Broken Song

The brief, musical life Of “Khuku” Amita Sen

Amita Sen strove for “true sweetness” and “true dignity”—the balance expected of an educated woman. courtesy ILINA SEN
Amita Sen strove for “true sweetness” and “true dignity”—the balance expected of an educated woman. courtesy ILINA SEN
01 November, 2014

IN JUNE 1941, about two months before his death, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a draft of a short story called ‘Pragati Sanhar,’ or “Progress Slain.” Its principal characters are two brilliant students who meet while at college: Shuriti, a campus women’s leader, and Nihar, a callous womaniser. But by the end of the story and the war of the sexes that plays out in it, Shuriti sacrifices her feminist ideals, her independence, her money and her health for Nihar.

Tagore is believed to have based the story on the life of one of his protégés, the singer Amita Sen—affectionately called Khuku—who had died just over a year earlier, at the age of 26. All but forgotten now, in her centenary year, “Khuku Amita” was one of the early stars of Rabindrasangeet. In the 1930s, she was a household name among the intellectual and artistic families that revolved around Shantiniketan, the ashram established by the Tagore family about 180 kilometres north of Kolkata.

But by the time Tagore created the character of Shuriti, Sen—and Tagore’s treatment of her—was likely a source of some discomfort within these circles. Rama Chakraborty, Sen’s close friend from Shantiniketan and fellow singer, writes in her memoir, Pathe Chole Jete Jete, that Tagore read the story out one evening at a gathering at his home. It was common for him to share his creative writing with the ashram community, and these sessions often inspired lively discussions among the listeners. But when Tagore finished reading “Pragati Sanhar,” Chakraborty writes, he was met with total silence.

The story’s protagonists are notably one-dimensional, and Tagore handles its female characters with none of the sensitivity he shows in many of his other women-centred works. Yet Sen herself seems to have been a complex and vibrant figure. The picture of her that emerges from the reminiscences of many of Shantiniketan’s early-twentieth-century residents is that of a musical genius and an exceptional student—one of Tagore’s favourites.

In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore founded a school at Shantiniketan, which not only attracted scholars from around the world, but also engendered a close-knit community of artists and musicians. Amita Sen grew up in this cradle of learning and performing. Keystone / getty images

Sen’s namesake, the mother of the economist Amartya Sen, was her senior at Shantiniketan. In a Festschrift edition of the magazine Shreyasi, she recalls the arrival at Shantiniketan, in 1923, of an unsophisticated but charming nine-year-old. The elder Amita was playing hide-and-seek with her friends, in the fields near her home in Guru Palli, when the younger girl ran up to her and took her hands. “I believe you are called Amita Sen, just like me,” she said. “Let’s be friends from today.” Other contemporaries have also written about this warmth—her “childlike simplicity” and “trusting nature.” They have also hinted in various memorial articles—sometimes in cryptic, measured sentences—at her unfortunate differences with Tagore at the end of her short life.

I was not aware of Sen or her music until my marriage to Binayak, her nephew, in 1973. During our wedding, the groom’s party was headquartered at 13A Shyambazaar Street, where Sen’s mother (Binayak’s grandmother) lived with another of her sons and his family. With the loss of the ancestral home in Dhaka, after Partition, this house in Kolkata had become the family’s point of convergence—and it was imbued with Sen’s presence. The first room one entered was dominated by a huge photograph of her: a young woman with an expressive face, framed by two plaits and round glasses. At every major gathering, the family recounted her achievements, mostly skirting the more fraught aspects of her life. Every branch had its own collection of her music, which was played regularly and lovingly until gramophones and record players went out of vogue. Later, the five 78 RPM records Sen made, comprising ten songs of Rabindrasangeet, were copied onto audiocassettes, then CDs.

Sen’s brother, my late father-in-law Devaprasad Sen, collected many of her belongings and papers—creative writing, correspondence with Tagore and others, articles and so on—hoping to publish them at some point. He entrusted them to me, and a large part of this material finally came out earlier this year, in a Bangla volume titled Amita.

