their lips and it got ensconsced forever in their psyche.
(This article was composed in Bengali by Hemanta Mukherjee's friend Sudhiranjan Mukhopadhyay. Translated by Prithviraj Dasgupta)