Suchitra Mitra: Indian singer, composer and exponent of the work of Rabindranath Tagore

Suchitra Mitra's name will forever be bound up with that of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, playwright and musician who, in 1913, was the first non-European to win the Nobel prize for literature. Mitra would have had little quarrel with such pigeonholing; promoting and disseminating Tagore's words, music and dance were her life's passion. Many believe that Mitra's death, in the 150th anniversary year of Tagore's birth, marks the end of an era.

Mitra was born when her mother was on a train rattling through pre-partition Bengal, hence the vagueness of her birthplace. Her father, Sourindra Mohan Mukhopadhyay, knew the Tagore family, an Anglicisation of Thakur, from Jorasanko, north of Calcutta. The Tagores were torchbearers of the Bengali renaissance, a social, artistic and political reform movement during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is no coincidence that Tagore penned two national anthems – those of India and Bangladesh.

Mitra grew up with the words and melodies of a uniquely Bengali song form – Rabindra sangeet – ringing in her head. "Rabindra song" is an eloquent, literary, light classical song-form named after its creator, Rabindranath Tagore, and rippled with allusions to classical, devotional and folk songs.

In 1941, she was awarded a scholarship to study at Sangeet Bhavan in Shantiniketan – Tagore's "abode of peace" – where she received tuition from the best. After graduation in 1945 she returned to Calcutta, and in that year her first 78rpm record of two Tagore songs came out.

In photographs Mitra peers out, bespectacled, looking professorial, accentuating an impression of intelligence and intensity but giving no forewarning of the passion and wit of the interpretations that you encounter on, say, the anthology Songs of Rabindranath (2004). Mitra declared, "Singing only the notes of Tagore's songs does not mean anything... the singer must understand the lyrics... He used tunes or created new beats as the rhythm of the poetry demanded."

While the vast body of her work focused on Tagore's songs and held it up for admiration, she also sang in films and sang playback, notably for the Bengali composer Salil Chowdhury from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Elsewhere, she acted and danced in Rabindra Nritya Natya ("Rabindra's dance drama") and performed in Tagore's plays. One notable Tagore-themed collaboration was Tribute to Tagore (1990) with the sarod (short-necked lute) maestro Amjad Ali Khan. Afterwards he affirmed that, for him, it was her deep knowledge of Tagore's art that opened the door to realising Tagore's genius. It was a profound irony that Mitra never met Tagore, and a source of regret her entire life that she began her studies 20 days after his death.

Ken Hunt



Suchitra Mitra, singer, composer and academic: born Central India Agency, British India 19 September 1924; married (one son, one daughter); died Calcutta, India 3 January 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own