Despite carefully preserving these materials, the family was either unable or unwilling to publish them while Sen was perhaps better remembered by the Bengali intelligentsia, and when many more of her personal acquaintances were still alive. Perhaps the family was reluctant to acknowledge the “worthless” young man who likely inspired the character of Nihar, but whom Sen had chosen to love, and who she valued above her opportunity to be close to the Kaviguru. The family’s history is closely bound with that of Shantiniketan and the iconic figure of Tagore; there may have been a certain discomfort with confronting the difficult relationship between the mentor and his student.

Tagore relied on others to note down and record his compositions, which often slipped his mind very soon after he created them. He admired Sen’s ability to accurately reproduce melodies so highly that, after his musician nephew Dinendranath Tagore, he apparently trusted her most to remember his songs and pass them on to others. A generation of musicians from Shantiniketan and Kolkata, including veteran singer Suchitra Mitra, learnt material from Sen. Her own recordings are remarkable for their minimal accompaniment, and a fresher approach to the gayaki of Tagore than is often found today. In a note from 1935 cajoling her into joining one of his dance dramas (Sen apparently did not enjoy participating in theatre), Tagore wrote, “There are three new songs, the rest are old. You needn’t act, but you have to sing. There’s a big dearth of good voices in the ashram. Affectionately, RT.”

Tagore wrote a few testimonials for Sen. This one implies she was keen to study further in Europe; another recommended her for a teaching job. courtesy ILINA SEN

Though her songs are still sporadically broadcast on All India Radio in Kolkata, and her name occasionally appears in scholarly treatises on the gayaki of Tagore, many of the nuances of Sen’s personality and life are lost to us. History lifts up its great men, but secondary or tertiary figures—often women—are too easily forgotten, or remembered only anecdotally, in the private sphere. Many early singers of Rabindrasangeet—Amita Thakur, Rama Chakraborty, Savitri Krishnan—were core members of Tagore’s ganer dol, or music party, and often travelled with him for performances, but are little known today. Still, the pieces of Amita’s life and music that do remain provide unique insights into the progressive—yet for some still narrow—world of Shantiniketan, and the man at the epicentre of a Bengali cultural renaissance.

SEN WAS BORN IN DHAKA ON 19 MAY 1914, a dark-complexioned child. This was significant in her middle-class Bengali household, and growing up she was often the butt of jokes: “Ke beshi phorsha, kak, na kokil, na Khuku?”—“Who is fairer, the crow, the koel, or Khuku?” Her parents, Suhasini and Kshitish Chandra Sen, were a Brahmo couple, in many ways typical of their times. Kshitish’s father had converted from Hinduism to join the reformist Brahmo Samaj, as a result of which his family was ostracised by the rest of his village—Outshahi, in Dhaka district. His limited income as a preacher for the Samaj meant Kshitish and his siblings struggled to get themselves educated. Suhasini’s family was far better placed: she and her three sisters were all well-educated and professionally qualified. The economic gap between her parents dogged Sen’s family: her father struggled, working numerous small jobs, while her mother enjoyed greater respectability as a schoolteacher. As Kshitish moved from job to job, the family was often separated. Sen’s four younger siblings were born in various places—from Sakchi, which became the steel town of Jamshedpur, to Khagaul, in Bihar.

Sangeet Bhavan, the music school at Shantiniketan, was founded in 1919. Amita Sen studied in the original building, and returned to work there for a brief period at Tagore’s request after its first director, Tagore’s nephew Dinendranath, left the ashram. Biswarup Ganguly / Creative Comons

With all the shifting, the Sens depended on the old family home in Dhaka and the generosity of Kshitish’s brothers for stability. The joint-family household had many members, including Sen’s grandparents and her aunt Hembala. When Sen was nine years old, Hembala, encouraged by mentors like the social worker Abala Bose in the Brahmo Samaj, took up a job as superintendent of the girls’ hostel at Shantiniketan. She took Sen and her younger sister Lalita along with her.

Sen found another family, and perhaps a sense of permanence, at Shantiniketan. She and her sister studied at Patha Bhavan, the ashram’s school establised by Tagore in 1901, which attracted some of the best scholars from Bengal and beyond. Sen also joined the ashram’s school of music, Sangeet Bhavan, which was established in 1919 and headed by Dinendranath Tagore. As the sisters grew into young women, Sen in particular became a beloved member of the Shantiniketan community.

Encouraged by her mother from early childhood to sing at Dhaka’s Brahmo Samaj temple, Sen was a natural, with a clear, open voice. Many of her contemporaries noted her free range and her gift for melody—though a few schoolmates found her habit of lapsing into full-throated song anywhere and everywhere a bit irritating. In a memorial article, her friend Uma Dutta recalled how during an animated quarrel in the girls’ hostel, Sen started singing “Jodi prem dile na prane...”—“If there is no love in the heart...” One of the girls remarked mockingly, “Look, Khuku has started singing again!”

Beyond these fragments of personal memory, the range of subjects in Sen’s writings, and her few remaining material possessions, indicate a lively mind with wide interests. She was studious: she passed her school exams with distinction, and scored the highest grade in Bangla among her class—96 percent—in her final year at Shantiniketan. A testimonial Tagore wrote for Sen in the mid 1930s reveals she dreamt of pursuing higher studies in Europe. Among her surviving books and papers is a collection of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, inscribed by Dinendranath Tagore: “Not my own writings but Shelley’s poetry, gifted to you with love, Din da.” Sen translated some of Shelley’s works, possibly from this collection, and wrote them into the diary of Pinakin Trivedi, a fellow student, according to Trivedi’s son. There is also a copy of The Legends of Greece and Rome, as well as recipes for dishes such as shrikhand, doimaach and dimbegun, annotated with helpful tips, including on how to deal with burns from splattered hot oil.

Sen also left behind a considerable body of poems, essays and short stories, published in various weekly and monthly magazines. There is no easy way to trace all she published, given the abysmal quality of our archival traditions and the fact that most of these magazines have long since vanished. Sen’s first known poem, ‘Gandhi Veer,’ is a eulogy to the Mahatma composed at age nine, on the occasion of his visit to Patna, where she was staying with an aunt. She wrote articles on everything from children’s literature in Bangla to the music of Dinendranath Tagore. She negotiated the intricacies of formal Bangla for these scholarly pieces, and those of colloquial language for her short stories. Several of the tales among her papers are untitled, and often deal with feminist themes. In one, a young woman in a well-off family feels smothered by a lack of personal space. Two others deal with young brides from rural Bengal who come to the great city of Kolkata but feel suffocated by it. For these, Sen quite possibly drew on her own experience in the city after she left the ashram.

But Sen was best known for her music. The voice in her surviving recordings—mostly songs of love and desire—is unfettered, and seems to come straight from her heart. When Sen sang “gola khule”—open throated—at the Brahmo Samaj in Kolkata, without a microphone, crowds would gather outside to listen. Her free spirit, combined with the clarity of her diction, produced some of the greatest renditions of Rabindrasangeet. Sen sang all the genres of Tagore’s compositions: puja (worship), prem (love), prakriti (nature) and bichitra (miscellaneous), as well as dance dramas and a collection of songs, called Bhanushingho Thakurer Padabali, in a recreated version of Braj Bhasha. Several people, including the senior Amita Sen, have said that Tagore wrote one of his most famous songs—‘Aami Tomar Songe Bedhechhi,’ in 1939—with Sen in mind. It starts, “I have entwined my life with yours through the bonds of music.” Although Sen was much younger than Tagore—by over half a century—and his acolyte, the emotional bonds between them were strong.

THAT SEN WAS CLOSE TO TAGORE was well known in Shantinketan. In a job recommendation, Tagore wrote that she was a “brilliant student,” well-qualified by “the disciplined life she has lived, the purity and strength of her character, and her attainments.” In the biography Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and his Song, the author Reba Shome describes how Tagore sometimes used to call for Dinendranath to take down, from behind the door of the toilet, a new composition that had suddenly come to him. In the absence of his nephew, Tagore would summon his top students, including Sen.

Yet the paternalistic nature of this relationship typified the limited “liberation” promised to women by the Brahmo Samaj and Shantiniketan. India’s imperial rulers used the status of local women as a yardstick of the native culture’s “backwardness.” During the Bengal renaissance of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a culturally vibrant middle class responded by articulating a vision of a “new” woman, ostensibly freed from the shackles of traditional oppression through education, and, on rare occasion, assuming a professional role. Many liberal husbands encouraged their wives and daughters to go from ghar to baire—from the home into the outer world. Yet this new ideal was constructed mostly by men, and hewed closely to their changing needs of companionship as they themselves became “liberated.”

Female education—especially as envisioned by the Brahmo Samaj, which was considered a pioneer on the issue—emphasised typically “feminine” values, and was heavily moralistic. Early students at the Brahmo Girls’ School in Kolkata have written about sessions of anutap, or repentance, for each day’s transgressions. Shantiniketan was more liberal, but even the ambience of freedom there existed within social parameters that remained mostly unchallenged.

In the writings of her friends—including Rama Chakra-borty and the older Amita Sen—Sen comes across as a young woman who combined a confidence in her innate abilities with insecurity over her lack of “feminine” traits of graciousness and sweetness. A photograph of her, her sister Lalita and the other Amita, is instructive. Next to her prim, neat namesake, Sen appears almost deliberately shabby—her hair escaping its plait, her sari carelessly draped, her smiling face turned slightly away from the camera. Yet in a letter congratulating Chakraborty on her wedding, Sen confided the fear that her own qualities stood in the way of her becoming a good wife, and her desire to achieve the “harmonious combination of true sweetness with true dignity.”

Tagore was aware of the complexities of female emancipation, as is evident in the short story ‘Pragati Sanhar,’ as well as his other writing. Someone as precocious as Sen was certainly conscious of the contrasting expectations of her. The burden of this awareness, compounded by a desire for respect, perhaps explains Sen’s eventual rebellion.

Sen was certainly not intimidated by Tagore, to whom she always had easy access. That she was not afraid to speak her mind is clear from one particular episode, when her mentor, Dinendranath, suddenly left Shantiniketan and his beloved Sangeet Bhavan in a huff. There was a general silence over his departure, which many chalked up to personality clashes among the Tagores and the distribution of material goods within their larger family. But Sen apparently wrote to Tagore, to say that petty power struggles were gnawing at the foundations of the ashram. The Tagore scholar Niyyapriya Ghosh confirms this account, as does some of Tagore’s correspondence published in Desh magazine, and a novel, Bulbuli, based on Sen’s life. The incident tested the fondness between Tagore and Sen— Tagore later complained to another person of his favoured student commenting on matters that did not concern her—but the power of their early bond would only become fully evident with Tagore’s violent reaction when it eventually broke.

IN 1931, Sen passed her Intermediate level exams and, because further studies were not possible at Shantiniketan, moved to Kolkata’s City College (North), for her bachelor’s degree. She continued to do well in her studies—she topped her class in Sanskrit, and won a scholarship for the best scores among girl students. Sen went on to complete a master’s degree in Sanskrit from Calcutta University in 1937.

Tagore wrote to Sen while she was in Belgachia hospital, wishing her a speedy recovery from what was ultimately a fatal illness. courtesy ILINA SEN

During her studies, Sen, living beyond the familiar confines of either her family or the ashram for the first time, discovered love. She met and began a relationship with a fellow student, Shambhu Ganguly, who was also roughing it out in Kolkata. Many questions about this affair remain unanswered. What was attractive about Ganguly, and what was his relative social class? Were they intellectual equals? Did Sen fall in love with him because she did not ordinarily get male erotic attention because of her looks and persona? And how did she, a strong woman by all accounts, become so vulnerable in this relationship? Her family was against the young man from a conservative Hindu family, and if their account is accurate, he certainly did not cover himself with glory. Yet it is difficult to reconcile Sen’s independent personality with a completely unfounded infatuation.

While at university, Ganguly contracted tuberculosis, and Sen financed his treatment by selling all the gold she had—some jewellery, and the medals she had earned during her studies. She also supported him with income from giving private lessons. It was around this time that Tagore invited Sen back to Shantiniketan to fill the hole Dinendranath had left at Sangeet Bhavan, and to help him with secretarial work. “I’ll be very pleased if you can come to the ashram and join us in our work,” he wrote to her in 1938,

first, because it means you will return where you belong and find plenty of opportunities to disturb me. And secondly, because you will collect the songs I have composed, use them and expand them, for which I am eager. You have power, love and a beautiful voice, which is why I have long desired to have you do this work for me. I was worried that your ambition was on a different trajectory. If that is not so, and if you harbour any respect for me and devotion to the ashram, give up whatever work you’re doing and come over.

Shantiniketan was home to a vibrant community of young women, who often formed lifelong friendships. “Khuku Amita” is in the middle; to her left her younger sister, Lalita; and to her right is the other Amita Sen, the conomist Amartya Sen’s mother. courtesy Shreyasi

Sen did return to Shantiniketan that year, and worked there for a short period. She expressed her willingness to continue if her friend Shambu was also given a job there. Tagore took this request very badly. He said he could not take a decision on hiring someone unilaterally, and wrote that “even the Viceroy had to consult his council.”

Angered by the refusal, Sen left, and wrote a bitter letter to Tagore from Calcutta. He retaliated by refusing her permission to record any of his songs, and stopped the publication and reproduction of her earlier albums. He deputed Bula Mahalanobis, who was instrumental in organising the recordings, to carry his message to her.

Sen’s family was still struggling financially at this time. Her father, Kshitish lost a job as a draftsman at Burnpur, in a huge layoff caused by an epidemic of beriberi. Her mother taught at a private school in Ranchi, where Kshitish tried his hand at business but lost a lot of his money. The younger children, Santa and Bhanu, were sent to the family home in Dhaka. After an uncle died in a measles outbreak, however, the children were brought back to Kolkata, where Sen was teaching at the Binapani Girls’ School. Bhanu was sent to Burnpur, where Kshitish eventually found work.

The family was scattered and indebted, and the harsh conditions of her life in Kolkata were taking a visible toll on Sen, who had, by 1939, begun to work at Bethune Collegiate School. Late that year, she started getting persistent fevers, and was admitted to Belgachia Hospital (now called RG Kar), where she was mistakenly treated for tuberculosis.

As news of Sen’s illness spread, Tagore grew contrite. He deputed the singer Sailaja Ranjan Majumdar to visit her at Belgachia every day, with the Huntley & Palmers chocolate biscuits she was particularly fond of. In January 1940, he wrote to her with his blessings, saying he was “worried by the state of your health,” and was praying for a quick recovery.

However, Sen’s condition deteriorated, and around March 1940 she was sent to her aunt’s home in Patna. There, she was diagnosed with nephritis, and again hospitalised. Sen expressed a desire to go back—not to Shantiniketan—but to Dhaka. She continued to write to Ganguly in Kolkata throughout her illness, despite knowing that he was now involved with the daughter of one of his professors. According to one family story, she received at least one affectionate reply. Another version says she wanted to meet him one last time before leaving for Dhaka, and that her brother Devaprasad facilitated a meeting on the condition that the young man would not say a word. However, these stories are all uncorroborated, and none of the persons involved are alive today.

We do know that Sen never wrote back to Tagore. It would be unfair to attribute her bitterness in her last days solely to a manipulative former lover; it must have had just as much to do with a sense of having been rejected by her mentor. When she had asked Tagore to accommodate her friend in the community she felt she belonged to, she possibly felt entitled to his assent. Tagore’s reaction was likely unanticipated, and a complete shock for her. In Dhaka, Amita was under kabiraji traditional treatment for a few weeks, but died, at home, on 24 May 1940, four days after her twenty-sixth birthday. “I had great affection for Khuku,” Tagore wrote in a letter of condolence to Sen’s uncle, “but I failed to save her from an evil fate.”

A short obituary in the ashram’s newsletter in July 1940 said, “By her death Bengal has lost one of its most talented daughters ... long shall we mourn the abrupt end of a youthful life so rich in possibilities.” A hundred years later, there are not many daughters from that era still alive, or alive in public memory. Caught as Sen was between two very different relationships with two men, her life ended perhaps before it truly began. Listening to the scratchy 78 RPM recording of ‘Je Chilo Amar Swapanacharinee’ today, what we know of her life casts a shadow of melancholy over Sen’s rendition of Tagore’s song:

Ke more phiraabe anaadore

Ke more daakibe kaache...

A nirantaro shansoye hay pari ne jhujhite

Ami tomaree shudhu perechi bujhite.

      Who will cast me away?

Who will call me to them?

I can no longer continue with this constant doubt,

I have understood only you